Current developments in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain in West Asia and Libya in North Africa are part of the gradual socio-political tsunami that has been spreading in the region since the jasmine revolution began in Tunisia in December last.

The Arab world which has been denied meaningful democracy for decades by a combination  of western duplicity and cynical realpolitik by the propping up of a wide spectrum of dictators, kings and emirs so that ‘stability’ was assured – particularly in oil rich nations – is now on the boil.  Egypt and Tunisia have already seen a change of the old political order and the unrest in other countries is simmering in different ways.  Syria has just turned more bloody with the town of Deraa and now Damascus becoming the site of violent anti-regime protests. President Assad  and his father who have  ruled Syria with an iron hand for four decades  are the latest targets of the democratic upsurge from the Arab street.

However the emerging scenario is not likely to be a swift and painless transition to democracy – as Egypt and Tunisia demonstrate. Each of the individual states have their own domestic dynamic and their co-relation to the external strategic framework will determine the shape of things to come in the next few weeks and months.

Libya and Bahrain offer a compelling and complex contrast about the limits of the popular uprising by the Arab street against well-entrenched regimes and how the external  stimulus can change the contours of the democratic aspiration.

Colonel Gaddafi  of Libya who has been described as being eccentric, mercurial and ruthless is currently facing UNSC sanctions and the combined military might of the USA, France and UK along with other allies. It is significant that Qatar, an Arab state has joined the no-fly campaign and the UAE  is part of the political coalition.  Here the argument that has been advanced is that the Gaddafi regime is killing innocent Libyans – the civilian protesters and rebel factions now centred in Benghazi – and that the international community had a duty to protect them.

This would have been a commendable initiative but for the fact that in Bahrain, the small Arab kingdom, the same democratic uprising has been  crushed with the help of Saudi forces – and the international community has  been silent. After the initial media coverage about the demolition of Pearl Square in Bahrain, even the BBC has chosen to gloss over the developments there – or compare them with Libya.

Part of the reason is the sad reality that the Bahraini uprising had pitted the majority Shia community against the minority Sunni ruler and his sect which has appropriated greater part of the wealth and power in the kingdom.  Bahrain would have been a test case for the objective commitment of the USA and its allies in supporting the democracy movement in the Arab world – but realpolitik has again trumped normative values – a familiar pattern in the region.

In the case of Bahrain, its proximity to Saudi Arabia – both geographical and ideological is the reason for the double standards that have been applied by the western powers.  Saudi Arabia also has a sizable Shia minority which inhabits the oil rich part of the desert kingdom and the Saudi monarchy advocates the rigid Sunni-Wahabi Interpretation of Islam. Shia citizens in both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have a second class status and have long chafed at this inequity.

Thus the uprising in Bahrain was seen as a Shia movement which brings in Iran and Iraq (both predominantly Shia) into the regional political Islam strategic calculus and hence had to be suppressed, lest this fervor spread into Saudi Arabia – a key US ally. Consequently when the Saudi troops moved into Bahrain – even without any UN authorization – the global community chose to close its eyes to what amounts to the exact opposite of Libya. 

In Libya,   France led the first military air strike on March 19 and the military objective has been defined as saving those civilians and pro-democracy groups who are being attacked by the Gaddafi forces. But President Obama has repeatedly asserted that no US troops will be sent into the country and that regime change is not an objective.  NATO has been encouraged to take the leadership role and neither UK nor France will be able to provide the kind of military capacity on the ground that only the US possesses.  An air war can have limited value – and thus it appears that Libya will move into a bloody stalemate with the country divided into a Gaddafi held Tripoli and eastern part and a Benghazi occupied rebel entity. A protracted civil war cannot be ruled out.

In this complex maze, there is speculation that Colonel Gaddafi may take recourse to terror acts (Libya was responsible for the 1988 Pan Am bombing) either directly or through the Al Quaida network.  Furthermore, intelligence sources have revealed that in the past few weeks there have been reports that the elusive bin Laden has been sighted in the Af-Pak area and that he is taking stock of the prevailing winds of discontent in North Africa and West Asia.

In short, it is evident that the current situation in the WANA region will get more turbulent and bloody even as the hot desert wind caries the democratic aspiration with it. The division in the global community over Libya is reflected in the fact that UNSC resolution 1973 passed on March 17 had five major nations abstaining:  Russia, China, Brazil, Germany and India. Under the circumstances, the Indian abstention was prudent.