|Human rights activist Rajab accuses the Bahraini government of trying to incite sectarianism to crush protests [AFP]|
On March 14, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, King of Bahrain, invited Saudi Arabia and other GCC forces into his tiny island kingdom to aid a crackdown on pro-democracy protests that had been going already for precisely one month.
The protests, launched on February 14 to coincided with the tenth anniversary of the King’s issuance of the “National Action Charter”, a text that was supposed to lead his country towards greater democracy. But the terms were subsequently betrayed by the King, leaving the parliamentary system he established with little power actually to enact laws and shape the country’s political future.
The non-violent spirit of the protesters was very much in line with that of the Egyptian pro-democracy movement that only days earlier had managed to remove Hosni Mubarak from power.
Protests had in fact begun last year, before Egypt and Tunisia exploded, surrounding the October 2010 parliamentary elections.
One month later, Egypt’s vote saw the government arrest prominent human rights activists and according to observers, move the country back towards the days of “full blown authoritarianism”. It seems the Egyptian government was over-confident about its ability to more or less openly suppress a fair vote, and in response the political consciousness of the people was heightened rather than further beaten down.
An assessment one month in
One month into the uprising in Bahrain, the warnings of last fall have come to fruition. Bahrain has returned to absolutist rule, with the King declaring martial law a few days after the Saudis entered the country.
Aside from violently clearing out and even destroying Pearl Roundabout, the symbol of the protests, the crackdown has been noticeable for three factors.
The first is the fact that the government forces have taken over hospitals and prevented them from being used by injured protesters.
This move is clearly a violation of international human rights law, but it had the intended effect: major protests leaders have decided that further large scale protests were to dangerous to hold, considering that people shot or otherwise harmed by government forces would not be able to receive medical attention, likely leading to an unacceptably high number of deaths.
Second, the government has attempted to arrest leading human rights and pro-democracy activists, with the goal of silencing those with the best ability to document ongoing abuses and relay the information to the outside world.
Finally, the United States and other Western countries have clearly thrown their support behind the government, refusing to go beyond mild rebukes against the government-initiated violence, even though they have thrown their full military weight behind the Libyan rebels.
“This is the situation we’re facing,” explained Nabeel Rajab, President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights.
|“We are not only facing a regime and neighbouring powers, but American influence as well. They either do not want to see change or only slight changes that do not give people real democracy because the monarchy might lose power. Everyone sees the US double standards very clearly now. They see Gaddafi hitting people and the US strike back. But here they even bring in foreign armies who don’t believe in democracy and killing people on streets and the US does nothing. It is a big mistake the Americans are making, losing people, losing the faith of the streets.”|
Rajab has good reason to be angry, although he speaks with an equanimity utterly at odds with the fact that only days before we talked he had been arrested, beaten and threatened with death by security forces.
“They came at 1 am at night and knocked on my door, then my father’s door and by the time I came downstairs after my wife called me, they already broke into my father’s house and almost broke into mine. 25 masked men in civilian dress came in and she thought they were mercenaries coming to assassinate me. But I saw the government cars outside the window. I asked if they would wait till I took my sleeping daughter out of our bedroom before searching it but they burst in and she woke up to them and me handcuffed. They took everyone’s laptops and cartons of papers, blindfolded me and pushed me into the back of a four-wheel drive car.
“And the moment I was in a car they started treating me worse. They started using sectarian abuse, saying I’m Shia, and then started beating me in the car while saying things like: ‘we will rape you and kill you now’. They seemed to be looking for other activists but did not find them and ultimately they took me in another car to the Investigation Directorate of the Ministry of Interior. A senior agent asked me if I knew someone with a gun, and I replied that I did not and that I do not know anyone with a gun and believe we should not use guns because the protests. And with that, the man told the other agents to give me my things and take me back home.”
A ‘Shabak education’?
In Israel proper Palestinian friends of mine have a term for this kind of ordeal, a “Shabak education”. It is when the Shin Bet, or internal intelligence services, take Palestinian citizens, rough them up and threaten them, not as a precursor to longer detention, but rather to let them know who is boss, and remind them what could happen to them if the state decided to get really tough.
Egypt’s recently disbanded state security services had a similar modus operandi, as do most of the internal security services across the region.
But it is not stopping Rajab or his allies, although, as he pointed out, almost all of them are now in hiding. “I’m the only one still at home,” he explained.
Bahrain, apparently, would not be hospitable place for gun-loving Americans.
“We do not have a culture of guns. We have people my age who have never had guns except royal family and those close to them. Only thugs from government have guns. But most important, everyone believes that fighting the government would be a losing battle, they have tanks and machine guns. But if we remain peaceful a lot of people will support our goal and work. By carrying flowers and giving them to the army, even though most of the soldiers are from outside Bahrain, we can achieve our goal, even if we lose a lot of people along the way.”
A negative precedent?
As I watched US and NATO planes attack Libya, I have wondered a lot about precisely how and why Libyans turned to violence, against the non-violent spirit of the region-wide protests to that point.
After all, even in Yemen, one of the most violent places on earth, if you are to believe the standard media portrait of the country, protests have remained largely peaceful despite mass killings by government forces.
It is very hard to sit in the distance, removed from such attacks, and criticise citizens who decide they have no choice but to resort to violent insurrection when their government has decided to kill them wholesale. However, the reality is that without foreign NATO intervention, Gaddafi would probably have succeeded in unleashing a far greater wave of death against them suggests that their calculus, however understandable, might have been fatally flawed.
