Bahrain's Fuenteovejuna

15:02, February 22, 2011      

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By Luis Vega

It is not easy to see places you love stained with the blood of innocents claiming a better life and opportunities for their children in a state that systematically excludes them from advancement. Looking into crowds of thousands to see the faces of those you care about knowing they have joined an idealistic movement that has now taken the streets of Manama inspired by the success of Egypt and Tunisia. Yet that is the filter through which I see the uprising in Bahrain — from a prism of friendship. Can I be objective when trusted friends belong to both tribes: Sunni and Shiites?

Revolts are spreading like wildfire all over the Middle East and North Africa. They are more than revolutions. They are an awakening. These movements are highly contagious because they are not led by religious sects or political ideology, and they are inspired by the collective realization that what kept millions in bondage for decades is not a Western ploy to suppress their aspirations but a domestic pattern of oppression by their own rulers who are denying their people freedom. The ruled are angry and swear not to take such abuse anymore.

Western societies are in shock as there is no blueprint on how to deal with this type of crisis when we have constructive relationships with all sides. This awakening has the potential of turning into civil wars throughout the region. Foreigners never win at the end when taking sides in the internal national conflicts of others. Regardless of who wins, we will be labeled as interventionist and imperialistic. A measured, thought-out response is needed.

At the same time, to allow unarmed civilians to be massacred by an elite army we helped train can turn us into unwilling accomplices in the eyes of enemies. Whether we act or not, both action and inaction represent a political and military tactic. While we encourage Shiites in Iran to rise against the government, Shiites in Bahrain are not encouraged by outsiders. Most oppose the Iranian leadership because their loyalties are to Bahrain. There lies the West's and my own dilemma on how to prevent the killing of unarmed protesters in Manama.

"Dilemma: A difficult or doubtful choice; a state of things in which evils or obstacles present themselves on every side, and it is difficult to determine what course to pursue," as defined in "American Dictionary of the English Language" by Noah Webster (1928). The word comes to English via Latin from Greek dilemma, a compound noun formed from di 'two' and lemma 'proposition, premise.' When facing such a dilemma, the only guide is to follow moral principles within reason.

The history of the Middle East has much in common with the history of Latin America, although south of the Mediterranean political evolution stopped after their independence, while south of Texas' Rio Grande we create generation over generation of non-conformist freedom fighters. Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales are living examples of indigenous rebellious leaders attaining, through democratic means, the highest position on their native soil.

Likewise most Arab countries are ruled by native tribes, basically ten families: the Al Khalifa in Bahrain, the Al Sabah in Kuwait, the Al Thani in Qatar, the Al Sid in Oman, and in the United Arab Emirates by the Al Nuhayyan in Abu Dhabi, the Al Nuaimi in Ajman, the Al Sharqi in Al Fujayrah, the Al Qasimi in Ras and Sharjah, the Al Mualla in Umm al Qaywayn and the Al Maktum in Dubai. Tribal leadership was honored by British colonizers negotiating treaties that recognized their sovereignty in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In contrast, Latino nations earned their independence in fierce wars during the late 18th and early 19th centuries and have civil wars and revolutions sporadically that recalibrate governments. This is a far cry from Arab countries that came late to the independence table and today refuse to change seats or add more to adjust to new political and demographic realities — this is a model that in Latin America has proven to be unsustainable. The Middle East needs it own Benito Juarez.

Backed by a U.N. decision, Bahrain was declared independent from Britain on Aug. 15, 1971 and has made much progress since. The United States took over the original British navy base in Bahrain the same year. The American navy base is the axis of U.S. strategy for a region that encompasses the Persian Gulf as well as the Arabian and Red seas. As headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, it is home to over 3,000 military personnel and manages 30 naval ships in the area. Americans are welcome in the tiny Muslim island nation.

It is this win-win relationship with the Al Khalifa monarchy in Bahrain that makes the current situation complicated from a purely diplomatic perspective for the United States. Nevertheless, the actions of the military places allies around the world in a difficult position because Western society frowns upon violent acts of repression against unarmed civilians, especially groups that include large numbers of women and children.

"Britain said it was urgently reviewing arms export licenses to Bahrain. Exports approved in the past nine months include tear gas cartridges and other equipment that can be used for riot control, and the Foreign Office's Middle East and North Africa minister Alistair Burt said it will revoke the licenses if they are judged to be used for facilitating internal repression and human rights abuses," reports Associated Press reporters Hadeel Al Salchi and Barbara Surk. "The willingness to resort to violence against largely peaceful demonstrators was a sign of how deeply the monarchy fears the repercussions of a prolonged wave of protests."

The current situation brought back memories of one of my favorite classic stories from Spain's Golden Age, "Fuenteovejuna" by playwright Lope de Vega who specialized in writing up cases from local courts as fiction. His play is based on an incident that happened in Fuente Ovejuna, a small village in the mountains north of Cordoba — part of the former Al Andalus — in 1476. "Fuenteovejuna" tells the story of an abusive military commander who mistreated peasants under his watch until one day villagers rose against his tyranny killing him. This act shocks Spain's Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, who send a magistrate to investigate the murder of its regional representative.

Upon learning of the king's emissary imminent arrival, celebrating villagers agree not to name any individual responsible for the commander's public assassination. Instead, they answered "Fuenteovejuna did it." In other words, the whole town united to rid itself of the abuser. Not even under torture did peasants break their "omerta," or code of silence. Once the monarchs realized they should not punish the village for an act of social justice, Ferdinand and Isabella decided to pardon them and chose to side with the people fighting against their oppressor in spite of the fact that the oppressor represented the interests of the monarchs. Bahrain could be living its "Fuenteovejuna" moment, I wish.

This article is a People's Daily Online exclusive.

The article represents the author's views only. It does not represent opinions of People's Daily or People's Daily Online.


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