The case of Bahrain

18 02 2011

by Patrick Vibert

As protests erupt across North Africa and the Middle East, the tiny island nation of Bahrain is seeing its share of unrest. Thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in the capital Manama to protest against a regime that is viewed by many as oppressive and discriminatory. Bahrain seems to be following the examples set by Egypt and Tunisia, who have each toppled longtime rulers.

As an Arab country seeking a democracy, Bahrain appears to have much in common with other nations in the region that are facing unrest. But its sectarian makeup and geographic position make it a special case, especially for the United States.

Bahrain is an island that sits off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf.  It was a part of the Persian Empire until it achieved independence in 1783. Today, it is the home of America’s Fifth Fleet, which is responsible for patrolling the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. The country’s Sunni majority rules over a Shiite minority. For our purposes, these are the key facts.


Shia outnumber Sunnis in Bahrain 2 to 1. However, the country is ruled by Sunnis who occupy the upper echelon positions in military and government.  Sunnis are aware that toppling the regime means toppling their cushy position in Bahraini society and as a result, the protests have taken on a sectarian dimension.

Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, it is unlikely that the military will side with the protesters. In the past 24 hours, we have seen an up-tick in violence, with soldiers opening fire on demonstrators. The state-sponsored use of violence will likely only add fuel to the fire of the rebels, but don’t look for the regime to go down without a fight. As said, Egypt and Tunisia had the help of the military, and it is unlikely that any of the revolutionary movements taking place in the region today would get far without it. Right now, the protesters in Bahrain don’t have it and aren’t likely to get it.

Saudi Arabia

The Saudis are concerned with growing Shiite (and therefore Iranian) influence. As mentioned, Bahrain is two-thirds Shiite and Iran is almost entirely Shiite. Saudi Arabia has its own population of Shiites, though not as many as Bahrain and Iran. The problem is that Saudi Arabia’s Shia population lives in the oil-rich eastern provinces, which happen to border Bahrain. If the regime in Manama falls giving way to a Shia dominated government, Iran is clearly a beneficiary, as the Islamic Republic would then have an ally right off the coast of its biggest rival in the region.

Saudi Arabia was already concerned with creeping Iranian influence before this mess, going as far as taking sides with Israel against the Persians and supporting the Yemeni government in their war against Shia Houthi rebels near their common border.  The current unrest has to be deeply troubling for The Kingdom, and it is rumored that Riyadh has dispatched security/intelligence advisors to Bahrain to aid in the crackdown and to report back events on the ground.

United States

The United States is in a tricky position. The Obama administration wants to be “on the right side of history”, but Washington has proved over the last few weeks that it has a hard time deciding what exactly that is. When it comes to old allies, the United States prefers the status quo.

This was true in Egypt, but when it became clear that the Mubarak regime was falling America had to readjust to the reality on the ground and support the protesters in their pursuit of democracy. Washington will take the same approach to Bahrain, as the American public has a soft spot in their hearts for the image of besieged patriots trying to overthrow a king.  But the strategic implications of the Shiite majority taking power in Bahrain is likely causing sleepless nights for the officials who are paid to worry about such things.

As mentioned, America’s Fifth Fleet is parked in Bahrain. The Fleet represents US power projection in the region and sends the message to state actors and non-state actors alike that American bombers, fighters, warships, and Marines are never that far away. If a Shiite regime that is allied with Iran takes power in Bahrain, the Fifth Fleet will quickly find itself in need of relocation, with few options*.

*Slim pickens here. Saudi Arabia is out, because stashing US warships in the Custodian of the Two Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina is controversial to say the least. Iran is out for obvious reasons, though it would be funny to ask. Oman or Qatar could do it, but they wouldn’t be happy about it. Kuwait is the most likely choice, as “they owe us one” for repelling Saddam Hussein in Gulf War I.

Along with Bahrain and the Saudis, the United States is also concerned with creeping Iranian influence (see Lebanon and Iraq). The US economy depends on the free flow of oil, much of it originating in the Persian Gulf, and maintaining the flow of oil is a key national security goal of the United States.  America is playing a zero sum game with Iran, where any gain by Tehran is seen as a loss for Washington. And a Shiite revolution in Bahrain would be seen as a huge win for Iran.



Calls for a post-sect Lebanon

3 05 2010

Editor’s note: this article originally appeared on the Foreign Policy Association website.

There have been at least two odd scenes in Beirut over  the last couple of weeks. The first was a soccer game played by MPs which was supposed to demonstrate cross-sectarian cooperation, and the second was a fairly large march & rally whose participants called for a more secular Lebanon. Both events reflect the sentiment of a Lebanese public that has grown weary with institutionalized sectarianism and all that is has to offer.

The soccer match was played in an empty Beirut stadium, which is closed off to the fans out of fear of violence between the various groups of fans (Sunni, Shia, etc). The scene was probably less symbolic of cross-sectarian teamwork than it was of just how far Lebanon is from being “post-sect” in the same way that the US is supposedly (but not really at all) “post-race”.

Playing a soccer game in an empty stadium will probably be just as effective as electing a minority as President of the United States was in terms of getting people to forget their historical differences. The difference between the two is that electing Barak Obama was not a shallow, political PR stunt, but at least the soccer match indicated that the people in government are hearing what a growing number of Lebanese are calling for: a Lebanon free from state sanctioned sectarianism.

