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Bessma Momani

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Bahrain Protests: National Belonging Not Bread

Posted: 09/ 9/2011 9:05 am

As events unfold in the Arab world, there is a search for a common thread to explain why this Arab awakening is happening now.

For many political analysts, Egypt was easier to explain: a kleptocracy who ruled the government, in cooperation with Egypt's crony capitalists, had drained its 83 million people of the nation's wealth and great economic potential. The Egyptian protesters used their mass weight to push for economic equality, social dignity, and political liberalization.

Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and many other Arab countries can be explained by similar circumstances as Egypt. The demonstrations in Bahrain, however, bewilders us to analyse why this country with less than a million people who earn on average $40,000 per year, exceeding the average income of an Austrian citizen, come to Pearl square to voice their discontent.

Bahrain is not nearly as corrupt as Egypt or Tunisia. The average Bahraini, Sunni or Shiite, is not poor like the average Egyptian and other Arab brethren. So why do we see thousands of people on the streets of Manama calling for change?

In search for explanations, many analysts have argued that Bahraini protests can be explained by religious divisions between the mass Shia population and its Sunni royal family. This too is simplistic as well. The answer lies in the protesters search for national acceptance. The Bahrani royal family needs to acknowledge that a majority of its people do not feel as if they belong to the state. Bahraini Shiite have been viewed with suspicion and fear; the 'fifth column' within the country.

Since the Islamic revolution in Iran, the Arab Middle East has been fixated on the rise of Shiite ideology and political Islam. This fear of the 'Shiite crescent' has been at times based on an unfounded suspicion that Shiite Arabs are more loyal to Iran than to their own brethren. This is an issue that has grave consequences for national unity and perceptions of national belonging. To drive and perpetuate a wedge in a country along sectarian lines in search of concentrating control is a futile exercise in weakening the nation.

There has been great hope that King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa will move his nation above these divisions to promote true national unity. Unfortunately, the King also needs to find unity of purpose among his own family and find the national narrative the Bahrain will stand for in future years. Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa has become the epitome of the conservative movement in the royal family and hence the protesters have called for his resignation. The King needs to convince these conservative elements within the royal family that Bahrain is a stronger country when political reforms give the majority of its people a sense of belonging to the state they have called home for centuries.

A decade ago, the royal family made notable steps toward a new constitution and elections. This national reconciliation of sorts helped to calm these feelings and perceptions. But with accusations of gerrymandering in Shiite voting areas in the past year, the majority of the Bahraini people felt that the royal family was back to its usual tactics of denying political liberalization to the masses.

Moreover, as the lower house of parliament went to carry out the business of deliberating the policies of the country, discourse among the divided parties remained superficial and unproductive. Much of this parliamentary banter can be explained by the uploading of tribal and sectarian grievances to the parliament. Rather than focussing on debating issues of national importance, the parliament sat to discuss the mundane. As the recent wikileak documents recanted, for example, "...as the first tremors of the global financial crisis were felt here [in Bahrain], MPs rushed to condemn a scheduled performance by Lebanese pop diva Haifa Wehebe, debated the harmful influence of witchcraft, and vowed to ban both pork and alcohol."

The Bahraini parliament, despite grand hopes of many throughout the region as a first among the necessary democratic institution in the region, had simply lost credibility among the people's eyes. The Shiite al-Haq party, which protested against the parliamentary process, became increasingly popular as the parliamentary process faltered. Last year, the reaction of the Bahraini government to this populist movement was to further alienate its followers by arresting its leader Hassan Mushaima and many others in an alleged plot to overthrow the government. The case against Mushaima and others was riddled with false accusations, exaggerations, and blatant political overtones.

For Bahrain's youth, in particular, they have grown disenchanted with what politics can offer. Working within the parliamentary system seemed futile and at times comical. The uprisings across the Arab world have motivated the Bahrani Shiite to use the option of the street instead of the parliamentary system. Young people that came to Pearl square in mid-February and returned again in the past few weeks, have called for political reform, dignity, and recognition as Baharani citizens that have a right to participate in the future of their country. The Bahraini youth that first appeared at Pearl square were not making their demands in sectarian terms. But the response from the government and unfortunately from many Sunni Bahrainis was to see these protesters in terms of the sunni-shiite divide.

Then, adding insult to injury, the Bahraini government used Sunni Arab mercenaries to try and squash the demonstrations. Perhaps swayed by conservative elements in the royal family, the Bahraini government reacted with heavy handed force in dealing with the protesters. Shameful arrests and trials of doctors who treated protestors continue to taint the Bahraini government's approach to moving forward.

The Bahraini monarchy must find a way to foster national belonging and respect for all of its citizens. The Bahraini model could be a positive testament for change in the Middle East that is premised on honest negotiations, listening, compromise, and love of country.

Bessma Momani is Associate Professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada and a Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Governance and Innovation.