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OP-ED: Bahrain Repression Belies Government Stand on Dialogue

Jun 26 2012 (IPS) - Bahrain remains a repressive state, and civil rights are violated daily.

Forty-one years ago, Bahrain celebrated its independence as a budding democracy. This December it will celebrate its forty-second independence as a practitioner of repression and reprehensible autocracy. Unfortunately, Washington continues to tolerate Manama’s undemocratic actions.

The Jun. 18 report by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights depicts mass arrests, excessive force against civilians and protesters – including children – torture, and trials in military courts. The country is heading towards instability, sectarianism and potential terrorism under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa.

Despite these policies, the demands of Bahraini reformists, Sunnis and Shia alike, are achievable. Most analysts judge the demands for a return to the 1973 constitution, a freely elected national legislature, an independent civilian judiciary, and a transparent government the backbone of good governance and democracy. Yet Prime Minister Khalifa is not interested in dialogue with opposition activists.

Public opinion polls have indicated that majorities of Bahrainis and other Arabs supported these principles and hoped the United States would urge Arab governments to implement them. During my government service I briefed senior Bush administration officials on these points and their long-term implications.

The glimmer of hope for democratic reform that existed in Bahrain in those years has all but faded. Its relations with the U.S. remain very friendly. The Fifth Fleet continues to operate out of Mina Salman, falsely giving Khalifa and his hard-line faction the impression that America stands by Bahrain despite its repressive policies.

Demands for good governance and social justice have been advocated since the early 1970s, when the first fair and free election for the Constituent Assembly was held. Then and now Sunni and Shia opposition called for democracy under the umbrella of the ruling family. Then and now, the prime minister has strenuously objected to meaningful reform and accused the opposition of treason and sedition.

Bahrain enjoyed a short-lived democratic experience right after independence in the 1972-75 period because of the leadership of Sheikh Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa, father of the king and brother of the prime minister.

He overruled his brother’s opposition to political reform and insisted that nepotism and democracy are not incompatible. Bahrain’s brush with democracy ended in 1975 with the dissolution of the national assembly and the suspension of the constitution.

Then al-Khalifa ruled by decree, and the country was gripped by fear and systematic humand rights violations. The prime minister, with the support of Sunni hardliners, became the key decision maker. The Shia were (and are) excluded from serving in the armed forces and the security services, including in leadership positions and in key ministries.

Three factors led to the end of the democratic period in the early 1970s: a) the questioning of the domestic security law, including the agreement with the U.S. to station elements of the its Navy in Manama; b) calls for a transparent national budget, including the personal budget of the Amir; and c) pressure from Saudi Arabia to scuttle reforms.

Saudi Arabia continues to use its economic hold on Bahrain and military hegemony within the GCC to oppose all democratic tendencies in Gulf Arab states.

The 1970s stillborn democratic experiment was repeated in 2001-2002 when King Hamad raised false hopes for reform. The only result was a change in the ruler’s title from Amir to King! The prime minster and his Saudi supporters, however, remain the real power behind the throne.

To counter the ruling family’s fears of a Shia avalanche, it’s good to remember that the first free elections in the early 1970s showed that neither the Sunni minority nor the Shia majority were monolithic groups. They voted for different candidates and different lists, ranging from religious, to nationalist, to leftist, and to Ba’thist.

Where do we go from here and why should we care?

If the al-Khalifa persist in opposing genuine reform, the window of compromise will rapidly close and hope for dialogue will vanish. Violence will escalate, calls for regime change will become more vocal and the U.S. will be blamed for the impasse. This is a recipe for lawlessness and terrorism.

The pro-democracy demands that most Bahrainis agree on have been identified in three key documents since the Arab Spring touched Bahrain a year and a half ago. They are the Manama document, the Crown Prince’s statement, and the National Encounter statement.

They called for a representative parliament with full legislative powers, fair and free elections; merit, not religious affiliation as basis for employment in governing and security institutions; and addressing administrative corruption as well as the sectarian impasse.

Recently, demands have included calls for the removal of the prime minister who has held power for 41 years. Oppositionists believe no credible dialogue can be conducted under the auspices of a prime minister who for them is no longer a legitimate leader.

As a backdrop to potential dialogue, the al-Khalifas have been fortunate in that most observers judge the demands for reform fair and reasonable. They’ve called for democracy and so far not regime change.

Since 1975, power has been concentrated in the hands of the Prime Minister. His corruption, patronage, control of internal security, dictatorial running of the cabinet, visceral hatred of the Shia and Iran, and dependence on Saudi military and financial support have helped him cement his position. Khalifa views genuine reform as a threat to him and to the family. The King and his son, for all intents and purposes, have been marginalised.

The untold story in all of this is the pervasive influence of Saudi Arabia. In 1971, one year before independence, Saudi Arabia objected to Bahrain’s independence because they wanted it to become a member of the United Arab Emirates. But Bahrain and Qatar left the three-year unity talks and declared their respective independence.

The Saudis have controlled the purse of the Bahraini Amir by giving him oil from the Saudi Abu-Sa’fa field. Saudi influence is more pervasive now than ever with the presence of its troops on the island and with talk of unification. A unity with Saudi Arabia appeals to al-Khalifa and his old guard colleagues but is strongly opposed by mainstream liberal Sunnis and the Shia majority.

Washington has several opportunities to help Bahrain institute genuine reforms. It should reach out to the King, his son Salman, and the deputy Prime Minister Shaykh Muhammad bin Mubarak.

They should be strongly encouraged to initiate dialogue with different segments of Bahraini society, especially those who are part of the “National Encounter” including Ali Fakhroo, Jassim Murad, Hasan al-Jishi, Ali Rabi’a, Mansoor al-Jamri, Ali Salman, and others. The Sunni and Shia supporters of the National Encounter represent the center of Bahraini society and are highly respected by their countrymen.

The administration should make it very clear that Arab autocracy has run its course and that in the absence of genuine reforms, calls for regime change will increase. They should be told unequivocally that, the Saudi anti-Shia, Sunni-based, counter-revolution policy will fail and that al-Khalifa will be unable to stem the tide of change even with bloody crackdowns and kangaroo trials.

Although Egypt, Syria, and Bahrain are different cases, Washington’s support of democracy in the first two countries is not similarly pursued in Bahrain. If Manama continues to respond to its citizens’ demands repressively, frustrated citizens will come to view the U.S. naval presence in their country as part of the problem.

The Fifth Fleet would then become a magnet for potential terrorism. While it would be naïve to expect the Fifth Fleet to leave the island anytime soon, a conversation with the ruling family about our presence should give them pause.

*Emile Nakhleh is the former Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the CIA and author of “A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World” and “Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing Society”.

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