Monday, August 20, 2012

The Bahraini Uprising and American Hypocrisy

Over the last year, as protests and isolated uprisings in Syria have grown into a full-scale civil war, Western nations have been foremost among those calling for Pres. Bashar al-Asad to step down. The United States has been no exception, likening his regime to the fallen governments of Hosni Mubarak, Moammar Qaddafi, and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Yet absent from the calls for democracy is another small Arab state that, like Syria, has been caught in the grips of a sustained uprising since spring 2011. Bahrain, a small state on the eastern border of Saudi Arabia, has not experienced the same degree of violent repression as Syria, yet human rights abuses are just as widespread and flagrant as many of the nations where the U.S. has demanded and actively sought regime change.

Protesters in the now demolished Pearl Roundabout

Bahrain’s essential problem is sectarian discrimination and disenfranchisement. The majority Shi’a population of Bahrain is noticeably marginalized in a country where they make up approximately 70 percent of the citizenry, while Bahraini Sunnis enjoy places of privilege and power in both the private and public sectors. The Sunni royal family, the Al Khalifas, have ruled the country since 1783 and the current ruler, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, has not fulfilled his initial promises of reform since taking power in 1999. Following a brief hopeful period at the beginning of his reign, the country has since slid back into its past habits of practicing systematic torture, repressing of activists, and importing Sunnis from other Arab nations to staff the army and police and tip the demographic balance in favor of the ruling class.

The Bahraini uprising began last year in February in the wake of the Arab Awakening protests that swept through the region. On February 14, the designated “Day of Rage,” protesters took to the streets for what was supposed to be a peaceful march and were met by police in full riot gear firing live rounds, tear gas, and rubber bullets. For a month, the movement was centered on Pearl Roundabout in Manama, a monument to Bahrain’s pearl farming past, where protesters set up an “occupation.” The protesters’ initial demands largely centered on pro-democracy reforms rather than an all-out appeal to topple the government, but criticism of the monarchy grew as the death toll mounted.

The Roundabout following Bloody Thursday.

February 17 put an end to the protesters’ hopes that their movement would be allowed to continue occupying the Roundabout. On what became known as “Bloody Thursday,” police raided the camp and used live ammunition to disperse protesters. Following the raid, hospital staff reported being prevented from treating the injured and witnesses described police attacks taking place within hospital grounds on wounded protesters. After an urgent appeal was launched by the Bahraini monarchy to the Gulf Cooperation Council, GCC troops, mostly Saudis, arrived in March to help put down the protests.

Since the arrival of the GCC troops, the uprising has only continued to gather strength, while the monarchy has only persisted in its brutal repression the opposition movement. Shi’a mosques have been demolished in scores, arbitrary arrests and disappearances of opposition figures are widespread, and Bahrain’s ugly tradition of systematic and widespread torture has mounted in the prisons and jails. Social networking sites have been blocked in an attempt to interrupt the organization of protests, which have occurred on a small scale almost daily. In one of the largest recent demonstrations, between 100,000-250,000 took to the streets to demand reforms and regime change on 9 March 2012.

Bahraini protesters take to the streets. Photo by Lewa'a Alnasr.

Despite the deteriorating situation in Bahrain, the international community has done little to put an end to the violations of fundamental human rights. U.S. officials have expressed dismay at the use of tear gas, birdshot, and other violent means to repress the protests, yet resumed arms sales to Bahrain in May and approved a $53 million dollar transfer of military equipment to the country. In a move that undermines its criticism of Russia for arming the Asad regime in Syria, the U.S. simultaneously demonstrated that it would not step in to help the protesters, and that indeed it would contribute to their dire situation by arming their oppressors.

Bahrain’s ruling family has long enjoyed the comforts of being a close U.S. ally and a virtual protectorate of Saudi Arabia. America relies on Bahrain as its base for the U.S. Fifth Fleet and as a security bulwark against Iranian encroachment in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia shudders at the thought of a Shi’ite-led Bahrain operating on its eastern border, coincidentally next to its Eastern Provinces, where the majority of its oil as well as the restive Saudi Shi’ite population are located. Toppling the Al Khalifas could result in an Iranian satellite, a base for arming a Shi’ite uprising in Saudi Arabia, and a discontinuation of the U.S.’s access to the region’s oil and its own naval bases. As Doug Bandow of Forbes magazine wrote in a recent article, “the U.S. doesn’t want a little thing like some state-sponsored human rights violations to get in the way of an otherwise beautiful friendship.”

Bandow and other observers have been quick to note the painfully obvious hypocrisy of the United States’ stance on dictatorial regimes that happen to be in control of their allies’ governments. While a country like Syria is an easy target given its unfriendly stance towards the West, countries with persistent records of human rights violations like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are more difficult to confront. U.S. relations with Bahrain illustrate a larger American dilemma when it comes to human rights and democracy: how far are we willing to go to protect the citizens of the world from their own governments, especially if those governments have traditionally been our friends?

Moreover, how will inaction damage America’s image abroad and undermine any efforts the U.S. does make to end the excesses of authoritarian regimes? Until America confronts tough questions such as these, it will face detractors like Russia and China who use the U.S. position to justify their support of dictators and human rights violators. In the meantime, it is the citizens of Bahrain, Syria, and others who will suffer the consequences of American inaction in the face of tyranny.

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