Bahrain Brings Back the Sectarianism

While the American and international debate over Libya continues, the situation in Bahrain has just taken a sharp turn for the worse.  A brutal crackdown on the protestors followed the controversial entry of security forces from Saudi Arabia and three other GCC states.  Media access has been curtailed, with journalists finding it difficult to gain entry to the Kingdom (I was supposed to be in Bahrain right now myself, but elected not to try after several journalists let me know that they were being denied entry and several Embassies in Doha warned me off).  The road to political compromise and meaningful reform -- which appeared to have been within reach only a few days ago -- now appears to be blocked, which places the long-term viability of the Bahraini regime in serious question.

The response of the Bahraini regime has implications far beyond the borders of the tiny island Kingdom -- not only because along with Libya it has turned the hopeful Arab uprisings into something uglier, but because it is unleashing a regionwide resurgence of sectarian Sunni-Shi'a animosity.  Regional actors have enthusiastically bought in to the sectarian framing, with Saudi Arabia fanning the flames of sectarian hostility in defense of the Bahraini regime and leading Shia figures rising to the defense of the protestors.  The tenor of Sunni-Shi'a relations across the region is suddenly worse than at any time since the frightening days following the spread of the viral video of Sadrists celebrating the execution of Saddam Hussein.

The sectarian framing in Bahrain is a deliberate regime strategy, not an obvious "reality." The Bahraini protest movement, which emerged out of years of online and offline activism and campaigns, explicitly rejected sectarianism and sought to emphasize instead calls for democratic reform and national unity.  While a majority of the protestors were Shi'a, like the population of the Kingdom itself, they insisted firmly that they represented the discontent of both Sunnis and Shi'ites, and framed the events as part of the Arab uprisings seen from Tunisia to Libya.  Their slogans were about democracy and human rights, not Shi'a particularism, and there is virtually no evidence to support the oft-repeated claim that their efforts were inspired or led by Iran. 

The Bahraini regime responded not only with violent force, but also by encouraging a nasty sectarianism in order to divide the popular movement and to build domestic and regional support for a crackdown. Anti-Shi'a vituperation spread through the Bahraini public arena, including both broadcast media and increasingly divided social media networks. This sectarian framing also spread through the Arab media, particularly Saudi outlets.  The sectarian frame resonated with the narratives laid in the dark days of the mid-2000s, when scenes of Iraqi civil war and Hezbollah's rise in Lebanon filled Arab television screens, pro-U.S. Arab leaders spread fears of a "Shi'a Crescent", and the Saudis encouraged anti-Shi'ism in order to build support for confronting Iranian influence.  

Now, the struggle for democracy and human rights in Bahrain seems to have been fully consumed by this cynical sectarian framing, and the regional Saudi-Iranian cold war which had been largely left behind by the Arab uprisings has suddenly returned to center stage. The sending of Saudi and GCC security forces to Bahrain follows on similar political campaigns, while the regime's positions and sectarian framing have been backed across the Gulf media -- including al-Jazeera Arabic, which has barely covered Bahrain even as it has focused heavily on Libya, Egypt, and Yemen.  Meanwhile, leading Shi'a political figures across the region, from Hassan Nasrallah to Ali Sistani, are rushing to the defense of the protestors. Both have the effect of reinforcing the sectarian frame and distracting from the calls for democratic change.

The United States may see the preservation of the Bahraini regime as essential to its strategic position, given its concerns about the Fifth Fleet and about losing a key part of its decades-long strategy of containing Iranian power.  But what the Bahraini regime is doing to maintain power may badly hurt America's position as well.  The harsh repression, immediately and publicly following the visit of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, suggests either American complicity or impotence.   The refusal of serious reform probably makes the survival of the regime less rather than more likely. And finally, the sectarian framing of Bahrain has the potential to rebound upon other Arab states with significant Shi'a populations, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. It may also drive Iraq's leaders into a more assertively Shi'a and pro-Iranian stance, as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his rivals seek to win popularity with Iraqi Shi'a who identify with their Bahraini counterparts.  If the Obama administration hopes to define a new vision for the region, it needs to leave behind such outdated concepts and lines of division. Bahrain, sadly, with the help of its regional allies, has brought them back into fashion. 


