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  • Will Bahrainis Finally Dialogue?

    William Fisher

    William Fisher

    After two years of civil unrest, death, torture and destruction, the King of Bahrain finally sat down with his subjects last week for the start of a much-delayed “National Dialogue” designed to bring “meaningful reform that meets the aspirations of all of Bahrain’s citizens.”

    Those were the words of U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland, speaking on Monday after what must have been months of hyper-diplomatic arm-twisting.

    “The United States welcomes the start of Bahrain’s National Dialogue. We’re encouraged by the broad participation of Bahraini political groups in the dialogue.”

    She added, “We view the dialogue as a positive step in a broader process that can result in meaningful reform that meets the aspirations of all of Bahrain’s citizens. We believe that efforts to promote engagement and reconciliation among Bahrainis are necessary to long-term stability.”

    The tiny, oil rich state is strategically located and is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet. In early 2011, protests erupted led by majority Shi'ite Muslims, who include the King and the Royal Family.  The Shi'ite Muslims, who claim they are discriminated against, demanded an end to the Sunni-led monarchy's political domination and full powers for parliament. Shi'ite Muslims complain of discrimination in the electoral system, jobs, housing, education and government departments. The U.S. views Bahrain as an ally a
    against Shi’ite Iran.

    At the beginning of the serious unrest, the Gulf Cooperation Council ordered Saudi troops to drive over the causeway that separates the two countries. Saudi troops assisted Bahraini police and security forces in quelling the unrest.

    This will be the second time the government and opposition groups have attempted to organize a national dialogue. Earlier, the largest democracy group, Wefaq, and five other groups, have said they are ready to participate in the talks but have called for a constitutional democracy with an elected government rather than one appointed by the king.

    Thirty-five people died during the unrest and two months of martial law that followed, but the opposition says that number has risen to more than 80. The government rejects the figure.

    While martial law has ended and the government has introduced what most observers regard as minor reforms, the opposition says the measures are cosmetic.

    Fifteen months ago, the King of Bahrain received a 500-page report from the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). The report contained the Commission’s findings regarding the February-March 2011 popular uprising and the government’s heavy-handed response.

    The King and his government were widely hailed for commissioning and then personally receiving the report, which described in detail the frequent use of excessive force by security forces, the systemic abuse and torture of detainees, mass discrimination and dismissals of workers and students, and grave violations of medical neutrality.

    It highlighted a culture of impunity prevalent among government officials at all levels, concluding that many abuses “could not have happened without the knowledge of higher echelons of the command structure.”

    This report was no inside job. The shocker here was that the report was commissioned by the King himself, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah, and funded and carried out under the supervision of an independent team headed by an Egyptian judge with an impeccable reputation for fairness.

    The King’s decisions to both commission and accept the report was hailed by some in the international community as an extraordinary act of political leadership. It was seen by many as a potentially critical step toward resolving the country’s escalating political crisis.

    But world leaders wondered: Could this really be happening? Would the Sovereign really be prepared to expose the shortcomings of his regime to the very adversaries who focused public attention on these very same shortcomings?

    So, while many praised the King, others did not. Many did not fully understand why the King was taking these unconventional actions, and were suspicious of His Majesty’s motives and strategy. They worried that he was simply stalling, buying time and hoping his opposition would fade away.

    More than a year later, most observers in the international community believe they have their answer. What fundamental reforms recommended by the BICI were actually implemented? Virtually none say Bahrain-watchers.

    Next to nothing! The tiny, oil-rich, and strategically located nation continues to put out near-daily cotton-candy press releases and, according to the major think-tanks focused on Bahrain, at the same time continues to be wracked by simmering violence and social divisions, and the government appears unwilling to enact substantial political reforms.

    However, through the government press apparatus and high-powered PR consultants, it appears more than ready to continue launching a tsunami of what I regard as largely insignificant developments as “news” – though the chances of finding actual news in these documents are somewhere between slim and none.

    The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published the following descriptions of the current situation:

    The three main Bahraini political forces—the Shia opposition, Sunni Islamists, and the ruling Sunni Al Khalifa family—are paralyzed by internal fissures with more militant idealists overtaking pragmatists.

