New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has graphically chronicled the heart-wrenching realities that have shrouded over Manama in recent days. Whilst there may be criticisms of a sometimes de-contextualised narrative, his articles are nevertheless sufficient to shed light on the fundamental grievances that have spurred the popular protests across Bahrain. There is more than enough in his articles to evoke the deepest emotion and sympathy for unarmed civilians being systematically crushed under the juggernaut of a western-armed foreign mercenary force doggedly determined to maintain the vestiges of a brutally authoritarian regime.
Officials at the Pentagon have surely read some of Kristof’s reports by now, and have no doubt made note of the striking similarities between the Al-Khalifa regime and its ousted Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts. The intelligence services and their head, Leon Panetta, are also acutely aware – no doubt – of the voluminous grievances held by the vast majority of Bahrainis towards a ruling monarchy that is increasingly acquiring the “illegitimate” prefix; this in addition to a growing view amongst Bahrainis equating the Al-Khalifa regime as the prime obstacle to serious democratic change. In spite of this however, the placid petulance that has characterised the statements of the US Secretary of State has served to further underline to the lay Arab citizen that despite its mendacious, last-minute attempts to embrace the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, the US remains firmly committed to the vocation of bolstering tyrants and dictators – only opting to disown them as the latter partake in their final rites.
The tyrannical nature of the Al-Khalifa regime is unquestionable; even to the unseasoned observer. Countless reports by an array of human rights organisations have highlighted the endemic practise of torture, and the brutal silencing of opposition political figures as well as critical voices in the media. Shortly after the recent crackdown was launched by the regime, Kristof tweeted: “Bahrain barring journalists from entry at airport. King Hamad doesn’t want witnesses to his brutality.” Later on Friday, Kristof lambasted the regime for its targeting of journalists; this time in one of his NYT columns: “Michael Slackman and Sean Patrick Farrell of the New York Times were recording video, and a helicopter began firing in their direction. It was another example of Bahrain targeting journalists, as King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa attempts to intimidate or keep out witnesses to his repression.” In addition to such intermittent showings of the shameless abuse of power, the deep-seated discrimination of the nation’s majority Shia population and its political and socioeconomic marginalization has similarly been documented widely.
Despite the overwhelming severity of the regime’s conduct, and in spite of its stringent and unrelenting authoritarian rule, the demands of the opposition across Bahrain’s political spectrum have remained largely modest. For instance the Haq Movement, which is principally anti-system and viewed as one of the more ‘extreme’, has continually stressed upon: i) constitutional reforms, ii) an end to sectarian discrimination (particularly, the sectarian motivated naturalisation of foreigners with aim to alter the basic demographic balance), and iii) release of political prisoners; as its central political demands.
As the number of dead civilians rises however, it will become increasingly difficult for leading figures in the opposition to convince their respective constituencies of the sufficiency of mere promises for reform. The vicious nature of the crackdown and the extent of force employed by the regime – more specifically, its indiscriminate shoot-to-kill policy against unarmed civilians evidenced by captured footage from Friday’s protests – has in turn exacerbated all hope in ‘partial’ solutions. Although the previously daunting lines of US-donated M60A3 tanks have now ostensibly returned to base, it would seem that Bahrainis are not too keen to welcome the dialogue offers put forward by the Crown Prince. An analogous approach, one should recall, was taken by the ousted Mubarak regime as its iron-fist tactics bore no fruit except to harden even further the steely resolve of protestors. Just a few hours after the dialogue offer was made on national television, a banner bearing the slogan “We do not accept any dialogue with those who kill us in cold blood” could be seen attached to the side of a Manama highway.
The political equation in Bahrain is eminently clear today for Washington and its newly-threatened “moderate” ally. Failure to bring about a total and immediate cessation to the use of violence against innocent unarmed civilians will in effect dichotomise the possible ends of the popular protests. Bahrainis will be forced to choose between a humiliating surrender to authoritarian rule, or to embrace the path of revolution in order to chart out a new future for their troubled nation. Recent experiences in Tunisia and Egypt would suggest that such equations do not bode well for the Empire and its crony dictators.
—Ali Jawad is a political activist and member of the AhlulBayt Islamic Mission (AIM).