Bahrain in the Arab Summer

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Written by contributor from abroad (name withheld for security)

Recently, Sarah Rangwala examined the complexities of the protests in Bahrain through two interviews conducted with two Bahraini citizens, human rights activist Maryman al-Khawaja and businesswoman Rasha Yousif. While these two views hardly constitute a representative sample of the opinions and controversies swirling around the island kingdom these days, this companion piece will provide a little more context for the situation in Bahrain going forward, especially given that many of the major figures in the February-March protests, including Maryam’s uncle, were recently sentenced to lengthy prison terms on charges of trying to overthrow the government.

By this point, I’ve heard the term “Arab Spring” – with or without audible quotation marks – more times than I can count. While the name has a lot going for it, it is all to easy to forget the incredible diversity of problems and challenges facing reformers and demonstrators across the Middle East. In Bahrain, as we see in looking through these two interviews, the situation is far from the general conflict of unified people vs. corrupt government that we saw in Egypt and Tunisia (generalization, I know, but bear with me). To be certain, a large part of Bahrain’s population turned out to demonstrate against what they perceived as abusive actions and overreaching by the Bahraini government (largely consisting of Shiite groups but by no means limited to them); at the same time, though, a sizable sector of the population has little to no problem with the current government and sees the Spring protests as a violent, disruptive attack on the state of affairs in the nation. In being cast as Shiite agitators, the demonstrators in Bahrain have to face down not only the entirety of the state apparatus but also many of their fellow citizens.

As the smallest country in the Gulf, Bahrain will continue to be subject to influence and/or interference (or the attempt thereof) by powerful, outside actors, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the United States. Iran is typically presented as the bogeyman of the three by those backing the current Bahraini government. For Yousif, “Iran supported the uprising and it is now hated by most loyal and patriotic citizens.  To make things worst Iran started threatening the peace of Bahrain directly.” To be sure, there is little love lost between most Gulf residents and the Islamic Republic, but this tack winds up demonizing the Bahraini demonstrators as Shiite pawns of the Iranian clerics to the north. Even official U.S. statements, such as President Obama’s recent speech on events in the region, risk falling into this category; however, officials are usually scrupulously clear in pointing out that they are only concerned with Iran’s “opportunism” in interfering, while dismissing the Republic as the root instigator of the demonstrations.

Saudi Arabia is, of course, the elephant in the room, or perhaps the elephant on the island. For me, one of the defining images of the past spring was a video on Arabiya’s news network the day that Saudi Arabian and Emirati troops moved down the causeway linking Bahrain to the mainland of the Arabian Peninsula, effectively signaling the end of open demonstrations. Even if the King of Bahrain were able to request GCC military intervention (alKhawaja disputes this point in her interview), it seems unlikely that the GCC could move brigades of soldiers and armored cars into the Kingdom with such rapidity in the absence of a good deal of preemptive planning, regardless of the requests of the Bahraini government. While Yousif is correct in noting that the GCC force is “sought as a protector of vital entities in Bahrain”, the important question is just whose interests are being protected; I would suspect that the right to peaceful protest is not high on that list. (Certainly, “peaceful protest” may not be the most accurate term. Anti-government protesters fought back on more than one occasion, with the end result that such demonstrators were not entirely alone among the wounded or killed, although a brief comparison of the numbers involved on either side is required reading before judging that issue.)

And what of that that last name on the list? The United States government continues to take flak for its handling of Bahrain, much as Al-Jazeera’s reputation is starting to falter for its relatively shallow coverage of the Bahrain uprising (among other Gulf nations). The US still has clear strategic investments in the island, namely the base for the Navy’s 5th Fleet, that are unlikely to change in the near future. The gentle pressure for reforms is unlikely to sway criticism from activists that the US shares in responsibility for the events of the spring due to its continued support for the existing government, as noted by Maryam al-Khawaja. As much as the protests sweeping the region are not anti-American in the sense of mobs gathering to protest at the American embassy (a saving grace that the US State and Defense Departments have latched onto in their official commentary on events), the United States has certainly played a part in enabling and supporting many of the regimes that are now under increasing criticism in the region. Unfortunately, as the US is finding, its ability to influence events at this stage may not be equal to its role in bringing them about.

Also see: Human Rights First podcast on Bahrain (6/17)

June 1st marked the end of over two months of a state of emergency in Bahrain. Despite the push from the Bahraini government to convince the world that things are back to normal, the situation on the ground has not improved. The motivations behind lifting the oxymoronic “state of national safety” may have been more of economic interest than a real assessment of the country’s stability. Listen to this week’s podcast and learn more about Bahraini human rights defenders cope with the continuing crackdown post-June 1st.

Formula 1’s decision to restore and then immediately cancel the Bahrain Grand Prix this year is yet another PR setback for the government, as they failed to convince the international community that the country is safe enough for such an event. What is very clear is that the crackdown continues to be rampant in Bahrain, suppressing the pro-democracy movement using fear and violence.

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