Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What's Happening in Egypt and Bahrain?

The crowds have hardly dispersed in Cairo, and now this morning Bahrain is on the front page of the New York Times, at the top of National Public Radio's news broadcasts, and near the top of the leading stories on the Daily Beast blog. Two protestors were killed, and peaceful demonstrators now occupy the Pearl Roundabout (left).

What just happened in Egypt? The popular uprising of the younger generation in Egypt was less a "revolution" than a peaceful coup d'etat. A revolution overthrows an entire regime and results in a radically different one. Typically that means a popular uprising ousting a royal family and the rapid replacement of that family with a non-dynastic form (see France 1789, Russia 1917, Iran 1979).

By contrast, a coup (in French, literally a smashing blow) is a rapid change of government at the top, usually by the military. What happened in Egypt was that the military told Mubarak to go, and then they took over. This was more a coup than a revolution.

But could this change at the top lead to serious changes for the people at the bottom (the 40% of the population of Egypt that lives on $2 a day or less)? Will the military really share power with the people?

Their first move is moderately encouraging. According to a story in today's Times, the regime has appointed an eight-member panel of lawyers and judges to revise the Constitution. The chairman of the group, Tarek el-Bishri, was a leading critic of the Mubarak regime and the author of a book that's highly critical of Egypt's direction. Another member is a leading Coptic Christian, and a third, Sobhi Saleh, is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Constitutional changes, even by a representative group like this, won't put bread on the table for Egyptians, but they can provide the political framework for more representative government, which could help.

What's happening in Bahrain? Sadly, al Jazeera English isn't on top of this story as much as NPR's Peter Kenyon was this morning. That's because the Emir of Qatar pays the bills for AJE, and he's a bit worried about his fellow Sunni royal family friends in the Al Khalifa family--the family that rules Bahrain.

Roughly 70% of Bahrain's 500,000 citizens are Shia, while the royal family and its ruling cronies are Sunni. I say "ruling cronies," because the Al Khalifa have given citizenship to Sunni immigrants from South Asia, Yemen, Jordan, Syria, and elsewhere. They recruit these outsiders for the police and military, and they never hire Shia, because they don't trust them. The regime's fear is that these Shia are more loyal to Iran than to Bahrain.

My sense is that the younger Shia opposition forces are seizing on the momentum from Egypt to gain media attention for the their cause. It's not like they were sitting around until the Egypt protests. They've been protesting (the Al Khalifa would say complaining) for years. To try and head off protests, the King of Bahrain announced the other day that he would give every citizen 1,000 Bahraini dinars ($2650) in cash.

The Beatles could have told him that money can't buy you love. It may not even buy you peace. I think the Shia young people are insulted, and they're frustrated with Internet slowdowns. My prediction is that this will escalate by Friday (after midday prayers). Pray for peace on all sides.

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