The Ripple Effect


After 18 days of demonstrations calling for his removal, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has at last retired to Sharm al-Sheikh, leaving power in the hands of the Egyptian military. Likewise, Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali lies ill in a Saudi Arabian hospital, as the people he ruled for 23 years begin to form a new democratic government. Though the dust has begun to settle in Egypt and Tunisia, it seems that the kettle of revolution is boiling over elsewhere in the greater Middle East.

Facilitated by social networking and media sharing websites, the successes of the Tunisian and Egyptian demonstrations have
spread like wildfire across the Arab world and beyond, even before Mubarak announced that he was stepping down. Revolution, it seems, is infectious. As anti-government demonstrations erupt in Bahrain, Libya, Iran, Yemen, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, and Djibouti, the question on every pair of lips from Rabat to Tehran is the same: who is next?

Admittedly, it’s difficult to keep up with the lightning-fast pace of events. In an informal sampling of St Andrews students, it was found that few knew of movements beyond the well publicised Egyptian demonstrations and much less why they were occurring.
When looking at the demonstrations in Bahrain and elsewhere, it is important to remember that every Middle Eastern country is composed of a unique blend of political, religious, tribal and colonial influences. As a result, the reasons for demonstrations and the demands of protestors vary widely from country to country.

However, there are general trends that contribute to unrest. Elements such as widespread poverty, repressive autocracy, lack of opportunity, unwanted foreign influence, and under-representation of minorities have led to a strong resentment that has long existed in many Middle Eastern societies.

Once protests begin, the number of people demonstrating, as well as the amount of fear inspired through repression, have a great effect on the outcome of the movement. In Egypt, for example, the sheer size of the multitudes swarming central Cairo and their resilience in the face of government intimidation turned the tide of the revolution and ultimately toppled the stubborn Mubarak. In Bahrain, the situation is more complex.

Bahrain is a small island kingdom of 1.3 million people, located off the coast of Saudi Arabia. Geographically, it has historically found itself at the crux of Western interests. In the 1920s and 30s, when neighboring Iran was still a part of the British Empire, the British often stoked Bahraini sectarian tensions in order to weaken the state and ensure the strength of their influence in the region.

These tensions are still present today: though Bahrain’s population is about 70% Shiite Muslim, the ruling al-Khalifa dynasty is Sunni and enjoys the support of its powerful Sunni neighbor, Saudi Arabia. Bahraini Shiites, who comprise the majority of protestors, have long complained of discrimination by the Sunni regime in access to state jobs, housing and healthcare. They demand a more democratic constitution and a change of government, with requests ranging from the complete overthrow of the monarchy to the removal of the prime minister, who has been in power since 1971.

The Western media has given the “Pearl Revolution” the royal treatment since demonstrations began on 14th February. This is fortunate for the protesters, who are confident that their demands will be met, thanks to the international attention such exposure has brought.

However, it is speculated that if Bahrain’s unrest results in a democratic government and Shiite political parties take power, the revolution bug would spread to Shiites in Saudi Arabia – one of the world’s largest exporters of oil and staunch ally of the United States.

A bloody upheaval in Saudi Arabia like Bahrain’s could be disastrous for its Western allies. Additionally, Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. This, paired with the concern of maintaining stability in its neighbouring Saudi Arabia, makes Bahrain an immediate security concern to the U.S.

Now that the situation in Bahrain has calmed and foreign journalists and cameramen have turned their eye on Libya, the question remains: what’s next for Bahrain? Because of its strategic importance to influential Western powers, it is unlikely that Bahrain will experience the kind of Egyptian table-turning that left analysts gobsmacked. Though the fate of the monarchy is uncertain, one can tentatively predict that the government will undertake enough serious reform to placate the Shiite demonstrators.

Then again, as St Andrews’ own Professor Ray Hinnebusch once said, “Never predict in the Middle East.” It is too soon to speculate what sort of influence the new democratic governments of Tunisia and Egypt will have on regional politics or if Bahrain will join them in casting off the incumbent regime. It is certain, however, that the balance of power in the region is shifting, and dramatically so. Only time will tell what ultimately lies in store for the Middle East.

Isabel Lachenauer


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