Bahrain is a country very close to our hearts. The boy and I had the opportunity to visit the intricate country for ourselves a little over a year ago and we instantly fell in love with it. With all of the turmoil that is happening over there right now, we've tried to stay in close contact with our friends who live there.
Our good friend May has taken the time to write out her thoughts on the whole ordeal and agreed to let me share them on here. These are her personal thoughts and opinions. For me, I would much rather hear what's happening from a local and not an over sensationalized news station.
This is my take. I'm sure you'll find many who disagree with me. I have to generalize here or I won't ever finish writing. I think the most important thing you should take away from this is how complex the situation is and how very divided we are on the answers.
Bahrain has always had sectarian divisions, having traded hands between the Arabs and Persians for centuries. The country is maybe 70% locals 30% expats. Say 60-70% of those locals are Shia. If we're going to generalize, we can say many of the Shia are poor, and many of the Sunna are well off. The Shia complain of unemployment, saying they are discriminated against in government positions, they don't get public housing and live a family to a room, and they're targeted by the security forces and accused of terrorism and plots to overthrow the state.
How true is any of this? Fairly true. There are many wealthy, prominent Shia families like Jawad or Hawaj or Al Aaali. But for the most part, Shia villages are ghettos, with bad access to public education and health. Why? I think it's analogous to the situation in American inner cities. It's a cycle of poverty and ignorance. It needs to be addressed. They do get rounded up every once in a while and jailed and there are claims of torture in prison and forced confessions -- again, something akin to Guantanamo or the various CIA secret prions around the world. The police force here is mostly naturalized Sunnis from other countries. Hired a) to increase the Sunni numbers and alter the demographic, and b) because there's the fear that a Shia police force will declare allegiance to Iran and instigate a coup or something. These police -- they're brutal.
These grievances are real, no doubt. Nobody will tell you these issues are imagined. The question is how to deal with them. Here in the Gulf, most locals feel entitled. People feel the government should look after them. We pay no taxes, we get outstanding bills pardoned every once in a while, many people get public housing, and there's just a general expectation that the gov should look after you. If you can't find a job, it's cause the gov won't give you one, not because you're stupid or lazy. It's the sort of attitude that makes companies hire expats over locals, because many locals are not good enough and because their attitudes are worse than their skills. You'll meet many locals who resent this: Why are the expats taking our jobs? We're good enough. We also have degrees. Why do they get jobs and we don't? Notice I say locals and not Shia or Sunna.
The thing is, Bahrain is trying desperately to create an economy. We're not Kuwait or the UAE where they're just sitting on money and they dole it out and everybody drives a Land Cruiser subsidized by the government. We don't have oil and we're not sitting on a large surplus. In fact we're probably the only Gulf state to have suffered a deficit last year. Well Dubai defaulted on its loans. Anyway. Expats run the GCC, whether it's the privileged variety or the indentured servant variety. Bahrain is no different, except we also have a real population that's fallen between the cracks, the underprivileged Shia. They regularly burn tires in the street to remind us that they're still here.
In the late 90s, there were riots. There was burning and vandalizing and it got bad, and then Amir Isa died and his son Hamad became Amir, declared himself King in 2002. He introduced many reforms, the most important of which was the creation of a bicameral parliament system. We didn't have one before. Now we have two houses of Parliament: the lower elected house (18 0f 40 seats currently held by Shia) and the upper Shura house, appointed by the Prime Minister, the same dude who's been PM since Bahrain gained independence in 1971, and many Shia take issue with him. In the 10 years since the reforms were started, I think things have improved. But not enough, then there was the naturalization scandal.
I am naturalized. My parents are Egyptian but I was born and raised here and I consider myself as Bahraini as everyone else. Yesterday I went to the protest to see what they were about because I couldn't decide just reading the news. I found some interesting things.
1) It was a sectarian protest. It was like walking through a azza (shia mourning gig). The people were all one class and one sect and it was by no means representative of Bahraini society as a whole.
