Gulf leaders love a good revolution as long as it is someone else’s.
Messages of congratulations and praise for Egypt’s armed forces have been pouring out of Gulf states since the military-led ouster of former President Mohammed Morsi on Wednesday, July 3.
Many of these statements have incorporated language portraying Gulf governments as long-time supporters of popular movements in support of freedom and liberty.
In the past three days, Qatar’s ruler sent messages of congratulations, Kuwait praised the “positive and historic role” of the Egyptian army, and Saudi’s King Abdulla praised the military officers who “came out to preserve the rights of all parties in the political process.”
While each of these statements are questionable in light of varying degrees of repression exercised in these countries against domestic protest movements, none is so mindboggling as Bahrain’s support for events in Egypt.
The state-run Bahrain News Agency reported that Bahraini monarch King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa “dispatched a congratulatory cable to H.E. President Adli Mansour … expressing trust in his wisdom and capability to accomplish the aspirations of the Egyptian people.”
Meanwhile, Bahrain’s own king has been at the helm of a two and a half year crack down on protesters in the island nation, a movement led by Bahrain’s majority Shiite population.
The modus operandi in Bahrain has been less about affirming the “aspirations of the people” than about silencing popular demands via imprisonment of activists and strict bans on rallies calling for political reforms and equal rights.
King Hamad also “praised the significant role of the Egyptian Armed Forces in safeguarding Egypt’s stability.”
“Stability” in this case apparently seems defined as the military overthrow – albeit one backed by popular opinion – of a democratically elected government.
In his own country, Bahrain’s king has tended to define “stability” as militant repression of protesters. “The first order of business is stability,” he wrote in an editorial in 2011. “Progress” comes later.
At the height of the Bahraini uprising in 2011, almost 2,000 troops rolled in from the GCC Peninsula Shield Force, the military wing of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), to quell hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters in the name of “safeguarding security and stability across the GCC.”
Whether you fall into the “military coup” or “military-aided popular revolution” camp in the great debate over Egypt this week, what is clear is that the Egyptian military has acted – for better or worse – firmly in accordance with majority demands.
In Bahrain, the sectarian limitations on who can hold top positions in the Bahraini Defense Force preclude military support for anti-government protesters in the manner we witnessed in Egypt.
As Barry Lando wrote for Huffington Post last week, while the Egyptian army is of course not monolithic, “its lower ranks are very much of the people: filled with hundreds of thousands of conscripts, drawn from the most humble ranks of society — and has a strong identity with the Egyptian people.”
Conversely, despite Bahrain’s majority Shiite population, there are reportedly no Shiite personnel serving in the Bahrain Defense Force; this is critical to note given the predominantly Shiite composition of the opposition protests.
Bahrain’s Special Security Forces, housed within the Ministry of Interior and more commonly referred to as “riot police,” are comprised almost entirely of non-Bahrainis: Pakistanis, Syrians, Yemenis, Jordanians, Iraqis, and (ironically) even Egyptians, all of whom are reportedly Sunni.
The Bahraini revolution is not sectarian in nature, but the systematic exclusion of Bahraini Shiite from a majority of military positions precludes any possible military support for the revolution in the manner seen in Egypt.
Imagine an Egyptian military comprised almost entirely of the sons of Muslim Brotherhood party officials, and a street police force made up of Turkish nationals; suddenly, Morsi’s presidential seat would looks rather secure.
So while the Bahraini government sends “congratulatory cables” to a military that facilitated the take-down of a supremely unpopular and increasingly dictatorial leader, Bahrain’s own military – supported by imported GCC troops – and its non-Bahraini riot police continue to violently repress the popular protest movement.
As the world descends into circular debate over how to classify the military intervention into Egyptian politics this week, it is critically important not to take for granted that the military is acting, for now at least, in accordance with the will of the anti-government protestors.
As Bahrain reminds us, this demographic unity between soldier and protester is not a universal phenomenon.
*Erin Kilbride is co-editor of Muftah’s Yemen & Gulf States pages.