While the world focuses on the fallout from the Arab Spring in major countries like Egypt and Syria, a seething frustration continues to mount among democracy aspirants on the tiny Persian Gulf island nation of Bahrain. The United States once again finds itself torn between its claims to support democracy and its desire to back autocratic regimes which support what it claims are its strategic imperatives in the Gulf region. But democracy activists in Bahrain are growing increasingly impatient with continued autocratic rule at home and US support for repression.
While Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was being toppled in February 2011, the Arab Spring struck in Bahrain as 100,000 protesters filed into Manama’s Pearl Roundabout for three days of protests calling for democracy reforms to the longstanding rule of the Al Khalifa monarchy. The government responded with crushing force, backed by Saudi tanks that rolled across a land bridge connecting the peninsula to the island nation. The crackdown was especially notorious for the international condemnation raised when security forces raided hospitals to arrest the doctors and medical staff who treated injured protesters. Since then, the Al Khalifa monarchy has deployed a mostly successful strategy of preventing major protests from unfolding in the capital city and implanted a harsh crackdown on activists and opposition parties.
Yet, for over two years, a nonstop string of low-level protests have continued in the suburbs and smaller villages outside of Manama, in which protesters battle nightly with increasingly aggressive police and security forces who’ve been accused of massive human rights violations. In what protesters call “collective punishment,” the police respond by tear-gassing and raiding homes of entire neighborhoods and arresting protesters on trumped-up charges and convicting them in sham trials. According to one local opposition activist who spoke with Truthout, the protests have become so routine that “you can set your watch by them.” He explained that if he is in Manama past a certain hour, he has to just wait a little longer before going home to his suburb until the nightly protest is over. He said, “Residents block roads with burning tires and barricades, then the security forces come and break them apart, chase people down alleyways and tear-gas houses and neighborhoods, but then both the protesters and police get tired and everyone goes home for the night until the next day,” or a few days later. “This has been happening like this for over two years,” he adds.
Across the country, security forces have continued to round up and arrest protest leaders, opposition party officials and human rights activists and have cracked down on journalists who are critical of the monarchy. Attempts to evade international scrutiny have included denying visas for scores of foreign journalists, NGOs, European MPs and international human rights groups. In April, the government denied an entry visa for Mr. Juan E. Mendez, the United Nations’s special rapporteur on torture, who is due to visit Bahrain this month to look into reports that the authorities there have abused and tortured protesters in detention. On May 14, Bahraini blogger and human rights activist Ali Abdulemam resurfaced in London upon being granted asylum by the UK after a Bahraini military court tried and sentenced him in absentia to 15 years in prison. Two years ago, he was smuggled out of the country by fishermen. The next day, six Twitter users were sentenced to a year in prison each by a Bahrain court for allegedly insulting King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa on an online blog.
Initially, the protesters had demanded freedom, democracy and equality for Shias and Sunnis (a framework which could have preserved the monarchy on a new constitutional basis, with limited powers). But the ruling Al Khalifa monarchy remains deeply insecure over its minority status as a Sunni Muslim monarchy reigning over a large Shia Muslim majority. While the democracy movement was largely instigated by Bahrain’s Shia majority, which was tired of its second-class citizenship and being marginalized in the distribution of power and wealth, even many Bahraini Sunnis rallied to the protesters’ campaign for greater accountability and justice.
Of Bahrain’s population of 1.3 million, Shiites make up about 70 percent of the nearly 600,000 indigenous population, and today live alongside another 700,000 immigrants and foreign workers. Yet although they comprise a majority of the nationals, Shiites claim they face systematic discrimination, such as being barred from top government and political posts. By banning Shia from working in the national security sector and pressuring private companies to fire Shia employees and replace them with Sunni workers, critics charge, the regime is enforcing a Sunni “apartheid system” on the Shia majority.Bahrain’s ruling monarchy fears that any gains by Bahrain’s Shiites could open new footholds for influence by Iran, a predominantly Shiite country that is a main regional rival of the Sunni Arab-led nations just across the Gulf. Bahrain also accuses Iranian-backed Hezbollah of having a role in stirring the protests, though it has provided no evidence to support the claim.
The Al Khalifa family seems to be betting on continued US and Saudi support to shore up its continued rule. This is because the United States wants to retain its Navy’s Fifth fleet based in Bahrain as a strategic counterweight to Iran’s influence in the Gulf, and because Saudi Arabia is loath to see a successful Shia uprising anywhere in the region, not least among its own Shia population concentrated in its eastern provinces just across from Bahrain.
Some opposition parties (called societies in Bahrain) are allowed to exist legally if they only call for a constitutional monarchy, such as in the UK, but groups which call for a democratic republic that would abolish the monarchy, such as happened in the United States, are outlawed, and their leaders are often imprisoned.
The US has publicly called for the regime to negotiate on reforms with the opposition in a national process referred to as the Dialogue. For example, in reference to the crackdown and arrests of leading dissidents, US President Barack Obama told the government of Bahrain in May 2011, “You can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.” And in a September 2011 speech at the United Nations, Obama called on the regime to specifically engage with the main opposition party, Al Wefaq.
