What are the political alternatives currently facing Bahrainis? If you believe the international media coverage, the choice is between democracy or dictatorship. If the choices were so stark, then we know what 99% of people would opt for. However, it’s not surprising to find that matters aren’t so simple.
If we look at the opposition movement, it’s not so clear that straightforward democracy along European lines is quite what they’re after. Certainly a year ago, there were many liberal and progressive young people at Pearl Roundabout calling for democracy, but certain things changed which made many such educated liberals leave the protest movement in droves.
In particular, the key figures within the protest movement were not obvious democrats. In fact the most prominent figures were Shia clerics closely associated with the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Wilayat Al Faqih model. While such figures talked a lot about injustice, obtaining their rights and fighting oppression, there was little to indicate that this meant democracy along progressive secular lines. In fact, their rhetoric became increasingly sectarian, sparking a backlash amongst Sunni religious circles and polarizing Bahrain’s society.
Those who have spent time in Bahrain know it to be a tolerant, open and liberal society, very different from many near neighbours. Not surprisingly most young people did not share those opposition leaders’ aspiration for an Islamic theocracy along Iranian lines.
Even worse, the opposition movement quickly began to adopt violent tactics; ambushes against the police; teaching youngsters to prepare Molotov Cocktails; attacks on citizens of other sects; and a transition towards terrorist tactics to achieve their goals.
When we look at Bahrain’s leadership, does it deserve the opposition’s calls of “Death to Al Khalifa”? The opposition’s main charge against the Government has been its alleged ‘violent repression’ of the protest movement. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) indeed found the Bahraini Authorities at fault in many respects, but concluded that there was no evidence for some of the more serious allegations like systematic use of torture or a shoot to kill policy.
Most importantly, the Authorities have accepted the recommendations of the BICI in full and much of this has been implemented, with the very clear result that recent demonstrations have been successfully contained without recourse to the use of significant force. There are a number of legal and institutional changes which have also been introduced to improve the Bahraini State’s human rights and rule of law record.
This is not to say that more could not be done. The Bahraini Government has still got a long way to go to convince all segments of society of its desire and ability to introduce far-reaching reforms and there is little to show from a year of attempts at dialogue; although this is largely due to one of the key opposition groups Al-Wefaq walking out and making excessive demands in return for its return to the table.
In Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya meaningful reform was never a serious prospect. But even here the democratic and progressive slogans of the protest movements haven’t easily translated into a workable political model in countries lacking open institutions, systems of accountability or a new generation of potential leaders with the necessary skills and experience. In each case the better organized Islamists have consistently seized the initiative in filling the political vacuum; the Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Al-Nahdah in Tunisia, remnants of the Islamic Fighting Group in Libya and even Al-Qaidah in Yemen.
Far better that we model ourselves on regional states like Morocco, Oman, UAE and Turkey which have managed the tumultuous pressures of the last year most successfully through intensifying reform, strengthening social welfare systems and allowing greater freedom of expression.
In Bahrain, the pro-Iranian Islamists have been in the driving seat of the protest movement from the outset, making it all the more certain that they would be the ones seizing power if the demonstrators ever gained the ascendancy. Indeed, Iran’s highly conspicuous interference is precisely designed to achieve this aim. Iranian propaganda channels like Al-Alam TV have been pumping out sectarian hated with the aim of inflaming the situation here.
Furthermore, the opposition’s extravagant promises of jobs, opportunities and a better future simply don’t hold up. In fact their tactics have torpedoed the economy, scared away investors and significantly worsened the job situation for the foreseeable future. Another reason why so many Bahrainis are simply fed up with what has happened to their country.
Given these circumstances, it may not surprise an impartial onlooker that the opposition’s main achievement has been to significantly increase the feeling of loyalty and attachment of most Bahrainis to their royal family and their existing governing system.
Certainly, things are currently far from perfect, but let’s remain with those who have given us two generations of prosperity, economic growth and a secure and stable country where we can bring up our families in confidence. This is a far, far better prospect for any right-thinking Bahraini than a plunge into some Khomeini-inspired Armageddon, turning our beautiful little islands into a pariah state.
For the outside world which has become accustomed to a “people vs. the regime” narrative across the Arab world, this conclusion may sound rather surprising, but most Bahrainis are content with their constitutional monarchy and trust the King’s reformist-leanings.
Bahrainis don’t want revolution; we don’t want others telling us what is best for us. We have gone through a very difficult year. Reform in Bahrain needs international support, not pressure and boycotts. We request your solidarity in standing by Bahrain and assisting us in achieving a smooth process of transition towards a more democratic and prosperous future.