by Nadine Mansour on 13 Jan 2012 | Comments
History of Political Discontent
Within the context of political upheavals in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen, and Libya, the revolution in Bahrain is certainly not an isolated event. Dissatisfaction with the ruling family has been cyclical, and over the years there have been small steps taken toward political reform. But amidst the regional effort for overthrowing authoritarian regimes, the current uprising for reform in Bahrain has persisted since February, ultimately becoming a call for regime change, in the hope that the country will embark on its own democratic transition. The current regime in Bahrain, officially known as the Kingdom of Bahrain, is a monarchy led by the Khalifa family. The chief of state is King Hamad, and while he’s only held his position since February 14, 2002 (only, comparative to the decades-long rule of leaders from neighboring Arab states), the prime minister, also the King’s uncle, has been in power since the country’s independence from Britain in 1971. The revolution has been portrayed as simply an uprising of the country’s Shia majority (who constitute 70% of the population) against the Sunni ruling family, but with a prime minister who’s been in power for 30 years, surely the issues at hand are not only sectarian but of national representation and reform.
Since February 14, 2011, there have been injustices committed against Bahraini citizens advocating for their right to self- expression and for government reform. Peaceful assemblies of protest have been met with violence. Laws have been passed so that even marching in a protest can warrant an arrest for illegal assembly. Military trials have been called for 47 doctors and nurses accused by the Bahraini government of stockpiling weapons, stealing medicine, and inflicting harm on their patients. In their humanitarian efforts to treat protest casualties , they have been accused of trying to subvert the regime. The trials of the convicted medical personnel were resumed earlier this month, for which foreign coverage was restricted.
According to Nabeel Rajab, a prominent Bahraini human rights activist, in 2004 the government shut down the Bahrain Center for Human Rights after its director accused the prime minister of responsibility for the country’s systemic corruption. The director was subsequently, and still remains, imprisoned. The current liberation movement has been a collective effort comprising sectarian, political, economic, cultural, and social discontent. Nabeel Rajab has also claimed in an interview with Jadiliyya that “some of them are Communists, others are Shia and Sunni, intellectuals and uneducated, managers and workers. This is the first time that we are able to bring together so many people of such diverse backgrounds and cultures in one movement, one cause, and one uprising”. The 1990s uprisings had ended with the declaration of a National Action Charter, meant to place the country under constitutional rule and toward reform. This led to the first parliamentary elections in 2002 and saw a period of economic advancement, but clearly, this has not been sufficient to address the grievances of those still protesting even after the destruction of one of the physical symbol of the protests – Pearl Roundabout.
The GCC, Media and International Double Standards
The struggles against the authoritarian regimes of Egypt and Tunisia were largely played out internally, between pro-government and opposition groups of the same nationality. In Libya, the case was different, with NATO’s involvement in toppling Qaddafi, and in Syria, where observers from the Arab League have been sent to monitor government abuse. In Bahrain, however, neighboring countries and even Western powers have shown an interest in maintaining the current regime. As a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Bahrain’s stability is integral to the economic and political well-being of the organization’s member countries which include other monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE. Therefore, these countries have taken action, whether direct or indirect, invited or uninvited, to maintain the current status quo in Bahrain. On March 14, Saudi Arabia sent in troops to suppress the revolutionaries. Regional media outlets, while continuing to focus on developments in Yemen and Syria, have largely remained silent on any such developments in Bahrain. Surely this is not only because Bahrain is a relatively small country, but because of the location of AlJazeera and AlArabiya, the most prominent regional media sources, in GCC countries.
The revolutions seem to have taken the U.S. by surprise, and policies toward different Arab countries have oftentimes been contradictory. According to Human Rights First, “Multiple factors ranging from the influence of the U.S. and Saudi Arabian governments to the lack of access allowed to foreign journalists in the country can be blamed” for the limited media coverage that Bahrain has received, as compared to Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Yemen. In spite of the injustices that the Bahraini government commits against its own citizens, foreign relations with Bahraini leaders have maintained the status quo. Despite criticizing Russian and Chinese opposition to intervention in Syria, the U.S. itself continues to sell arms to the government of Bahrain, arms that are being used against Bahraini citizens. At the same time, the U.S. has sent a former police chief to “train” the Bahraini police force on crowd control tactics through the use of “non-lethal” methods such as tear gas. Of course, as evidenced by tear-gas supplied to Egypt, we know that these methods can indeed be lethal and are tools of state-sponsored human rights abuses. Bahraini citizens, initially calling for reform, are now realizing the extent of the state-sponsored corruption which goes so far as to humiliate Bahraini citizens at the hands of foreign personnel.
State of Emergency and Foreign “Conspiracy”
The pattern of government oppression in the region has become all too familiar: citizens hold non-violent assemblies, police are unable to impose crowd control, a national state of emergency is declared, violence ensues. The claim by some governments that the revolutionary movements were “foreign conspiracies” has also been predictable; in Bahrain, there have thus far been claims by the government (attributed to the Shia-Sunni divide) of Iranian involvement in the revolution. It is clear that there has been foreign interest, however, in favor of maintaining the authoritarian government. Without the backing of the Gulf Cooperation Council, it seems Bahrain’s government would have a difficult time maintaining its oppressive and increasingly abusive control over its people. As of March, a “state of emergency” had been declared, and was backed by GCC capitals, especially Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. This law prohibits even peaceful public assemblies and permits the military to suppress them. In March, the GCC pledged $20 billion in financial aid to Bahrain and Oman over a 10-year period to assist the two nations in their struggle with Arab protests. In June, in an effort to salvage Bahrain’s image and economy, King Hamad lifted the state of emergency, offered to renew talks with opposition leaders, and formed an independent commission of experts known as the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) to investigate abuses during the February and March protests. But this talk of reform accompanied by contradictory state actions has only led protestors to escalate their demand for regime change.
Abuse Persists, Now with more Observers
Most recently, Nabeel Rajab has been beaten by state-hired personnel, some of whom he claims were Jordanian and Pakistani. The government, on the other hand, has stated that it had found the activist lying on the floor and that it took him to the nearest hospital. A representative of the Gulf Council for Foreign Relations claims that Bahrain is different from Egypt and Tunisia, because the situation is “a reform process, not a revolution”. But abuse and shameless lying cannot be steps toward reform. In the face of continued oppression, it becomes clear that the removal of a regime that tortures its citizens and lies to protect its image is perhaps the only means to bring about real change. But in a country facing not only internal oppression but also regional pressures to maintain the status quo and with the U.S. continuing to sell arms to Bahrain, how loud will the collective voice of Bahrain’s one million citizens have to shout? At least now there is hope in that the world is slowly awakening to the abuse in Bahrain, and civil society organizations have been keeping track of abuses which had largely been hidden since the start of the 2011 revolutionary movements.