I also wonder whether the reason Western allies have been forced into this situation in Libya is not because Obama and his colleagues refused to come out strongly and from the start in support of all the pro-democracy protests across the Middle East and North Africa (and while we are at it, has Obama and the West forgotten about the equally murderous repression in Cote d’Ivoire? Or do black Africans killing each other still not matter to Americans, even to the son of an African? Don’t they deserve a no-fly zone too?)
By not setting a clear agenda for democratisation, laying out a series of measuresthe “allies” as they are calling themselves with respect to Libya would punish any and all governments that did not begin serious processes of democratisation (not “reform,” as Hillary Clinton loved to say, but democratisation, with a capital D) and at the same time declaring that the West would not support armed uprisings.
Did the US and Europeans not open the door for precisely a situation in which protesters would have an incentive to move towards violence in response to government violence, hoping that the West would intervene if the situation got desperate enough?
Such questions do not suggest that the Libyan uprising is unjustified; it is very hard for an outsider to make such a judgement.
But most advocates of non-violent struggle argue that moving to violence, however understandable, usually leads to far more casualties against protesters than staying the course.
Had the world been prepared for Gaddafi’s repression and had a clear cut and robust system in place to punish him and other leaders who use such violence, we have to ask whether it could have helped prevent the present situation.
And if Western assistance helps topple Gaddafi, might not Syrians rationally choose a similar path against their government’s repression, given the long-standing American opposition to the Baathist regime.
Charges of hypocrisy
As it happens, in Bahrain, where the movement refuses to move towards violence so far, things have only gotten worse since the crackdown. Rajab declared with a hint of exasperation:
“More people died and injured. The gap between the ruling elite and the people is getting wider and wider. The government is trying hard to incite sectarianism, frightening both Bahraini Sunnis and neighbouring countries, which is why they sent troops to Bahrain. Indeed, by refusing to take a strong stand, did the US not open the way for the Saudis to take control of the situation for their interests. Look, the Bahrainis could have used their own police, not even the army, just the police, to stop this, because we were peaceful.”
But they brought in the Saudis and GCC specifically to regionalise the conflict and raise the stakes. As he reminded me, the Bahraini Shias have always been hostage to this regional conflict between Iran and the Saudi-American axis.
“Now we are paying price of the growing power of Iran because America will be silent on the crackdown when it is defined as combating Iranian power.”
Rajab also feels, as many do many Bahraini pro-democracy and their supporters, that Al Jazeera has not done enough to cover the protests, a dynamic which proved so important in increasing support for protesters in Tunisia and Egypt.
“Frankly, Al Jazeera has not even called me one time. I have talked to everyone else. They will bring only non-government people acceptable to the the government.”
Rajab argues that the Bahraini government pressured the Qataris into avoiding too much coverage, especially on the Arabic channel.
I cannot verify this claim, but I can say that in a segment on this week’s Al-Jazeera English program Listening Post in which I participated addressing this issue several guests made similar arguments.
US presence not the issue
If Bahrainis see US support for the government has helping the crackdown, why don’t Bahrainis protest against the US Embassy and troop presence?
Rajab was very clear about why this is not on the pro-democracy movement’s agenda, despite well-justified anger at American hypocrisy in this conflict.
“America is not our issue, your presence is not our issue. Even the opposition has declared the intention to uphold any existing agreements. No one has a problem with US there, but not if you’re using our bases to fight Iraq or Lebanon or Iran. No one will accept killing people from neighbouring countries from Bahrain.”
Of course, this is precisely the problem. The US has little use for a military base it can not use however it wants.
Given the choice between a pliant authoritarian government that does not complain (too loudly) if the US uses its bases for military missions against other countries, or a democracy that would prohibit this, the US will naturally choose the former.
Similarly, when the King hears that most protesters do not want to overthrow the monarchy but rather create a constitutional system where most power is in the hands of the legislature, it is hard to blame him for wondering what the difference would be from his perspective.
In the end democracy is a zero-sum game. You can not really have a little, or some, because as long as non-democratic elements have a foothold they will use it to corrupt and control the system even if the formal shell of democracy remains.
This is precisely what has happened in the United States today, why its political system has become so dysfunctional. And it’s what is happening in Egypt already only weeks after Mubarak’s resignation, and according to Tunisian friends, what is starting to happen there as well.
And Bahrain is no different, which is why protesters are insisting on a full democratisation – something that cannot be reconciled with either the King’s or the Americans’ interests as presently defined.
What can be done?
The pro-democracy movement in Bahrain is trying to hold it’s own, but there is little it can do at the moment. “It’s powerless,” Rajab explained.
But in his mind the government has not acted wisely.
“They could have met some key demands a month ago. We have always been ruled with tribal mentality – if you give people something they will always demand more so don’t give them anything, just hit them hard. But you can not silence people anymore, especially as they see others achieve goal like in Egypt. Bahrainis will not be silent anymore, it is done, finished.”
As Syria, Jordan and even Morocco see protests that are turning increasingly deadly, the era of the authoritarian bargain in the Middle East is clearly over.
What replaces it across the region has become the most compelling question in global politics today.
Mark LeVine is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine and author, most recently, of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Random House 2008) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009).
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.