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Bahrain – Solitudinem Faciunt, Pacem Appellant

March 17, 2011

“They created a wasteland, and called it peace”. These were the words that the Roman historian Tacitus placed in the mouth of a British chieftain after the conquest of his country by the armies of the Emperor Claudius.

It would be unfair and inaccurate to call Bahrain – in the wake of the recent crackdown – a wasteland. But the chain reaction of events following the initial crackdown on February 13th has possibly destroyed for ever the society that Bahrain’s rulers spent decades trying to build.

Hillary Clinton condemns the recent violence. Key stakeholders – a minister, members of the appointed Shoura Council and members of the elected Lower House of Parliament – resign and disassociate themselves from the government. Expatriates, on the advice of their embassies, are lying low in their houses or heading to the airport to leave the country on special chartered flights.

Claims by the media in Bahrain about the correct behaviour of the security forces are immediately rebutted by a flood of pictures and YouTube videos appearing to show arrests, rough handling – including shooting – of civilians, damage being caused to vehicles, and helicopters with machine guns.

Under the State of Emergency, the government has the power to ban trade unions, NGOs, demonstrations and political societies. It can arrest citizens, close newspapers and monitor “phone calls and correspondence”.

Some businessmen are quoted as being relieved that the clampdown has happened – as well they might if they feel that their businesses are dying on their feet.

But Bahrain should now consider the possible cost. A nation polarised as never before. The possible exit of many foreign investors, leading to even greater unemployment among Bahrainis. The departure of foreign experts on whom many companies rely. The destruction of those businesses that advocates of the clampdown are so keen to preserve.  The prospect of Bahrain becoming dependent for years to come on handouts from its wealthier neighbours – its independence eroded with every new bail-out.

Even if the process of dialogue continues, and some sort of settlement emerges, there will still be many people so radicalised by the handling of the crisis that they will perhaps never accept any settlement that retains even a vestige of the status quo.

There have been tragic misjudgements on both sides. The crackdown in February that set the escalation in train. The attempts by protesters more recently to assert control over key highways.

So now the die is cast. Only with difficulty can Bahrain still claim to be “Business Friendly Bahrain”. A few weeks ago I wrote about the relative merits of Bahrain versus Dubai as a place to live and do business in. I voted for Bahrain. But with the best will in the world, I couldn’t vote the same way as things stand today.

The problem for the government right now is that although they can impose law and order, it will be very hard for them to silence the opinions of those who have been offended and radicalised by the violent crackdowns. They can disrupt or shut down the internet, but without it, it is almost impossible to maintain the advanced physical and societal infrastructure that Bahrain has built. Yes, it can administer a police state, with constant monitoring of communications and mass arrests of dissidents. But it cannot keep secrets.

Recently, in Death, Lies and Videotapes,  I argued that the game changer of the 21st century was the decreasing ability of any government to keep the lid on information it doesn’t want the world to know. Wikileaks and the new media have seen to that. So the price of crackdown and lockdown is precisely the police state that the multitudes in other parts of the Middle East are striving to dismantle. The flip side of governments not being able to keep secrets is that individuals can’t either.

If we accept that the international edifice that the government has been trying to build has been severely disabled in the short and possibly medium term, what is the way forward?

If the government acts quickly there are still creative options. Although it is difficult to conceive of any form of reconciliation between the polarised factions for as long as the State of Emergency is in place, the government can start planning for a different Bahrain. It can unilaterally implement the proposals for constitutional change that were on the table before the crackdown, and attempt to bring opposition groups back to the table.

It can develop a new vision of the country in which development always considers the interests of its citizens rather than those of a small group of powerful business leaders. A vision that relies far less on expatriate labour and far more on the expertise of native Bahrainis. A vision that promotes a different system of education designed to equip Bahrainis to be wealth generators rather than recipients of entitlement. A system that equips them to export their expertise throughout the Middle East.

Having announced that new vision, it can also say “yes, we know there has been injustice. We know that we have made mistakes, but we are where we are. It is time to move on”. It can then announce a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the lines of the commission in South Africa, in which all parties took the opportunity to describe their experiences under apartheid – to apologise, to forgive and to move forward.

Would such moves work? Not without much wisdom, common sense and forbearance on all sides. And perhaps not, period.

But it seems to me that the alternative facing Bahrain is as a nation that increasingly looks like the poor relation of its wealthier neighbours, and without the political freedoms that its citizens have come to expect. It is even possible to conceive that it could end up as an independent state in name only – in reality a client of its big neighbour across the causeway.

I hope that this is not the outcome. Bahrainis are a proud, independent-minded and talented people. In the long term, a police state is not an option. The government does have progressive thinkers. Sooner or later their voices will dictate the agenda. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

Nobody who loves Bahrain wants it to become a wasteland.

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