The military intervention in Bahrain by the Gulf Cooperation Council is most likely to further divide the country along sectarian lines and force the Bahraini crisis to spill over to the rest of the region. We have already heard the echoes from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere. The GCC military intervention is likely to be remembered as a miscalculated step, and it might bring about the very results that it is trying to prevent: the legitimizing of Iranian interference, the transformation of the Bahraini crisis from a political to a geopolitical problem, from a local disagreement to a regional standoff. Most immediately, the GCC interference is widening the gap between Bahraini Sunnis and Shia.
Every Arab dictator has said that his country is not Tunisia, or Egypt. These declarations have in some cases proved self-delusions, as we have seen in Libya and Yemen. In Bahrain, however, the argument seems to be true. The sectarian divide has made the Bahrainis’ appeal for political reform risky and unpredictable. Unlike the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions that brought people from the entire social spectrum together against the dictatorship, the Bahraini ‘revolution’ was born divisive.
While the Shia majority is determined more than ever to have more political and social equality, the Sunnis are adopting the monarchy as their political capital and their ultimate shield against potential Shia hegemony. Both sides have a legitimate point: the Bahraini Shia deserve long due equity, while the fear on the part of Bahraini Sunnis is grounded in the misfortunes of the Iraqi Sunnis. The GCC countries would have done better by facilitating a political compromise in Bahrain that provides more fairness to the Shia without victimizing the Sunnis.
Neither a genuine democracy with this deep a sectarian divide nor a British-style monarchy is possible, so long as the Sunnis fear that their hegemony will be replaced by one of a Shia variety. What is feasible in the short term is some sort of power sharing agreement and greater social justice. Bahrain can follow the Lebanese constitutional model, without necessarily making it constitutional: A Shia prime minister, for example, working side-by-side with the Sunni king, a more inclusive government that gives the Shia half of the cabinet, an elected parliament and so on. Moreover, affirmative action measures in the poor Shia areas are a must. These are possible steps that would defuse the unrest in Bahrain in the short term, and open the door for a constitutional monarchy in the long term.
The worst scenario is to make Bahrain a battlefield between Iran and Saudi Arabia — two countries divided by deep ideological hatred and geopolitical competition. There have been news reports on a discreet Turkish effort to solve the crisis in Bahrain. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s recent allusions to Bahrain in his speeches support the credibility of these reports. If this Turkish initiative is confirmed it would indeed be good news. Turkey has strong relations with the main regional and international players on the Bahraini scene: Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States, and the Turks can be seen as honest brokers by the Bahraini Sunni and Shia alike.
Among the GCC countries, Qatar is also very active diplomatically, and not divided along a Sunni-Shia line. Like the Turks, the Qataris’ strong relation with Americans, Saudis and Iranians — even with Lebanon’s Hezbollah — is leverage that can allow them to play a constructive role in Bahrain. A Qatari-Turkish initiative that brings regional and international players on board can save Bahrain from its deep crisis. But this effort must be founded on the fact that change in Bahrain is inevitable.
Two principles should rule this change: offering the Bahraini Shia a fair share of the political capital and economic welfare, and reassuring the Bahraini Sunnis that they will not be victims of the coming change in the way the Iraqi Sunnis were following the American-led invasion. With these two principles in mind, the future of Bahrain can be built on a solid foundation, without sectarian fractures and foreign interferences.
Mohamed El-Moctar is a research coordinator at the Qatar Foundation