Bahrain’s Struggle for Democracy
The Middle East country Bahrain, situated in the Persian Gulf, has a fascinating history of being sought after for its location. Its strategic location, situated between the much larger countries of Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, has led to many countries relying on them for security. Starting as early as the 6th Century B.C.E., Bahrain was a part of the Persian Empire, vitally important for its position on their trade routes. Although large empires would come and go throughout the centuries, Bahrain’s location would continue to be a vital aspect of trade between the Arab countries and western countries.
In 1861 Britain signed a protectorate treaty with Bahrain, officially declaring that the small island was under the powerful British Empire’s protection. “From 1861, when a treaty was signed with Britain, until independence in 1971, Bahrain was virtually a British protectorate.” While the country would be considered, in theory, free to govern itself, Bahrain would be ruled with the support of other nations, by the Khalifa family. The Khalifa family, a part of the Sunni religion, ruled Bahrain with an iron fist. The family’s violent treatment of the citizens, in combination with broken promises of reform, ultimately led to high tensions in the country. Tensions finally culminated in mass protest demonstrations, starting on February 14, 2011.
From 1971 to the present day, the Khalifa family has caused great suffering on the Shiite Muslim citizens. As is the cause for many other Muslim Middle Eastern countries, tensions between the Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims have been incredibly high since the 7th century. Since the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 C.E., there have been arguments about the process of choosing the prophet’s successor, and what criteria should be used in deciding on who should lead the religion. The argument, simplified for the purpose of this paper, can be disentangled to whether or not the leader should be a direct descendant of Mohammed. The argument made by the Sunnis is that the religious leader should be elected. In contrast to the Sunnis, the Shiites argument is that the leader’s lineage needs to be in line with Mohammed. The differences of opinion have been an ongoing dispute within the religion, and have led to great unrest in the region.
Bahrain, a country that has a population which is seventy percent Shiite, is ruled by a family that is Sunni. The Shiites have been persecuted for decades by the ruling Sunnis. While in countries such as Egypt, the two groups have succeeded in creating an environment which provides relative peace for the two sects of Islam. The discrimination has been abhorred by the majority religion in Bahrain for many years. Until recently it had been regarded as just a fact of life. The Shiites have had to accept employment challenges, along with violent outbreaks from the government since 1971. In the 1990’s, during a protest in which both Sunnis and Shiites both took part for the promotion of democracy, the Bahraini Shiite Muslims were singularized by the regime as the guilty party. It was during these protests that “… all people who were killed or injured, and all of the many thousands who were arbitrarily arrested and tortured were Shi’a.”
The persecution of the protestors by the government did not stop the wide spread dissension amongst the public, and in 2001 King Hamad was forced to make a promise to bring about changes. The promise he made was “…to turn Bahrain into a kingdom and the emir into a king. In return, the dreaded state of emergency law would be ended, and a parliament with full legislative powers would be instated.” Although the opposition was happy for a short time, it would not last long, and in 2002 the king reneged on his promise. Instead of relinquishing power to parliament, he gave himself the power to veto any bills passed that he did not think fit for the country. This meant that King Hamad and the Sunni Muslims once again were in sole possession of the power.
The anger over King Hamad’s failed promise would fester in the public until 2011 when they would take the street in protest against the regime. Like their counterparts in Egypt and other Arab nations during this time period,
“The current wave of protests originated from 14,000 young people on Facebook. They represent a new generation, fed up with the impasse between the al-Khalifa clan and the older Shia leadership. The chant today on the street is: “No Sunni, No Shia, just Bahraini!”
The Bahraini youth, belonging to democratic organizations, took a page from the Egyptians, and utilized social media in order to build up support for the creation of a truly democratic country. The use of social media, in countries where communication was strictly monitored by the government, was directly responsible for the organization of the protest groups.