    For the U.S., which docks its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, this impasse looms as a crucial test of America’s ability to balance the need for political reform with long-standing strategic interests and military partnerships.

    The US has been unsuccessful in persuading various players to embrace a robust dialogue to come up with practical and equitable solutions to the island’s deep-seated problems. The CarnegieFoundation sees this failure as a sign of increased anti-Americanism in Bahrain and the waning influence American wields in the area.

    Even before the BICI report was commissioned, Bahrain hired some of the most high-powered New York public relations firms to keep us all informed about how well things were going and the substantial number of the report’s recommendations were actually being implemented. This reporter can affirm that many follow-up questions to the press office from journalists went unanswered.

    A lot of the pushback against “political reform by press release” came from the daughter and one of the sisters of arguably the country’s leading human rights defenders. Both were imprisoned by the government, the father for a life sentence. The un-jailed daughter was working from outside Bahrain. She was trying with limited resources to match the blizzard of press releases launched into the in-boxes of Western journalists.

    And Carnegie’s Frederic Wehrey writes,

    “And while assessments of the Royal Family’s commitment to genuine, comprehensive reform continue, those doing the assessing have been unable to transparently provide evidence to support such claims and allow access for outside observers to confirm such claims independently.”

    He adds, “They have been unable to produce meaningful reforms through dialogue or political participation, the mainstream Shia opposition represented by Al Wefaq is losing popular support. The youth are rising up. The February 14 Youth Coalition—a leaderless network  formed in the early days of Bahrain’s uprising—is winning over some of Al Wefaq’s supporters. It has rejected dialogue with the regime, called for the   creation of a republic, and confronted security forces with sporadic violence.

    A hardline faction of the Al Khalifa family, led by the royal court minister   and the commander of the Bahrain Defense Force (BDF), is drowning out more   moderate voices.  Class-based Sunni anger with the regime is rising. Hardline royal factions   have attempted to co-opt this dissent and redirect it against the Shia—a   losing strategy that is stoking sectarianism in Bahraini society.

    Anti-Americanism is growing among both hardline Sunni Islamists and  rejectionist Shia elements. This anti-Americanism coupled with the entrenched   regime’s apparent intent to ignore calls for deep reform risks damaging American legitimacy and jeopardizing U.S. assets and people.

    America needs to “Rethink the long-standing U.S. defense relationship with Bahrain. The relationship may soon become a liability given the stalemate on reform, endemic violence, and mounting anti-Americanism.”

    Wehrey concludes: Two years after the uprising that shook its foundations, Bahrain is a broken country, wracked by simmering violence and social polarization. Its Sunni-dominated government shows little willingness to implement substantial reforms and its young citizens—both Sunni and Shia—are becoming increasingly
    radicalized. Its once-vibrant economy is stagnant.

    “As of early 2013, over 100 people have been killed in violence related to the uprising. Successive efforts to resolve the impasse have failed, largely due to deep divisions within the country’s three main camps. Within the royal family, a hardline faction has come to dominate the government’s response, framing the crisis as a security problem rather than a symptom of a broader political
    malaise that requires sweeping reforms.”

    Among the opposition similar splits have arisen between an institutionalized current that is receptive to dialogue and advocates gradual change within the context of the monarchy, and more youthful, rejectionist networks who employ confrontational street tactics and demand the end of the monarchy.

    The Sunni Islamist field has witnessed similar fissures, between loyalists and a more genuine opposition. Underpinning all of these dynamics is a creeping sectarianism at the societal level and disturbing levels of anti-Americanism.

    The United States finds itself in the undesirable position of maintaining close ties with a repressive regime that has skillfully avoided meaningful reforms while engaging in a concerted public relations campaign to burnish its image.

    As the crisis persists, troubling questions have arisen about the deleterious effects of America’s strategic relationship with Bahrain, which has long been a central pillar in U.S. power projection in the Gulf. Most crucially, Bahrain serves as the seat of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and it hosts a number of U.S. air and special operations capabilities. But increasingly, the United States finds itself in the undesirable position of maintaining close ties with a repressive regime that has skillfully avoided meaningful reforms while engaging in a concerted public relations campaign to burnish its image. Ultimately, breaking through Bahrain’s impasse is not just a matter of promoting human rights but mitigating potential security challenges to U.S. assets and people and—eventually, perhaps—forestalling a violent challenge to the monarchy.

