North Africa, West Asia

Misplaced concern: the sectarian scapegoat in Bahrain

To truly counter violent extremism in Bahrain and maintain the country’s stability, the US must use its leverage to urge the government to fully implement human rights reform and political reconciliation.

Kate Kizer
9 December 2015

Demotix/Ammar Bin Yasser. All rights reserved.After a warm meeting with Bahrain’s Foreign Minister, Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, before the Thanksgiving holiday, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry informally endorsed the line of the repressive government. Highlighting its role as a “contributing partner” to joint counterterrorism efforts, Secretary Kerry waved away longstanding concerns over Bahrain’s lack of human rights reforms, praising government efforts to “bring people together to reduce the sectarian divisions,” which have supposedly made internal politics irreconcilable.

In fronting sectarian divisions, Kerry has lent credence to the convenient narrative that Bahrain’s ongoing crisis is reducible to a simple Sunni-Shia struggle, with overtones of Iranian interference and a regional cold war.

This narrative is convenient because the truth, that Bahrain’s ongoing failure to enact human rights reforms and foster political reconciliation renders it a counterterrorism liability, makes for cold meetings and curt press statements. That Iran can exercise influence within Bahrain—a claim most fervently trumpeted in government-backed newspapers—results from the violent tactics the authorities utilized to suppress the mass protests of early 2011 and quash any peaceful dissent since.

Kerry’s identification of Bahrain’s internal challenges as firmly sectarian is a repudiation of existing US policy toward Bahrain, which is based on accepting the findings of the 2011 report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) and encouraging the government to implement its recommendations. Based on more than 9,000 interviews, the 503-page report rejected government claims that protests stemmed from sectarian grievances or were influenced by Iran, instead finding that the popular uprising resulted from Bahrainis’ political and socio-economic grievances with the monarchy.

The BICI offered 26 recommendations to right the government’s violent response to the demonstrations and address the “culture of impunity” that it found existed among the majority-Sunni security forces. The US and international community welcomed its urgent and detailed proposals intended to promote intra-societal reconciliation, and end the violence and political censure that, as President Obama has reiterated, allows extremist movements to gain traction within disenfranchised populations who see no means of having their grievances heard. 

The current administration is acting upon the disconcerting notion that the same tired policies will somehow yield different results.

The government of Bahrain has repeatedly stated that, in the four short years since the BICI’s release, it has enacted all applicable recommendations; our research, however, paints a vastly different picture. In reality, the Bahraini government has taken few real steps towards fully implementing any more than two of the recommendations. Perhaps more concerning, the recommendations that the government has either failed to engage or treated only superficially are the very ones that addressed the popular grievances that led to the uprising in the first place.

Since 2011, security force violence, in the form of street violence, arbitrary arrests, torture, and other significant human rights abuses, has continued, with no consistent accountability. Protests have been banned since 2012. Never particularly tolerant, the government has sought to strengthen its laws criminalizing free speech and criticism, convicting peaceful dissenters to years in prison in a highly partial criminal justice system. Worse, security officials have consistently tortured detainees to coerce false confessions, swelling the ranks of the roughly 3,000 political prisoners, including an American citizen, who languish in Bahrain’s jails.

As the situation deteriorates, the Bahraini government is working to ensure that progress remains somewhere over the horizon. Despite Kerry’s remarks that the royal family has worked “diligently to try to reach out and engage” in a national dialogue and reconciliation process, a review of the last four years shows such a claim to be disingenuous.

Since the protests began, the government has convicted much of the peaceful opposition’s leadership to lengthy prison terms in military and criminal trials, many of whom are accused of violence, despite independent documentation exonerating them. In 2015 alone, officials have arrested four of the main opposition leaders who remained free post-2011. Furthermore, the formal dialogues have appeared more like monologues. The government failed to invite a majority of the opposition parties to the multiple proceedings and arrested opposition leaders during talks, ultimately moving the goalposts by saying further dialogue could only come from the opposition’s participation in elections (themselves engineered to prevent independent parties from gaining a majority of parliamentary seats).

Bahrain’s failure to adhere to the BICI’s most critical recommendations has left the United States in a bind. Prioritizing reform as a means to ensure Bahrain’s stability and overall efficacy as a security partner could cause intra-alliance tension at a time when the president has prioritized other regional matters, including the Iranian nuclear deal and the Syrian conflict. But abandoning the BICI’s roadmap enables the Bahraini government to unwittingly sow the seeds of future radicalization.

While a sympathetic observer can appreciate this dilemma, it’s hard to treat the US approach as reasonable. Unwilling to weather passing diplomatic discomfort, the current administration, by embracing the Bahraini government’s sectarian rhetoric and even reconstituting bilateral weapons sales, is acting upon the disconcerting notion that the same tired policies—uncritical support for repressive states that “serve” security interests—will somehow yield different results.

US policy makers don’t need to look into the future to see the long-term results of Bahrain’s repressive domestic policies: recent reports of violent attacks on security forces, whether from disgruntled Bahraini youth or nefarious external actors, have largely resulted from more than four years of government resistance to reform and reconciliation. To truly counter violent extremism in Bahrain and maintain the country’s stability, the US must look past the Gulf monarchy’s scapegoat of sectarianism. Iran is not torturing native-born Bahrainis, nor does a Sunni-Shia division lock opposition parties out of national dialogues. Ebrahim Sharif, the Sunni leader of the secular Wa’ad party, sits in jail alongside Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of Shia-oriented al-Wefaq.

Unless Washington uses its leverage to urge the government to fully implement the BICI recommendations and free the more than 3,000 political prisoners to engage in a serious dialogue, Bahrain’s security will remain in question, as will its efficacy as a “key” national security partner and location for the Fifth Fleet. Action may temporarily risk cozy bilateral meetings, but its absence could cause America to lose yet another ally in the fight against violent extremism. 

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