Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Whither Bahrain?

Libya is not the only Arabic revolution where outside forces have intervened; there are also foreign troops on the streets of Bahrain. But unlike Libya, the foreigners in Bahrain have come in on the side of the discredited regime. Occupying forces from Saudi Arabia and the UAE are helping the monarchy put down a rebellion with only a few hypocritical murmurs from the West and no sign of any UN-sponsored intervention in the rebels’ favour. With martial law in place after almost two months of protests, Bahrain has today brushed off a Kuwaiti offer to mediate with the rebels saying it wasn’t necessary. The detested al-Khalifa regime is set on a path of destroying the opposition while hoping the rest of the world is too distracted by events in Libya to do anything about it. (photo:AFP)

The Sunni Al Khalifa tribe has ruled Bahrain for almost 200 years, a rule cemented by British overlords and trade-based wealth in the 1800s. The majority Shia did not share in the general prosperity and remained second class citizens despite the implicit and sometimes explicit support of Iran. The discovery of oil ensured British meddling would continue for much of the 20th century. The struggle for supremacy in Bahraini affairs by both Britain and Iran continued until the country gained full independence in 1971. A 1973 constitution promised free elections (though for men only) but this was thrown out two years later by the then-emir Salman al Khalifa.

In the 1990s opposition forces came together to demand reforms from the ageing emir and a return to the 1973 constitution. For six years the streets were plagued with riots which were met by suppression by the regime The intifada did not end until the death of Salman in March 1999. Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa succeeded his father and immediately promised to carry out political reforms. On 14 February 2001 a referendum to carry out the National Action Charter to return the country to constitutional rule was overwhelming supported by 98.4 percent of the voters. The 2000s saw important progress including the enfranchisement of women and parliamentary elections in 2006 and 2010. But key problems remain including discrimination against the Shia and the all pervasive power of the al Khalifa caste.

Problems of powersharing were thrown firmly into the spotlight after pro-democracy demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt hit the headlines in January. In Bahrain opposition was mobilised to demonstrate on the 10th anniversary of the signing of the National Action Charter on 14 February. Pearl Square in the capital Manama became the epicentre of resistance with protesters calling for political reform and equalisation of the economic benefits of Bahrain’s oil-rich economy. The reaction from the alarmed administration was swift. On 17 February a pre-dawn tank raid on the square killed 5 and injured 230 others. Soldiers placed roadblocks and barbed wire around the centre of town and leaders banned public gatherings.

The effect was to harden resistance. Talk of reform was replaced by talk of overthrow of the al Khalifas. The funerals of the dead turned into shrines of martyrdom with talk of 100,000 on the streets – about one eighth of the country’s population. Unity of opposition forces was marred by sectarian clashes between Sunni and Shia. Meanwhile panicky leadership cadres made some concessions by sacking extremist ministers while still authorising a shoot to kill policy on the streets.

On 14 March, the Emir had enough and called for support from his Sunni allies. Led by Saudi Arabia they answered the call. A thousand Saudi troops and 500 UAE police officers crossed the bridge to Manama. The invaders were part of a deployment by the Gulf Co-operation Council, a six-nation regional grouping of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and UAE. The force immediately set about protecting the oil and gas plants and financial institutions. According to al Khalifa, the troops were there “to look at ways to help them to defuse the tension in Bahrain.” But no one in the country was under any illusion this was anything but an occupation force to crush the revolution.

There was the inevitable bleating from the West but no sign of action to back it up. Hillary Clinton said Bahrain and its GCC allies were "on the wrong track” but mentioned nothing about the 5th fleet that remains in its Bahrain base protecting US oil wealth in the greater region. The Khalifas may not be loved by their subjects but the White House know a Shia government in Manama would not be accommodating to 4,500 US military personnel in the city. The Americans have nailed their colours to the mast. The Fifth Fleet is not there to create disorder but to preserve it. When the regime does fall, as it inevitably will, the Americans can have no complaints when they are kicked out.

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