This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 04/06/2011
Bahrain has experienced an unprecedented political crisis, and has now overcome the worst of it. However, it has not yet recovered from the impact of what has happened. This small, historically and economically distinguished state, which used to serve as a model of social co-existence, suddenly found itself in an ocean of vehement popular uprisings, which took many Middle Eastern countries by storm. In Bahrain, the social and sectarian balance exceeded the limits of moderation, resulting in national security being threatened, and laws being violated. Consequently the Gulf Peninsula Shield force intervened, and Bahraini authorities wisely and firmly managed to dispel popular fears and reinstate order and security, after turbulent days of politicized demonstrations.
For those who live in the Arab Gulf, the reality was quite clear. A very minor group wanted to capitalize on the situation and involve Bahrain in a larger regional conflict, but the attempt was foiled and ultimately contained. Nevertheless, the foreign media and the "Cultural Leftists", who are active on social networking sites, believed their peers in Bahrain were raising slogans of "freedom" and (constitutionally) legitimate political demands, thus they quickly regarded the incident as a violation of the freedom of expression. The Western press, in particular, leveled all kinds of accusations and allegations at the regime, with the intention of portraying the Bahraini situation as something it wasn’t. In reality, it was a political and sectarian collision between the social components of a state with civil institutions, a constitution, parliamentary elections, and a marked pattern of development.
Suddenly Bahrain was tarred with the same brush as other countries which bear no resemblance. Some demanded that Bahrain be dealt with like other countries such as Libya and Syria, which have no balance of orthodox rule, parliamentary elections, or civil institutions.
The flawed vision of Bahrain is fundamentally ideological in origin. Those who renounced the Bahraini model did so in accordance with "neo-liberal" slogans, which do not exist in Bahrain or any other Arab country in the region. Take for example some American and European journalists and researchers, who heaped criticism upon the Bahraini crisis, and incorrectly described it according to their academic and professional standards. Those journalists and researchers ignored the factional, sectarian and regional sides of the dispute. So how can we associate Bahrain with other countries lacking the minimal means of political participation?
For example, President Obama's policy toward Bahrain is an obvious model of political fallacy. Obama, who in his inauguration speech said that America would not interfere in the way others handle their political affairs, elaborated on the Bahraini crisis in his latest speech on the Middle East. Here he compared it to what is happening in countries like Libya, Syria and Yemen, and ended his address by demanding that the region's regimes either "reform or leave".
Perhaps the question that ought to be put to the US administration is this: Do American values - which are said to identify with the demands of our region's people - actually correspond with the Middle East?
The problem for some Western politicians and intellectuals is that they are under the illusion that a democratic-liberal change is sweeping across the region, in a manner similar to the Western model. Here they are thinking of how history will judge them. But the truth is that the Middle East is not going through a democratic transformation, as such observers imagine. Instead, the region is experiencing a storm of popular uprisings which have spread in a "domino effect" for economic, political, social and religious reasons. These uprisings will not necessarily lead to democratic or liberal reforms, as others misconceive.
Unfortunately, Bahrain became a victim of Iran's propaganda and the West's misunderstanding. Nevertheless, it might be the only model capable of correcting the popular misconceptions, and guiding the rest of the region's countries toward reform. The problem with the US administration is that it assumes that reform can universally be enacted in the "Anglo-Saxon /enlightenment" style, regardless of differences between countries in terms of social heritage and history. However, the US administration and those following in its footsteps have missed the fact that encouraging wild popular uprisings can only produce unruly populist regimes, which are more concerned with exploitation, unrest and narrow partisan gains, rather than bringing about reform and improving conditions.
How can the West call upon a regime, regardless of its nature, to introduce reforms, whilst lodging the ugliest of allegations against it and inciting its citizens to protest and demonstrate without restraint?
Can anyone in Washington, London or Paris cut off the streets, destabilize security, and turn hospitals into sectarian or partisan headquarters, outside the framework of the state and the law? We saw how Britain dealt with the protests that were staged in March this year. The authorities arrested more than 214 people in one day on suspicion of vandalism and law-breaking. So how can the West permit or condone acts of sabotage in countries like Bahrain, which has an elected parliament and civil constitution?
Some argue that revolutions - despite their violence and chaos – are necessary to bring about a better ruling system. However, throughout history, it has been proven that revolutions carried out against stable regimes, already working towards reform, ultimately lead to more extreme ruling systems that are less concerned with maintaining civil rights and preserving national security.
The current uprisings are not like the 1848 revolution in Western Europe, or the 1989 revolution in Eastern Europe. The Middle Eastern uprisings broke out across a region that was being rocked to its foundations by extremist religious ideologies and fanatic pan-national chauvinism. Perhaps the most conclusive evidence of this was the gradual collapse of the peace process, the necessity of which the Americans and Europeans had long been stressing, in the face of extremist views advocating confrontation.
It goes without saying that the region is experiencing a historic transition, but what some observers and commentators have not yet realized is that this process is likely to extend for decades, rather than a year or two, with no guarantees of producing better results in terms of democracy, good governance and economic prosperity.
The biggest indication that chaos reigns over the current period is the fact that the demand for improved economic conditions has now become a low priority on the revolutionary agenda. This demand was initially a key factor behind the popular uprisings, but all that is left now is the desire for revenge, and the rekindling of a revolutionary spirit which glorifies haughty principles and the punishment of others under the pretexts of suspicion and cleansing.
Subsequently, everyone's attention is now being directed to Bahrain. If this Gulf State manages to transcend the spirit of revenge and punishment and open the door to social and sectarian reconciliation, as well as serious political and economic reform, it could serve as a model for others.
There are voices in Bahrain demanding collective punishment, feeling extremely bitter about the recent events. Nevertheless, we are betting that Bahrain will emerge far better than what its enemies hope for; a Bahrain capable of effecting a historic national reconciliation, and rising above the recent incidents.
A Bahraini opposition leader recently issued a statement saying that "the majority has never once raised slogans calling for the end of the regime." Other statements were issued by notable Shiite and Sunni figures asserting their adherence to the governing legitimacy. Bahrainis might differ with each other about the steps and details of the reform project, however we must eventually acknowledge the necessity of securing national reconciliation and unifying internal stances, away from the extremists' agenda in Tehran.
The invitation extended by King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa to hold a national dialogue early next month "without prior conditions" is the right move for Bahrain. Many hope that the wise in the Bahraini opposition will seize the opportunity to bring about national reconciliation, and steer Bahrain toward new reforms contributing to, and not hindering, the development of the country.
Today, we are placing a large bet on Bahrain. The achievement of any sincere and judicious reconciliation is bound to lay foundations for a successful civil State, which would serve as a model to all others seeking reform and development in their own countries.