Saturday, 19 February 2011

Bahrain, Libya and the mountain to climb

As the winds of change continue to blow unabated through North Africa and the Middle East, major developments are once again coming minute-by-minute. It is virtually impossible to address the events currently unfolding in Bahrain and Libya without any analysis being out-dated as soon as it is written. However, one thing is strikingly clear: success in these democratic revolutions looks like it will be be even harder to achieve than it was in Tunisia and Egypt.

That is not to belittle the enormous accomplishments of those who brought down Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, nor to ignore their martyrs; few could ever forget police officers opening fire of demonstrators in El Kef or pro-regime thugs launching brutal attacks in Tahrir Square. However, the challenge faced by Bahraini and Libyan demonstrators is even more ferocious. Flagrant attacks on funeral processions by King Khalifa’s troops and the murder of up to one hundred and twenty citizens by Colonel Gaddafi’s, illustrate just how high the mountain to freedom is.

Bahrain2The reasons behind this are numerous; with several differing between Bahrain and Libya. The former’s tiny geographical area (less that 1% the size of the Irish Republic) makes it easier for Khalifa’s regime to control than a large and diverse territory; whilst the army’s huge proportion of foreign soldiers (often Pakistani or Syrian) means there are less qualms about opening fire on civilians- these are not after all, “the troops’ own people”. In Libya Gaddafi’s long-standing practice of bestowing generous patronage on leading political and military figures has given him a wide base of powerful allies; whilst the genuine loyalty that several officials and citizens offer him on ideological grounds further bolsters his position.

Other factors are common to both cases. Government restrictions on internet access in Bahrain and Libya are far stronger than they were in Tunisia and Egypt, hindering the ability of the demonstrators to communicate with each other or the outside world in the same manner (in Libya the authorities even went as far as depriving whole areas of electricity). Perhaps even more significantly however; the Obama administration’s bumbling and confused response has once again failed to produce any kind of international support that could genuinely tip the balance in favour of those seeking democratic reform. Whilst rhetoric about the will of the people and calls for restraint have been forthcoming, concerns about US and wider ‘Western’ interests are blocking robust responses, even more blatantly than during the Egyptian uprising. The long process of normalising relations with Gaddafi, Bahrain’s hosting of the US 5th Fleet, speculation of Iranian influence over the Bahraini movement (ignoring the fact that it involves both Sunni and Shiite Bahrainis -the majority of whom have no connection to Iran) and fear that instability will spread to Saudi Arabia (the US and UK’s key Middle Eastern ally) are tragically taking precedent over support for human rights, democracy and justice.

Combined, these facts present a daunting and somewhat bleak picture; however just as they did in Tunisia and Egypt those calling for democracy are defying all odds. Tonight there are scenes of celebration in Pearl Square (already being dubbed “Bahrain’s Tahrir”) after King KhalifaLibya succumbed to the demands of demonstrators and pulled back his troops for the first time since they took control of it in a bloody massacre earlier this week. Meanwhile in Libya, thousands of people are still on the streets in the biggest show of defiance against Gaddafi since he took power forty two years ago. The cracks are starting to show.

These struggles for freedom may be harder than those in Tunisia and Egypt…but the people are rising to the challenge.



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