This commentary was published in The New York Times on 22/02/2011
Members of the ruling family, the al-Khalifas, are rightly proud of what they’ve built here. Bahrain is modern, moderate and well-educated, and by Gulf standards it has more of the forms of democracy than some others. But here’s my question to King Hamad: Why is it any more appropriate for a minority Sunni population to rule over majority Shia than it was in South Africa for a minority white population to rule over a majority black population? What exactly is the difference?
Indeed, the language of the ruling party sounds a lot to me like the language of white South Africans — or even like the language of white southerners in Jim Crow America, or the language of militant Israeli settlers in the West Bank. There’s a fear of the rabble, a distrust of full democracy, a sense of entitlement. Apartheid isn’t exactly the right metaphor, because there isn’t formal separation (although neighborhoods are often either Sunni or Shia), and people routinely have very close friends of the other sect. But how can a system when 70 percent of the population is not eligible for the army be considered fair? How can a system in which the leading cabinet positions are filled by one family be considered fair?
The government talks about “unity” and complains that the opposition is encouraging sectarianism. Please! An American friend was on the roundabout Thursday morning when police attacked. They caught him but when they saw he was American they were friendly and said they were hunting Shia only. My friend said the experience left him feeling icy, as if they were hunting rats. And several people I talked to who were there said that the police used anti-Shia epithets and curses as they were beating prisoners. If the government wants to ease sectarianism, it might start by bringing Shia into the police and armed forces and fire anybody caught making derogatory comments about Shiites.
The two sides are very, very far apart right now, and it’s hard to imagine them hammering out a compromise that both can agree on. The opposition would accept King Hamad continuing as king – perhaps more like a Moroccan or Jordanian king than a British one, but still much less powerful than today – but the al-Khalifa family would have to give up the way it dominates Bahrain. Right now, government is pretty much a family affair, and that would have to end. I worry that the result will be more strikes and protests and a stalemate, and then harder-line elements in the family will again use force. The big worry in the roundabout isn’t so much that the army goes in again, but that the government sends in thugs (perhaps Wahabis from Saudi Arabia, by opening the causeway to them) to provoke fighting and intimidate the protesters. That’s similar to what I saw Mubarak do in Cairo, and it was terrifying.
Two things bother me about the protests. One is that the participants are overwhelmingly Shia. I’ve met a few Sunni on the roundabout, but very, very few – and that makes it less authentic and broad-based an opposition movement than it should be. There are lots of disgruntled Sunni, but they don’t go out on the streets, either because they don’t feel comfortable in a Shia-dominated movement or because their families work in the army or police (as many poor Sunnis do) and would get in severe trouble for doing so. Nonetheless, the protest organizers could try harder to reach out to the Sunni community, and a first step would be to stop the “Death to al-Khalifa” chants and similar slogans. The other day I saw a sign reading “Imagine Bahrain without the al-Khalifas.” That kind of thing is utterly inappropriate. The opposition has to do what Nelson Mandela did so brilliantly in South Africa – make clear that majority rule will not lead to persecution of the minority. Every time the democracy movement scrawls “Death to Al-Khalifa” on a sign, it erodes its own legitimacy before the world.
So what do you think? I’m a newcomer to Bahrain (this is only my second visit), so tell me what I got wrong, what I misunderstand, and what’s going to happen. How is this going to end?