In the early hours of Thursday morning a brutal and utterly heartless assault was carried out by the security forces of the Bahraini regime against peaceful citizens. Having taken to the streets to protest against the discriminatory policies of the Al-Khalifa monarchy, the demands of the protestors were evidently met not only with outright denial, but rather, the nature of the crackdown was to be read as an adherence to a scorched-earth policy on the part of the regime. There would be no Tahrir Square in Bahrain – whatever the costs. State-sanctioned murder and a policy of intimidation and terror were to be the primary weapons in the arsenal of a regime adamant to intimidate and crush all forms of protest.
The conduct of the regime in the last few hours is far from abnormal. In fact, the ruling Al-Khalifa regime has premised its rule on the wholesale deprivation and oppression of the nation’s majority Shia population. Since its inception, the tiniest Gulf state has witnessed cyclical calls for reform only to be met with escalating cycles of repression and stricter authoritarian rule. Shortly after formal independence, Emir Isa bin Salman Al-Khalifa dissolved the national assembly and put into effect the State Security Measures Law in 1975 granting the government summary powers to detain and hold without trial all individuals suspected of expressing views “which are of a nature considered to be in violation of the internal or external security of the country”. The moves by the Kingdom’s first Emir were enacted in response to a growing sense of political activism and organised political mobilisation aimed at empowering the people through the national assembly.
In the mid-nineties, mass protests erupted once again as the majority demanded a restoration of the 1973 Constitution, and condemned the regime’s chronic discrimination against the nation’s Shi’a population. Akin to his reactions in 1975, the Emir viciously silenced protests as thousands were detained and opposition leaders exiled. Notably, it was during this period that several opposition leaders – including the widely popular Sheikh Abd Al-Amir Al-Jamri – began hunger strikes to highlight their political demands. Concurrent to this phase, the regime embarked on a systematic attempt to label the opposition-led protests as “foreign-backed” alleging that ‘dissidents’ were being trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and by the Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah.
The Majority is the Enemy
Dr. Salah Al-Bandar exposed the deep-running sectarian, anti-Shia penchant of the Al-Khalifa monarchy in his widely distributed report published in 2006. The ‘Bandargate’ report as it came to be known highlighted a clandestine, well-orchestrated conspiracy by the government to further disenfranchise the country’s majority Shia population from influential governmental positions. Wreaking from decades of political and socioeconomic marginalisation, it would seem that the already hideous conditions affecting Bahraini Shias had to be dealt with a final blow.
Within the report, mention is made of promoting anti-Shia campaigns in the media arena, which is predominantly controlled and heavily monitored by the monarchy. The government’s undeviating devotion to a policy of sectarian discrimination does not stop at discriminatory agendas in the press. In line with this outlook, the 2009 report by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights revealed staggering statistics that show systemic discrimination against Shia citizens in various governmental institutions.
Even more alarmingly, the Al-Khalifa regime has strategically pursued a policy of marginalising Shias from the military and domestic security apparatuses. In its report issued in 2005, the International Crisis Group highlighted the endemic discriminatory practises of the government in this regard further noting that the security forces responsible for the clampdown on the 1995 protests were principally recruited from “the Balochi area of Pakistan, with officers from Jordan and other Arab countries”. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights notes that this policy has in effect created an equation in which “foreign mercenaries”, outwardly draped in the Red and White flag, exercise control of the security needs of the monarchy.
As a clear manifestation of the fundamental lack of mutual trust and confidence between the state and its majority population, the convergence of a policy of sectarian naturalisation aimed at altering the demographic balance of the country and the exclusionary make-up of key governmental institutions such as the Ministry of Defence and the security apparatus, has merely served to underline the inherent discriminatory outlook of the Al-Khalifa monarchy. Beyond smokescreens of reform and moves towards liberalisation, the monarchy has embarked on a silent war against its majority population gathering in its ranks a “mercenary” force tasked with implementing unjust policies.
The most recent acts of unwarranted violence by the Al-Khalifa monarchy give lie to the promises of change and reform oft-repeated by the government and its western allies. Beneath a veneer of political reform and economic prosperity, the ground truths reflect a reality that provides an almost perfect fit to the situation found in Third-world nations where the nation’s riches are exploited and placed at the disposal of an elite few. The major difference in the case of Bahrain, however, is the existence of a sectarian rationale underlying the distribution of political, economic and social opportunities. As the US Secretary of State was heaping praises on Bahrain as a model of reform and change in December, poverty and socioeconomic exasperation had by then already crept up the walls of Manama’s financial hub.
The Imperial Factor
The island kingdom of Bahrain is viewed as a pivotal geopolitical state in the foreign policy outlook of the United States government. Most visibly, the Fifth Fleet stationed in Bahrain serves as the headquarters for a US Marine Corps amphibious unit and a crucial base for U.S. Air Force jet fighter interceptors and spy planes. Strategically positioned at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, Bahrain has constituted an integral part of the openly hegemonial US project for the Middle East. Indeed in addition to oil-interests and being a so-called ‘bulwark’ against Iran, the kingdom has historically acted as the hub for logistical support and extensive basing for US military operations spanning from the First Gulf War to the most recent pillaging of Iraq. In accordance with this strategic outlook, the US designated Bahrain as a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) in October, 2001.
An added incentive for the US to maintain the ‘status quo’ in Bahrain is owed to the stability of its key regional ally, Saudi Arabia. The oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia has a majority Shia population, who like their Bahraini counterparts, are systematically suppressed by the ruling Saud Kingdom. It is widely feared in Washington that any popular insurrection in Bahrain would necessarily create instability in Saudi Arabia due to similar political and socioeconomic realities prevalent in the Eastern Province. It is primarily for this reason that the US and Saudi Arabia have actively sought to quell the Houthi movement in the north of Yemen, as well as periodic uprisings in Bahrain such as in the mid-Nineties during which Saudi security personnel were dispatched to Manama to silence the political opposition.
The ‘demonstration effect’ achieved by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions has inspired a mood of self-confidence and optimism for those afflicted by years of deprivation and suffering. Peoples strangulated by decades of political and socioeconomic marginalisation have found a voice on each and every single street of the Arab world. With non-violent popular uprisings taking grip across various parts of the Middle East, the United States and its despotic allies have found no response except a ruthless form of violence and cold-blooded murder.
The recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and currently ongoing in Bahrain speak out to the collective conscience of humanity, and more specifically to citizens whose governments have been responsible for buttressing brutal and oppressive dictatorships. Britain and the United States who are amongst the largest exporters of military equipment to Bahrain are directly implicated in the deaths of innocent civilians on the streets of Manama. Military ties between the United States and the Al-Khalifa regime which allow for EDAs (“excess defence articles”) such as 60 M60A3 tanks and an FFG-7 Frigate, to be handed over to a murderous dictatorship at no cost which are then employed to crush internal political dissent, reveal the vast dissonance between the rosy words of successive US administrations and their hellish actions.
The Bahraini people however are not holding their breath for Obama to finally acknowledge the legitimacy and rightfulness of their demands. They have torn down the walls of fear that have imprisoned them for decades on end in almost sub-human socioeconomic conditions with virtually no political and civil rights. With clenched fists and spirited hearts, they have descended to the streets of Bahrain; and just as in the case of Tunisia and Egypt, the slogan reverberating across Manama today is: “The people demand the downfall of the regime”.