BAHRAIN: Despite Western complicity and Arab indifference, Bahrain’s revolution goes on
Nearly two years on from Bahrain’s uprising, protests continue on a daily basis and human rights violations are rampant. Roshan Muhammed Salih argues the revolution has proven an inconvenient one not only for a complicit West but for the region’s Sunnis too.
Bahrain has all the ingredients of the typical Arab Spring uprising – mass protests against pro-western despotic rulers, human rights violations, unlawful detention, military courts, foreign intervention, heroic resistance and bravery.
This cocktail has proven to be an effective mobiliser of the so-called Arab street, encouraging millions to support “good against evil, the “people versus the regime”. But not in Bahrain.
The truth is that much of the Arab and wider Muslim world remains indifferent to the situation there, buying into the sectarian propaganda bandied about by satellite TV stations and media commentators.
This uprising is seen by many as a Shia revolt which might extend Iran’s influence in the region. This attitude, in my view, is a serious error which will only entrench US-led imperialism through its Saudi proxy, and will poison Sunni-Shia relations when Muslim unity is a pre-requisite for Arab Spring success.
Rather, the uprising in Bahrain should be seen as a mutiny against despotism and western imperialism. And it should be supported by Sunnis whose own schools of thought have always considered Shias to be their brothers, and who should realise that western imperialism is the major obstacle to true and meaningful change.
Yet the fact is that nearly two years after the uprising first broke out in February 2011, not much seems to have changed in the country itself. Protests take place every day (largely unreported), human rights abuses and discrimination remain rampant, and the so-called reform process remains stalled.
The uprising has also been overshadowed by events in Syria, and more recently in Gaza, while regional and international support for Bahrain’s despotic rulers remains firm. And the Sunni world, it seems, just doesn’t care.
A year ago the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) excoriated the country’s rulers for using “excessive force” during a crackdown on protests in early 2011.
The head of the commission, Cherif Bassiouni, said many detainees were subjected to “physical and psychological torture” and their basic human rights had been violated. Many inmates, he added, had been blindfolded, whipped, kicked, given electric shocks and threatened with rape to extract confessions.
Sayyid Ahmad, who was recently granted asylum in Britain, says he has direct experience of this.
“Masked men beat me, they blindfolded and cuffed me when I was in detention,” he told me. “They made me chant slogans against Shia leaders, they pulled my hair, spat in my face. But the worst thing was when they sexually abused me – that was the only time when I felt I couldn’t take it anymore. That made me hate myself.”
Ahmed obtained his degree in electrical engineering from Brighton University before going back to Bahrain to find work in 2010. But on his return, he says, he couldn’t find a job because the best ones were reserved for Sunnis.
So after a frustrating 8 months unable to find the job he felt he deserved, Ahmad was more than ready to join the protests when they erupted in February 2011.
He reveled in the atmosphere at Pearl Roundabout where he could speak his mind openly for the first time in his life. He spoke to a number of international TV stations, denouncing the regime’s fake reforms and brutality.
But this euphoria was not to last and Ahmed was seriously injured when Pearl roundabout was stormed, and his many media appearances proved to be his downfall.
“After my initial arrest and torture I was sentenced to six months in jail. I thought this would be the end of the torture. I thought I would only have to go there and serve my time. But this time the ordeal was much worse. It wasn’t the pain, it was the mental torture and humiliation. Being spat at, being made to strip naked and sexually abused. Having to share a small cell with many others for 22 hours a day. Having to share a toilet in that cell with hardly any ventilation.
“But everything they did to me just encouraged me to do more. The king who is responsible for all of these crimes couldn’t erase the smile from our faces. We were behind bars but we were free in a way that he will never be. So when I was released I immediately rejoined the protests because I felt that if I had stayed silent it would have been a betrayal of the prisoners who were still inside.”
Ahmed eventually had to leave Bahrain after two more attempts on his life. He was granted asylum in the UK with unusual speed because his case was so convincing.
Moreover, human rights groups who have documented Bahrain’s dissent into brutality over the last two years say his ordeal is far from isolated.
So far nearly 100 people have been killed in a country of only 1.3 million. People have died in custody under torture, hundreds have been detained, opposition leaders are in jail and have been sentenced to life imprisonment, hundreds of civilians have received unfair trials in front of military courts. In addition, people who have demonstrated against the government have been dismissed from their jobs and from university, while others have been sentenced to death.
Cherif Bassiouni himself told Human Rights Watch that the government’s implementation of the BICI recommendations has been inadequate.
“The public prosecution has yet to investigate over 300 cases of alleged torture, some involving deaths in custody, and there has been no investigation, let alone prosecution, for command responsibility, even at the immediate supervisory level, of people killed in custody as a result of torture.”
Yet this litany of human rights abuses is often ignored or downplayed by the Arab commentariat.
The Saudi media and its propaganda organs such as Al Arabiya TV station or Asharq al Awsat newspaper tend to label the revolutionaries as Iranian Shia tools, part of a wider Shia plan to dominate the region.
They dispute the notion that the uprising is peaceful, pointing to the deaths of security force members, attacks on the foreign expatriate community and recent car bomb attacks in Manama.
For example, journalist Emad el-Din Adeeb recently wrote this in Asharq al Awsat: “Some believe that Tehran is preparing to engulf the entire Arab region by heating up all its regional issues, closing down its oil straits, provoking small wars, increasing sectarian strife and providing extremist groups with money, weapons and training, in order to use all of this as a bargaining chip when it comes to negotiating with Washington.”
