The Middle East Channel

The Bahrain crisis and its regional dangers

While US and international attention is focused largely elsewhere in the region, especially Libya, the violent crackdown against protestors in the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain may well pose a bigger threat to the entire region's stability. The Bahrain situation is exposing long simmering tensions and rivalries between Saudi Arabia and Iran and carries the danger that it will trigger the next regional war. Such a scenario would likely draw in the United States at a time when its relationships with key allies in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, are under strain. Urgent action is therefore needed to de-escalate the situation in Bahrain and create the trust necessary for the government and opposition to start a much delayed national dialogue that charts the future of the country.

Worryingly, a senior unidentified Saudi official has described the mission of Saudi and other GCC troops to support the Bahraini security forces as "open-ended." A three month state of emergency has led to a campaign of house raids and arrests that have included the leaders of the main opposition parties, as well as human rights activists and other dissidents. There are also mounting concerns that these combined security forces are using disproportionate force and committing serious violations of international law and humanitarian law. The space for dialogue seems to be rapidly closing.

In the days ahead, we are likely to see a deepening of the culture of resistance in Bahrain. In particular, calls for dialogue to establish a constitutional monarchy may be swept away by more radical groups and the combative youth that increasingly supports them. Further radicalization of Bahrainis seems inevitable the longer the current impasse lasts, carrying with it the real danger that the country will be mired in a full blown civil war.

King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa's invitation of the GCC forces has also posed new dilemmas and real dangers for the Gulf and the wider Middle East. It is a crisis which is assuming worrying regional and sectarian dimensions. If the Tunisian revolt was the springboard for the revolution in Egypt and it's catalytic effect on the peoples of the region, the crisis in Bahrain signals the first battle in the shaping of the new Middle East. Instead of the focus being on the people's revolts for dignity, justice, and greater democratic representation that are transforming the region, we are slipping back in to the old narratives that so dominated the region over the past two decades.

These decades were defined by three main narratives: the struggle between western-backed "moderates" and Iranian and Syrian backed "militants" such as Hamas and Hezbollah; the fight against Islamic extremism, particularly Al-Qaeda and the "war on terror" following September 11; and the growing mistrust between Shias and Sunnis, especially following the ouster of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. On top of these dynamics, the total failure of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and concern for Iran's nuclear ambitions have led many to predict that the region is heading towards war.

In the midst of the Arab peoples' awakenings of 2011, the Bahrain crisis has once again raised these specters. The result may be the transformation of the existing Saudi-Iranian "Cold War" to direct confrontations and the intensification of "proxy conflicts," already prevalent in the region.

For its part, the Iranian regime has responded swiftly to events in Bahrain, calling the GCC move an "occupation" and an "invasion" even as it continues to crush its own people's Green Revolution. As the situation in Bahrain deteriorates, Iran may seek creative ways to interfere, perhaps by using its proxies in Lebanon or Iraq. Iraq, Lebanon, and Hamas-led Gaza provide examples of Iran's ability to capitalize on chaos and conflict to further its interests in the region.

Worryingly, on Saturday, the Basij militia is reported to have attacked the Saudi consulate in the northern Iranian town of Mashhad. The Hezbollah chief also weighed in on Saturday by likening the Khalifa family to the Mubarak or Gaddafi families and called on his Bahrain "brothers to resist in defending your rights." He also added for good measure that "your blood and wounds will defeat the tyrants." The Bahrain government reacted angrily, called Nasrallah's speech a "terrorist speech" and warned the Lebanese government that it would hold it responsible for such statements "which would undoubtedly impact on bilateral relations."

The situation in Bahrain may well be providing Iran the opportunity to influence the emerging new regional order, which it has not been instrumental in creating or shaping till now.

The Bahrain crisis is also showing the limits of U.S. influence and power in a region vital to American interests. The Obama administration's calls to speed up political reforms and its more recent condemnation of the crackdown have fallen on deaf ears in Manama. Instead, King Hamad has sought counsel or been influenced by Bahrain's big brother, Saudi Arabia. For their part, the Saudis, increasingly upset with Washington, have warned both the United States and Iran not to interfere in Bahrain's affairs. We really are in unchartered territory.

