The Bahrain ‘Spring’: the revolution that wasn’t televised

Bahrain needs to set about the hard work of healing societal cleavages, to build the truly sovereign and democratic country which the majority of its citizens appear so determined to achieve. If their much-touted ‘democracy promotion’ rhetoric is to have any real significance, western governments must help rather than hinder this process.

Despite the recent flurry of news coverage of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report’s release last week, the story of the Bahraini pro-democracy uprising has been one of the least reported amongst those of the ‘Arab spring’. This goes for  the regional Arab media, whose cheerleading and persistent coverage of uprisings elsewhere in the region contributed to whatever successes have been achieved, as well as for the majority of western press. This despite the fact that the violence and repression the Bahraini protesters met has matched, if not exceeded in some instances, those elsewhere in the region.

The stunted Bahraini revolution has also garnered much less rhetorical and material support from western governments. In Tunisia and Egypt, western governments supported, albeit belatedly, the expression of ‘people power’ against the repression and corruption of their former allies. In Syria, they have publicly called for regime change, and in Libya they actively engaged in ending Gaddafi’s 42 year rule. By contrast, there have only been muted calls for political reform and an end to the violence of the repressive Khalifa regime. This is perhaps not surprising considering all that is at stake for western governments in Bahrain. 

First and foremost is the fact that Bahrain is home to the US Fifth Fleet, whose controversial stationing in the country’s port was the source of another pivotal anti-democratic moment in the island nation’s history. In August 1975, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s father, Emir Isa bin Salman Al Kahlifa, formally dissolved the national assembly after it failed to ratify the extension of the lease for the US naval units, essentially putting an end to the country’s short-lived experiment with a parliamentary monarchical system.

It seems unlikely that Bahrain’s strategic importance to the US will decline in the near future.  As former US Fifth Fleet commander vice admiral Charles Moore said recently, quoting the late Middle East force commander and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William Crowe,  Bahrain is "pound for pound, man for man, the best ally the United States has anywhere in the world".

These double standards have not been lost on the Bahraini protestors. As Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights put it: ‘Democracy isn’t only for those countries the United States has a problem with.’ 

US and UK complicity in Khalifa regime’s crimes

 

In yet another delayed response, the US government announced in October that it would hold up a $53 million arms sale to Bahrain. Yet as in cases of Egypt and Tunisia, many people in Bahrain viewed this step, as well as those undertaken by the British government to suspend arms exports licences to the repressive Khalifa regime, as ‘too little, too late’. In the months before the protests began in February, the US sold more than $200m in weapons and equipment to Bahrain, including $760,000 in firearms.

Recent news that the former police chief of Philadelphia and Miami, John Timoney, has been recruited by Bahrain’s Interior Ministry to advise the Bahrainis on policing strategies, will come as no comfort to those in the opposition hoping that the next American intervention would be more constructive. They may be particularly sceptical considering his policing style was so notorious it came to be dubbed Timoney’s ‘Miami Model’ by Jeremy Scahill, a journalist who covered the chief’s heavy-handed policing of protests around the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000 and the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit meeting in Miami in 2003. Timoney’s militarized crowd control strategy involved ‘the heavy use of concussion grenades, pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets and baton charges to disperse protesters.’

Adding insult to injury, according to recent revelations, a unit from Bahrain’s military was invited to the US to receive tips on ‘crowd control’ in a police training exercise called ‘Urban Shield 2011’. The training involved the collaboration of the Israeli Border Police unit, hardly known for their adherence to internationally recognized human rights standards, as well as the Oakland Police Department and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, which were involved in organizing a widely-condemned, violent raid last month on Occupy Oakland, part of the national/international protest movement against economic and social inequality.

If they were expecting a more supportive stance from the UK, another stalwart ally of their government, the Bahraini opposition will have certainly been disappointed by the delayed response out of London. It took the British government months to suspend its arms exports licences to the rights-violating Khalifa regime, and even after doing so, they saw no contradiction in inviting the King’s representatives to the UK’s Arms Fair in September, where everything from ‘crowd control’ weapons and tear gas to F16 planes and unmanned drones were sold to the regime.

If they were hoping the release of the BICI report would lead to a more proactive British position on the human rights situation in Bahrain, the opposition will take little comfort upon learning of the appointment of Former Metropolitan police assistant commissioner John Yates, who resigned from his post in the wake of the British phone-hacking scandal, to oversee reform of Bahrain’s police force.

BICI Report: too little, too late? 

