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Bahrain's Unsettling Standoff

Interviewee: Ed Husain, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
April 27, 2012

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Bahrain has been in political turmoil since February 2011, shortly after the start of pro-democracy uprisings in other Arab countries. But Ed Husain, a Middle East expert for CFR, says the situation in Bahrain is more complicated than "just a straightforward demand for democracy." The monarchy of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, Husain says, is willing to open a dialogue for changes sought by Shiites, who make up a majority of the population. But the protestors--led by Ayatollah Isa Qassem, a supporter of Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini--are refusing dialogue and using violence to try to unseat the government, Husain says, which would only strengthen Iranian influence in the region, and would be met with opposition from Saudi Arabia. "If it is democracy the protestors want, then that can only be achieved by returning to the negotiating table and seeking a political settlement," Husain says.

You've just come back from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. In Bahrain, there has been considerable controversy over the long-simmering dispute between the Shiites and the ruling government of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. What's the situation on the ground?

The situation on the ground is one that's radically different from the predominant narrative here in the West about Bahrain. What struck me in Bahrain was [that] the fine line between demonstrations and riots had been blurred. There were nightly riots in many of the villages, some of which I visited; attacks on police officers in Bahrain, who incidentally are for the most part unarmed. The officers use tear gas canisters for crowd control purposes--granted, many have argued that their use of tear gas is questionable. So what we are seeing on the ground is people who are increasingly using violence, and are responding to the regime's attempts to open dialogue by a) ignoring it, b) not condemning the violence by the activists on the ground, and c), trying to derail the government. It's important for the international community, especially the United States and the United Kingdom, to realize that what's going on here is not just a straightforward demand for democracy.

These demonstrations started in February 2011, in the wake of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. Originally it seemed that it was the majority Shiites seeking to get more of a voice in the ruling of the government, not necessarily to overthrow the monarchy. Are there different protesters, and have the parliamentary protesters been eclipsed?

The main opposition party is called al-Wefaq. When they walked out of parliament last year and then boycotted by-elections in September and October, al-Wefaq chose to walk away from dialogue with the government and with the strongest reforming voice in the royal family, Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa. Since pulling out of the parliament, the face of the opposition has been almost entirely restricted to the protesters, whose tactics have become increasingly violent. They must return to the negotiating table and empower the Crown Prince's liberal, pluralist initiative for Bahrain.

The situation on the ground is one that's radically different from the predominant narrative here in the West about Bahrain.

The initial wave of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt was led by secular liberals, but that's not the case in Bahrain. This makes the situation with the current protests more complicated. These are Shiite sectarians who have not expressed progressive pluralist objectives for reform in Bahrain--unlike the revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt. In parliament, members of the al-Wefaq party blocked bills that would empower women's rights, women's freedom to divorce, and women's identity measures in Bahrain. They objected on hardline religious, sectarian grounds. Their main leader, Ayatollah Isa Qassem, has a ten-year track record of attacking the United States in the language of Ayatollah Khomeini [the leader of the Iranian revolution] and he quotes Khomeini calling the United States "the Great Satan," attacking democracy, and supporting the Iranian system of government and praising Hezbollah. For al-Wefaq's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Isa Qassem, to enter the Arab uprisings without nullifying his previous remarks on democracy as Western and evil makes a farce of what the Arab Spring was all about.

Do you think the United States is a bit naïve? The United States keeps issuing statements like it did on April 25, calling on both sides to show moderation, as if the government and the protesters are equal.

I think the United States' government is caught between reality and idealism--and rightly concerned about consequences on the ground. Saudi Arabia will not stand by and watch the government in Bahrain fall. We are seeing nightly attacks on police stations and on police personnel. Rioters are throwing Molotov cocktails and arrows are being pierced into civil servants and police forces on a nightly basis, which I have seen happen on the ground in Bahrain. With that going on, to say the Bahrain government should not respond to that level of violence in villages is simply irresponsible.

How involved is Iran in this uprising by Shiites?

