Thursday, March 17, 2011

Bahrain, Palestine, and ... Armenia?

What the hell, Bahrain?

The Shiites have hit the fan in Bahrain – Bahraini police and military have been supplemented by more than 1000 Saudi Arabian troops (and some from the UAE), complete with tanks and armored trucks. At least eight people have been killed, with hundreds more injured. Police have been using live ammunition, and there are reports of them firing indiscriminately into crowds obstructing their path.
There has been significant outcry by Shiites in Iran and Iraq (not that Saudi Arabia cares), and at this point the Bahraini royal family has made it clear that they are little more than Satraps for the Saudi Government.

At this point, the violence in Bahrain also seems to be part of an internal power struggle in the Bahraini royal family. Much of the incoherence and inconsistency of the government’s response to the protests (alternating between tolerance and violence) stems from divisions between progressive and conservative elements. Although the progressives were in ascendancy for some time, the involvement of the Saudi government (who strongly back the conservative elements) has reversed that power balance

In conversations on Bahrain (and Yemen and Libya) a question comes up again and again – “Why are these governments so willing to resort to violence against their own people?”

The answer is a pretty simple one – traditionally the autocratic governments of the Middle East have held power through a judicious threefold mix:

a. propaganda,
b. intimidation
c. force

With the advent of widespread electronic communication (both internally and externally) the effectiveness of propaganda has dramatically shrunk. Intimidation still has some effectiveness, but Egypt and Tunisia have served as an example and an inspiration to protesters elsewhere, successfully hobbling the effectiveness of intimidation. Without these two, there is nothing left for a regime to call upon except for force.

“So why not find new options? Isn’t it obvious that the violence will only make it worse?”

Here’s the essential problem: There is no plan B.

As was painfully obvious in the case of Mubarak, the powers that be in the Middle East have been entirely unprepared for what has come to be called “the Arab spring”. The status quo in these countries has been firmly in place for decades, and the skills required to retain authority have had more to do with internal power plays among the elites. An evolutionary shift is underway, and few leaders, if any, have the right range of skills to navigate this new terrain.


Lots of stuff going on in Palestine/Israel – seized weapons from Iran, settlement building as collective punishment for the murders in Itamar, rumors of a Syria/Israel peace deal, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Abbas announced that he won’t be running for reelection – things are always exciting in the Levant.

All of that aside, the issue that I want to touch on is the Palestinian “Day of Rage” protests. There were rallies in Gaza and the West Bank for unity between Hamas and the PA. These expressions of frustration at the gridlock created by having two separate and opposing governments weren’t the product of efforts by either the PA or Hamas, but both Fateh and Hamas were quick to co-opt the rallies.

The protests in Gaza ended a bit early, when Hamas security decided that it was time for the crowds to disperse, and started beating people with clubs.

This speaks to an interesting and unfortunately often overlooked issue – legitimacy. At this point neither Hamas nor Fateh have any. Excepting the die-hard supporters of the two parties (who are often beneficiaries of a paternalistic carrot and stick approach to governance) most Palestinians are sick of both groups.

Mahmoud Abbas is acutely aware of this, and seems to have grown tired of being the whipping-boy for the Israeli government (After the murders in Itamar his public denunciation of the act was deemed insufficiently loud enough by Netanyahu, and he was told that he needed to make sure that the Palestinians heard him clearly – as if most of the Palestinians give a damn what Abbas says about anything).

Word is that Palestinian elections are about six months away, an event that probably wouldn’t favor Fateh or Hamas. Hamas only won the 2006 elections because internal divisions in Fateh split their voting bloc, and over the past few years Hamas has shown themselves to be just as corrupt and nepotistic as the party that they beat. They haven’t secured any visible gains for the Palestinians, and they haven’t shown much in the way of leadership – this has not gone unnoticed. Unless Fateh and/or Hamas can put up some fresh young faces soon they are both poised to lose significant power in the next election.


Just a quick third note – although Armenia’s inclusion in “the greater middle east” is debatable, they had some protests two weeks ago, and round two is today.

Worth watching for sure.

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