The BICI was established by the King on 29 June 2011, pursuant to Royal Order No. 28, to ‘report on the events that took place in Bahrain from February 2011, and the consequences of those events.’ Despite its mandate, it is clear the audience for this report was never intended to be Bahrain’s Shi’a majority citizens.  

Had the Bahraini people figured in the King’s planning, he would have ordered the remit of the Commission to include the underlying grievances that led to the protests in the first place, as demanded by many sectors of Bahraini civil society. These include the institutionalised discrimination against the Shi’a in jobs, housing, and education. They also include the systematic political discrimination against the Shi’a both via their exclusion from positions of power in government and defence institutions, and through the practice of sectarian-based gerrymandering of electoral districts and manipulation of Bahrain’s demographic makeup through political naturalisation of foreigners and extension of voting rights to Sunni citizens of other countries. All of this amounts to sectarianism, not the primordial kind referred to in the fear-mongering exhortations of Saudi and western leaders, but rather elite-generated, for reasons of political expediency.

It seems unlikely from the report’s focus on the responsibility of 20 low-level officers for the ‘incidents’ that occurred between February and March, in which scores of pro-democracy protesters were murdered, tortured and imprisoned by state security apparatuses, that the opposition will be assuaged. The attempt to place the blame on a few ‘bad apples’ demonstrates the massive gap that remains between the narratives of the opposing sides, specifically on the issue of accountability. 

As stated in the draft shadow report released by several Bahraini human rights organisations on the same day as the BICI report, not only does the opposition want to see those responsible for the torture and killing put on trial, but they also want to see accountability for ‘those who ordered and authorized such acts.’ The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, one of the drafters of this report, says it has evidence of four members of the royal family ‘accused of personally torturing detainees,’ in addition to ‘the names of over 50 officers’ similarly partaking in torture.

Continued allegations of Iranian involvement in the kingdom's 10-month-old unrest, contradicting the BICI report’s own conclusions on the matter, show the King is still adhering to old diversionary tactics. If the government were truly serious about promoting national reconciliation rather than merely appeasing its western backers, it would direct its energy instead towards re-entering into dialogue with the opposition.

Dialogue would include those same sectors of society that it so abruptly shut out only three years after Hamad’s accession to the throne, when he went back on initial promises of political reform by unilaterally promulgating a new constitution in 2002. This did little to meet the democratic demands or aspirations of his people. The same disillusionment with the King’s cynical machinations is expressed by opposition leaders today. As Abdul Jalil Khalil, a senior member of the Al Wefaq, Bahrain's largest opposition party has argued, the problem goes beyond the rights violations detailed in the Commission’s report and is fundamentally ‘a political one…We will not solve the problem by the Bassiouni (BICI) report.’

Addressing root causes of the Bahraini uprisings

The gross human rights violations carried out by officers during the uprisings and which continue until today - with at least 4 individuals killed since the start of the BICI investigation, political repression continuing and excessive violence still being used against peaceful protestors- did not occur in a vacuum. Bahrain is a western-backed dictatorship. In dictatorships, no policy is carried out without at least the knowledge and complicity of those in positions of power.  Yet considering the geopolitics of the region, and Bahrain’s client status, one cannot merely look to the royal palace to explain the subtle ways in which power operates. Rather, one must look to Bahrain’s patrons, near and far, that provide economic, military, and diplomatic support to a country whose own limited natural resources and minority rule provide few other sources of legitimacy. Yet legitimacy acquired at the barrel of a gun, be it that brandished by their Saudi neighbours, bought from the British, or perched atop an America naval vessel, can never be anything but precarious. 

The Bahraini people deserve a thorough and independent investigation into the real causes and consequences of their revolution. It is only then that they can get on with the hard work of healing societal cleavages and instituting structural changes that will allow for the development of a truly sovereign and democratic Bahrain, which the majority of its citizens appear so determined to achieve. If their much-touted ‘democracy promotion’ rhetoric is to have any real significance, western governments must help, rather than hinder this process. They can begin by suspending arms sales to the Khalifa regime until meaningful change has been achieved. 

About the authors

Corinna Mullin is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Tunis as well as a Research Associate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Her current research focuses on the dynamic relationship between the Arab revolutions and international relations, focusing in particular on: legacies of western intervention in the region, the role of international actors in transitional justice, as well as the impact of the revolutions on Tunisian and Egyptian foreign policies.

Azadeh Shahshahani is a human rights attorney based in Atlanta, and is President-elect of the National Lawyers Guild.