A Return to Sectarian Conflict?

The Saudi military intervention in Bahrain risks re-igniting the sectarian warfare provoked in Iraq by the U.S. invasion.

The Saudi decision to play Metternich will have ominous consequences. First is the possibility that Washington, Tel Aviv, and Riyadh have decided to push for war against Iran. That is a bit of a leap from the evidence. Let’s hope it is not the case, but even if it is not, the momentum is now moving in that direction. The temperature of the Persian Gulf has just risen, and in Bahrain a first small explosion has occurred; today more effort will be required to prevent a Persian Gulf meltdown than would have been required last week.

Aside from the danger of war with Iran, Riyadh has now split the Arab world. Note, for example, how events clearly show coordination between the crackdown in Bahrain and the crackdown in Yemen. Perhaps the old guard will win, as Metternich did after 1848, and succeed in repressing all Arabs again, but that will not turn the clock back. The Arab world has changed; millions have voted with their feet and faced down police goon squads. That is empowering.

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The Meaning of Empowerment
On my daily afternoon walks, I overhear Saudis of all ages and walks of life analyzing the events that led to the overthrow of the Tunisian regime. Everywhere I go, people are hypothesizing on whether the same could happen to “them,” referring to the possibility of a Saudi Arabia not headed by the Al Sauds. Although most concur that it is highly unlikely, they are nonetheless more convinced than ever of the power of the people to bring about change.–Khuloud on Jadaliyya
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If repressed, the next time the people will have learned that peaceful demonstrations do not work. For an analogy, 1848 will turn into 1917. That is of course just an analogy; it should not be read as implying that communism is in the Mideast’s future but simply that political radicalization is becoming more likely by the minute. Iran, al Qua’ida, and militant Arab nationalism will all be invigorated. A new Saudi-Egyptian proxy war in Yemen should come as no surprise, and Saudi-Iranian competition in Iraq will intensify.

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The Logic of Saudi-Egyptian proxy war in Yemen
Egypt is now standing tall; no Egyptian ruler will aspire to crouching behind Saudi Arabia. Expect competition for leadership of the Arab world regardless of whether the Egyptian army succeeds in establishing a new military dictatorship or democracy is established. Egypt, however haltingly, is moving toward modernization, Saudi Arabia is looking backwards. Their interests will clash. Meanwhile, the Yemeni regime has been radicalized by the Saudi intervention in Bahrain, and many of those supporting the protesters in Yemen must surely have very bad memories of the Saudi military attack on the Houthis. Civil war now appears far more likely than it did a month ago, and it is hard to see how Riyadh will watch Saleh go down to military defeat without trying to help him. At that point, Cairo will face a fateful double decision: stand aside and give regional preeminence to Riyadh or take action; support democracy advocates who copied those in Egypt or turn its back. No matter who is in charge in Cairo, governments like legitimacy, and legitimacy for an Egyptian regime will not be found in a policy of bowing down before the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.
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The other change is truly tragic. The Arab democracy revolt was unifying and secularizing: more liberty for everyone. Saudi Arabia’s military intervention, in contrast, not only splits the Arabs but risks sparking sectarian conflict. Bahraini democracy protesters are going to have a very hard time remaining united in the face of what looks very much like repression of the Shi’a. Admittedly, it also looks like repression of civil liberties, which it surely is. The key to the story may well lie in the struggle between these two conflicting dynamics: patriotic and democratic resistance to Saudi troops enforcing repression vs. the natural tendency to interpret events as Sunni vs. Shi’a. Moqtada al Sadr’s initial sectarian reaction (justice for Shi’a rather than justice for Bahrainis) exemplifies this tendency, and al Qua’ida will surely be examining the situation in a search for opportunities.

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Provoking Sectarianism
Bahrain TV has been giving a voice to extremists among government loyalists, with one caller reportedly offering demonstrators a “return to the days of Saddam, how he [Saddam] dealt with his Shia population.” —Jadaliyya
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Nuclear war with Iran might be down the road, but a more likely result of the Saudi intervention in Bahrain is a repeat of the horrifying sectarian conflict provoked in Iraq by the U.S. invasion.

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Riyadh Foments Counterrevolution

Saudi Arabia has now sent the clearest of signals: it will fight to defend the old Arab social order over which it presides. Abdullah is Metternich, or should I say Brezhnev?
That Riyadh has decided to fight rather than compromise was already rather clear from its recent adventure suppressing Houthi dissidents in Yemen who could be seen as representing the first wave of the Yemeni people’s demand for justice. But the murky nature of Yemeni politics, with its overlapping civil wars and all the rush to exploit an alleged al Qua’ida presence (which is, be it real or not, a very valuable allegation for all sorts of political interests), suggested that Riyadh’s Yemeni adventure might have been a one-off thing. But no, we now can see that it was the beginning of the new policy of enforcement.
                                  