Bahrain represents the clearest indication of a rupture in Saudi-US relations. As both struggle to manage the sweeping changes in the region, they seem to be on starkly different paths. Saudi Arabia, in particular, may have already determined that the US, especially President Obama, cannot be relied upon to safeguard well-established mutual interests in the region, including the protection of the Kingdom and the House of Saud itself. If this is the case, U.S. influence on Saudi Arabia may be nose-diving at a time when it is most needed. As the region enters a period of prolonged instability, increasingly sharp disagreements between the United States and Saudi Arabia may well be the biggest casualty of the Bahrain crisis.

This could result in Saudi ambivalence about raising its own output to keeping oil prices down -- something which would have a direct effect on gas prices in the US and internationally. More notably, Saudi leadership may make the GCC less reliant on US leadership and diminish further US influence and power in the region. Nevertheless, the United States, Europe, and others in the region must not falter in their calls to end the crackdown and pursue a political solution to the Bahrain crisis. Only a political solution can halt Bahrain's slide to civil war and avert a greater regional fallout.

The path to such a solution can be achieved in two steps: firstly by establishing a truce based on the ending of opposition protests, the release of all opposition leaders and activists, and the withdrawal from Bahrain of all GCC forces. Secondly, a time-bound national dialogue of two months should be possible based on the principles of enhancing political representation and accountability and the sharing of power. This dialogue should also serve as the basis for talks aimed at achieving the far-reaching goal of a "constitutional or parliamentary monarchy" in the country. It is a goal that King Hamad has previously set and which the mainstream opposition parties are demanding. It is now time to put aside sectarian concerns and deep seated existential fears and get on with the job of achieving this for the future of Bahrain, the Gulf region, and the entire Middle East. 

Salman Shaikh is Director of the Brookings Institution's Doha Center and Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. Shaikh previously served as the Special Assistant for the Middle East and Asia to the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs and as an adviser to former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. 

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The Middle East Channel

Assessing Tahrir’s first ballot box

CAIRO, Egypt — The need to establish stability during a period of great uncertainty was a central issue in Egypt's constitutional amendment referendum held on March 19. Advocates of a "yes" vote championed an immediate path to political, economic, and social stability through amendments to the most offensive provisions of the constitution, which would be followed by parliamentary and presidential elections in the coming months.  Only then would a new constitution be considered.  While 77.2% of Egyptians approved the referendum, the vote will not bring clarity and assurance to the country.  Even though a new sense of confidence has come from the process of the referendum, the implementation of its provisions threatens to spur a new kind of instability and uncertainty.

The referendum asked voters to approve or reject several amendments intended to quickly fix aspects of the constitution dealing mainly with the emergency law and presidential elections.  The vote also paved the way for the drafting of a new constitution. None of the amendments were particularly controversial in substance, but an opposition movement quickly developed to denounce the amendments as a mere "patching" of an unacceptable constitution that had become null and void as a result of the revolution.  Opponents of the referendum also expressed concern that starting with parliamentary elections would benefit existing power structures-the remnants of the National Democratic Party (NDP) and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular-to the exclusion of new and fledgling parties.  Thus, the parliament that would oversee the new constitution would fail to be truly representative, they argued.

Referendum opponents, including political groups other than the NDP and the Muslim Brotherhood, Christians, liberals, and some of the revolutionaries, wanted to begin with the drafting of a new constitution in a process that would include the full range of views in Egypt.  Then, elections would follow.  They were accused by their opponents, however, of seeking to extend the current period of uncertainty into what was expected to be a protracted constitutional process.  During that period, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) would remain in power.  "No" advocates were willing to tolerate military rule as long as necessary to get a new constitution in place that reflected the true wishes of the Egyptian people.  Their opponents, however, characterized this as an unacceptable lengthy extension of the status quo.

The "no" advocates were working against a strong presumption in favor of the referendum.  While the SCAF refrained from persuasive advertising itself, the sheer fact that the referendum was brought to the people by the SCAF made its position clear.  The Muslim Brotherhood campaigned vigorously in favor of the referendum, emphasizing that its passage would end what they called the current state of chaos.  Through this theme, they were able to tap into popular concerns of instability, both real and created.  Economically, a drastic drop in essential revenue from tourists and a general inability or hesitation by Egyptians to spend has severely damaged the local economy.  The Egyptian stock exchange has been closed for some time, but promised to reopen after the referendum, with the clear implication that its adoption would help to reduce the pain expected on the opening day.

