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Bahrain Bulletin – Saturday 19 February

February 19, 2011

Today at 6am, the view outside my balcony is eerily normal. The gargage truck has rattled past, noisily emptying nearby bins as on any normal morning. A small water tanker sets off for work. The sound of a tile cutter sets the nerves on edge. The ubiquitous cockerels have become less excited because the sun has been up for a while. In the distance, traffic rolls up and down Kuwait Avenue as if it were any other day. The motor functions of the city are rumbling on, seemingly regardless of what is happening in the heart and mind.

But it’s not a normal day for the people in hospital nursing wounds. For families in shock at what has happened to their loved ones. For bystanders who have spent the past 48 hours watching CNN and Al Jazeera in horror at the scenes of high emotion. For people texting and emailing each other: Are you alright? What’s going on? Look at this video. Check out this link.

And it’s not a normal day for the politicians as they ask themselves: What to we do now? Talk? Not talk? Talk about what?

Nor for the mourners who turned out in their thousands yesterday: Do we go again today? Will we be shot at? Are we prepared to risk our lives?

As I look out on this “normal” morning, I think back to 1969 in Northern Ireland, and see eerie parallels.

1969 was when the army came out on the streets. There had been other periods of strife ever since the political settlement in 1921 that resulted in the partition of Ireland. A situation that many Catholics in the northern province of Ulster – which remained part of the United Kingdom – never accepted. But the violence of 1969 was not primarily about religion. It was about civil rights. About a Catholic minority feeling that they were discriminated against by a Protestant majority. The divide was not only religious. It was also tribal. The Catholics were descendents of an earlier population in Ireland – let’s not say original, because we all know where that would lead – and the Protestants were descended from Scots who migrated to Ireland in the 17th Century.

The grievances were about equal opportunities: discrimination in employment, poor housing and a perception that they didn’t have a voice in the democratic process. As the violence erupted, the army stepped in to keep the peace between rival factions. Extremists went underground and started killing each other. The army slowly started to be perceived as the instrument of oppression rather than the guarantor of law and order. Outrage piled on outrage, and each side soon had the mythology to fuel decades of conflict. The violence spread to the mainland of the UK, and the Republican movement increasingly benefited from moral and logistical support from Irish emigrant organisations on the East Coast of the USA – just across the water.

That’s a quick and dirty thumbnail of thirty years of hatred, mayhem – and consequent economic retardation – in the tiny province of Ulster. It would be wrong to say that it’s even over now. There are still elements waiting for their moment to reignite the conflict.

The population of Ulster in 1969 was not much larger than that of present day Bahrain. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that Bahrain is in for thirty years of insurrection, bombing and sectarian strife. And the situation here in 2011 is not a perfect analogue for Northern Ireland. But what I am saying is that when tribal, ethnic and religious differences find a focus in protest, there is a danger that the original issues of the protesters become subsumed in the subsequent grievances thrown up by reactions to the protest.

The government and its many supporters indignantly point out that Bahrain had made substantial progress as a constitutional monarchy over the past decade. That Bahrain is an example of tolerance, political liberalism and economic sophistication unmatched among its fellow members in the Gulf Cooperation Council of oil-producing states – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE and Oman. That there is a political process in place now to resolve grievances.

The protesters and political opposition groups say that progress has been made, but not fast enough, and that there is still an unacceptable level of inequality and discrimination.

Those are the starting positions.

This morning’s news is that the King has authorised the Crown Prince to open talks with opposition groups in an effort to end the crisis. The suffering of Northern Ireland is an example of the abyss that beckons if today’s leaders fail to rise above the raw emotions of the moment, cut back on the rhetoric and act now to address the issues once and for all. In any compromise, there are bound to be people who feel that they have lost something or failed to gain everything. But compromise acceptable to the majority is far more desirable than the alternative.

Wish those leaders well. It’s not too late to save the day.

2 Comments
  1. Steve,
    This is so true, but the protestors must start a dialogue. I have to say that I heard from a non-partisan bystander (Phillippino who works at Salmaniya Hospital) that the protestors were throwing stones and striking the police at Pearl roundabout (sorry, i refuse to call it square) with wooden sticks. I agree it’s not enough provocation, but one wonders about how truly balanced these international reports are. Latest is that the military have withdrawn. Let’s hope a middle ground can be found.

    • Rohini, with emotions so high, it’s difficult to have an objective dialogue, let alone debate, with someone about the truth or otherwise of some of the reporting. But I do agree with you that some reporters have been reporting as fact eye-witness accounts of incidents not witnessed by themselves. There is a whole section of a community feeling a collective grief. The truth they see, they would argue, transcends the detail. In that situation, the best one can do is to accept, understand and empathise with the grief, and hope that the grieving will eventually find it within themsleves to come to the table for the sake of future generations. As Winston Churchill said, “jaw jaw is better then war war”, even if some people perceive that the former has effectively already been declared.

      But it’s easy for me to say this. I have no relatives lying dead or wounded in Salmaniya.

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