    Backed by robust Saudi financial and military support, the Bahraini regime may be able to hobble through the current crisis, withstanding extraordinary pressure from both its own citizenry and the international community. But the status quo is not sustainable indefinitely.

    With the likely fall of the Alawite-dominated government in Syria, Bahrain’s Al Khalifa family will soon be the only sectarian minority in the Middle East ruling over a majority that has little-to-no say in its government. Recent history suggests that, absent sweeping structural changes, the outcome for such an arrangement will not be peaceful reforms, more forceful and public engagement with key leaders, and using multilateral forums to sanction regime infractions.

    The goal of all of these efforts should be raising the economic and political costs for hardliners who would block reforms while increasingly, the United States finds itself in the undesirable position of maintaining close ties with a repressive regime that has skillfully avoided meaningful reforms while engaging in a concerted public relations campaign to burnish its image.

    Ultimately, breaking through Bahrain’s impasse is not just a matter of promoting human rights but mitigating potential security challenges to U.S. assets and people and—eventually, perhaps—forestalling a violent challenge to the monarchy.
    Backed by robust Saudi financial and military support, the Bahraini regime may be able to hobble through the current crisis, withstanding extraordinary pressure from both its own citizenry and the international community. But the status quo is not sustainable indefinitely.

    With the likely fall of the Alawite-dominated government in Syria, Bahrain’s Al Khalifa family will soon be the only sectarian minority in the Middle East ruling over a majority that has little-to-no say in its government. Recent history suggests that, absent sweeping structural changes, the outcome for such an arrangement will not be peaceful.

    Other observers have reached similar conclusions. In a separate report published in the Washington Post, Stephen McInerney, executive director of POMED (the Project on Middle East Democracy) quoted former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, She said:

    “Our challenge in a country like Bahrain,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last November, is that the United States “has many complex interests. We’ll always have to walk and chew gum at the same time.” The growing problem is that the United States does plenty of “walking” — maintaining our strategic alliance with the Gulf kingdom in the short term — but little or no “chewing,” or taking meaningful steps to spur the political reforms needed to preserve Bahrain as an ally in the long term.

    In recent weeks, Bahrain’s government has banned demonstrations of any size and upheld lengthy prison sentences given to teachers and medics for expressing their political views. It continues to crack down violently against daily protests. Washington has repeatedly expressed “concern” about the state of human rights in Bahrain, but it is increasingly clear that such statements have little or no impact.

    Frederic Wehrey, Senior Associate in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, weighs in this way:

    • Bahrain is wracked by simmering violence and social divisions, and the government appears unwilling to enact substantial political forces—the Shia opposition, Sunni Islamists, and the ruling Sunni Al Khalifa family—are paralyzed by internal fissures with more militant idealists overtaking pragmatists. This is a crucial test of the United States’ ability to balance the need for political reform with long-standing strategic interests and military partnerships.
    • Unable to produce meaningful reforms through dialogue or political participation, the mainstream Shia opposition represented by Al Wefaq is losing popular support.
    • The youth are rising up. The February 14 Youth Coalition—a leaderless network formed in the early days of Bahrain’s uprising—is winning over some of Al Wefaq’s supporters. It has rejected dialogue with the regime, called for the creation of a republic, and confronted security forces with sporadic violence.
    • A hardline faction of the Al Khalifa family, led by the royal court minister and the commander of the Bahrain Defense Force (BDF), is drowning out more moderate voices.
    • Class-based Sunni anger with the regime is rising. Hardline royal factions have attempted to co-opt this dissent and redirect it against the Shia—a losing strategy that is stoking sectarianism in Bahraini society.
    • Anti-Americanism is growing among both hardline Sunni Islamists and rejectionist Shia elements. This anti-Americanism coupled with the entrenched regime’s apparent intent to ignore calls for deep reform risks damaging American legitimacy and jeopardizing U.S. assets and people.

    So the deeply divided factions will continue to demand justice and equity, and have demonstrated more than enough courage to make life extremely difficult for all the players. It may be especially difficult for the U.S., which pro-democracy forces are hoping will advocate quietly, behind-the curtain, for an end to discrimination.


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