By Emile Nakhleh
Bahrain, a small island country in the Persian Gulf used to be viewed by the international community as a relatively tolerant, inclusive, and liberal country. Once the “Arab Spring” erupted a few months ago in neighboring Arab countries, pro-reform demonstrations gathered steam in and around Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain demanding political and economic reform. The ruling Al-Khalifa family reacted with brutality and repression, including arrests and firing at protesters, detention of journalists, academics, parliamentarians, medical doctors and health providers, without regard for basic human rights. Within a few short months, Bahrain has become a Saudi satellite—politically and ideologically—and is no longer a shining beacon of tolerance in the Gulf.
Several reasons might explain why Bahrain’s uprising so far has not achieved the same results as in Tunisia and Egypt:
- A small population (barely over half a million)
- Pervasive Saudi influence
- The military and security leadership hails from the ruling family
- A tacit American and international support for al-Khalifa suppression of the uprising because of the stationing of the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, concern about Iran’s influence in the Gulf, and worries about the potential for instability in the oil region.
Amnesty International in a recent briefing paper describes Bahrain as a “human rights disaster” and suggests that the regime suppression of dissent through arbitrary arrests and torture has created an atmosphere of fear and sectarianism. The al-Khalifa family heads a Sunni minority with access to power, privilege, and wealth and rules over a Shia majority that is mostly poor and dispossessed, with minimal access to government jobs and lucrative economic opportunities. Many Shia live in villages and poorer sections of the capital Manama. A few prominent Shia families have cooperated with Al Khalifa and have been amply rewarded with access to wealth and high government positions, including cabinet posts.
Since March 15, 2011, King Hamad has imposed a state of emergency under the rubric of a “State of National Safety,” which has given the security forces “sweeping powers” to arrest and try protesters in special courts for “offences against the state” with no “explicit human rights safeguards.” Under SNS regulations, hundreds of people have been detained, tortured, and injured. At least 30 protesters have been killed, according to media and international human rights reports. Many others have “disappeared” by agents of the regime in the middle of the night without a word to their families or access to legal defense. More recently two al-Wefaq parliamentarians, Matar Ibrahim Matar and Jawad Fairuz, were arrested by masked armed agents of the regime and whisked away without minimal due process. Their families were not informed of their whereabouts.
Regime repression of protesters and human rights activists—Sunni and Shia—continues unabated. More doctors are being tried in special tribunals for alleged “crimes against the state.” In reality, they were arrested and tried for providing medical help to those injured and beaten by security agents.
Talk of possible dialogue with the opposition, which was first voiced by the Crown Prince and the King’s son Shaykh Salman, has all but evaporated with the advent of at least 1,000 Saudi troops into Bahrain. These troops, including a few from Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, came to Bahrain as part of the so-called Desert Shield. They crossed the causeway that connects Bahrain with Saudi Arabia under the Gulf Cooperation Council collective security agreement. The Saudi leadership was extremely distressed by the downfall of Tunisia’s Bin Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak and therefore decided not to spearhead a “counterrevolution” to safeguard the Bahraini and other Sunni Gulf ruling families. The Saudi action reflects Riyadh’s claim that the “Arab Spring” is a threat to internal stability and that Iran was stirring Shia opposition in Bahrain, and potentially in Saudi Arabia.
Three key points underpin the on-going crisis in Bahrain:
- The current protest movement calling for government accountability and reinstatement of the constitution is decades old; in fact, it goes back to 1975 when the ruling family dissolved the National Assembly and suspended the 1973 constitution.
- The movement is not driven by sectarianism. Because the majority of the population is Shia, large numbers of the protesters are therefore Shia. Sunni reformers, however, are also actively involved in opposing regime repression and have been at the forefront of the reform movement.
- The Shia community is diverse politically, socially, and economically and has not voted as a bloc. Nor is the Shia community beholden to Iran. Bahraini Shia over the years have turned to Iraqi and Lebanese Shia Grand Ayatollahs for emulation, and although several prominent Bahraini Shia leaders have studied in Iran, the Shia community does not view Iranian senior clerics as their sources of emulation or marja'.
Bahraini protesters, like their counterparts in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere, are as diverse as the wider Bahraini society. They are villagers, city dwellers, laborers, farmers, professionals, teachers, health providers, and government employees. They seek dignity, justice, respect, and the opportunity to live as free citizens. Many of their postings on the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter reflect their desire to have the freedom to dream for a better life and pursue their dreams without repression or restrictions on their freedoms to speak, to create, to travel, and to associate with others. They also aspire to join the rising Arab generation as a peaceful force of change in their societies.
Contrary to Saudi and Bahraini government claims, calls for reform are not a Shia thing or a recipe for sectarianism. Media reports indicate the sectarianism argument has been pushed by the Saudi and Bahraini leadership in order to justify their actions against Bahraini peaceful protesters. Many Bahrainis view the main goal of the Saudi presence in the country is to persecute the Shia community and silence all opposition voices.
The three key ingredients of the envisioned compromise involve a return to the 1973 constitution, a re-establishment of a popularly elected national Assembly, which the king’s father dissolved in 1975, and dissolving the current government, which has been headed by the king’s uncle, Shaykh Khalifa, since independence in 1971. The prime minister is perhaps the most disliked senior member of Al Khalifa because of perceived corruption, nepotism, and repression, according to academic analysis and media reports. Many Bahrainis also view him as a staunch opponent to reform within the ruling family. The opposition movement maintains that implementing these demands will lead to transparent and accountable government, a just distribution of wealth, recognition of freedoms of speech, assembly, and the press, and an independent judiciary.
The pro-reform demands are in response to economic, political, and social grievances, which many Bahrainis have endured for decades. I have discussed many of these grievances in the first edition of my book, Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing Society, which Lexington Books published in 1976. These grievances, including the same prime minister, continue to exist in the country today.
Emile Nakhleh is the author of Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing Society (Lexington Books, 2011).