Despite the fact that the goal of all the protest groups was to wrestle power away from the Khalifa family, there were multiple groups of protesters. Similar to the religion of the Middle East, the groups were broken up into several different sects. The two largest groups were the al-Wefaq party and the al-Haq party. Both of the parties, although differing in their methods, protested against the horrendous way in which the Khalifa Family treated the people, and fought for a more equal share in power. In 2002, After King Hamad reneged on his promises to allow more political freedom, opposition groups began to act against the established system. “Low confidence in the sincerity of the political opening led to a range of political societies, spanning the ideological and religious spectrum, boycotting the 2002 election.” Although within four years the majority of the protestors would rejoin the elections, their support for the cause continued, and the protestors would eventually rise up again.
After the protests of the 1990’s, the next incident in Bahrain occurred on February 15, 2011. What started out as a relatively small and peaceful protest, ended in a gruesome bloodbath. As the protestors looked on in horror, “The tanks and armored personnel carriers of Bahrain’s military subsequently rolled into the square, and a military spokesman announced that the army had taken important areas of the Bahraini capital “under control.” With the corrupt government on their side, the king brutally took control of the situation. A witness to this brutality stated, “…the police’s brutal response to the small and sporadic protests on February 14 made me feel compelled to get involved. On the first day, they brutally suppressed the protests. They killed a person. They shot him in the back as he was trying to run away and they killed him.” The violence proved the governments, more specifically King Hamad’s, persistence to continue to fight against the relinquishing of power.
The protests that occurred starting in 2011 were directly influenced by the protests that were still in progress in Egypt during this time. “Egyptians calling for an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule,” according to Global Voice, “captured the world’s attention with mass protests from January 25, 2011, (#Jan25) across the country, especially in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square which citizens occupied for more than two weeks.” In order for the protestors to have accomplished such a monumental protest, the Egyptian youth utilized social media. While successful in overthrowing the ruler of Egypt, the protests set off a sequence of events which would ultimately result in uprising in many Arab countries. The fear of an uprising led the nations that depended on Bahrain, such as the United States, to support King Hamad.
As stated earlier, many nations relied heavily on the location of Bahrain for trade and security, and the United States was no exception. “Bahrain is home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which protects the vital oil supply lines that pass through the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz — an important asset for the United States in the event of a conflict with Iran. Bahrain is also a key logistical hub and command center for U.S naval operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Indian Ocean.” It was under the guise of national security that the United States was in no hurry to help remove the leader with whom they had a good relationship.
In fear of the protests spreading into Saudi Arabia, which lays only several miles off their eastern coast, on March 15, 2011, the Saudi authorities proceeded to send troops into Bahrain. Although a relatively small military force, consisting of approximately one thousand troops, their presence made it clear that other Arab countries were worried. Throughout the ordeal, with security and financial matters as a priority, the United States’ only response was to stay neutral. Their neutrality created a storm of anger amongst the Bahraini protestors, many of whom felt the United States should have gotten involved.. According to Ahmed Mohammed, “The US government pretended not to know that the Saudis were about to invade. After the fact, the United States feigned surprise.” He made the argument that the United States’ decision to stay neutral was directly responsible for the harsh feelings towards the country. Mohammed‘s opinion on the U.S.’ opinion on the democratization of Bahrain, was one that was not unique. Many believe that there is too much at stake for the U.S. and Saudi relations for them to promote change.
With or without assistance from foreign aid, Bahrain is on the threshold of change. Bahrain’s youth are fed up with being mistreated by the established government, and believe that it is time for a true democracy. Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui,of Amnesty International said it best, “The government of Bahrain cannot carry on imprisoning people simply because it can’t take criticism.” Time will tell whether or not the protestors will succeed in their fight for freedom.
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 “Bahrain: Jailed Prisoners of Conscience Speak out on day Marking Two-Year Point Since Protests Began”, Amnesty.org.uk. 14 February, 2013. Retrieved on 24 April, 2013. http://www.amnesty.org.uk/news_details.asp?NewsID=20635