Isn't it time we backed Bahrain's revolution?

As the first anniversary of the uprising approaches, it is time for the west to reassess its support

"The she-camel has been impregnated" goes the old Arabic saying, suggesting a looming (usually disastrous) outcome which is all but inevitable. For the past 12 months, Bahrain's ruling monarchy has tried to abort a pregnancy which began in the frenzy of the Arab Spring - but the foetus has proved too mature. The country's mass uprising which began a year ago, on 14 February 2011, was the result of many decades of abuse.

Medieval-style absolutist rule in this island nation was never going to last forever, but the regime's stubbornly uncompromising approach to the Bahraini people's grievances is ensuring an accelerated downfall for the Al Khalifa family's 230-year old dynasty. A year on since the uprising began, just after that in Egypt, and despite the brutal crackdown, the prognosis for the Bahraini regime is bleaker than ever.

Three months after the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report found a systematic policy of abuse, torture and discrimination on the basis of sectarian affiliation, the regime of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah has failed to implement any tangible reforms to satisfy the opposition. The government's well-documented brutality, coupled with a sense of hopelessness, has resulted in an escalation of protests and almost total loss of authority over several key areas of the small Gulf kingdom. Townships such as Bani Jamrah (one of the country's fiercest anti-regime hotspots) is completely out of regime control after dark. The key suburb of Sitra, dubbed "capital of the revolution", is also a no-go zone for representatives of the government.

Yet when we examine the diplomatic rhetoric here in the west, there is no consistency. Just this past week, there have been renewed calls from US politicians to arm the Syrian rebels (though dismissed); in Bahrain, however, the US government has consistently and strongly condemned any violent acts against the regime carried out by the protesters on the streets. The double standard, even given the US's record, is staggering.

Before the Bahraini regime crackdown began in February and March 2011, anti-government demonstrations on the island were characterised by two unique features: massive turnouts (on one occasion, 300,000 people marched across the capital, representing a quarter of the population), and the largely nonviolent nature of the protesters who raised nothing other than the national flag and offered roses to Bahraini police officers.

Much has transpired since then and the regime's unrelenting violence against peaceful protests has changed the rules of the game. Instead of large mass protests, there are now many small pockets of resistance (called "battalions", even though they only carry sticks and wear white shrouds denoting a readiness to die). Instead of roses being handed out to police, Molotov cocktails have become increasingly common, and are used to push back security vehicles when they invade Shia villages. With the regime's security forces using Molotov cocktails against unarmed protesters, is it any wonder that the protesters soon picked up the habit and began to do the same? With more than 40 faith leaders imprisoned and women publicly assaulted for taking part in peaceful protests, ordinary people feel compelled to fight back.

As countless videos and pictures posted on social networking sites have shown, unarmed protesters in Bahrain have been confronted with state-sponsored savagery and vile acts of murder and abuse. Once the protests were violently quelled, hundreds of people were then detained, tortured, even sexually assaulted. A campaign of intimidation - which has included the demolition of dozens of licensed Shia places of worship and holy sites, the prevention of religious rituals, thousands of arbitrary detentions, around 60 extrajudicial killings, and the imprisonment of physicians for treating injured protesters - has resulted in two impossibly difficult scenarios. If the regime backs down now and releases opposition leaders (including the head of Amal, an officially licensed political society), the protesters will then be further emboldened to continue what they started last year. But if the brutal crackdown continues, so too will the resistance. The Bahraini king is now like the man who steps on a landmine: if he walks off, it will rip him apart, but keeping his foot on the bomb is not a viable option either.

In the midst of all this, the traditional opposition groups (also known as "political societies") are becoming increasingly irrelevant as support grows for a secretive and highly organied youth movement called the Coalition of 14 February. This coalition has called for the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of a representative and democratic system of governance. Its message has resonated much more powerfully with the youths than the traditional political societies, which are more supportive of the regime's promises to reform the existing undemocratic system.

Meanwhile, the Bahraini government's western allies have largely ignored both the crackdown and the resulting escalation. The United States, which has much at stake in the region, could have won the hearts and minds of the vast majority of people in Bahrain by condemning the regime's repression from the outset. It could have negotiated the release of the various political detainees and cancelled its arms contracts with the Bahraini security forces. Instead, the United States chose to stand idly by as innocent people were killed and tortured, offering the Bahraini people nothing more than a box of doughnuts and some empty rhetoric. At least, this is how many Bahrainis that I have spoken to see things. The US Navy's Fifth Fleet is stationed in their own backyard, and yet, rather than offering tangible help to a persecuted people, it is the despotic regime which remains the beneficiary of US tactical assistance.

This is a strategic mistake. Imagine the consequences if the western powers had sided with the Hosni Mubarak regime or that of Colonel Gaddafi until the very end. But this is exactly what our governments are doing in relation to Bahrain: ignoring the facts on the ground and the obvious reality that this regime is hanging by a thread. Had it not been for Saudi military support and the West's political backing, the truth is that this unelected Al Khalifa regime would have collapsed long ago.

Whether western leaders decide to cut their losses or keep the Bahraini government on life support for the time being, by far the worst thing they can do is bury their heads in the sand and assume everything is going to be all right. It is madness to bargain with an absolute monarch who has lost the trust, support and respect of his subjects. To do so will only further alienate the people, who will not forget that they were abandoned by the west in their hour of need. The truth is that this particular she-camel will never be the same, having suffered a most painful labour. However much some wish to see the foetus gone, it is far too late for an abortion.

Sayed Mahdi Al-Modaressi is a Shia cleric and chief executive of Ahlulbayt Television Network. @sayedmodarresi

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Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s echoes of New Labour

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through bold policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s strategy was so successful that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness.

But, as some say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh; when you make, as you will, bad decisions; when the list of enemies grows long; when you’ve simply had your time; you’ll fall like all the rest. Only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. The debate on 21 May between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of a sure outcome – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. That is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’être is independence; everything else is just another brick to build the path. And so its education reform cannot be either brave or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions, or parents.

The same goes for the NHS, and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature – is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: “It’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs.”

Yet the voters show signs of wearying. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren.

So, during the debate, it was Nicola Sturgeon, not the Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, or Labour’s Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs.

There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use food banks (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster). “I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish government],” Claire Austin told the panel. “You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS.” She delivered the killer line of the evening: “Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you . . . in this election?”

The list of reasonable criticisms of the SNP’s governance is growing. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off. Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried Middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nationalists’ constitution explicitly prohibits SNP elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. Although total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing.

The word “cult” has long dogged the SNP. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning, but this has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage door at times). After the debate, Claire Austin found herself at its mercy as the Nats briefed – wrongly – that she was the wife of a Tory councillor. The SNP branch in Stirling said, Tebbitishly, that if she was having to use food banks, “Maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?”

Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s home affairs spokesperson, was forced to apologise for spreading “Twitter rumours” about Austin. The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but it hasn’t gone away – it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated: they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party.

I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall, it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, and its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly exasperate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and many signs that things will get worse.

How then do you arrest your fall? The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed it. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed. 

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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