Monday, March 7, 2011

Saudi Sticks, Bahraini Carrots, Secular Demands

Protests continue to roil the Arab world. Citizens in Egypt and Tunisia keep pressing their regimes toward reform. Libya is collapsing into civil war. But keep your eyes on the Gulf region, on both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

After Friday's protest marches in Saudi Arabia's Eastern (al-Hasa) Province, the Saudi Ministry of the Interior issued a statement reminding "some people" that "the applicable laws in the Kingdom strictly prohibit all forms of demonstrations, marches and sit-ins." A not-so-subtle hint to those who were marching on Friday.

Will this law be enforced strictly on this coming Friday, the "Day of Rage" announced on Facebook? If not, expect protests to swell. If so, we may see violence. Either way, Friday, March 11 could be a decisive day in Saudi and Arab history.

Over in Bahrain, the Al Khalifa family is sticking with the carrot strategy. Their interior ministry pledged to hire 20,000 people, edging partway toward the demands of protestors, who complain that Sunni foreigners are naturalized as citizens and then hired as security and military forces. (The interior ministry is considered second-rate compared to the defense forces anyway.) But as I've been arguing on this blog, buying off the opposition will no longer work. At this point, it's just insulting.

"This is about dignity and freedom — it’s not about filling our stomachs." 
This is the message that the tottering regimes of the Arab world need to hear. What ordinary, young citizens want is an end to corruption, an end to repression, and an end to politics as usual. They want their voices to be heard. They want the rule of law. They want term limits for prime ministers or presidents. They want better governance. They want a growing economy and the prospect of good jobs.

Note what they are not saying. They are making modest, incremental, tangible, secular demands. These are not the demands of crazy religious fanatics. The protestors are not railing against the United States or Israel or chanting "Islam is the solution"--the vague, utopian slogan of the Islamic movements. They are asking for real reforms in the structures of power. (A demonstration today outside the U.S. embassy in Bahrain was not attacking the US, but asking for its help.) Democratization, not revolution, is their goal.

One observer of the Bahrain protests describes a sign with pictures of all the British prime ministers that have served since 1970: all eight of them. Below that is a picture of all the Bahraini prime ministers since then: one (Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al Khalifa, right). After 41 years in power, he's gotten a little corrupt and out of touch. Hence, it's no surprise that the the protestors in Bahrain marched to the Prime Minister's office yesterday and demanded that he resign. 

The other interesting thing about the Bahrain protests, noticeable to anyone who's seen photos of the past two weeks of protests, is that nearly everyone is waving a Bahraini flag. The protestors are playing down their Shiite religious background and pushing their demands in the context of national unity. The discourse is using the terms of secular nationalism rather than of religious grievance.

Although this could change if things get ugly, I think this is another encouraging sign. And although we may be paying more for gas in the next few weeks, the turmoil may give birth to a more stable region for decades to come. Stay tuned. . . 

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