I'm not suggesting for a moment that Tehran is in direct control of events. But we have yet to hear Ayatollah Isa Qassem openly distance himself from Iran or condemn the Iranian system of government (wilayat al-faqih). Iraq's Ayatollah Sistani and Sunni Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia have jettisoned Iran's theocracy—[so] what stops Ayatollah Isa Qassem from condemning Iran, and thereby allaying Saudi and GCC fears? Therefore when both Saudi Arabia and many in Bahrain say that the opposition movement in Bahrain is basically their version of Hezbollah, in that it has ideological links and patronage from Iran, I think we should be concerned about that. [We should] ask ourselves this one question: If the al-Khalifa family in Bahrain falls, which is the ultimate aim of many of the agitators among the opposition, would the West, particularly the United States, be happy to see Iranian influence extend over yet again another Arab nation, another Arab country in addition to Hezbollah's Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq? Do we really want to hand over Bahrain to the Iranian sphere of influence? And that I think is the bottom line in Bahrain.

When you were in Saudi Arabia and officials talked about the situation in Bahrain, I expect the Saudis are linking the protests to the Iranians. Is that correct?

You are right, but I think the Iranian card is overplayed by the Saudis. What is going on is that the Bahraini protesters' movement has not clearly differentiated itself from the Iranian system of government or thought. The debate should be framed not in terms of Iran and Shiite influences, but in terms of citizens' rights within the constitutional monarchy. They are an oppressed people in a country, as they see it, and those grievances should be addressed through a political settlement, through genuine reform, which the monarchy seems keen on. But this constant raising of the Shiite card, framing everything in Shiite language, in victimhood and longstanding grievances, doesn't necessarily help lead to a political settlement.

For al-Wefaq's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Isa Qassem, to enter the Arab uprisings without nullifying his previous remarks on democracy as Western and evil makes a farce of what the Arab Spring was all about.

What the Saudis are concerned about, and I think it's worth remembering, is the reluctance of al-Wefaq to distance itself from Iran. When I met with Shaikh Ali Salman, who is the main leader, the general secretary of secretary-general of the al-Wefaq party, I pressed him on Wilayat al-Faqih [the Iranian leadership philosophy]. When I probed him on what they ultimately wanted, he couldn't give me an answer that says, "We condemn Iranian intentions in the region and its animosity towards the United States." But more problematically, the question is this: If pro-Iran elements came to power in Bahrain, does that weaken U.S. influence in the region, endanger the Fifth Fleet, irreversibly anger the Saudis, destabilize the GCC and other U.S interest? My answer is yes. And does that strengthen Iranian influence over another Arab country? Yes.

We should expect that the Saudis will prop up the al-Khalifa monarchy as a matter of self-preservation--the question, then, is: Can the United States afford to upset its Saudi allies, the most loyal friend among all the Arab nations in the region?

If you were parachuted into the center of Bahrain today, and you didn't know anything about the history, what would you see around you? Would it look an Arab country? Would it look like a Western country?

Bahrain without doubt feels like an Arab nation, a progressive Muslim nation, where people of various backgrounds seem free to dress and behave how they want. In the many malls and public spaces of the country, there's a great deal of freedom with people from all around the world there. Religious minorities, whether they're Hindus or Christians, seem to enjoy a greater degree of freedom than they do, say, in neighboring Gulf countries. But that said, there's a real anger among the Sunni population, and that anger is that the current king is being too generous and too weak in his response to not just the uprisings, but in inviting back Ayatollah Isa Qassem from Iran in 2001, because the current king's father had put these people in political exile because he saw them as Iranian agitators. Now with him coming back and with the Arab uprisings, there's a feeling among the Sunnis that the monarchy is being too liberal and too lenient and too weak and too generous for the opposition, and it should be much harsher along the lines of the prime minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman al Khalifa, the king's uncle, who is viewed to be stronger.

For Bahrain to maintain its stability, it's important that the opposition become serious and the monarchy genuinely embrace reforms. The current rhetoric of Shiite sectarianism must go, and genuine democracy of citizenship and individual rights must come forth. We are in 2012. Some in the opposition wish to frame the current conflict as ongoing hostilities between Sunnis and Shiites dating back to the battle of Karbala in 680 AD, and the Sunni king represents the forces of evil, or Yazeed. That type of thinking needs to end. If it is democracy the protestors want, then that can only be achieved by returning to the negotiating table and seeking a political settlement. The violence and nightly riots must stop.

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