But some in Bahrain resented US public pressure on the regime and prefer to let the debate unfold more cautiously behind the scenes within the royal family of King Hamid Al Khalifa, some liberal members of which are arguing for democratic reforms while more conservative elements in the family council remain firmly opposed. Despite the fact the United States continues to supply military aid, American public criticism has dramatically worsened diplomatic relations between the United States and Bahrain in recent weeks. In early May, the governing cabinet issued a highly unusual public condemnation of US Ambassador Thomas Krajeski for “interfering in domestic affairs” with critical US State Department reports and his repeated public criticisms of Bahrain’s crackdown. The governing cabinet also issued new constraints on his meeting government opponents. The US responded by announcing the US Department of Labor has invoked “formal consultations” with Bahrain under their bilateral free trade agreement in connection with the abuse of workers’ rights and attacks on civil society in Bahrain. Subsequently, there are some in Washington now openly calling for the United States to move the Fifth Fleet out of an increasingly volatile environment.
After collapsing in late 2011, the Dialogue resumed in February and the regime was praised by the United States and other international leaders. However, opposition groups remain highly disappointed by the process because they say the talks are stacked against them with 19 pro-government participants and only 8 opposition representatives. Furthermore, the royal family is not directly participating, and, therefore, critics claim it cannot be held accountable for any promised reforms.
Additionally, critics say that the government’s continued crackdown on opponents and refusal to release political prisoners to participate is sending the wrong signals – that the government is not serious about committing to real reforms. Many are also skeptical because most of the earlier democratic reforms promised in 2002, and again after the uprising in 2011, were not enacted.
The opposition groups participating in the Dialogue have issued several demands in order to make the process work: to discuss an agreed upon agenda; for the monarchy to directly participate; that the results should include new articles in the constitution, not just “recommendations”; that appointments to the upper house of parliament be replaced with elected representatives and the judiciary be made truly independent; that the steps called for in the November 2011 Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report be implemented, including the release of all political prisoners and an end to impunity for those committing human rights abuses; that a clear timetable for completing negotiations be agreed upon; that a guaranteed mechanism for implementing the results of negotiations be established; and that objective international observers be allowed to attend the process. “But so far,” says Radhi Mohsen Al Mosawi of the opposition Wa’ad party, “we have only got the first demand.”
The apparent obstinacy of the regime to agree to a meaningful Dialogue process, let alone actual democratic reforms, is weakening the hand of the moderate groups willing to engage in the Dialogue and committed to nonviolence. The stalemate is pushing many Bahraini activists to replace their demands for reform with calls for regime change. Particularly as frustration with the dialogue process has mounted, and as street clashes in the suburbs and bloodshed seem to intensify, other voices are gaining strength on Bahrain’s streets, and underground networks of youth groups and some hardline Shiites are uniting with social media and adopting an angrier tone. Calls to bring down the monarchy are now staples in the near daily skirmishes with security forces outside of Manama. For example, chants such as “No to dialogue! No to surrender!” were heard by several hundred protesters during a recent confrontation between demonstrators with firebombs and riot police with tear gas and stun grenades.
While most Bahrainis still hope a pathway to a stable and moderate reform process can lead to a constitutional monarchy and elected democracy, time may be running out. Some warn that sooner or later, a deeply aggrieved and enraged majority will erupt again, and when they do, their anger and profound disappointment will be directed not just at the regime, but at the United States as well.
While Al Jazeera has called Bahrain’s democracy movement “the Arab revolution that was abandoned by the Arabs, forsaken by the West, and forgotten by the world,” activists are hoping they will not be forgotten. In January, a joint letter signed by over 30 human rights organizations worldwide, led by the Gulf Center for Human Rights and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was published. It calls on US President Obama to intervene to release jailed Bahraini human rights defenders and activists and to immediately suspend US military support to Bahrain until the regime does so. On April 23, two Bahraini human rights groups, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, publicly called on the world soccer governing body, FIFA, to withdraw Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa from the race to become the next president of the Asian Football Confederation because of human rights abuses. The open letter was followed by a similar one from Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain.Appealing directly to US citizens, Farida Ghulam, head of the Women’s Issues Bureau for the opposition Wa’ad party, said: “I would love to see greater numbers of Americans side with the Bahraini people in fulfilling their dreams towards democracy and social justice. The fact that the US Fifth Fleet is stationed in Bahrain should not be a reason to scare people away from supporting Bahrainis’ legitimate demands for basic human rights and true democracy. To help us, Americans can write to their representatives in Congress, form a lobby to exert pressure on US policymakers to stand by the principles they call for in their speeches, and do justice by thousands of jailed Bahrainis and victims of state brutality since 2011.”
Similarly, Said Yousif, vice president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, said: “We as Bahraini people deserve democracy. We need the US to push the regime for democratic changes. You get to change your leadership every four years with elections, but we’ve had the same prime minister for 42 years.”