The GCC intervention: giving Bahrain relative stability and the space to negotiate its future
A great deal has been written about the waves of protest and revolution in parts of the Middle East; much of it uses the powerful tool of analogy to shed light on the situation and to open up the debate. Is the ‘Arab Spring’ analogous to Prague 1968, Tehran 1979, Berlin 1989 or even Paris 1789? No one can agree but it is certainly fuelling café conversation all over the region. The reference to historical comparisons and more importantly the ensuing debate is helping to make sense of what is happening here in the Middle East, even if it can’t give easy answers.
Last month, in the wake of deaths and missing persons at the hands of security forces and increasingly volatile anti-government protests, the King of Bahrain called for help from the GCC to restore order. The GCC responded by sending Saudi troops and Emirati police officers into the country and the situation is now one of stalemate; the main opposition newspaper Al Wasat was suspended having been accused of inciting sectarian trouble, some protesters are in prison and emergency law is in place.
But you only have to glance over to Libya to know it’s better than a civil war.
The situation in Bahrain is particular; the ruling family and most of those in power are Sunni Muslims and it is estimated that they make up just over 30% of the Islamic population whilst just over 60% practice Shi’a Islam. This Shi’ite majority is protesting against the lack of equal access to housing, healthcare and government jobs; they feel disempowered and the events happening in the rest of the region have drawn attention to the fact that something can be done about it.
Now for the historical comparison.
Back in 1968 a civil rights movement stirred in Northern Ireland. It began as a social protest with the Catholic population demanding equal access to public housing, one man one vote, an end to discrimination in local government and the gerrymandering of district boundaries that limited the impact of the Catholic vote. A year later British troops were sent to the region to restore order in the face of increased sectarian violence with their permanent establishment being seen by some as keeping the peace and by others as an occupation. Decades of troubles and violence followed and only this last week a Northern Irish policeman, Ronan Kerr, was killed by a car bomb.
The point is this: GCC intervention has given Bahrain relative stability for the moment and with that the space to negotiate its future. The Crown Prince has said that he is ready and willing to continue the reforms of his father by making the country a full constitutional monarchy with greater powers for an elected political assembly and by tackling corruption and sectarian tension. In truth, he needs to get on with it. And to be allowed to get on with it. There is no alternative but to push forward with reform; if the rights of a significant group are not adequately represented then there is the risk of long-term violence and instability.
No one situation is exactly the same as another but, as Timothy Garton Ash has pointed out, historical comparisons offer an extensive toolkit of experience. If the Crown Prince of Bahrain or the opposition leaders are in any doubt about what has to be done they could reflect on the feelings of Ronan Kerr’s family at this time and allow the lessons from decades of troubles to stand as a painful reminder of how hard they must strive to get it right. The alternative is not an option for anyone.Tagged in: Bahrain, Libya, middle east, Northern Ireland, protest, revolution
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