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Do not fear forces behind Bahrain protests
القسم : سياسي

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من العالمية 2011-02-24 08:08:06

By  Emile  Nakhleh:   The bloody confrontations in Bahrain portend an ominous future for the al-Khalifa minority ruling family. The US has for decades bought the regime's story that the majority Shia population is supported by Iran and must be kept tightly controlled to curtail that country's hegemonic ambitions. Like other Sunni regimes, they warn of a new Shia crescent casting a shadow over the entire region. This is as misguided today as it always was   In truth, Bahrain is just one further country in which the spectre of Shia threat has been carefully constructed to maintain US support for a repressive regime. When I was in the intelligence community, we briefed about sources of instability, often citing the systematic discrimination against the Shia. These grievances, now voiced by protesters, have seen the majority excluded from power and denied basic freedoms for decades   During that period the same prime minister has remained in office, wflile long-awaited reforms in 2002 were a sham, changing little beyond the ruler's title from emir to king. A few Shia families have had access to lucrative business opportunities, but the majority of Shias, especially in the Villages, are disenfranchised, underemployed and poor   The ruling family believed that Saudi and western support would shield it from accountability to its people. For decades it was right. But now events in Tunisia and Egypt are giving a clear indication to the al-Khalifas and other "princely" regimes in the neighbourhood that such outside support cannot shore up a government if it has no legitimacy with its people   It should not, therefore, be surprising that the opposition is drawing wide support across Bahraini society. As in Tunisia and Egypt, it is neither driven nor controlled by Islamist ideology. Of course since the Shia are the majority, many of the demonstrators are Shia. But it is also true that the protesters include liberal Sunnis   Bahraini Shia leaders, meanwhile, do not even look to Iranian ayatollahs as a source of emulation. Instead they have turned to Iraqi Shia leaders, such as Grand Ayatollah AIi Sistani, as their source of religious guidance   Globalisation and improved communications now make possible what once was easily silenced. If regimes are to survive, they must draw a new contract with their peoples. But we must also remember that each country facing these pressures is different. Egypt has a deep state whose existence reiies on institutions and traditions beyond the regime. The country's security establishment thus decided to save the state by ejecting its president   In Bahrain the ruling family is the state; genuine democracy would surely spell the end of al-Khalifa Sunni rule. The military's response to the protests reflects the regime's belief that its survival hangs in the balance. Instead, the king could act more wisely by replacing his uncle as prime minister. He could also resurrect the old constitution, which allowed for free parliamentary elections until it was suspended in 1975. Those elections usually showed that the Shia, despite being more numerous, had no single ideology or unified list of candidates. Like the rest of the population, they are a diverse community, and do not necessarily vote as a bloc   Whatever happens, the west must be sceptical of talk about a rising Shla crescent. Iran's influence has increased since the invasion of Iraq. But few Shia groups in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon have turned to it for guidance. Instead, they focus on domestic grievances If there is a Shia revival, it is country specific, Iran's influence in these places is no larger than it ever was   The Bahraini uprising poses complex challenges to US interests. Nonetheless, our policymakers must continue to support those making peaceful demands for the right to participate in their political systems. In the long run, US security will be better served by working with legitimate governments than regimes maintained by force. Washington should make it clear to the al-Khalifas that the US will continue to support the regime, But only if it is accepted by its people first   The writer is a former director of the CIA's Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program, and author of A Necessary Engagement' Reinventing America's Relations with the Muslim World


Financial  Times February 20 2011


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