The difference between Egypt and Bahrain is that Egypt has a national army, and Bahrain does not. The Egyptian officer corps is drawn from the nation’s elite while conscripts from ordinary families fill the enlisted ranks. But every Egyptian speaks Egyptian Arabic (little more than regional accents survive from the old dialects) and the population is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim. Egypt faces serious questions about its failure to treat Coptic Christians as the equals of Muslims, to include them, that is, as full members of the Egyptian nation. But the demonstrators who faced the army in Tahrir Square confident that the soldiers would not shoot were Egyptians who see themselves as part of the same Egyptian nation as the soldiers in uniform. The soldiers agreed. And the Generals appear to have been persuaded that even if they gave the order, not every soldier would shoot, and not every officer would order them to shoot.
Bahrain is different. The King is a Sunni, Sunnis live well and even have some civil rights, and they are protected by Sunni police and a Sunni army. Life is not so good for Bahrain’s Shia, even though they are in the majority.
There are many ways to select an army, all of them already old in Thucydides day. The Sunni of Bahrain recruit theirs more or less along the principles of the ancient Athenians. Athenians reserved all power and privilege, including the privilege of military service, for themselves, while allowing labor to be done by the larger populations of slaves and guest workers. Slave and guest worker families might have lived in Athens for generations, and the guest workers might be very wealthy, but they could not become Athenians. And Athens was run for the benefit of the Athenians as Bahrain is run for the benefit of the Sunni, and, especially, of the royal family.
The brilliance of the protestors in Tahrir Square is that they knew that although young soldiers in a national army will fire on a violent or unruly mob, they are unlikely to fire into a peaceful crowd of their fellow citizens. Part of the magic of citizenship is that it can make people from the Fayum and people form Alexandria, semi-literate villagers and sophisticated lawyers, even Christians and Muslims think of themselves as a single people. The demonstrations in Tahrir Square were dominated by the the Egyptian flag, symbol of the nationhood that binds all Egyptians together. That unified nationhood is what provides hope that democracy in Egypt is possible.
Bahrain is different in many ways, but particularly in its situation on the Sunni/Shia seam. Populations mix along cultural edges, and it was never possible to draw borders near the Persian Gulf that would leave the Sunni on one side and the Shia on the other. In such a region, whichever group is out of power is under suspicion of being a potential fifth column in the service of a foreign power. The fears are as real and as realistic as England’s old worry that Catholic France would take advantage of the auld alliance with Scotland to land an army, at which point English Catholics would rise up to help Charles I reclaim the throne. And so it happened, Charles returned, some English Catholics rose in arms, and a Second Civil War was fought.
The soldiers facing the protestors in Pearl Square, Manama are not an army of all Bahrain’s people. They are a Sunni Army who enjoy the privileges of being part of the ruling identity group. Through their gun sights they not see fellow members of the nation of Bahrain. They see Shia. And they will continue to shoot.