Bahrain’s Brutal Equation

Well, what would happen if this revolution doesn’t work? I think we are going to be destroyed with all means. I think they are going to target [us] one by one … whoever spoke against [the regime] will be targeted in the future. I believe it’s all about win or die.

– Sayed Ahmed Al-Wedaei

Since razing the Pearl monument in mid-March, the Bahraini ruling regime has launched a sweeping crackdown on protesters who took to the streets to voice their anger against the Al-Khalifa family and its oppressive mores. In the last few weeks, the situation on the ground has spiralled out of control and descended to a blatant and barren form of brutality with the regime’s security and military apparatus crossing all humane boundaries. The institution of martial law has taken the meaning of a sacrosanct endorsement for one and all forms of transgressions – even women and minors haven’t been spared in this state-sponsored violence spree. Whilst the attention of global media has been fixated on the Libyan stalemate, the Al-Khalifa regime has viciously suppressed the popular protests that began on 14th February.

Medical personnel have been systematically targeted and the injured deprived from receiving medical attention; midnight raids have become a norm with masked men forcing themselves into homes and carrying out multiple crimes; journalists and human rights activists have been silenced and threatened with government reprisal; Shia villages, dissenting or otherwise, have been cordoned off by military checkpoints where a policy of humiliation and intimidation is rife; political figures and critics of the regime have been bungled off to unknown dungeons; the long known1 but always concealed practise of torture has reeked out of the royal dungeons with at least five confirmed deaths recorded in custody;2 those who dared to venture out of their homes and partake in protests now find themselves booted out of their jobs, and plastered as traitors. The above description provides a fractional insight into the horrific state of affairs that has come to envelop Bahrain in recent weeks.

How it is that such brazen and inhumane conduct escapes media attention, and fails to raise international uproar says a great deal about the vast ground that we – collectively as human beings – must yet cover in order to sever the interests of power and its many unremitting obstacles that stand in the way of a truly universal human discourse. If it were only a case of neglect, perhaps it would not be so disheartening. The fact of the matter however is that the Bahraini uprising and its central demands have knowingly been adulterated by the leading rogue state, the United States, its numerous minions and a media infrastructure that has proven itself to be only too willing to assiduously toe the Empire’s line. The Al-Khalifa regime’s bloody transgressions have been put down to inexperience – a viewpoint aired by top EU advisor Robert Cooper – as if the lives of innocents were a matter of sport or chance.

The Obama administration has come to be distinguished by its seemingly limitless aptitude to summon vague, meaningless clichés. Although a comprehensive critique of this approach is beyond these pages, it is nonetheless clear that letting loose a rosary of flowery words is no permanent remedy to the Empire’s chronic penchant for propping dictators and tyrants. Multiple million-dollar arm deals and a political PR campaign, headed by the US Secretary of State, that is underpinned by the ipso facto criminalisation of one single state in the region has led to an unholy alliance between the primary imperial power and the last bastions of medieval tyrannical monarchies.

After the sights of jubilation witnessed on the streets of Tunis and in the Tahrir Square, it is quite easy to overlook the utter desperation that propelled the wave of uprisings that has taken grip across the Middle East. When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight on December 17th in Sidi Bouzid, he was exposing through a most desperate act the systemic violence that leaked through every institution connected to the central state, and also giving expression to the daunting helplessness experienced by thousands, if not millions, like him across the Arab world.

In Tunisia, the pervasive nepotism of the ruling family was documented in Wikileaks cables. The caustic nature of the familial rule gave rise to overwhelming frustrations with citizens lamenting that Tunisia was no longer a police state but had instead “become a state run by the mafia”. A similar situation could be observed under the Mubaraks in Egypt. Needless to state, both regimes were strongly supported to their last breaths by the US and leading western nations despite such damning profiles.

In the case of Bahrain, the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the state fall squarely within the purview of the ruling Al-Khalifa family. The extensive constitutional powers granted to the King include “the power to dissolve the parliament, impose martial law, alter the constitution, veto laws passed by the National Assembly, along with the power of appointment and removal of ministers and judges.”3 In addition to these sweeping powers, the Majlis Al-Shura – entirely comprised up of royally elected members – is provided with significant legislative capacities; notably, its president enjoys “a casting vote in the event of deadlock” in the bicameral system.4 The cabinet similarly consists of royally appointed members, with almost half of its twenty-four members belonging to the royal Al-Khalifa family.

The controversial figure of the Prime Minister and his almost ubiquitous stamp over all aspects of Bahraini politics is yet another illustration of the Al-Khalifa’s absolute control. During his more than 40-year uncontested reign as PM, Khalifa bin Salman has become an object of hate for an overwhelming majority of Bahrainis, and is widely viewed as the man behind the state’s repeated repressive crackdowns on opposition protests. Indeed, one of the major demands aired by protesters shortly after the chilling raid on the Pearl Roundabout in the early hours of 17th February was an unmistakable call for the removal of the PM. According to the 2008 FRIDE report on Bahrain, the PM’s orbit of influence is said to encompass the “courts, the security forces and the economy”. It continues to underline that this influence is greatly owed to “his control of the Economic Development Board.” Less than a month after protests first began, the ‘One Dinar Protest’ was organised outside the Bahrain Financial Harbour (BFH) after Al-Wefaq’s head, Sheikh Ali Salman, presented a purchase agreement which showed the PM’s procurement of the multi-million dollar real estate for 1 Dinar (approximately $2.6 USD).5 It is hard not to draw parallels between the endemic corruption of the Ben Alis and Mubaraks aside such instances of blatant plundering of national wealth.

