Why, in the wake of ongoing deadly crackdowns against protesters in Bahrain, who have compelling reasons to demand regime change, has the international response been so muted?
The Bahrain protests, led by Shia parties and activists demanding more representative government and greater equality, began in earnest on 14 February when heavy-handed policing led to the death of a protester, which was followed by a further death at his funeral. A crackdown on protesters gathered at Pearl Roundabout in the capital Manama on 17 February left six people dead and hundreds injured. Undaunted, protesters returned to Pearl Roundabout where they continued their sit-in, refusing offers of dialogue and calling for the end of the monarchy.
Almost a month later, on 14 March, hundreds of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) troops and police, from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, arrived in Bahrain at the government’s request. A state of emergency was declared and, on 16 March, Bahraini security forces again drove protesters from the symbolic Pearl Roundabout and from surrounding streets. Public gatherings and marches were subsequently banned. The Salmaniya hospital, where most of the dead and injured protesters had been taken, was raided, medical staff were arrested, and the tents set up by protesters were also removed. At the time, New Matilda published a letter from a doctor in Manama describing the conditions in a major hospital.
Concerned about violent repression, the opposition parties called off further protests for fear of more deaths. Last Friday, a call to action via independent protesters through Facebook and Twitter drew large crowds in towns across Bahrain, but the protests were dispersed by a heavy security presence.
In total, at least 20 people have been killed, including two policemen, and hundreds, possibly thousands injured during a month of security crackdowns. The response has included house raids and arrests of human rights activists, dissidents and members of opposition parties on charges of sedition, murder and contact with foreign states.
Bahrain is a society that is significantly segregated along sectarian lines. The ruling Al Khalifa family is part of the Sunni Muslim minority, who constitute roughly 35 per cent of the population. Bahraini Shias are heavily discriminated against in politics, employment and services. Yet, unlike Egypt, the protests in Bahrain are not largely driven by poverty, but by inequality and lack of representation. Unemployment stands at close to 20 per cent, but this is largely among the Shia population.
The Al Khalifa family have been refusing participatory government since the 1950s. Significant constitutional reforms were promised in the 1970s and then abandoned. King Hamad, who has been in power since 1999, again promised reforms in 2002, but the new constitution which did emerge gave considerable new powers to the Consultative Council of Bahrain, which is handpicked by the King and has powers of veto over the lower house. The largest opposition party holds 18 of the 40 seats in the lower house of the Bahraini parliament but this does not translate into legislative power. Protesters have avoided taking a sectarian stance and have instead stressed the need for equality and unity, to little effect.
The Prime Minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, has held his position since 1971. In recent weeks, opposition Shia parties have opted to boycott Parliament in support of the popular protests.
It is for these reasons that the opposition groups, led by the main group, Al Wefaq, have repeatedly rejected offers of dialogue and instead demanded the establishment either of a republic or constitutional monarchy. In the wake of the increasingly violent crackdowns, however, they have eased their demands that the royal family step away from politics altogether, and have shown some willingness to engage in negotiation.
What makes the situation of the protesters in Bahrain so difficult — and so different from those in Libya and Egypt — is that there is next to no chance of either the security forces or the military siding with them. The Al Khalifa regime has for some years now been recruiting exclusively Sunni personnel, both from within Bahrain and also from other countries such as Yemen, Jordan and Pakistan, including Iraqis formerly employed under Saddam Hussein. Most of the Pakistani recruits speak neither Arabic nor the local dialect and are seen by the Shia majority as hated mercenaries. The foreign recruits are given housing and citizenship, creating further resentment amongst the local Shia majority. Often, the recruits are hardline Sunni fundamentalists with strongly anti-Shiite sentiments.
"Our army are not really native Bahrainis," Sayed Ahmed Alwedaye, a Bahraini activist, told Al Jazeera. "They are all brought over from different countries. So their loyalty is not really to the country. The army is fully controlled by the King himself and his agenda is the agenda which has to be followed."
In a country with such a clear sectarian divide, which has until now, managed to avoid much sectarian violence and unrest, there is potential for Shia-Sunni relations to worsen dramatically. This will not only have grave domestic consequences, but regional consequences as well. Some analysts are concerned that should the situation drag on, it will lead to greater radicalisation of Bahrainis and potentially to civil war. Bahrain may be small geographically and population-wise, but then so is Gaza and the impact of events there cannot be downplayed.
Iran and Syria, who already support and arm Shia groups in Iraq and Lebanon for example, may seek to do so in Bahrain as well. Iran has made it clear that it regards the deployment of Saudi troops in Bahrain as an "occupation", making full use of the circumstances to promote further its regional leadership among Shias. Iran has demanded the removal of GCC troops and recalled its ambassador. Bahrain has expelled the Iranian charge d’affaires, and Iran has ordered out a Bahrainian diplomat.
The United States finds itself in a bind because the US Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain. All Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton said after the brutal crackdown on 16 March was that Bahrain and the GCC were "on the wrong track". Indeed the United States seems more concerned about Iranian influence in the Gulf state than the implementation of democratic reforms. Even with the very muted pressure the Obama administration has placed on Bahrain, its relations with Saudi Arabia have become increasingly strained. The Saudis have several times warned both Iran and the United States not to interfere in Bahraini affairs.
It is not merely the United States who have taken a soft approach on Bahrain. The response of the international community has been decidedly cautious — with the exception of Iran. After a recent fact-finding visit to Bahrain, Robert Cooper, a special advisor to EU foreign policy chief Baroness Ashton, was defensive of the Bahraini security forces saying "accidents happen." He stated that "the exceptional nature of recent events is part of the problem, because … it’s not easy dealing with large demonstrations in which there may be violence."
The United Nations has made clear its displeasure at the situation in Bahrain, and in Manama in particular, but there seems little appetite for stronger measures.
The Middle East has long been a strategic balancing act for the United States and the international community at large and in Bahrain, the old paradigm is still standing with the overriding concern apparently to maintain economic and strategic stability. It all begs the question: what ultimately caused the world to recognise the need for change in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya? Because change was morally right, because regime change had become inexorable and thus inevitable, or was change encouraged out of concern to garner positive relations with the newly emerging leadership?
In Bahrain, strategic and economic concerns have outweighed any moral imperative to pressure the regime to make significant reforms. What happens next is likely to happen internally, though external mediation is still a possibility. A new offer by Kuwait to mediate in talks with the regime has been welcomed by Al Wefaq, but it remains to be seen whether the Al Khalifa regime is willing to consider reform. If the government is not genuine about dialogue and the unrest continues, regional implications may force an unwanted shift in the world’s relationship to Bahrain.
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