Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Crime and Punishment in Bahrain

The following is an op-ed piece I've spent some days trying to have published. But when you're competing with such hard-hitters as Roger Cohen's article "Arabs Will Be Free"--which sounds like the title of a Garth Brooks song--you know you're in for an uphill climb.

The first paragraph, for example: "Three Middle Eastern countries have been conspicuous for their stability in the storm. They are Turkey, Lebanon and Israel. An odd mix, you might say, but they have in common that they are places where people vote." Wow, really? That's funny because I thought people also voted regularly in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, Jordan, Bahrain, and Syria. I even remember being IN Yemen and Bahrain DURING elections, but perhaps I misinterpreted what was going on. Also how "stable" is Lebanon really looking these days?

Anyway, below is the op-ed. While you're reading it just imagine you're at the New York Times website.


Crime and Punishment in Bahrain

While the United States is busy providing air cover for government opponents in Libya, its friends in the Arab Gulf have nearly finished mopping the floor with theirs. Backed by some 2,000 ground troops from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, along with a Kuwaiti naval detachment, the Bahraini government has all but stamped out the Shi‘a-led pro-democracy movement that had brought this small island nation to a standstill since mid-February.

In the violent crackdown that followed only one day after the arrival of the “Peninsula Shield” force, more than a dozen people were killed, hundreds were injured, and still more remain missing. The leaders of all but one of the main opposition groups were arrested in turn. The military “liberated” Bahrain’s main hospital, where relatives of those killed and injured had been camped. At last, martial law was declared and the symbol of the entire uprising--the Pearl monument--was unceremoniously demolished. If it’s gone that means nothing ever happened, right?

While no one is likely soon to forget the patch of barren land that just two weeks ago was “Martyrs’ Square,” life in Bahrain is indeed slowly returning to normal. Curfews have been shortened. Roads have been reopened. First elementary and now middle school students have returned to classes. Malls, hit hard by the turmoil as has Bahrain’s entire economy, have been keen to bring back shoppers, advertising their hours on Twitter and Facebook. And, most telling of all, the thousands who gathered last Friday for the sermon of Bahrain’s highest Shi‘a religious authority, Sheikh ‘Isa Qasim, did not continue on to a customary post-prayer rally; they simply returned home.

At the same time, however, untouched by this outward improvement remains Bahrain’s underlying political conflict, which today is no closer to resolution than when protests began. On the contrary, emboldened by their decisive military victory over the demonstrators, Bahraini authorities have shown little eagerness to resume talks about political reform. The opposition, they see, is in no position now to be making political demands, and the government is in no mood to entertain them.

On Monday, Bahrain’s foreign minister rejected an offer of mediation proposed by the Emir of Kuwait, a solution the opposition had accepted earlier on Sunday and seemed for a day at least to offer a workable way out of the impasse. With a sizable Shi‘a population of its own, Kuwait has sought all along to remain neutral in the crisis, a stance that indeed has led to pressure from some of its Sunni lawmakers to show more solidarity with Manama. Yet a delegation from Bahrain’s largest opposition group, al-Wifaq, arrived home from discussions in Kuwait only to learn that the plan had been nixed.

More generally, Bahrain’s rulers appear less concerned with political reconciliation than with punishing those they view as having demonstrated disloyalty to the country over the course of the previous two months. On Saturday the Ministry of Education announced the cancellation of 40 academic scholarships held by students who took part in anti-government protests. The state-run University of Bahrain has formed an investigative committee to probe students’ online postings relating to a violent confrontation on March 13 between student protesters and government supporters, vowing punishment for those “found guilty.”

Elsewhere, Sunni lawmakers have called for still more official inquiries into workers who took part in a week-long general strike suspended just five days ago; while others have sought to block the return of dozens of Shi‘i officials and ministers who resigned in protest after the first demonstrators were killed. As captured by the title of a widely-circulated op-ed in the government-run Gulf Daily News, the priorities of the government and its supporters are “Security, Accountability… and THEN Dialogue.”

It is one thing, then, for the U.S. to remain silent while an important ally puts down an existential threat to its security. Yet to watch idly as the Bahraini government continues down the very path that laid the groundwork for the current crisis is an unacceptable position. If the ill-concealed impetus behind U.S. policy in Bahrain is the regional threat posed by Iran, how better to ensure a self-fulfilling prophecy than to allow the further economic, social, and political marginalization of Shi‘a in the post-Day of Rage Bahrain? The United States must push both parties back to the National Dialogue Initiative of Crown Prince Salman, ideally with Kuwaiti arbitration.

Update: the Telegraph is reporting that "Saudi officials say they gave their backing to Western air strikes on Libya in exchange for the United States muting its criticism of the authorities in Bahrain." It's all starting to make more sense.

Go to Part 2 (اذهب إلى الجزء الثاني) —>


  1. As a Bahraini who personally knows someone who had their scholarship taken away, thanks for writing this!

  2. I would suggest to change the ending so that the United States should push the government to make meaningful reforms to meet the legitimate aspirations of the people.

  3. I suppose George Friedman's book "The next decade" explains the US position. I guess the Humanitarian situation in Bahrain does not strike a chord in the idealistic domain and the current judgement of US administration sees it's interests in supporting the tyrans.


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