Saturday, February 19, 2011

Ron Smith: Egypt and Bahrain

In attempting to understand what is happening and what might happen next, there are a number of important distinctions to appreciate in the social and political situation in these two countries and in the apparent demands of the protestors in each case.

Most obviously, it needs to be noted that the ruling elite in Bahrain is Sunni and comprises less than a third of the population. Thus, the replacement of the present autocracy by a democratically-elected, representative system of government will, inevitably, result in a Shiite majority government. The Sunnis, who have always been in power (and profited mightily from it), will never be in power again. So they have a very powerful reason for not conceding to the protestors in the street. In the absence of very strong countervailing considerations, we might therefore expect a continuation of the present pattern of very strong repression.

It is also worth noting that Iran, just across the water from Bahrain, is also Shiite and, incidentally, has a territorial claim over the island. A possibility that could arise from a successful revolution in Bahrain, is that it becomes part of the Iranian theocratic state. This outcome would not only have major implications for security in the region (and, of course, for the US naval base on the island), but, for the people of Bahrain, it would be very much ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’, as far as democracy and their human rights were concerned. The best outcome here (‘best’ except for the present regime in Iran) might be a continuation of the status quo, with an agreement on power-sharing, which brings representatives of the Shiite majority progressively into government and, ideally, ultimately results in a national administration which reflects the wishes of the people and which is not elected on religious grounds. This is, obviously, also an outcome which would be congenial to Western interests.

The situation in Egypt is very different. Here the population is overwhelmingly Sunni, so that free elections would not produce the sort of profound shift outlined for Bahrein, though they would, of course, threaten present patterns of privilege and corruption. As indicated in my previous blog, open elections would also offer the possibility of extremist groups taking power through the ballot box; power which they, then, do not relinquish. Like the Bahrainis in the hypothetical case above, the Egyptian people could then find themselves worse off than before the uprising began. The outcome here depends on the good-faith of the present military administration in providing a climate in which modern, democratic, secular parties can develop and promote themselves, and the extent to which the Egyptian people take the opportunity that their effort and sacrifice has created to achieve the ‘democracy’ to which they so clearly appear to aspire.

There is another consideration which has a bearing on how a revolutionary situation might pan out and that is the extent to which the public disorder (protest) phase is protracted by the addition of fresh issues, such as employment and remuneration demands, which also become the subject of civil action. In the case of Egypt, the demand for democratic elections has (it seems) already been conceded. The effect of continuing disorder there is likely to increase the risk that this concession is lost through the imposition of martial law, or, in other cases where the armed forces are weak or divided, to provide an opportunity for an extra-democratic seizure of power, which will turn out to be irreversible. In view of the strength and apparent public repute of the Egyptian military, this outcome seems unlikely in that case.

There is something else. Political rights, such as freedom of expression and assembly, and the right to freely elect a representative of your choice, are effectively free goods. In principle, there is no limit to the extent to which they may be accorded in any society. Social ‘rights’, such as a ‘right’ to adequately remunerated employment, or housing, or health services, all require resources and are inevitably limited by the extent to which those resources are available or can be created. To attempt to allocate such resources as are available in response to political coercion, is to provide for continuing disorder and to reward the strong and the most determined. In the revolutionary situation it is also (as noted) to risk the achievement and maintenance of the fundamental institutions that are the core of any democracy.

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