The secularist rally this past Sunday was more genuine. The event was organized using (increasingly valuable) social networking websites, and what was originally expected to be a gathering of a few hundred people mushroomed into a crowd of thousands with the help of some beautiful weather.

The large turnout and diversity of the group was shocking to many, including the organizers. The protesters called for the end of sectarianism and the beginning of secularism. But what exactly this means, as well as how the change would occur, and what the future implications were, was less clear.

One of the major demands was the start of civil unions.Though Lebanon is perceived as more modern and liberal (read: Western) than many of its neighbors, people are still required to marry in their mosque or church, depending on what sect they are registered to. Cross-sectarian marriage is not possible in this system, so some couples are forced to travel to neighboring countries (Cypress, for example) to get married.

There are at least seventeen recognized religious sects in Lebanon, with the  Shia, Sunni, Maronite Christians, and Druze make up the lion’s share. Over the years, the country has managed to develop a tenuous balance between the groups, but periodic bouts of inter-sectarian violence have ranged from worrisome to devastating. As a result, the state has institutionalized the notion that every group must be represented and have their say, no matter how stifling to progress, lest there be more violence.

Today, there is a system in place that allocates parliamentary seats between the groups and distributes the various government offices between the sects. The president must be a  Maronite, the Prime Minister a Sunni, the speaker a Shiite, and so on. This pattern extends to the business world, with companies adhering to set quotas. As mentioned, one’s sect is printed right on their ID card (although just recently the option of striking your sectarian designation from the ID has been allowed).

The system permeates nearly all levels of life in Lebanon. When I was living in Beirut, my roommate (a Lebanese student at the AUB) would indicate every person’s sect that he brought over to the apartment. While he may have been seemingly overly conscious of sect, it did not seem to matter too much to him. Perhaps this is indicative of the modern greater Lebanese condition: everyone might be conscious of sect, but it’s questionable how much it matters on a person-to-person level. And while this may be the case today, it has not always been this way.

In the 1970’s tensions between the sects were starting to heat up as the power sharing system at the time no longer reflected the true demographics of Lebanon. At a time where Muslims outnumbered Christians because of differing birthrates, parliamentary seats were split between Christians and Muslims 6:5, respectively. Due the explosiveness of the issue, an official census has not been taken in Lebanon since 1932.  This condition led to frustration among the people who felt underrepresented in what was supposed to be a democracy, and led to fear in those that did not want to lose power. The arrival of the PLO eventually set the country ablaze in 1975, leading to fifteen years of civil war at a cost of over 150,000 lives and immeasurable economic damage.

So when people talk about ending sectarianism in Lebanon, the notion must not be simply deemed correct for this particular situation because of the prevailing notion in the West that the separation of church (or mosque) and state is a good thing. For the West it is a good thing, but it might not be in every case.

In a perfect world, state and religion would not mix, but it should be considered that perhaps sectarianism is the glue that holds Lebanon together at the moment. Over time, Lebanon should absolutely work towards this goal of ending institutionalized sectarianism by shifting towards a meritocracy and eliminating sectarian quotas from business and government. But right now, Lebanon is not ready.

Lebanon had a very strong year in 2009, when inter-regional political breakthroughs led to stability (or vice versa), which in turn led to significant economic advances. But one good year does not mean that Lebanon is ready to take the training-wheels off. Right now and however poorly,  sectarianism works in that it is a large contributing factor to stability.

6:5 was the rule until the country couldn’t take it anymore. A civil war was fought and it went to 1:1 to more accurately reflect the modern demographics. Then the Shia started asserting themselves as  the largest sectarian block and they got veto power in the president’s cabinet. The point is that there is a system in place that can  be tinkered with to assuage anxieties. What would happen if that system were abolished today?

From the Guardian, “Recent polls have shown that there is significant public support for abolishing the confessional system in Lebanon, but, like many issues, this is also influenced by a sectarian calculus: most of the support lies among Lebanese Muslims, whose numbers relative to the Christian population have grown over the past several decades. Many fear that trying to impose sweeping changes on the country without the support of a majority of the Christian community could have severe repercussions.”

As much as sectarianism is an instrument for stagnation, it is also an instrument of stability. While some  may argue that it accentuates the differences between the sects, the consensus-based system also ensures that every voice is heard. The Lebanese must ask themselves, one, do they believe sectarianism adds to or decreases stability, and two, what price are they willing to pay to see an end to it.

Currently, there are just too many factors that could  contribute to instability in Lebanon without changing the entire system of government. The real and constant threat of attack from Israel, the presence of a well-armed sub-state organization in Hizballah, the presence of 400,000 frustrated and disenfranchised Palestinian refugees, the  constant meddling and creeping influence of Syria…any one of these could be enough to destabilize Lebanon, but all four are here at the surface at all times. Perhaps sectarianism is the rusty ship that is carrying Lebanon through these troubled waters.

Another question to ask is how the secularists will convince those in power (even the ones playing in cross-sectarian soccer games) to give up the source of that power. As written in Time Magazine, “Changing Lebanon’s sectarian system, however, would require that a political class led mostly by sectarian warlords and their families dismantle the very source of their power.” While they may be willing to participate in transparent PR team building exercises, getting them to abandon the very system that keeps them in power could prove to be difficult. The good news is that perhaps when they are ready, Lebanon will be ready too.

Lebanon certainly isn’t ready for it this week or this year, but it is a goal worth working towards in the future. A peaceful and stable post-sect Lebanon would be a good example for the Middle East and the world in general.