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When the armies go marching in: Bahrain and Libya

The Gulf Co-operation Council, whose normal work is to consolidate and promote oil interests, would do well to remember that just last week it admonished Gaddafi for using force against his fellow citizens.

Amidst horrific stories of the events in Japan, Libya is still managing to occupy prime-time news. Over the past month the world has watched as Libya gradually slips towards civil war with Colonel Gaddafi making increasingly loony statements about how young people, high on drugs distributed by an Al-Qaeda and American nexus, are trying to destroy his country. In the meanwhile, the Europeans have been anxious to enforce a no-fly zone and the Americans have maintained a studied silence; perhaps having learnt that taking practical steps to support the protesters might actually do their struggle more harm than good. Libya is exceedingly important geo-strategically- it is on the southern borders of Europe-as well as economically-it supplies a large percentage of oil to many European as well as Asian countries. However, it is important not to forget that there are also a number of continuing protests in many other Arab countries.

The Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh has violently cracked down on protesters in Sana’a. The Saudi Royal family, having tried ‘paying’ their way with a $36 billion stimulus package, decided to assert military power when protesters called for a ‘Day of Rage’. The places in which the protests were to be held were flooded with police and anti-riot personnel. AbdulAziz ibn Abdullah Aal Al-Sheikh, a descendent of Abd al-Wahab, the ideological progenitor of the Wahabi movement and ancestor of the Saudi royals, declared “any protests would be un-Islamic as the ruler rules by God’s will.” The interior ministry, backed by the fatwa from ‘the Council of Senior Scholars,’ made it clear that protests would be dispersed using any means possible.

However, the most unique developments have taken place in Bahrain where a ‘multi-national’ armed force- The Peninsula Shield Force- has been sent at the request of the Bahraini king. The Bahraini monarch, in a bid to stifle all opposition recently declared that ‘the behaviour of the protesters would be punished’ and that there is now an official three-month state of emergency. As it happens there is already a 1975 security-law that allowed the government to detain anyone it deemed a threat for upto three years. Recently, soldiers with tanks have forced protesters to leave Pearl Roundabout and others have blocked access to Salmaniya hospital, telling doctors and nurses not to treat the wounded.

Very little then, seems to separate Gaddafi from Al-Khalifa. Both are using force to suppress and stamp out any opposition to their authoritarian rule. Some analysts think that Gaddafi has used foreign mercenaries against his population and the recent deployment of the Peninsula Shield Force in Bahrain amounts to the same thing. Imagine if the French government asked for a NATO contingent to help prevent its strike-happy citizens from protesting!

The Americans and many European governments have rightly called Gaddafi delusional and asked him to step down. But will it be willing to go as far with al-Khalifa? The Arab League has recently called for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya but worryingly members of the same league are happy to send foreign troops to a country in order to quell dissent. Perhaps, al-Khalifa’s actions are justifiable strategically: the market’s need for consistent oil supply, the need for a home for the 5th Fleet of the US Navy and the need for a buffer against Iran’s circle of influence.

Unfortunately, in many analyses the protests in Bahrain have been reduced to a sectarian conflict. The Western media has also highlighted this and most news websites do not talk of the protesters as citizens campaigning for their rights but rather as members of a particular disenfranchised Muslim sect. As it happens, and conveniently so for scare-mongers in the foreign office or state department, the protesters share their faith, Shi’a Islam, with the majority of Iranians. According to their logic and the belief of many Arab governments, this obviously means that any empowerment of the people of Bahrain will empower Iranian interests in the region. The effort to depict the Arab Shi’a as a ‘threat’ for society at large is reminiscent of the invidious policy of divide and rule that many colonial powers used. It is this kind of shortsighted and sloppy thinking that has created most of the instability and trouble in the region in the first place. The Taliban were a short-term solution in the face of a Communist threat but as history narrates, the entire endeavor eventually backfired.

The west has long been burning its candle from both ends: on the one hand it supports authoritarian governments in order to ensure that its economic and geo-political interests in the region are served and on the other hand it preaches about the need for promoting human rights, democracy and fair governance. In the coming months the leaders of non-Arab states, but particularly western countries, will have to choose whether to put economic interest and short term stability ahead of widespread reform and popular government.

It seems that the Obama administration is leaning towards the choice of encouraging reform, albeit to the chagrin of Arab leaders who think that he is ‘betraying’ them, much like he ‘betrayed’ Mubarak. While the Peninsula Shield Force settles down in Manama, the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), whose normal work is to consolidate and promote oil interests, would do well to remember that just last week it admonished Gaddafi for using force against his fellow citizens.

About the author

Ali Khan is a PhD student in history at the University of Cambridge whose areas of  interest are South Asia and the greater Middle East.

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