“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