The perceptive reader will note that your host was, if not cautiously optimistic about the people power victory over tyranny in Cairo, at least determined not to pre-judge the outcome their cynically. Who knows? Something better than Mubarak and his National Democratic Party might yet emerge.
But watching events unfold in tiny Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Fleet, I am reminded that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds:
Bahraini protesters said security services opened fire on demonstrators Friday evening as they marched toward the capital’s Pearl roundabout, dramatically escalating the standoff between the country’s Sunni Muslim rulers and its Shiite majority population.
Doctors at a hospital in the capital where wounded were being sent said x-rays showed security forces had used live bullets. Protesters said security forces shot into crowds.
The country’s crown prince, in an emotional TV appearance, appealed for calm and asked protesters to leave the square to begin “dialogue.”
The divide between the Sunni elite that runs Bahrain and that 80% of the population that confesses to the Shi’a faith has long riven Bahraini society. In modern times, political violence included a 1981 coup attempt which saw an Iranian-backed, Shi’a-led attempt to overthrow the monarchy and establish an Khomeinist-style theocracy. More violence occurred in the mid-1990s, as leftists, liberals and Islamists joined forces to extract democratic concessions from the ruling al-Khalifa clan.
But the 2006 elections to the Chamber of Deputies saw huge gains by Islamist parties of both Sunni and Shi’a bent. These worthies – when they weren’t off taking the night airs in Thailand – swiftly set about attempting to reform Bahrain’s relatively cosmopolitan culture in ways more congenial to their ancient texts.
The skull-cracking earlier this week by security forces against a peaceful protester encampment was a serious mistake. But there’s also a serious risk that a too-rapidly democratized Bahrain might fall into the same kind of sectarian conflict that plagued post-invasion Iraq, where – to channel Yeats – the best lack all conviction, and the worst are filled with passionate intensity. In this kind of struggle, the Saudi’s would take one side and Iran the other.
It’s hard to see how the US could stay clear of that fight, and harder still to see what we could hope to gain from it.