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No Arab Spring for Bahrain

No Arab Spring for Bahrain

A protester in Bahrain holds up a picture of jailed human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja.

Torture and death lurk behind the return of Bahrain’s glitzy Formula 1 race, writes Rasheed Abul-Samh


THE government of Bahrain was sure that hosting the Formula 1 race again last Sunday, after it was cancelled last year because of the violent clashes between mostly Shia protesters and police, would surely be a sign that things were improving and that the nation was finally healing.

But the island-state went into a virtual lockdown to produce an event that was devoid of many spectators, while violent clashes occurred in the villages surrounding the capital Manama, with many injured and at least one death.

The now 14-month long civil war between the majority-Shia, who want more rights and a constitutional monarchy, and the Al-Khalifa ruling family, who are Sunni, had dropped off the radars of most international media, who had been much more attracted by the other revolts of the Arab Spring such as the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and the ongoing fighting in Syria. Now, the media attention returned, if only for one weekend and for all the wrong reasons.

The hunger strike of Abdel-Hadi Al-Khawaja, a prominent 50-year-old human rights activist, who has not had any solid food for more than two months, came to symbolise the desperation that so many of Bahrain’s Shia feel towards a government that despite cosmetic attempts at reform, has obstinately refused to share power, release hundreds of political prisoners, or reinstate those sacked from their jobs after taking part in anti- government protests that started on 14 February 2011.

A Bahrain court heard appeals on Monday from defence lawyers for Al-Khawaja and seven other Shia activists, who were all sentenced to life in prison last year following their involvement in the protests, and want to have their sentences overturned. Unfortunately, the court adjourned to 30 April, leaving Al-Khawaja’s family deeply worried that he may not survive until then. One of his daughters, Mariam, told the Danish TV2 channel that doctors predict he has only two or three more days to live.

“Al-Khawaja’s fate will have considerable impact on what happens in Bahrain, at least in the short run,” said Toby Jones, associate professor of history at Rutgers University, and who has been closely following developments in Bahrain. “A move to have him retried in a civilian court would be a positive development, but I suspect most Bahrainis would see such a move as too little, too late. And given his grave condition, there are serious concerns that he may not live long enough to see a new trial through. His death will unleash a new round of protests and based on past regime responses, will lead to more anti-protester violence.”

King Hamad bin Eissa Al-Khalifa formed an international investigation panel last year, led by Sherif Bassiouni, which was tasked into looking at the abuses committed when thousands of Bahraini protesters were arrested, jailed and tortured. The result was an impressive report that documented many abuses and recommended several reforms. The king has taken none, and as Mariam Al-Khawaja told a meeting of activists in Cairo this month, not a single high-ranking official was fired or punished for the abuses.

A main reason for the reluctance of the Al-Khalifas to implement any significant reforms is the fact that its rich benefactor neighbor, Saudi Arabia, has taken a hardline against the protesters, insisting that they are being instigated by Iran in order to create a Shia-ruled nation on its doorstep. The United States, which has its 5th Navy Fleet based in Bahrain, looked the other way in March of last year when Saudi troops rolled across the causeway into Bahrain, under the guise of being part of a Gulf Cooperation Council force that King Hamad had asked to come in. But Bahraini Shia have gone to great lengths to remain independent of Iran, and no credible evidence of any Iranian involvement in the unrest has been presented.

“There is no evidence of Iranian involvement. Their insistence is meant to justify their crackdown,” explained Jones. “The Saudis would view the loss of Bahrain as a vassal state as a strategic calamity. Even without Iranian involvement, it would result in a significant dent in Saudi hegemony in the Gulf.”

Jones also believes that the Saudis want to maintain the US military presence in Bahrain as a deterrent to what it sees as the Iranian threat.

“While the Saudis don’t want the Americans on their territory, they do want a US military presence nearby. Bahrain’s opposition have not said they would kick the 5th Fleet out of Manama, but Saudi Arabia certainly worries that that could be one result of a successful revolution there,” said Jones. “The Saudis also know that the American geopolitical priority in the Gulf is to contain Iran. By repeatedly insisting that Iran is behind the Bahraini uprising, Riyadh seeks to appeal to American anxieties. Even though the claims of Iranian meddling are wholly manufactured, they seem to be working. We have neither heard criticism nor seen constructive engagement by the US in Bahrain.”

Bahrainis remain deeply split between those who want to keep the royal family as is, those who want it reformed and made more democratic, and those who want them gone completely.

“Some Bahrainis are saying: ‘We do not want the Al-Khalifa regime,’ and others are saying, mostly the political societies, that we need a constitutional monarchy first. So there is a difference in opinion,” Zainab Al-Khawaja, another daughter of Abdel-Hadi, said in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly late last year.

“If you ask me personally, I want to see all the top members of the royal family on trial. I don’t want a constitutional monarchy where the same people who are responsible for killing our children, for torturing our fathers, for beating our sisters, remain on their thrones and live peacefully and happily ever after. It’s not the way that this is supposed to happen,” she said.

Yet with the government not releasing political prisoners and unwilling to even talk about sharing power, the situation in Bahrain seems to be grim and is already slipping into more violence, with protesters using more Molotov cocktails and pipe bombs against security forces, much like their counterparts in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province.

“Bahrain is on edge. The regime clearly thinks it has a winning strategy. But it has in fact sown the seeds of permanent conflict and resistance. The regime has sealed Manama off from the worst of the violence, but in order to sustain that it is forced to carry out a permanent wave of oppression and brutality in the country’s villages,” concluded Jones.

Al-Ahram Weekly Online : Located at: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2012/1095/re1.htm