Meanwhile, Aljazeera Arabic TV – the most powerful and widely watched media vehicle in the Arab world – also peddles this line, albeit in a slightly more sophisticated way. It has largely ignored or downplayed events in Bahrain as well, while giving developments in Libya, Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia and Syria saturation coverage.
Aljazeera’s star Islamic scholar, Dr Yusuf al Qaradawi, said in March 2011: “The Bahrain revolution is different from the other revolutions because it is a sectarian revolution. The other … revolutions are revolutions of the people against oppressive rulers … It is the Shias against the Sunnis… The Shias were not as peaceful as I thought. They attacked many Sunnis and took over mosques that did not belong to them. They used weapons … against many oppressed Sunnis.”
These Arab media outlets never miss an opportunity to attack Iran and Hizbollah (and Shias in general) for supporting Bashar al Assad in Syria. But a mirror image of this (albeit on smaller scale) is currently taking place in Bahrain.
But despite the Arab indifference Ali Mushaima, son of prominent jailed opposition activist Hassan Mushaima, believes it is a matter of time before the regime falls although he admits it could take up to 20 years.
Mushaima was one of 31 Bahrainis who recently had their nationality removed for allegedly trying to overthrow the regime.
He says he was tortured and abused in Bahrain as a teenager before being forcibly exiled in the UK. He told me that Britain’s close relationship with the al Khalifa ruling family is firmly in place despite London’s muted criticism of Manama.
“The Bahraini security services have free reign in the UK. I myself was attacked a few years ago near Euston station in London. I received telephone calls from unknown people warning me that I should stop my political activities against the regime. I informed the police about these incidents but nothing came of it.”
He added: “My father says he is a servant of his people and he is strong, but he is 65 years old and has cancer. He trusts in God but I am worried about him. The media in Bahrain want him dead and I am convinced that the regime is trying to kill him slowly.”
However, Mushaima is keen to play down the supposedly sectarian nature of the revolution. He says that despite the sectarian incitement from Bahraini TV and others the revolution has remained peaceful and there has not been one confirmed incident of a Shia harming a Sunni because they are Sunni, or indeed vice versa.
“Since the 1950s the opposition has contained many Sunnis and despite the fact that Saudi troops have destroyed Shia mosques our struggle is not with the Sunnis, it is with the regime. The country has not been destroyed like in Syria and the people are steadfast. This is a small country without borders, it is not Syria or Iraq. Everyone knows each other. So I am hopeful for the future which will hopefully be independent of any foreign power.”
Success or failure?
So what exactly does the future hold for Bahrain?
Well on the one hand the revolution definitely looks to be stalled for the moment. The regime holds minority support amongst its Sunni base and amongst foreign expatriate workers who are dependent on it for their livelihood. It is also busy trying to change the demographics of the country by granting fast-track nationality to Sunni foreigners.
Moreover, they have crucial foreign support. In fact, the regime probably would have fallen in March 2011 without Saudi-Gulf Cooperation Council intervention, and Riyadh certainly has no intention of losing Bahrain to the Iranians.
Bahrain’s other major backers are the US and the UK. America obviously has a major interest in propping up the al Khalifas because they host the US Fifth Fleet, facilitating American naval domination in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and the East African coast.
If the regime were to take on a democratic veneer and perhaps ally itself with Iran and the wider resistance axis, the presence of that fleet would come into question, although this is a point that the Bahraini opposition does not focus on.
Moreover, the US does not appear to have a good back-up plan if the regime were to fall, unlike, some might argue, in Egypt and Tunisia where new regimes have failed to take on an anti-US hue.
Britain, meanwhile, has extensive business and military ties to Bahrain. When it comes to the island the emphasis is always on “dialogue with the opposition” and “reforms,” but when it comes to Syria it is all about “regime change”, “sanctions” and “assistance to the rebels.”
A number of prominent British establishment figures have been hired to legitimize the reform process and send a message to the world that action is being taken. And of course the British government has supplied the security forces with crowd control weapons.
So clearly powerful forces are propping up Bahrain’s regime but the question is: for how long?
The revolutionaries themselves are not despondent, and believe that long-term the uprising will be successful, unlike seemingly more fruitful revolutions elsewhere.
Firstly, the protestors have kept up the momentum and are applying relentless pressure on the authorities by paralyzing the economy and making the nation renowned as an international pariah. Their demands have changed from reform to regime change, while youth–led movements are calling the tune to a greater extent than the more complaint official opposition bloc.
Secondly, the non-militarisation of the opposition has ensured the country has not been destroyed and that when the regime is eventually toppled institutions will still be intact.
And thirdly, the regional dynamics are still very uncertain. US power is definitely on the wane and Saudi may come under internal pressure from its own diverse population, especially as its oil resources deplete. On the other hand, Iran is also under huge economic and military pressure by the US–led coalition, as it is in Syria where it has lost much of the support of the Sunni world.
So will Saudi become preoccupied by stemming revolt in its own backyard as the years pass by? And will the US’s power and will to intervene so directly in the Middle East wane as it switches its focus to countering China?
If this happens then the al Khlaifas will surely be consigned to the dustbin of history where many argue they deservedly belong. So while other revolutions – in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and Syria – took a short time to fail, perhaps the Pearl Revolution may take a long time to succeed.
As for Arab Sunni indifference, the question is: will they be on the right side of history or will they further antagonise the Bahraini people and drive them closer to Iran? And will they further fan the flames of sectarianism which are burning so brightly in Syria, or will they conclude that change is as inevitable in Manama as it is in Damascus and plan for a future of unity and cooperation rather than division and conflict?
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