Mideastern democracy? The world plays both sides – Mai Yamani


The revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Yemen – and protests in Oman, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria – will all eventually result in a political solution. But influential outside actors, ranging from the United States and the European Union to the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC, have greeted developments in these countries with very different types and levels of intervention – and not always in support of a democratic settlement once the dust clears.

Until March, intervention predominantly took the form of “soft power,” with the Qatari satellite television station Al-Jazeera and online social networking playing a significant role in the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Open political statements by governments outside the region against or in favor of a regime, or such governments’ ties to armies in the region, also helped direct the process of change in these countries.

Likewise, the promises of financial aid made by outside actors (or, conversely, the threats of sanctions) has had an impact on indigenous movements. But, as popular protests backed by legitimate demands for democratic reform spread from country to country in the Arab world, and in various forms, the initial soft-power strategies adopted by those countries with interests and influence in the region were abandoned in favor of hard-power military interventions.

At the same time, the international community has taken a bifurcated view of the Arab democratic revolutions. This has been most obvious in the foreign policies adopted toward developments in Libya and Bahrain. What began in both countries with peaceful popular protests against a local dictatorship ended up eliciting contrary responses: In Libya, outside military intervention was undertaken in support of the rebellion, while in Bahrain foreign military forces from the GCC states were deployed in support of the absolutist monarchy.

This contradictory strategy of coercion uses the language of human rights. But the decision to protect Libyans raises questions about the absence of “humanitarian” interventions in the Gaza Strip in 2008 or in Yemen today. To be sure, in Libya Moammar Gadhafi was waging war against his own people, and his antagonism against the West and other Arab states had been a leitmotif of his 40-year rule. Hence, a collective decision to intervene militarily has been relatively justifiable.

By contrast, in Bahrain, military intervention by Saudi forces to suppress the Shiite majority’s demonstrations for equal citizenship rights appears to be a more desperate act, and it represents a sharp reversal of the country’s hitherto moderate course of gradual political reform. Saudi Arabia’s unilateral action – albeit under the GCC “security” umbrella – has been met with silence from the United States, a tacit gesture of continuing American support for Bahrain’s ruling Al-Khalifa family. The Saudi military, believing that they have eradicated all threats to “peace and stability,” even removed the eponymous symbol of Pearl Square, where the protesters had established an encampment.

A crude truth has emerged from the charade and hypocrisy of the international response to the Arab revolutions: Despite lofty rhetoric to the contrary, the rights of citizens really are secondary to their countries’ oil wealth. The leaders of oil-rich Arab autocracies have known this for a long time – indeed, their hold on power depends on it. As a result they have proven eager to uphold their side of the bargain by giving Europe and the United States the political support that they needed to legitimize Western military intervention in Libya.
But in this security theater of the absurd – in which Qatar stands for “human rights” in Libya, Saudi Arabia stands for “stability” in Bahrain, and the West tries to stand for both – some leaders are sowing the seeds of their own destruction. The Saudi regime, for example, is linking the Shiites of Bahrain and its own Shiite minority to Iran, and in that way it is only deepening the sectarian divide.

After Neville Chamberlain acquiesced in Nazi Germany’s dismantling of Czechoslovakia in 1938, Winston Churchill famously told him: “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You have chosen dishonor, and you will have war.” In Bahrain, the West – and the United States, in particular – thought the choice was between dishonor and instability. President Barack Obama chose dishonor, and he will get instability.

Mai Yamani is an author, broadcaster and lecturer on politics and society in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter that publishes views of Middle Eastern and Islamic issues.



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