The first round of the great Arab democratic revolt toppled the governments of Tunisia and Egypt. The revolt has now entered its second round, one that is proving far more violent in places like Libya and Bahrain. In neither Libya nor Bahrain is the success of the revolt pre-ordained. The regime of Muammar Gaddafi has already killed so many protestors that there is no path of political compromise in Libya. He will either stay on by iron force, or go kicking and screaming. Bahrain’s rulers have, so far, retreated after an initial round of violence.
Why has the Arab uprising taken such a bloody turn? Egypt and Tunisia were more mature States, imbued with a deeper sense of nationhood. This meant that their militaries, once the protests were able to show widespread popular support, declined to clear the streets with gunfire. Libya and Bahrain, however, are more in the way of geographical entities with ruling structures akin to medieval kingdoms. Mr Gaddafi took power in a military coup but did little to forge a nation out of a stretch of desert pockmarked with urban Arab centres and Berber tribesmen. Libyan politics has been little more than tribal politics, with Mr Gaddafi making sure all the aces lay with his Qadhadfa clansmen. Bahrain’s Sunni Khalifa ruling family overran the Shia-populated island two centuries ago — but have never stopped acting as foreign conquerors. Both Mr Gaddafi and the Khalifas deliberately discriminated against large chunks of their population on religious or ethnic grounds. These faultlines revealed themselves under the pressure of the images and passions of the ‘Jasmine Revolution’.
The Arab democratic revolt has so far proven to be unpredictable. Tunisia was the last place anyone would have expected it to start. Egypt was the last regime anyone expected to crumble without a fight. Bahrain was rated by political risk analysts as among the least likely Arab country to face unrest. Underlying all of this is a number of basic facts. One, ‘Arab nationalism’ has remained a fiction. Most of these countries remain tribes with flags, their leaders ruling with the help of small crony circles and tightly knit clans. Two, the external factors that fossilised Arab politics — superpower backing, oil revenues and simple repression — are crumbling. They are either weaker post-Cold War or are being defeated by new forces like food inflation and social networking sites. As the weakest Arab despots succumb, the next question is: how will the smarter and wealthier Arab States respond? They may survive this wave of protests, but it is hoped they realise political reform is their only guarantee of stability.