Feb. 14, 2011, is not much different from today. Whoever looks at the Bahraini street today would almost think that the movement that is flaring has just started, and is not in its third year. For three years, Bahrainis haven’t stopped demanding their just rights from a regime that is dealing with their movement according to the policy of "divide and conquer."
Today, Bahrainis went to the streets to renew their allegiance to the blood of their martyrs and to declare again that “the revolution is ongoing” and will not deviate from its basic demand: reform.
Over the past month, the old divisions in the royal family’s ranks clearly widened after talks with the opposition collapsed and then suddenly revived.
According to observers, this erratic behavior, which is probably partly due to US and European pressure, is consistent with the leadership style of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who has been called “hesitant.” But the recent developments may result in open political warfare between his moderate and hard-line relatives.
The main royal family member who supports reaching a settlement is the king’s eldest son, Crown Prince Salman. The hard-liners are gathered around the king’s uncle, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who has served as prime minister without interruption since 1970.
The January tensions and turning the movement sectarian
Although the conflict in Bahrain is not a Sunni-Shiite conflict — as evidenced by the participation of popular classes from both sects, the significant role played by nationalist and leftist forces, and the other uprisings witnessed by Bahrain for decades — the regime saw an opportunity in the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. The regime starting promoting the idea that “Bahraini Shiites sympathize with their religious brothers in Iran and so cannot be trusted.”
Despite the fact that this is not accurate, it has been especially promoted since February 2011, when Bahraini police brutally cracked down on protests that mimicked the Arab Spring protests sweeping other parts of the region.
At the time, the government favorite narrative collapsed, as happened when the country turned into a constitutional monarchy in 2002 and was tarnished as a result of the state’s unwillingness to give Shiites proportional representation in parliament to reflect their numbers and the royal family’s determination to retain political power (members of the royal family occupy about half cabinet positions).
In spite of this, the Bahraini regime continued dealing with the protests by portraying them as having a sectarian nature. The regime stripped the nationalities of the children of a certain sect and dissolved the Shiite Jurisprudence Council, which is the largest authority of the Shiite sect in Bahrain. The government then started a systematic naturalization process to change the demographic reality in Bahrain.
The call for dialogue by the crown prince
The confusion within the royal family has been apparent since Jan. 9, when the government suspended the so-called “national dialogue” following the announcement by a political group affiliated to the regime that it is withdrawing from the process, which has been hindered by an opposition boycott since September 2012.
But on Dec. 15, Crown Prince Salman met “at the request of His Majesty King Hamad” with opposition groups “to explore ways to overcome the challenges faced by the dialogue,” according to a statement of the Royal Court.
At the time, the opposition was represented by a delegation headed by the secretary general of Wefaq, Sheikh Ali Salman. The meeting was a complete surprise because the government had imposed a travel ban on Salman last December, accusing him of “incitement to religious hatred and publishing false news likely to be detrimental to national security.”
Some researchers pointed out that the prime minister didn’t receive advance notice of the meeting and was away from the weekly cabinet meeting probably to express his anger about Prince Salman’s move.
In this context, the head of the Bahrain Forum for Human Rights, Youssef Rabih, commented to As-Safir about the crown prince’s invitation to dialogue, saying that “any initiative by the Bahraini regime can only come because of an external request, and a Saudi green light specifically.”
This was not the crown prince’s first call. After the protests began less than a month ago, a dialogue initiative between all the components of society was launched while the protesters were still present in the Pearl Roundabout.
But this initiative was aborted soon after the entry of the Peninsula Shield forces across the King Fahd bridge connecting Bahrain to Saudi Arabia the following day. That was followed by the evacuation of the roundabout from protesters and declaring a “state of national safety.”
The initiative was based on seven key principles: a parliament with full powers; a government that represents the will of the people; fair electoral constituencies; a stop to naturalizations; fighting financial and administrative corruption; state property; and addressing sectarian tension.
Bahrain is not Syria, and vice versa
There are often comparisons between the movement in Bahrain and the movements and demonstrations in other Arab Spring countries, especially Syria. But the two are very different for several reasons, the most important of which is that the movement in Bahrain has remained peaceful for three years despite the regime’s oppression.
In addition, the issue of naturalization that is rampant in Bahrain’s army and security has put the demonstrators in confrontation with “strangers.”
Also, and contrary to what is happening in Syria, the charge of external interference in Bahrain is toward the regime. There is no Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Jabhat al-Nusra, Chechens or Afghans among the protesters, who have tried hard to remove any suspicion of an external link.
Indeed, the Bahraini government, which hosts the headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet and which has been seeking to turn the protests sectarian, is the one using external forces, such as the Saudi forces, against its own people while it accuses the protesters of being loyal to other regimes.
For example, in December, the Bahraini authorities announced the confiscation of a boat carrying weapons and explosives intended for military purposes. Although the boat was coming from Iraq, it was assumed that Iran was the main party behind the shipment. There has also been government reports accusing the opposition of training, acquiring arms, and conspiring with outside parties, such as Iran, Syria, Iraq and Hezbollah.
The irony here is that last November Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki Al-Faisal Al-Saud announced in Washington that “Iran has been interfering” in Bahrain “since the 1979 revolution ... And [Iran] didn’t stop its propaganda campaign since then,” adding that “Saudi Arabia will never accept that Iran seizes power in Bahrain.”
And just yesterday [Feb. 13], Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa said that “the people of his country are standing fast against the supreme guide of the Islamic revolution in Iran.”
What is the international community waiting for?
The number of human rights violations by the Bahraini regime is proportionally the highest in the Arab countries.
Since the beginning of the crisis, more than 3,000 people, including activists, lawyers, children and women, have been arrested. Even pregnant women were arrested, as happened, for example, with the Bahraini Nadia al-Ali.
According to Bahraini and international associations, more than 21 children have been killed under torture or by the internationally prohibited shotgun bullets.
Bahraini lawyers are still waiting for the UN to convene a special session in Bahrain to condemn the regime before the world opinion. Until that happens, human rights organizations are trying to have a UN special rapporteur in Bahrain appointed to monitor, document and report violations by the Bahraini government.
The next steps
Some reports claim that the renewed talks between the government and the opposition cover five major issues: the electoral districts; having parliament approve the cabinets appointed by the king; the ministers’ powers and establishing an appointed higher parliamentary body; increasing the judiciary’s independence; and matters related to the police and security. The opposition, for its part, is demanding the release of detainees in prisons and having a greater margin of freedom.
On the third anniversary of the Bahraini protests and given the lack of attention by the government and the world about the demonstrators’ demands, will the demonstrations’ fourth anniversary arrive while Bahrainis are still waiting for their rights in the streets?
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