Bahrainis’ demands are clear: the resignation of Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa – who has governed since 1971 – to be replaced by an elected premier, the release of all political prisoners, a new constitution, an end to the systematic discrimination against Shias and all forms of sectarianism, repeal of the citizenship laws, fairness in distribution of jobs and housing, freedom of the press and religion, and an end to torture. The al-Khalifa monarchy and its imported mercenaries are at a crossroads.
“Bahrain has one of the most advanced medical systems in the Middle East, the best ICT sector in the region and the fastest growing economy in the Arab world. But despite all these accomplishments, the country seems to be missing just one little thing: a doctor who can identify signs of torture.” (Benjamin Joffe-Walt writing for Change.org, November 12th, 2010)
February 14th was Bahrain’s turn for its “day of rage” against the striking social, political and economic inequities found in the tiny island kingdom. For those familiar with its modern history, however, they know there was no need to dub it such; Bahrainis have long raged against policies of exclusion, marginalization and sectarianism embodied in al-Khalifa family rule.
To fully appreciate Bahrain’s inherent volatility, it is important to understand both its demographics and political structure.
These have been detailed in past essays which new readers can review. Briefly, of 1.2 million people in the Persian Gulf nation, only about 530,000 are Bahraini nationals. Of these, at least 70 percent are Shia Muslims. King Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and the al-Khalifa dynasty that has ruled Bahrain for two centuries are Sunni Muslims.
If meaningful, representative, democratic institutions were present in the country, the sectarian incongruity would be a mere footnote. Unfortunately, that is far from the case. The civil, political and human rights of Shia citizens have been trampled on for decades by the monarchy. This wholly belies the claim that Bahrain is a beacon of democracy and reform among Persian Gulf nations (a notion likewise promulgated by its stalwart ally, the United States).
The notorious citizenship laws—giving non-Bahraini Sunnis expedited citizenship and voting rights in a backdoor attempt to alter the state’s confessional makeup—is one of many examples of how the monarchy has long bred resentment and anger among the majority population.
The disenfranchised, poverty-stricken Shia hold no significant positions in government. Although they comprise 80 percent of the labor force, they are absent from the public sector. They are completely unrepresented in the security services: of the 1,000 employed in the National Security Apparatus, more than two-thirds are non-Bahraini (Jordanians, Egyptians, Pakistanis and others) and overwhelmingly Sunni. Bahraini Shias constitute less than five percent of the NSA and occupy only low-level positions or act as paid informants.
The paramilitary Special Security Forces operates under the supervision of the NSA and numbers 20,000 – 90 percent of whom are non-Bahraini. The SSF does not include a single Bahraini Shia officer.
These security forces, housed in Manama’s upscale neighborhoods of course, are routinely unleashed on Bahraini Shia protesting their lot – imported henchmen serving to oppress the king’s subjects.
Last summer, the government rounded up dozens of human rights workers, religious leaders and opposition figures who demanded an end to the regime’s habitual use of torture. Twenty-five were charged with “contacting foreign organizations and providing them with false and misleading information about the kingdom”. Half were charged with attempting to stage a coup. In total, 450 have been arrested, including the well-known pro-democracy blogger Ali Abdulemam.
Claiming they were tortured by security forces before being put on trial, the government’s expert medical examiner concluded the bruises, wounds, cuts and burns found on detainees’ bodied were not the result of torture.
Indeed, its specter looms over all those who oppose al-Khalifa rule.
In February 2010, Human Rights Watch released a landmark report titled “Torture Redux: The Revival of Physical Coercion during Interrogations in Bahrain.” It chronicles the routine use of torture and degrading treatment for the purpose of extracting confessions from political opponents. The organization’s 2011 World Report reaffirms the practice continues. Even more disturbing, Bahraini children have not been spared physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the secret police.
But choosing February 14th as Bahrain’s day of rage was not random. It marked the tenth anniversary of the referendum on the National Action Charter, which Sheikh Hamad promised would transform the Kingdom into a constitutional monarchy, and the ninth anniversary of the 2002 constitution purportedly enacting it.
It was all for show. Despite Bahrain’s elected parliament, real power lies with the upper house Shura Council. The Shura Council has the authority to approve or rescind any legislation passed by the lower house Council of Representatives. Shura members, unsurprisingly, are directly appointed by the king.
Monday’s protestors, who acted peacefully by all accounts, were met by riot police using live ammunition. Scores were injured. The uprising’s first martyr, 27-year-old Ali Abdul Hadi Mushaima, was killed by a gunshot wound to the back. At his funeral procession Tuesday, security forces fatally shot Fadel Salman al-Matrouk, 31, a mourner who had gathered with others in front of the hospital where Mushaima died.
Sensing the potential for unrest, the king granted each Bahraini family $2,650 in cash before protests even began. After Mushaima and al-Matrook’s deaths, he went on television to express his regret and promise an investigation into their deaths. As in Egypt, the regime’s actions woefully lagged behind events on the ground.
Thousands of Bahrainis occupied Manama’s Pearl Roundabout Tuesday and Wednesday, with the youth at the helm. They chanted, “No Shiites, no Sunnis, only Bahrainis.” Tents were set up and preparations were made for a long peaceful encampment.
Early Thursday morning, while protestors slept, the situation took an ugly, violent turn. Riot police stormed through the camp, killing four and injuring 100. Sixty people are reported missing (numbers at the time of writing this, all likely to increase). Tanks were out in full force as hundreds flooded into hospitals. Manama is now in lock-down.
Statements of those present come from an AP report:
“They were beating me so hard I could no longer see. There was so much blood running from my head… I was yelling, ‘I’m a doctor. I’m a doctor.’ But they didn’t stop.”
“We yelled, ‘We are peaceful! Peaceful!’ The women and children were attacked just like the rest of us… They moved in as soon as the media left us. They knew what they’re doing.”
“Then all of a sudden the square was filled with tear gas clouds. Our women were screaming… What kind of ruler does this to his people? There were women and children with us!”
Bahrainis’ demands are clear: the resignation of Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa – who has governed since 1971 – to be replaced by an elected premier, the release of all political prisoners, a new constitution, an end to the systematic discrimination against Shias and all forms of sectarianism, repeal of the citizenship laws, fairness in distribution of jobs and housing, freedom of the press and religion, and an end to torture.
The al-Khalifa monarchy and its imported mercenaries are at a crossroads. The protesters’ demands are reasonable and legitimate. The king would be wise to accede to them before the overthrow of the entire regime becomes their only acceptable alternative. After Thursday’s violent crackdown against unarmed civilians, there may now be no other option.