Flickr Creative Commons, March 4, 2011

Marc Lynch

Don't exaggerate Arab support for Libya No Fly Zone

The approval by the Arab League of a No-Fly Zone for Libya, combined with increasingly urgent appeals from the Libyan opposition and some Arab voices, has helped build support for an international and American move in that direction. I am just leaving the Al-Jazeera Forum in Doha, where I had the opportunity to discuss this question in depth with a wide range of Arab opinion leaders and political activists as well as several leading Libyan opposition representatives (see this excellent post by Steve Clemons from the same conference). There is both more and less to this Arab support than meets the eye. Arabs are indeed deeply concerned about the bloody stalemate in Libya, and want international action. But if that action takes military form, including the kind of bombing would actually be required to implement a No-Fly Zone, I suspect that the narrative would rapidly shift against the United States.

While Arab public opinion should not be the sole consideration in shaping American decisions on this difficult question, Americans also should not fool themselves into thinking that an American military intervention will command long-term popular Arab support. Every Arab opinion leader and Libyan representative I spoke with at the conference told me that "American military intervention is absolutely unacceptable." Their support for a No Fly Zone rapidly evaporates when discussion turns to American bombing campaigns. This tracks with what I see in the Arab media and the public conversation. As urgently as they want the international community to come to the aid of the Libyan people, The U.S. would be better served focusing on rapid moves toward non-military means of supporting the Libyan opposition.

The deep concern for Libya is real, intense, and passionate. Arab activists and opinion leaders repeatedly warned that if Qaddafi survives it could mean the death of the Arab revolutionary moment. This is part of the wider identification across the unified Arab political space which has palpably emerged among young activists and mass publics. This includes Bahrain, by the way, where the intervention by GCC security forces against the protestors has had a comparable chilling effect even if it has received less coverage on al-Jazeera than has Libya. There is no question that most Arabs desperately want something to be done to save Libya from Qaddafi, and that this is seen as having broad and deep regional implications.

When it comes to military intervention, however, this deep identification with the Libyan protestors intersects uncomfortably with the enduring legacy of Iraq. The prospect of an American military intervention, no matter how just the cause, triggers deep suspicion. There is a vanishingly small number of Arab takers for the bizarre American conceit that the invasion of Iraq has somehow been vindicated. The invasion and occupation of Iraq remains a gaping wound in the Arab political consciousness which has barely scabbed over. Any direct American military presence in Libya would be politically catastrophic, even if requested by the Libyan opposition and given Arab League cover.

A No-Fly Zone with Arab and UN cover would be more palatable, if controversial, but any serious analysis must take into account the likelihood that it would not work and would only pave the way to more direct military action. While I supported it early on, I have learned much from the debate which has ensued. I understand and sympathize with the moral urgency to do something for Libya.  But that should not blind us to the costs and risks of a no-fly zone and the limited prospects that it would tip the balance.  It isn't a costless, easy alternative to war... it is more likely the preface to deeper military involvement.  I am frankly baffled that anyone would take seriously the clamoring of inveterate hawks to ignore the reservations of the military and jump into another ill-considered military adventure in the Middle East. Listening to assurances that military action will be smooth and cheap, with no complications and with great Arab support brings back all the bad memories of 2002. Discussing a No-Fly Zone means discussing the possibility of military invasion. Anything else is irresponsible.

That doesn't mean the U.S. should do nothing. The administration should move quickly and aggressively to recognize the provisional Libyan government, release the frozen Libyan assets to that provisional government, and allow the flow of weapons to them. It should push for ever tighter targeted sanctions against Qaddafi, and continue to mobilize international consensus against his regime to make sure that he remains an absolute pariah without access to international institutions, revenues, or support. It could jam Qaddafi's communications and provide intelligence, and more. The debate should move away from an exclusive focus on military action. That is a dead end where we have been before, and should not be going again.

Flickr Creative Commons, March 12, 2011