Six years after Saudi's invasion, Bahrain is in crisis. It doesn't have to be this way, but reconciliation must take place now before it is too late
It’s been six years since Bahrain’s crown prince set out a vision of reform. The country was three weeks into mass protests, as the Arab Spring inspired thousands of ordinary Bahrainis to take to the streets to demand a political system based on inclusion rather than marginalisation. It was a brief glimpse into a possibility of a modern, liberal constitutional monarchy, the first of its kind in the Gulf.
You’ve locked up our leaders, closed down our organisations, attacked and intimidated us, even killed us, but we still understand only serious negotiation and talk will take us forward
But just 24 hours later, all hopes were dashed as a convoy of Saudi tanks rolled over the bridge connecting the two countries. Stuffed into those military vehicles, among the soldiers and their weapons, was the crushing of our democratic dream. The crown prince's principles were forgotten and so began a political strategy that continues to today: refuse reform at any cost.
And the cost has been heavy, felt most fiercely by the people of Bahrain. Throughout these years, the situation has slowly gotten worse as human rights abuses have become more brazen and increasingly draconian. It’s clear that the Bahrain authorities believe that the longer time passes, the less its international allies will care what it does to rid the country of calls for change.
At least in 2011, the international attention on Bahrain, and the movement for change in the region, meant repressive rulers had to at least pretend to be listening to their people - or be pitted against the international community. Bahrain installed a commission of inquiry to investigate the accusations of torture, mass arrest and extra-judicial killing of protesters. The commission found widespread and deep-rooted abuse; Bahrain promised to change.
Bahrainis protest outside the Ministry of Interior in Manama in a third week of anti-regime demonstrations in 2011 (AFP)
It hasn’t. Today Al Wefaq, the country’s largest political society, is outlawed. It’s leader Sheikh Ali Salman is in prison, facing a nine-year sentence. In January, three men were executed, accused of planting a bomb that killed three police officers, for which the evidence was at best sketchy, at worst based on torture. Not isolated incidents, complaints of torture are still heard on a regular basis from Bahrain’s overcrowded prisons. Nabeel Rajab, the internationally renowned human rights defender, languishes in prison.
Repression has been the response to protests. Reform has been non-existent. The political system carries on with a parliament rubber-stamping any request from the royal family, where ministers are given free reign and are accountable only to the wishes of the royal court.
Intense security measures on the street and an institutionally weak political system will always have wide repercussions. Bahrain’s economy has been in continuous decline since 2011, with unemployment rising and Saudi being called upon time and time again to bail out the public sector. While other Gulf states overly rely on oil revenuies, Bahrain simply relies on the financial aid of other Gulf states. It is no wonder that Saudi Arabia maintains such a political stranglehold over Bahrain, when it has such a firm grasp of the purse strings.
Economic problems can be fixed. Strains on society may be harder to reverse. Although the calls for reform have been distinctly national and secular, the response from the state has been disproportionately sectarian. Its Shia workers who have been fired from their jobs, its Shia areas that have been flooded by security forces and tear gas, and its Shia citizens who have been vilified and demonised in state-run media.
This has deepened a sense amongst the Shia that they are targeted, which has undoubtedly provoked an increasingly sectarian sentiment to the conflict. Last year, the leading Shia figure in the country, revered by thousands, had his citizenship revoked. Ayatollah Sheikh Issa Qassim was always seen as beyond the repression of a state that surely wouldn’t dare incite the Shia community in such a way.
Opposition ready to talk
Bahrain remains on a knife-edge, closer than ever to being a failed state, an authoritarian dictatorship in economic turmoil and facing civil strife.
My challenge is clear to the authorities. The opposition wants dialogue and has consistently said this on a regular basis for the past six years. You’ve locked up our leaders, closed down our organisations, attacked and intimidated us, even killed us, but we still understand only serious negotiation and talk will take us forward. We don’t want crisis, this isn’t sustainable for our future generations. I hope that one day all opposition figures have the chance to return to Bahrain, and their children will be the first to live in a Bahrain that values every member of society.
A responsibility also lies with Bahrain’s international allies. If Bahrain will not take the opportunity to relax tensions, and start a reconciliation and dialogue, then the international community must use their influence to make this happen.
After all, a stable Bahrain is in everyone’s interests, both inside and outside the country. It is therefore worrying that a consensus between these states cannot be agreed at important bodies such as the Human Rights Council, where the UK recently refrained from backing a joint statement that criticised Bahrain’s human rights abuses.
It’s not yet too late for Bahrain to take the right path, but I fear every day wasted is a day closer to a point of no return. Bahrain must change course and we will be ever-ready to play a part in taking the country forwards to reform and prosperity.
- Ali Alaswad was elected to Bahrain's parliament in October 2010, but resigned in February 2011 in response to the governments' crackdown on peaceful democracy protesters. After his home was targeted by security forces, he left Bahrain and now resides in London where he continues his political work to achieve a democratic Bahrain.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye
Photo: Bahraini anti-regime protesters rally towards Pearl Square, the focal point of demonstrations for over two weeks, in Manama on 1 March 2011 (AFP)