For Saudi Arabia to adopt a policy of enforcing its preeminence constitutes a decision with a long and ominous tail. One might, way back in mid-February, have imagined a new Mideast in which Arabs would suddenly join hands and move forward, leading the whole world toward a better future. Such a joint approach would have avoided both revolutionary violence and counter-revolutionary violence. It would also have marginalized all those forces, be they local extremists, Iranian instigators, or Western/Israeli empire-builders, that might have been looking for opportunities to make trouble. Such a new Mideast would have included such steps as:
  • Saudi reforms to address Saudi Shi’i concerns in the context of addressing the concerns of all Saudis chafing under Saudi Arabia’s harsh laws;
  • Bahraini accommodation of Bahraini Shi’i demands for participation in their country’s politics;
  • Protection of Libyan protesters from military attack;
  • Termination of the Israeli policy of collective punishment of the residents of the Gaza Ghetto;
  • A focus by temporary military regimes on managing a peaceful transition to civilian rule, with decisions about fundamental constitutional changes left for judicious consideration in the free marketplace of ideas rather than being rushed through by illegitimate temporary rulers in smoke-filled rooms.
But, alas, hopes for that new Mideast today appear a bit naïve.
Instead of regional compromise, Riyadh has chosen a road that threatens to split Mideast Arabs into two warring camps: old dictators armed with utterly gross quantities of Western arms against an angry but idealistic population that was desperately hoping for some signs of decency from its various governments. Foreign militarism and domestic oppression are two sides of the same coin, and, sure enough, Riyadh’s Bahraini adventure is reflected in its uncompromising rejection this week of domestic freedom of speech. This is a recipe either for chaos or stuffing the population back in the political pressure cooker, slamming the lid on tight, and turning up the heat.
Expect many cooks in the kitchen: some will manufacture incidents as excuses to intervene, some will get invitations from a neighboring state’s crooked politicians and then use that invitation as an excuse to commit murder, some will offer funds or soldiers or “look the other way” as mercenary gangs are hired, many will see an opportunity to clamp down on domestic dissent, and everyone on the outside will look for clients to support in the coming power struggle.
With a Saudi military intervention, Bahrain’s political crisis has been transformed into an international political crisis. The first consequence is that Bahraini protesters will be tempted to turn to violent resistance, as any population might be in the face of foreign boots on the ground. Second, Iran now has justification for making a military countermove to support Bahraini Shi’a, though in fact Tehran may well play its hand against Riyadh where it has better odds–in Iraq. Third, any state—such as Israel—that might want to support Gaddafi now has the perfect precedent to “justify” such behavior. Fourth, all actors using force, such as Gaddafi and Saleh, now have encouragement to continue doing so, and all the rest will find the temptation to do so more difficult to resist.
The Egyptian military has been visibly teetering on a precipice for weeks, oppressing protesters one minute, compromising with them the next, and it faces an immediate decision of crucial importance for democracy in Egypt: to postpone a rushed vote on constitutional amendments or to push it through. The Saudi decision to use force facilitates the same choice by all regional actors.
The result is likely to be a surge in activity by Iran, Israel, and al Qua’ida, as all three rush to exploit new opportunities and to defend their interests. If Western powers are not already on the ground trying to manage events and protect access to oil, the mess created by Iranian, Israeli, and al Qua’ida interference will surely stimulate them to get involved. But none of these actors understands what is happening in the Arab world. Tehran, busy oppressing its own dissidents, can hardly appreciate the desires of Arabs for civil liberties. Tel Aviv is completely in denial, incapable of seeing the opportunity it has for fundamentally transforming its policy toward Palestinians as a means of opening the door to cooperation with a revolutionary Arab movement that is not yet anti-Israeli but very soon will be. Al Qua’ida, with its dreams of a Caliphate, is if anything even more utterly out of tune with the aspirations of the modernizing Arab generation now coming of age. And Western politicians, when they can see past the blinders put over their eyes by right-wing Israeli expansionists with dreams of their own Jewish equivalent of the Caliphate, see only oil.
The simultaneous, energetic interference of all these ignorant external actors in Arab politics will, should it occur, be messy and expensive—for everyone. Saudi military intervention in Bahrain is not a move for stability. It is a move for reaction. It is a step toward denial of popular aspirations and retrenchment. It encourages every politician tempted to put his career first, the long-term interests of the population second. It is a step away from the joy of Tahrir Square after Mubarak’s resignation and toward a zero-sum process of confrontation in which both sides become radicalized and all those outsiders begin finding opportunities to get involved. The result threatens to be political confusion beyond the ability of any actor to understand.
Riyadh’s little military adventure in Bahrain is just one step; Riyadh could still step back. But politicians have a hard time stepping back nimbly enough to avoid tripping: the ground seems always to be moving under their feet. That Riyadh made this move, even if the troops do nothing but have tea with the neighbors and then return home, will still have changed the regional political balance, and so today compromise is just a little bit harder than it was yesterday.
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I would like to express my appreciation to Media With Conscience for publishing the initial version of this article.

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Further Developments:

March 15 – State of Emergency Will Radicalize Situation
Beefed up by foreign troops, Bahrain has declared a state of emergency, authorizing troops to use “all measures.” In other words, further such suspicious activites as freely speaking or demonstrating will occur at the risk of your life. Having gained strength for the moment, the regime will, as most regimes do, crack down rather than compromise, thus further undermining its legitimacy and further angering opponents.