Advocates of the referendum also played on fears of crime and insecurity, claiming that social stability would continue to worsen during a protracted constitutional process.  The extent of an actual rise in crime-and the changing nature of that crime-is difficult to determine, but there certainly is a perception in some circles that this is the case.  At a polling station in Imbaba where I spent many hours on referendum day, voter after voter spoke of their fears of crime and banditry and the need to "move on" to parliamentary elections that would restore a sense of security and normalcy.  For many Egyptians, the military's unwillingness to act as a police force has allowed deviant actors in society to flourish. One man told me that even though Egyptian universities had re-opened, he would not let his daughter attend because he did not think the streets were safe. If the referendum passes, he said, we will know what happens next, and we will feel more secure.

The interests of the SCAF, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other supporters of the referendum also coincided on the issue of return to civilian rule and the resulting benefits to Egypt's national security.  The military seems to want out of the business of ruling as soon as possible, and the Muslim Brotherhood has also reinforced this as a goal.  It is more than a matter of principle: if the military is busy ruling, who is watching the borders, many asked?  I heard a number of references to the current crisis in Libya, the desire of the Nile Valley countries to restrict the flow of water to Egypt, as well as to the enduring threat of Israel as reasons why the referendum should be adopted.  These arguments carry power, especially as the threat of Israel has long been used to manipulate public opinion. 

But will Egypt truly move into a period of stability?  A "constitutional declaration" is expected from the SCAF setting out the precise timetable for parliamentary elections in the coming months.  Intense discussions have already begun over the formation of new political parties and the procedures for the new elections.  Many serious questions are now immediately relevant: how much religion will be allowed in the electoral process?  What if Egypt's Christians want to form their own equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood's new Justice and Freedom Party?  What role will the former members of the NDP, now currently in the process of re-forming itself, play in the elections?

The SCAF must oversee the adoption of new laws and regulations concerning all aspects of the parliamentary and even subsequent presidential elections since the existing ones are unacceptable.  This not only further entrenches the military in tasks best left to the legislature but also opens topic after topic for major contention amongst political parties and factions that are quickly forming. Unlike the simplicity of the referendum, the parliamentary elections will be complex, and opportunities for fraud and intimidation will grow exponentially. Old electoral structures will be hard to dismantle, and parties will surely seek to harness those networks of patronage to their advantage. And once the parliament and president that are elected under these contentious circumstances turn to the new constitution, the choice of drafters and the entire process will be in their hands.  Does this really promote long term stability in the Egyptian legal and political system?

In addition, the questionable legal status of the newly amended constitution undermines the claim that adopting the referendum will lead to stability. This is a somewhat technical issue, raised by lawyers and judges rather than the average voter, but with potentially grave implications. The amendments did not add a constitutional role for the SCAF, leaving its status unclear.  Although an extra-constitutional actor, is it bound in any way by the constitution?  Or obligated to ensure that all other actors in the country comply with it?  In the coming months when new issues arise, will the SCAF find a need to change other provisions of the constitution, calling for another referendum, or will it act on its own?  Might the parliamentary and presidential elections and even the drafting of the new constitution later be challenged as unconstitutional? Some Supreme Constitutional Court judges, who would be the ones to receive such a challenge, are very worried about this last question in particular.

The referendum can, however, claim to have created a sense of stability in one important way: through the process itself.  More than 18 million voters participated, over 40% of those eligible, waiting as long as three hours in some places on a hot day and yet were generally very pleased to be doing so.

"It is like a wedding," one voter in Nasr City told me. "We all came out even though not everyone knows exactly why."  Many voters said exuberantly that it was the first time they ever participated in an election; previously, there was no point, most said, since the results were pre-determined.  While there were some incidents of voting irregularities and disturbing cases of intimidation - including one against Mohamed al-Baradei himself - by and large the voting took place in a way that was free, fair, and transparent.  Immediately after the results were issued, prominent opponents quickly acknowledged them. 

The referendum succeeded in providing a genuine election to Egypt's citizenry, and that in itself is a source of national stability. What the referendum requires, however, is another matter.  It forces important new questions far too quickly and without the proper groundwork, threatening the integrity of the parliamentary and presidential elections that are soon to come.  The referendum also creates uncertainties about the status of the current constitution.  Unfortunately, these problems very well may jeopardize the ultimate goal of a new constitution worthy of the new Egypt.

Kristen Stilt is an associate professor of law and history at Northwestern University. Her book, Islamic Law in Action: Authority, Discretion, and Everyday Experiences in Mamluk Egypt, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.