Beyond the Arab Spring
The Arab Spring put the Western world in an unusual position. A wave of uprisings against dictators that our governments have largely supported has somehow given us ample opportunity to be the good guys for once, in some cases aiding pro-democracy rebels and in other cases pressuring our undemocratic allies to step down and stop massacring their own people. The Western reaction to the Arab Spring protests, while far from healing the deep wounds left on the psyche of the region by years of propping up their dictators—not to mention unconditional support for Israel’s every move—was still a step in the right direction. Could you have possibly imagined five years ago that Arab protesters in Syria would be calling out in favour of US military intervention in their home country?
Bahrain’s Core Shaken by the Arab Spring
Unfortunately, there is a very notable exception to this unexpected recent trend. That exception is called Bahrain, and you should be very, very mad about what happened there. Like many other countries in the region, Bahrain was shaken to the core by with Arab Spring with largely nonviolent pro-democracy protests in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution in Tunisia. The corrupt government of the tiny Gulf state looked like it was going to fall under popular pressure, and another new democracy would be born from the blood, sweat and tears of brave activists. And then, with what appears to be tactic Western approval, the government of Saudi Arabia (and other Gulf states, but we all know who the biggest kid on that block is) rolled the tanks down its tiny neighbour’s streets and continued its longstanding tradition of shocking disregard for basic human rights.
The emboldened Bahraini government massacred its own people, sometimes using thugs imported from neighbouring states. Male activists were tortured, female activists were raped, and doctors and nurses were imprisoned for operating on activists who were shot during peaceful protests. Think about that. A doctor sent to jail for saving a life. There was the usual backlash from NGOs and a surprisingly blunt documentary from Al Jazeera English—which took the rare step of going directly against the stated position of Qatar’s government—but there was no tangible international pressure on the Bahraini regime to step down.
Some Are More Equal Than Others?
Why was Bahrain thrown to the wolves? Why was the relatively open and warm Western response to the rest of the Arab Spring uprisings replaced in this case with a cold boot on the necks of the Bahraini people? Because Bahrain’s besieged government made the case to Saudi Arabia and the West that this was no pro-democracy uprising, but instead a sectarian conflict that would benefit neighbouring Iran. Like pre-2003 Iraq, Bahrain is a majority-Shia country with a majority-Sunni government, and Sunni neighbours like Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States were not interested in a close ally being replaced by a new government that could be influenced by Shia-majority Iran. This view of the Bahraini uprising, one of Iranian meddling in Sunni affairs, blatantly ignores the fact that the protesters on the street were Sunni and Shia alike, and were quite public with their solidarity with each other in their struggle to overthrow their violent and corrupt regime. But the possibility of expanded Iranian influence, already seen quite clearly in places such as Lebanon and Iraq, was a troubling one for Saudi Arabia and its Western patrons, and Bahrain’s activists were sacrificed on the alter of realpolitik.
The Legacy of the Arab Spring in Bahrain
I would argue that, by tactically allowing this to happen, the Western world has betrayed not only the people of Bahrain but also their own cynical interests. A Shia-majority country in which Sunni and Shia have a shared pride over the overthrow of their previous regime could prove to be something that the West badly needs—the birth of a stable and democratic Shia ally for the West and an opening for Western interests in the Shia world.
By crushing Shia protesters with a foreign Sunni army (and imported Sunni police thugs), the Bahraini government has made a self-fulfilling prophecy of its warnings of sectarian conflict. It has through its actions made the conflict sectarian, and in doing so only worsened the ongoing tragedy that is continued violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims across the region.
The Downward Spiral Begins
The deeper and more violent that this conflict gets, the worse the prospects are for stability in places like Iraq and Lebanon, and the more difficult it will be to isolate Iran from Shia populations across the region and as such diminish its regional influence and ability to strike at Western targets. Even if Bahrain never comes back to haunt us like so many other of our mistakes in the region, it will forever stand as a glaring inconsistency in the West’s response to the Arab Spring uprisings, and yet another example of how our friends in the region can damage our public image as badly as our enemies can. It’s an example of how our sins in the region, however appealingly they may be sold to us in the name of national interest, are directly detrimental to our national interests in the long run. And they also happen to be detrimental to the humans being tortured in Bahraini prisons.