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

Photo: Getty Images
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The twelve tricks in George Osborne's spending review

All Chancellors use chicanery, and George Osborne is no exception.

There is no great shame to a wheeze: George Osborne is no more or less partial to them than other Chancellors before him. Politicians have been wheezing away since history began. Wheezes aren’t even necessarily bad policy: sometimes they’re sensible as well as slightly sneaky. And we shouldn’t overstate their significance: the biggest changes announced yesterday were described in a clear, honest and non-wheezy way.

But it’s fun to try to spot the wheezes. Here are some we’ve found so far.


  1. Give people less time to pay their tax bills. Yesterday the Chancellor announced tax rises that will raise, in total, a net £5.5bn in 2019-20. A sixth of that total – £900m – results from the announcement that, from April 2019, anyone paying Capital Gains Tax (CGT) on the sale of a house will have to cough up within 30 days. Has the Chancellor made a strategic decision to increase taxes to pay for public services? Not really – he’s just moved some tax forward from the subsequent year to help his numbers stack up, at the price of bigger hassle for people who are selling houses. Not necessarily a bad thing – but a classic wheeze.


  1. Dress up a spending cut as a minor bureaucratic change. The Treasury yesterday announced what sounds like a sensible administrative change to the Government’s scheme for automatically enrolling people into pensions: “to simplify the administration of automatic enrolment for the smallest employers in particular, the next two phases of minimum contribution rate increases will be aligned to the tax years”. Nice of them to reduce bureaucratic hassle for the smallest employers. This also happens to save the Government £450m in 2018-19, because instead of paying an increased subsidy into people’s pensions from January 2018, it will do it from April 2018.


  1. “Tuck under”.  The phrase “tucking under” is a Whitehall term of art, best illustrated with an example. We learnt yesterday that “DfID [the Department for International Development] will remain the UK’s primary channel for aid, but to respond to the changing world, more aid will be administered by other government departments, drawing on their complementary skills.” That sounds like great joined-up government. It also, conveniently, means that the Government can continue to meet its target of keeping overseas aid at 0.7% of Gross National Income, without having to increase DfID’s budget at the same rate as GNI: instead, other departments pick up the slack. Those bits of other departments’ budgets have thus been “tucked under” the ODA protection. See also: the Government is “protecting” the schools budget in real terms, while slashing around £600m from the funding it gives to local authorities to support schools, so that schools will now have to buy those services from their “protected” funding – thus “tucking” the £600m “under” the protected schools budget. (See also: in the last Parliament, the Government asked the NHS to contribute to social care funding, thus “tucking” some social care “under” the protected health budget.)


  1. Cumulative numbers. Most of the figures used in the Spending Review are “in-year” figures: when the Government says it is giving £10bn more to the NHS, it means that the NHS will get £10bn more in 2019-20 than it got in 2015-16. Then you read something like: “The Spending Review and Autumn Statement provides investment of over £1.3 billion up to 2019-20 to attract new teachers into the profession.” That’s not £1.3bn per year – it’s the cumulative figure over four years.


  1. Deploy weasel words. The government is protecting “the national base rate per student for 16-19 year olds”. Sounds great – and it will be written up in many places as “Government protects 16-19 education”. But the word “base” is doing a lot of work here. Schools and colleges that educate 16-19 year olds currently get a lot of funding on top of the “base rate” – such as extra funding for disadvantaged students. Plans for that funding have not yet been revealed.


  1. Pretend to hypothecate a tax. The Chancellor announced yesterday that – because the EU won’t allow him to reduce the ‘tampon tax’ – he’ll instead use the proceeds of that tax to pay for grants to women’s charities. This sounds great – but all he’s really saying is that, among all the many other millions of pounds of grants issued by the government to various causes, £15m will be given to some women’s charities, which might have got that funding anyway. It’s not real hypothecation: it’s not as if women’s charities will get more if there’s a spike in tampon sales. See also: announcing that local authorities can raise council tax so long as they use it to pay for social care – LAs would probably have spent just as much on social care anyway (and other services would have suffered).


  1. Shave away a small fraction of a big commitment. The Conservative party made great play in the election campaign of its commitment to provide 30 hours of free childcare to 3 and 4 year olds in working families. In the July Budget, it made more great play of re-committing to this. Yesterday, it announced that “working families” excluded any parent working less than the equivalent of 16 hours at the minimum wage, or more than £100,000. That sounds like a fairly small change – but it saves the Government £125m in 2020.


  1. Turn a grant into a loan. If government gives someone a grant, that is counted as spending and increases the public sector deficit. If instead the government gives someone a loan, that doesn’t count against the deficit, because it’s assumed that the loan will be paid back (so the loan is like an asset which the Government is holding). Recently we’ve seen a lot of government grants turning into loans – in the July Budget it was student maintenance grants; yesterday it was bursaries for trainee nurses.


  1. “Reverse” a decision that hasn’t happened yet. In 2012 the Government announced that, from April 2016, it would remove the 3% “diesel supplement” that puts a higher tax on company cars that use diesel than on others. Yesterday, it cancelled this, saving over £265m per year for the rest of the Parliament. People complain less about you cancelling a tax cut when you haven’t done the tax cut yet. (Perhaps this doesn’t qualify as a full wheeze, but there’s something wheezy about it.)


  1. “Protect” things in cash terms. If you really want to protect an area of spending, you should at least increase it in line with inflation, so that it can still buy the same amount of stuff. This government – like the Coalition before it – enjoys protecting things only in cash terms. Examples yesterday included the basic rate of funding per 16-19 year old in education, and the entire children’s services budget.


  1. Freeze things in cash terms. Yesterday the government announced that the repayment threshold on student loans – the level above which ex-students must start paying back their loans – will remain frozen in cash terms for 5 years, instead of increasing with earnings (which is what has happened to date). This saves the Government £200m in 2019-20. In a particularly bold move, the Government has even applied this rule to loans that have already been issued – changing the terms on which students took out the loans in the first place.


  1. Hide all these wheezes in sweeping statements. The first chapter of the Spending Review tells us that “£3 billion [of reduction in the deficit] is being delivered through reforms such as Making Tax Digital and further measures to tackle tax avoidance.” The innocuous phrase “reforms such as” covers the bringing forward of £900m in Capital Gains Tax (see number 1 above) and the £450m saved by delaying automatic enrolment into pensions (see number 2 above).

Catherine Colebrook is chief economist at the Institute for Public Policy Research