2) The protesters were first demanding reforms like an elected upper house of parliament. Things that made sense and that I could get behind. Then I went and saw that they were chanting "the people want the fall of the regime" -- the exact phrase that was used first in Tunisia and then in Egypt. They were singing the national anthem of EGYPT, not Bahrain. They had the same signs and slogans. It was like someone took the Egyptian revolution template and applied it to the place. Suddenly the roundabout was a "square" and suddenly the royal family had to go. They said the demands had increased as a response to the two killed the previous day by the police.
3) It was peaceful, like a giant street carnival. But they were also handing out literature calling for the removal of the royal family. I myself saw people in tents watching videos calling for armed struggle, complete with AK-47s. Some kind of promo / demo video of the kind Hezbollah make. I wish now I'd stayed longer and talked to the guys but I was a little rattled and left quickly.
4) I was treated like a foreigner. There was not one person who took me for a local, even when I insisted, and not one person I felt an affinity to. When I asked "what are your demands" they said stop the injustice, when I asked what injustice, I got very hostile "where the fuck have you been" responses. It felt like a different Bahrain. I will be the first to admit I live in my little bubble here, associating with people with similar backgrounds and education levels. But I am NOT the only one. Everyone in this country lives in their own bubble, it's hard to believe we all live on the same 100 sq miles. I'm not making a judgment, I'm saying what things are like.
I left the protest with the feeling that it wasn't my protest. There were no proposed solutions. There was an airing of grievances and a blind embrace of the Egyptian slogans and demands. This is a monarchy. It cannot go. The entire GCC is composed of monarchies. Saudi will intervene before the monarchy is ousted. Imagine the Tea Party trying to start a 'revolution' in the States and rewriting the constitution. It's not a plausible demand.
I left that protest and went to check out the pro-government rally. It was equally big, and equally homogeneous. Families in Land Cruisers and BMWs honking horns and waving flags. A different demographic, a different world.
The protesters want jobs, homes and freedom of expression. Legitimate demands that can be achieved through better government. What do they have to offer in terms of government, though? How can you 'hand power' to society's poorest and most ignorant and expect them to turn things around? If you think the MPs now are worried about too much nonsense like banning concerts and segregating the university, wait till we have stupider ones in power. I know I shouldn't be using words like 'stupid' but this country is going backwards. We had normal internet two years ago, but after enough pressure from the conservative public now the internet is censored and we can't get any porn or human rights websites. I don't particularly care for porn but it's the concept. Who knows what's next, newspapers?
We need a government interested in real economic policy. Real social liberties. Maybe I'm being unfair but I think if we lose the current monarchy we will be trading one kind of oppression for the other. We'll have political parties but we won't have dance parties. I can say I love Iran on a blog but I can't say I hate religion on a blog. We'll have blasphemy laws. We'll lose the tolerance and openness that makes us so unique in the Gulf.
The current regime needs fixing, no doubt. The response of the police last night should make that clearer than ever. But there is no plausible alternative to the current monarchy and Bahrainis are by no means united on the way forward from here. Egypt demanded the departure of a head of state, not the state all together. They were unified, rich and poor, young and old. Bahrain is not unified. There are MANY MANY people who don't want the monarchy going anywhere. I think we can all unite around our outrage at the police response though.
This is not a revolution, not yet. Al Khalifa are not dictators, they are monarchs. We can get rid of some important people and change a few things but we're not getting rid of the family. The government could have made some concessions, released the prisoners, deposed a minister or two and turned this into a great PR opportunity for Bahrain. Instead we're getting a repeat of the draconian tactics and media blackout that turned Egypt so nasty. The police have escalated the situation to a dangerous point. Local TV is showing footage of hurt police officers and weapons confiscated from the protesters. So you found 10 swords in a crowd of 3000. Yeah, some threat they were. Shoulda let them have their say.
Where do we go from here? I have no freaking clue. For now I'm staying home and thinking.
I'm sure all the Bahrainis reading this will have a lot to say.... Go for it, hit me. I'm sure I have a few things wrong....