February 04, 2011

Facebook-Powered Protesters Take Aim at Bahrain

Featuring Richard Fontaine

Source: Wired: The Danger Room

First came Tunisia. Then Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan. One of the next Middle Eastern regimes to get hit with protests just might be the tiny kingdom of Bahrain, according to an analysis from a government-connected consultancy.

In Bahrain, activists are using Facebook to try and to organize their own “Day of Rage” set for February 14. In a statement on their page, organizers accuse the government of “suppress[ing] the legitimate rights of the people” and call for a new constitution and investigations into “economic, political and social violations.” Bahrain, a Gulf kingdom ruled by the Sunni Al-Khalifa family, has seen anger at systematic discrimination against the majority Shia population and its lack representation in government spill out into violent protest in the past.

“Tensions between the country’s [Sunni] royal family and the Shia majority could provide a flashpoint for new demonstrations,” according to an analysis prepared on Feb. 2 by the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm with does work for the U.S. intelligence community and others. “Protests would present a more serious risk than unrest in previous years.”

Today, hundreds of protesters turned out for protests at the Egyptian embassy in Bahrain, professing solidarity with anti-Mubarak forces and calling for reforms at home. But the Day or Rage protest looks somewhat smaller — only 84 likes on its Facebook page — and it’s unclear how many protesters will show up on February 14.

Facebook activists had also planned for a demonstration in Syria today and at a number of its embassies abroad. Dubbed “The Syrian Revolution 2011,” its organizers called on supporters to demand an ”end the state of emergency in Syria and end corruption.” Apparently, the demonstration was a fizzle, with no protesters seen in the capital Damascus.

But waiting to see how events in Egypt and Tunisia shake out over the course of the next year will be “hugely important” in gauging the full impact of these movements, McInerney cautions Stephen McInerney, executive director at the Project on Middle East Democracy. The emergence of relatively stable and representative governments in the two countries could provide more inspiration to other protest movements. Prolonged violence and chaos might help to further entrench autocrats under the guise of providing stability.

That uncertainty — combined with relatively unexpected origin in Tunisia and its swift export to Egypt — has left analysts cautious in their predictions about what might lie ahead.

“It totally rattles the American foreign policy model” of reliance on friendly but undemocratic regimes, says Richard Fontaine, a former associate director of Near East Affairs on the National Security Council during the Bush administration and now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “I don’t know that anybody knows where we go from here.”

“There hasn’t been rhyme or rule in what’s happened already,” says Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East Division at Human Rights Watch. “We could now just sit back and watch and wonder which of the 10, 12, 15 regimes in the region…is going to be next.”

One prediction she is confident to make: Egypt and Tunisia will be a game changer for the region.

“We are never going back to a Middle East that is pre-2011.” she says. “Arabs of the Middle East have proven that with enough popular will they can bring a government to a stop, dead on its heels, with the entire world calling for the president to leave. The Tunisian people have shown, the Egyptian people have shown that this is entirely doable, it’s entirely in their reach.”



  • Richard Fontaine

    Chief Executive Officer

    Richard Fontaine is the Chief Executive Officer of CNAS. He served as President of CNAS from 2012–19 and as Senior Fellow from 2009–12. Prior to CNAS, he was foreign policy ad...