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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Bahrain Part 1 - what's going on?

When the initial protests in Pearl Roundabout started I did a bit of writing on Bahrain and I’ve mentioned it several times in a few of my blogs and in my twitter feed, but I haven’t addressed it in a little while so I’d like to remedy that. Partially because I think it’s an outrage that the Bahraini government has escaped the scrutiny and criticism that it deserves for the brutal repression of its own people, but mostly because of the tragedy of the Bahraini people themselves.

In preparation for writing this blog I asked a Bahraini acquaintance which blogs or twitter feeds I should be following, his response was that there are none left.

They have all been arrested or they are silent because of fear.

The aspect of Bahraini culture that gets the most attention is the notable disparity between the Sunni/Shia ratio. Although exact numbers are ambiguous, the conventional wisdom holds that the Shia Bahrainis make up about 65-70% of the population. In and of itself this is not unusual, several other countries in the region have large (1/3 or more) Shi’a populations, including Lebanon, Azerbaijan, Yemen, Iraq, and Iran. Pakistan, Turkey, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Syria, and Nigeria have significant (1,000,000+) Shia populations as well.

In the case of Bahrain, however, the issue is not the Sunni/Shi’a divide, but rather the haves and have-nots. Certainly there is a significant disparity between the country’s rulers and most of the Shi'a population, but in fact there is a significant disparity between the ruling class and EVERYONE else (though the Sunni population is treated a bit better).

The main organizers behind the protests have been pushing for Bahraini unity for several years, and despite what the government of Bahrain has been saying, the initial protests were nonviolent and nonsectarian in nature. In fact, one of the factors of discontent was exacerbated by a document that was circulating a few months ago: Notice that the focus of the document is the wide disparity between the royal family and the general populace – nowhere are the terms Sunni or Shi’a mentioned.

There are certainly justifiable complaints on the part of the Shi’a majority, but the primary complaint has been one of general disenfranchisement, not sectarian disenfranchisement. The call for greater representation and less corruption and nepotism is one that is universal to the Bahraini middle and lower classes, and one that has support from many members of the Bahraini family including crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa (unfortunately, his opinion seems to be an outlier at this point).

Unfortunately, the demographic realities of the Sunni/Shia divide in Bahrain have been used by the leaders to paint the opposition as fundamentally sectarian, while targeting moderates, unity leaders and human rights advocates. The insistent mantra of the ruling class that the protests are sectarian in nature is a self-fulfilling prophecy leading to a hollowing out of the middle. The events of the past month have made it painfully clear that the goals of eliminating corruption, limiting nepotism, and increasing political representation for the general Bahraini population are probably impossible without the ouster of the ruling family.

The nature and scale of the repression is not widely visible to the outside world, but the litany of offenses is long and horrifying. Click on the links at your own risk:

Peaceful protesters have been gunned down in the streets, police shoot pedestrians from cars, doctors have been attacked, beaten and arrested for treating wounded and dying protesters. As I mentioned before, bloggers, tweeters, and journalists have been arrested, jailed, and sentenced to death for writing about the violence against the protesters and the doctors. Newspapers have been shut down. Even Pearl Roundabout, the initial site of the unity rallies and protests has been deliberately destroyed and renamed.

The violence of the past two months has been accompanied by a much more far-reaching campaign of oppression. The state-run media has, predictably, served as a mouthpiece for the regime, but its actions have gone far beyond simply parroting the lies about the violent and sectarian nature of the protests. The press attacks are reminiscent of 1930s Nazi propaganda against German Jewish businessmen or the Maoist rhetoric against counter-revolutionaries in the 50s and 60s. This article gives some very important examples.

Arabic language media outside of Bahrain haven’t been much help either. Despite their embrace of the Arab spring elsewhere, coverage of the protests in Bahrain by the two big arab news networks al Jazeera and al Arrabiyya have been half-assed at best. Despite their generally high journalistic standards, the close ties between their home countries (Qatar and Dubai, respectively) and the rest of the GCC has severely hampered their ability to address the situation in Bahrain in an open, objective or honest fashion.

Here’s a good initial documentary piece by al Jazeera from two months ago before they backed off of the issue under pressure.

The American response has been similarly lackluster. Unlike Syria, where America has almost no leverage, the state dept has robust ties to the Bahraini establishment. The US fifth fleet – the core of our military presence in the Persian gulf - is based in of Bahrain (an extremely rewarding situation for bahrain’s economy - last year alone the US government gave bahrain almost 20million dollars). The virtual silence of the white house (relative to their positions on Libya, Syria, Egypt, Iran, and Yemen) is unconscionable. A few words dribbled out from the State Department on Monday, but given that the protests in Manama started in Mid February it is tragic that so little progress has been made by the US.

As I have mentioned before, the violence committed against the protestors has not just been committed by Bahrani police and military, but by troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This raises a much more far-reaching concern regarding the intensifying rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran for dominance in the Persian Gulf and the wider middle east.

More on that in part 2.
(Pic at the top is creative commons from al Jezeera)

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