I think what’s happening in Bahrain is alarming, and it is unfortunately diverting attention and effort away from the political and economic track that is the only way forward to resolve the legitimate differences of the Bahrainis themselves… We have made that clear time and time again. We have deplored the use of force. We have said not only to the Bahrainis but to our Gulf partners that we do not think security is the answer to what is going on. Now, we’ve also said to the protestors that they have to engage in peaceful protest and they should return to the negotiating table.
But to product long-lasting and harmonious results, a negotiations must be between parties who enjoy roughly equal power and influence. In both Egypt and Bahrain, the protesters have had strength only when they are on the street, visible to the world in whatever numbers they can muster. In other words, their strength is in their numbers, their camaradeirie and their solidarity. As soon as they send a delegation in for negotiations with the government, the delegation is a small isolated group, overwhelmed by the awe and power of a well-entrenched state. When the protest movement is fluid and spontaneous, again as in Egypt and Bahrain, no delegates can be fully representative anyway and in the end any political settlement has to be endorsed by ‘public outcry’. If the crowds are satisfied, they will drift away. If they are not satisfied, they will turn up again the next day. That’s what happened in Egypt. When Mubarak said he would step down in September, the crowds stayed and grew in numbers. When Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that Mubarak had handed power to the military council, they cheered and went off to celebrate.
When the Egyptian protest movement was in roughly the same stage as the Bahraini movement is in today, the US position was that Mubarak should go immediately. Their position on Bahrain is markedly different. There’s no suggestion that the Khalifa family has lost legitimacy through using brutal force against mainly peaceful protesters or by calling in troops from a neighbouring country, a country overtly hostile to the Bahraini protest movement and to any progress towards democracy or constitutional monarchy in any of its smaller neighbours.
There are several factors at work here:
* The United States believes for the moment that the Khalifa family has a chance of surviving, even if it has to make some serious concessions to stay in power. The Bahrain protest movement has by no means been uniformly or consistently republican, so concessions by the Khalifas might split and weaken the movement. Although Clinton deplores the use of force in public, she might have calculated that the combined power of the Saudi and Bahrain forces might overawe the protesters. For sectarian reasons, the Gulf forces can at least be expected to be more cohesive and less scrupulous with the opposition than the army and police were in Egypt.
* The Obama administration, spooked by the Saudi reaction to its position on Egypt, may indeed be less sympathetic towards another Arab uprising against a friendly ruler who provides useful geostrategic services to the United States: a base for the Fifth Fleet in the case of Bahrain, overflights right and quick passage for US warships through the Suez Canal in the case of Egypt.
* The Iran factor is crucial, in the eyes of both the United States and Saudi Arabia. No one doubts that a truly representative Bahraini government would be less hostile towards Iran, even if it does not embrace Tehran wholeheartedly. Any crack in the wall Washington has tried to build around Iran would be interpreted as a strategic defeat, including at home, where anti-Iranian sentiment runs high.
* The Bahraini monarchy is more important to Saudi Arabia than the Mubarak presidency was, and Saudi views count in the White House. Bahrain has many of the features of a Saudi protectorate, and the disruption of the status quo on its doorstep, within its sphere of influence, is a direct affront to Saudi authority. In this case, the Saudis, and the Bahraini ruling family in their train, may well decide to ignore American and other calls for restraint.
The next step is up to the Bahraini protest movement, which has shown remarkable resilience and seems determined to pursue its campaign. But given the polarization in Bahraini society, unfortunately along mainly sectarian Sunni-Shi’i lines, the country could face a more bitter and possibly more bloody conflict than in homogeneous Egypt. As in other restive Arab countries, the United States will shift its position according to its assessment of the probable outcome.