At the judicial level, the King “continues to chair the Higher Judicial Council, appoints judges by decree and many members of the judiciary are members of the al-Khalifa family.” As a result of this level of blunt intervention in the judiciary system, the courts have assumed paradoxical and discernible politicised stances vis-à-vis crucial topics in Bahraini politics such as sectarianism. For instance, the judiciary has often passed anti-sectarianism legislation to censor newspapers and websites, whilst clandestine initiatives by the government such as the one highlighted in the Bandar report, give currency to explicit sectarian agendas including the promotion of anti-Shia material in the press. Such sinister plots enacted in coordination with judicial processes have together served to restrict public freedoms whilst also stoking sectarian tensions.

When Mohamad Bouazizi set himself on fire, he did so with full knowledge that the entire edifice of the state was firmly in the clasp of a tiny elite. He was confronted by a system that was putrefied to its core. Justice and due process were mere words that had no more than nominal value in an infested political system. In Bahrain, protesters are confronted by a ruling family which not only plays the role of judge, jury, prosecutor and hangman simultaneously, but also possesses overwhelming control over the socio-economic shape of the state. This level of absolute control over the functions of the state has emboldened the royal family to the extent that it has acquired the audacity to embark on the so-called Bahrainisation program i.e. the political naturalisation of foreigners with view to alter the demographic balance of the island state.

Bahrain’s systemic violence evinced by an invidious kleptocratic form of rule, absolute monopoly over the branches of authority, a discriminatory royal patronage system, crushing levels of corruption, growing unemployment and steadily declining standards of living leave little room for any serious observer to extricate the Bahraini uprising from the wider regional uprisings. The sectarian aspect of the crisis in Bahrain is incidental, and serves to obscure the extent of the abuse of power and authority by the Al-Khalifa family. Through the sectarian card, the ruling family stratifies its citizenry by pitching the nation’s woes in religious terms.

A further insult to the recent Bahraini uprising is achieved by an almost perfect political sleight of hand – or the ‘great deception’ – by the Al-Khalifa regime. In the sparse and heavily de-contextualised coverage by the news media, the underlying motives for the popular protests are almost entirely glossed over. Instead, focus is laid on a fictitious “Iranian threat”. In addition to playing into the sectarian narrative, the so-called “Iranian threat” also takes out the possibility of any violent reaction by protesters. Unlike in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, any attempts by Bahraini protesters to express their discontent through any quasi-violent means e.g. torching government buildings, would immediately be classified as a foreign act of sabotage orchestrated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, thus meriting an intensification of the violent crackdown – no doubt with added western political support dovetailed with an even greater volume of yellow journalism.

When Sayed Ahmed Al-Wedaie professed his deepest fears about the possibility of a failed uprising, he did so with full knowledge of the nature of the Al-Khalifa regime. His fate like many other Bahrainis is today unknown after his detention at the hands of state authorities. The resort to violence and the despicable level of fear-mongering and intimidation that the state has stooped to in recent weeks is far from shocking. Rather, it is merely the logical progression for a kleptocratic ruling system that has monopolised power, systematically suffocated the public space and civil society, and exploited religious sensitivities to obscure the corrosive nepotism that now pervades across the entire state structure.

International silence has sustained the brutal equation now unfolding in Bahrain. The increased number of corpses with visible signs of torture dumped in neighbourhoods over the last two weeks, and the growing number of detainees – including leading social and political figures – clearly suggests that the Al-Khalifa family is not about to settle for a political solution. In simpler words, the ruling family is not willing to entertain the thought of relinquishing some of its absolute monopoly over power. The hypocrisy of the United States in this regard is as clear as day. Having airlifted tens of thousands of troops from the other side of the world into Iraq less than a decade ago under belated pretexts of democracy-promotion, its Fifth Fleet already docked on the shores of Bahrain is now apparently ignorant of any conception of human rights and popular rule.

  1. Torture Redux: The Revival of Physical Coercion during Interrogations in Bahrain, Human Rights Watch, 08 February 2010. []
  2. Suspicious Deaths in Custody, Human Rights Watch, 13 April 2011. []
  3. Bahrain: Reaching a Threshold, FRIDE, June 2008. []
  4. Fixing the Kingdom: Political Evolution and Socio-Economic Challenges in Bahrain, CIRS, 2008. []
  5. The One Dinar Protest, Global Voices Online, 07 March 2011. []

Ali Jawad is a political activist and a member of the AhlulBayt Islamic Mission (AIM). He can be reached at: jawad.ali313@googlemail.com. Read other articles by Ali, or visit Ali's website.