“They’d never let it happen,” has been the verbal blindfold used by expatriates living in Bahrain for any length of time over the past decade and half. They, or should I say we, have been referring to the eventual and inevitable boiling-over of the social and political tension that has been simmering within Bahrain’s Shia population, which holds a 70% majority over the Ruling Sunni minority.
As is now international news, it has happened. And “they”, the Sunni ruling family, have indeed let it happen. As expatriates face embassy advice to leave the country unless staying is essential, the question we are asking is how?
A quick look back to 1994 provides a revealing comparison. Then, the Shia majority’s discontent also fomented into organised protests, and then escalated into nationwide rioting, and years of intermittent violence. The authority’s response on that occasion was a swift unmerciful containment of the problem using all means necessary; rough repression: problem solved with little international interest.
Fast forward 17 years, and similar grievances are still widespread. However, inspired by successful popular uprisings across the region, the call for more organised expression of discontent was made, answered and has blown up into the current “state of national security”. The biggest difference between now and 1994 is social media, on two counts.
First, Facebook’s immediacy and ubiquity have made the organisation of rallies, demonstrations and protests practically child’s play. It’s DIY crowd-building, which may be passé for the West’s Generation Next, but for a sophomore democracy such as Bahrain, it’s a game-changer.
Secondly, the authorities initial reaction to recycle their ’94 tactics of quick violent repression in the form of 3am raid on the protesters’ base camp provided the vital fuel required to turn what began as general unrest into a national movement for change — thanks to videos and updates on Twitter, Facebook and more. The government was blindsided by the national and international media almost instantly flooding with images of civilians being tear gassed, shot at and, in one particularly brutal clip, killed.
By being one digital step behind their people (and the rest of the world) the authorities unwittingly ignited the exact national upheaval they sought to quell.
Now what? Fortunately, the Bahrain authorities have proved fast learners. Pro-government footage has started being broadcast on state television, and there is a constant stream of “corrections” being tweeted and updated to rival the perfect storm of rumours raging online.
With Saudi Arabian and UAE forces being invited to join the fray, it seems like the expatriate cry is correct regarding the protesters ever being victorious — they’ll never let it happen. But this impasse looks to be won through status’ and tweets, rather than soldiers and tanks.