US Foreign Policy

Crackdown in Bahrain

in Program

Sectarian and hardline politics have brought protesters
out into streets of this once quiet Gulf nation. And as the bodycount rises, the
United States
should be gravely concerned.

This article was first published by Foreign Policy on February
17, 2011  


Crackdown in Bahrain

By Jean-Francois Seznec – At 3 a.m. on Feb. 17, hundreds of Bahraini riot police
surrounded the protesters sleeping in a makeshift tent camp in Manama’s Pearl Square. The
security forces then stormed the camp, launching an attack that killed at least
five protesters, some of whom were reportedly shot in their sleep with shotgun
rounds. Thousands of Bahraini citizens gathered in the square on Feb. 15, in
conscious emulation of the protesters in Cairo’s
Tahrir Square,
to push their demands for a more representative political system and an end to
official corruption.

The tanks and armored personnel carriers of Bahrain’s
military subsequently rolled into the square, and a military spokesman
announced that the army had taken important areas of the Bahraini capital
“under control.”

Perhaps alarmed at the recent revolutions that toppled the
regimes of Egypt and Tunisia, the Sunni ruling family in Bahrain
has been taking no chances against its young and mostly Shiite protest
movement. Bahrain’s
King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has been able to overcome past troubles by posing
as an enlightened autocrat, willing to show leniency. But divisions within the
monarch’s family, which he relies on to maintain his authority, may be forcing
the king into a harsher position. And that spells trouble for Bahrain’s
stability, as well as the country’s halting reform efforts.

The United
States has a considerable national security
stake in what goes on in this tiny island kingdom. Bahrain is home of the U.S.
Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which protects the vital oil supply lines that pass through
the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz — an important asset for the United
States in the event of a conflict with Iran. Bahrain
is also a key logistical hub and command center for U.S naval operations in Iraq, Afghanistan,
and the Indian Ocean.

For the past few years, quasi-Salafist and arch-conservative
elements of the Khalifa family have been gaining power over more liberal
members of the family, who advocate widening the economic and political
involvement to all spheres of Bahraini society.

Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the oldest and
richest member of main ruling clan, has emerged as the leader of these
conservatives, who seek to ensure the Khalifa family’s continued stranglehold
over the politics and economy of the country. His resignation has become one of
the protesters’ primary demands.

While the successful mass protests in Egypt and Tunisia
clearly inspired the protesters in Manama,
trouble has been brewing in Bahrain
— which is divided between a Sunni ruling family and a majority Shia
population — for years. Skirmishes broke out between young Shia Bahrainis and
police forces last March, and political dissidents were arrested in the run-up
to the Oct. 30 parliamentary elections.

The growing influence of the more extreme Khalifas was on
full display during the Feb. 17 police crackdown. The police force that raided
the camp is legally under the control of the prime minister. The brutality with
which the raid was conducted may have been a bid to create a state of emergency
on the island, forcing the more liberal members of the family to side with them
against the protesters.

It is not only the Sunni ruling family that is divided —
the Shia opposition parties are also split. The al-Wefaq party is the largest
opposition party in Parliament, but its support among Shia has declined due to
its failure to win any concessions from the leadership on the issues of
increased political power and representation or economic opportunities. As a
result, the more confrontational al-Haq movement has been taking to the streets
to wrest leadership away from al-Wefaq.

In the past year, reports that al-Haq members were arrested
and tortured by the security forces only bolstered its popularity among the
Shia youth and unemployed. According to some Shia leaders, al-Haq now is seen
by a majority of Shia as the leading group of the community. The efforts of the
demonstrators to reject violence — noble aspirations supported by the majority
of Bahrainis — may represent an attempt by al-Wefaq to take back leadership of
the opposition from the more confrontational al-Haq.

The October 2010 elections to the Majlis al-Nawaf — the
lower house of Parliament — were expected to bring some stability to the
country. Al-Wefaq won 18 out of 40 total seats, and the election was relatively
free and fair (though some constituencies were gerrymandered to ensure that
al-Wefaq did not gain a majority). What’s more, the influence of some of the
more extremist Sunni groups was undermined by centrist Sunni-Shia alliances.

However, these hopes were dashed by Parliament’s inability
to affect real change in the country. All its decisions can be negated by the
Majlis as-Shura, whose members are nominated by King Hamad. And the king can
also veto any parliamentary decision. The sectarian divide that has emerged in
parliament over the past three elections has also meant that most issues, such
as the public availability of alcohol, the segregation of sexes in schools, are
framed in purely religious terms. This has led the public to see parliamentary
action as mostly irrelevant to their lives, increasing the pressure for
citizens to take to the streets.

These particularities of Bahraini politics aside, it is
clear that the present mass demonstrations are trying to follow the nonviolent
example set by their counterparts in Egypt. The current wave of protests
originated from 14,000 young people on Facebook. They represent a new
generation,  fed up with the impasse
between the al-Khalifa clan and the older Shia leadership. The chant today on
the street is: “No Sunni, No Shia, just Bahraini!”

This is a message that the Khalifa family, and the U.S.
government, would do well to take to heart. Anyone who has traveled to or lived
in Bahrain knows that
Bahrainis — both Sunnis and Shia — see themselves as Bahraini first, not
stooges of Iran or Saudi Arabia.
Some, of course, are influenced by Tehran or Riyadh — but by and large citizens are influenced by what
happens in Manama.

The Khalifa family has skillfully drawn on Western fears of
the Shia as tools of Iran,
which has so far obtained unquestioned U.S. support for their continued
rule. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s mealy-mouthed statement today, in
which she called for the government to show “restraint,” is further
evidence of this fact. Her remarks will not sway the prime minister and his
cohorts, nor will they convince the demonstrators that the United States
is a defender of their rights.

In the absence of real reform, the Iran threat
could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the Khalifas are not able to open
up the state to their own citizens, the more extreme Shiite leaders could start
to see Iran as a protector,
and a curb to U.S.
and Saudi influence. And a turn towards Iran would likely bring Saudi
intervention in support of the monarchy. The Khalifa leadership is faced with
the choice of truly liberalizing or risking outside intervention — which would
mean a grave loss of their position, and a potential catastrophe for the United States
as well.


Photo Credit: “Shia Prayers” in Pearl Square, Bahrain,
February 19, 2011 (Al Jazeera English)



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