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20 February 2012updated 07 Sep 2021 10:35am

Bahrain: one year on

As the first anniversary of the uprising approaches, it is time f

By Sayed Mahdi Al-Modaressi

“The she-camel has been impregnated” goes the old Arabic saying, suggesting a looming (usually disastrous) outcome which is all but inevitable. Drawing from this adage, Bahrain’s ruling monarchy has tried to abort the pregnancy which occurred in the frenzy of the Arab Spring, but the fetus was too mature. The mass uprising which began a year ago on February 14th was the result of many decades of abuse and it was too late to kill the baby.

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

Three months after the King sponsored the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report which found widespread, systematic policy of abuse, torture, and discrimination on the basis of sectarian affiliation, his regime 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 control over several key areas. 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”, which has offered more martyrs than any other is also a no-go zone.

However, when we examine the Western diplomatic rhetoric there is a blatantly obvious lack of symmetry and consistency when Bahrain is placed next to Syria. Just this past week, there have been renewed calls to arm the Syrian rebels (though, thankfully, dismissed), yet the US has consistently & strongly condemned the use of violence, such as Molotov cocktails by Bahraini protesters. Arm one nation against its regime but restrict protests in another to only peaceful, government sanctioned gatherings?! At the risk of sounding cliche, the double standards are simply staggering!

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Before the regime crackdown, specifically back in February through March of 2011, demonstrations in Bahrain were characterized by two unique features: massive turnouts (at some point 300 thousand people marched across the capital, representing half the population), and the peaceful nature of the protesters who raised none other than the national flag and offered nothing but roses to armed gunmen.

Much has transpired since then, and the regime’s unrelenting violence against peaceful protests have 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 are increasingly common, and are used to push back security vehicles when then ambush the villages. When the regime uses molotov cocktails against unarmed protesters, soon protesters pick up the habit and begin to do the same as demonstrated spectacularly in the village of Nuwaiderat. As over 40 faith leaders are imprisoned and women are publicly assaulted for taking part in peaceful protests, people feel compelled to fight back.

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As countless videos and pictures posted on social networking sites have shown, unarmed protesters were faced with sheer savagery and vile acts of murder and intimidation. Once the protests were violently quelled, hundreds of people were also detained, tortured, even sexually assaulted. A campaign of intimidation which includes demolishing dozens of licensed Shiite places of worship and holy sites, the prevention of religious rituals, thousands of arbitrary detentions, over 60 extrajudicial killings; including several dying in custody bearing clear marks of torture, and the imprisonment of physicians for treating injured protesters have all culminated in two impossibly difficult scenarios. If it backs down, releasing the opposition leaders (including the head of Amal, an officially licensed political society) the opposition will be further emboldened to continue what they started last year. If the crackdown continues, so will the resistance. Much like someone who steps on a land mine. If he walks off, it will rip him apart, but keeping his foot on the bomb is also not an option. Such is the dilemma King Hamad and his uncle Prince Khalifa, the longest serving prime minister in the world, have created for themselves.

In the midst of all this, the traditional opposition groups (also known as political societies) are becoming increasingly irrelevant in the face of a secretive, highly organized, and popular youth movement called the Coalition of February 14th. The Coalition commands massive popular support and has openly called for the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of a democratic system. This message has resonated much more powerfully with the youths than the traditional political societies which advocate the regime’s much less drastic idea of reforming the existing system.

Bahrain’s Western allies have largely ignored both the crackdown and the resulting escalation. The United States, which has much at stake, could have scored major street credit with the people of Bahrain by condemning the regime’s repression. It could have negotiated the release of all political detainees earlier on, even without disturbing its delicate relationship with the Saudis or the Iranians. However, apart from offering the Bahraini people a box of donuts and empty rhetoric, Western powers chose to stand idly by as people were being killed and tortured. At least this is how people see things from where they stand. The US Navy’s Fifth Fleet is stationed in their own backyard, and yet, instead of offering tangible help to the people, it is the regime which is getting tactical assistance!

This is a strategic mistake. Imagine if the West had sided with the Mubarak regime or that of Gaddafi till the very end! This is exactly what we are doing with Bahrain; ignoring the facts on the ground and the obvious reality that this regime is hanging by a thread, literally a causeway connecting it to its other totalitarian neighbor, Saudi Arabia, and had it not been for Saudi’s military support and the West’s political backing, the regime would have long collapsed. But as painful as it may be to have seen it crumble, at least then the people would not look at Western powers as allies of their dictatorial monarch.

But whether the West decides to cut its losses or keep a the regime on life support for the time being, by far the worst thing it can do is bury its head under the sand and assume everything is going to be all right. Worse still, is to bargain on a monarch who has all but lost any remaining trust with his subjects. Doing that will only further alienate the people who won’t forget that they were abandoned by the international community. These memories will be forever itched in their psyches because this she-camel will never be the same, having suffered a most painful labor, and however much many wish to see fetus gone, it is too late for a late term abortion.

Sayed Mahdi Almodarresi