March 15 – Anti-Saudi Protests
Now the Bahraini protesters have a good, patriotic, non-sectarian target: foreign boots on the ground. They have been empowered.

March 15 – State Terrorism By Bahraini Security Forces
Bahraini security forces have reportedly attacked a hospital, ambulances, and doctors.

March 15 – Gang Attacks Opposition Newspaper
Whether state-sponsored or just self-organized support of the state, a mob attacked the offices of Bahrain’s only opposition newspaper, in a further example of the radicalization of the political conflict.

March 16 – Army, Police Attack Protesters
Police backed by military with tanks and helicopters attacked protesters in Bahrain, putting the Bahraini regime firmly in the Saleh-Gaddafi camp of repressive extremists.

March 16 – Bahraini Massacre
A massacre by the Bahraini regime is reported in a village.

Finding a Positive-Sum Solution: The Bahraini Case

Bahrain is a unique case of the Arab Revolt of 2011, but it is also an example of the common tactic of partisan pleading that the danger of disaster justifies submitting to oppression that happens to reserve privilege for the few at the expense of the many. Never did a greedy politician put forth a more suspect claim than that.
It is difficult to assess the swirling claims and counterclaims about Bahraini politics, but a few things seem clear:
  1. the regime is dominated by a group (Sunni and rich) that is not representative of the majority of the population (Shi’a and relatively poor);
  2. the regime was using the excuse of the general conflict between the West and activist Islam as an opportunity to intensify political oppression
  3. the regime’s initial reaction to peaceful protest was criminal violence
  4. the protesters represent a range of opinions
  5. regime response is radicalizing that range of opinions.
The above set of observations, albeit sparse, suggests that the following policy might be wise:
fundamental regime compromise to create a truly participatory democracy, punishment of security officials guilty of violence against peaceful protesters, and the grounding of civil liberties in legal granite.
Arguments about whether the protest is being managed or is opening the door to Iranian intervention are probably more dangerous than useful unless carefully couched in the context laid out above (with, one hopes, a bit more detail). Surely the protests are to some extent being managed; in fact, the democratic political process is all about managing political activity. And I have yet to find a society in which some political factions do not attempt to gain unfair partisan advantage, and most societies seem to have more than their share of outright criminals happy to oppress and kill for that partisan advantage. I also have yet to hear a convincing argument that such facts justify oppression. Surely every political faction in Bahrain is now attempting to manage the protests. So to announce in solemn tones that X is trying to “manage” the protests is little more than scare tactics to obstruct thinking.

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Example of Protest Coordination
Within the Saudi kingdom, thousands of emails and Facebook messages have encouraged Saudi Sunni Muslims to join the planned demonstrations across the “conservative” and highly corrupt kingdom. They suggest – and this idea is clearly co-ordinated – that during confrontations with armed police or the army next Friday, Saudi women should be placed among the front ranks of the protesters to dissuade the Saudi security forces from opening fire.–Robert Fisk, “Saudis Mobilize Thousands of Troops to Quell Growing Revolt
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It is almost never true in politics that “it’s them or us.” Zero-sum arguments are classic excuses to justify oppression, whether made by conservative Sunni dictators, Iranian Mullahs, right-wing Israeli expansionists, or American neo-cons. “Apres-moi le deluge” may be an accurate prediction, but it is the Louis the Fifteenths , the Mubaraks, the Netanyahus who create the zero-sum conditions that pave the way for “le deluge.”
Similarly, Iran obviously has its eye on Shi’i Bahraini society. Are there expansionist elements in the IRGC convinced by their war of resistance against Saddam that Allah is on their side and that they can thus win any conflict? Are there Iranians indignant at Bahraini regime discrimination against fellow Shi’a? Are there unemotional, cautious national security decision-makers in Iran who calculate logically that enhanced Iranian influence over Bahraini society would strengthen Iran’s national security and lead to a more just regional balance of power? Without a doubt.
None of that, however, justifies oppressing, marginalizing, and alienating whole social groups regardless of their behavior. In today’s world, oppression is easy, but effective, long-term oppression is hard. Resistance is getting both easier and more dangerous. Perhaps there is a true believer IRGC general ready to invade who can only be countered by a display of power; perhaps there is a national security thinker who can be persuaded by an offer that addresses Iran’s legitimate national security concerns. Perhaps some Shi’a believe, like some Protestant Fundamentalists, that the “End of Days” is imminent; perhaps some Shi’a are more interested in having the same civil liberties that Americans have traditionally bragged about. Politics is about finding opportunities, and the door to such opportunities is opened by the key of a positive-sum attitude. Zero-sum policies will ensure precisely the chaos such policies claim to prevent.
That much is common sense. Now, someone with Bahraini expertise please lay out for me a positive-sum political path forward.

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Bahraini Futures:

Crackdown on Democracy 

A new Sunni coalition called the National Unity Assembly raises fears of sectarianism.