Sunday, November 17, 2013

Unrest in Bahrain (1996)

From the May 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

It seems ironic that in an area of the world that is so in need of peace, so many Middle East leaders are opposing protests sparked by the clamour for parliamentary democracy. This is indeed the case of Bahrain, which has been ruled by Sheikh Issa Bin Salman al Khalifa since 1961.

The Khalifa clan has some 800 men folk who are notorious for abusing their privileged positions for their own ends, creaming profits from state and private enterprises. That they represent the ruling Sunni minority is also part of the equation, for the majority Shi'ite population are vastly poorer and proportionately more likely to be unemployed, and excluded from civic office, the army and the police.

It is therefore hardly surprising that calls for a new "democratic" parliament—the national assembly having been suspended in 1974, four years after British withdrawal—should come from the Shi'ite majority.

The mosques had been the only means of opposition for the discontented until January when a ban on political sermons was enforced. Since then unrest has broken out with the burning of cars and the percussion bombing of selected targets—though with minimum casualties.

As can be expected, it was only natural that Iran should have been fingered as being behind the unrest, and that the cause was Iranian territorial claims on Bahrain. Iran was quick to counter the accusation, claiming that Bahrain is seeking an external cause for domestic unease to justify the US presence in the region.

Joining Bahrain, and then the US in scapegoating Iran, was Egypt's President Mubarak who announced that Iran "had started a fire" that would spread. Believing that Bahrain's tiny army of a few thousand to be too small to handle further unrest, King Hussein of Jordan kindly offered the loan of his troops to Sheikh Issa.

Even Yasser Arafat voiced a hypocritical condemnation of the protesters. David Hirst, writing in the Guardian (16 February) felt it ironic that "fresh from the electoral triumph that considered him 'president' of his state in the making, this former revolutionary should condemn another Arab for simply aspiring to elections".

Oddly enough, it was from Kuwait—the Middle Eastern country that has perhaps the most to fear from Shi'ite Islam—that calls came for Bahrain to establish a parliament.

Qatar has also backed the pro-democracy protests and has gone so far as to allow opposition exiles to state their case on state television. This, however, is more likely a response to claims in Qatar that Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were behind an anti-government plot to reinstall the deposed emir. Furthermore, Bahrain and Qatar have for some time been embroiled in a dispute over the tiny Hawar Islands which are rich in resources.

Neither is the fact that Qatar is seeking to normalise relations with Iraq and Iran giving the Gulf Co-operation Committee (set up to solve regional disputes) much time to relax.

Thus it is not without cause that real fears are again emerging in the Middle East—fears sparked not only by territorial disputes, but also by the overspending on arms and the region's over-reliance on US interference should someone raise the stakes.

In a region as unstable as the Middle East, such a false sense of security can only be undesirable. Nevertheless, it is a situation that vindicates the socialist argument that the cause of conflict is invariably sparked over territory, trade routes and mineral wealth—all sources of profit for the contestants.

The streets of Bahrain have recently been daubed with new graffiti, including the claim that "parliament is the solution'. The chances are, though, that a Bahraini parliament will be controlled by the Khalafas to serve their own interests and the fact that they have been elected will only serve to legitimise their rule, thus further retarding any struggle for democracy.

Bahrain is the region's most important financial centre, heavily dependent on profits from oil and gas. This alone should tell the Bahraini working class that their struggle is aimed in reality at securing crumbs from the cake they have baked, and that the "freedom" they believe their protest will bring about is in reality a liberal and distorted view of freedom perpetuated by the same class that will use it to continue exploiting the,. However, they are not alone. Theirs is the struggle that will be echoed all over the world, until the working class realises there is a real alternative—Socialism.
John Bissett