On My Mind: Bahrain’s Arab Spring
For now, compared to what has transpired in other Arab countries, there is reason to be hopeful for Bahrain.
Anti-government demonstrators in Bahrain Photo: REUTERS
Bahrain is preparing to host the Formula One Grand Prix later this month. The
annual international racing car spectacle was cancelled last year as protesters
and police clashed on the streets of Manama. It was the island nation’s “Arab
Each Arab country that has endured a popular uprising
in the past 15 months has handled the situation differently. Where the
longstanding ruler was deposed – Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen – the aftermath
of the political crisis is still evolving with the final outcome in each country
uncertain. The Syrian nightmare, with President Assad still in power and
brutally murdering his own people, continues unabated.
Bahrain has taken
a different, and more encouraging, approach. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa
created last June the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) to
examine his own government’s response to the protests that began on February 14,
The prevailing questions surrounding this bold yet risky initiative
were how much latitude the BICI chair, international human rights advocate
Professor Cherif Bassiouni, and his colleagues would have investigating, what
they would recommend, and how King Khalifa, who had commissioned the inquiry,
would react to the final report and follow-up.
Importantly, what happens
in this country has implications for the country’s 525,000 citizens, its
neighbors and the United States. Bahrain, a country about the size of New York
City, exists in a very complex, challenging neighborhood, a primary source of
the world’s petroleum. It is linked by a 16-mile causeway to Saudi Arabia and
sits across the Gulf from Iran, a country that has assertively meddled in Arab
countries to advance its regional hegemony.
LONG SUSPICIOUS of Iran, the
Bahrain government’s first instincts had been to blame Tehran for fomenting the
protests among its restive Shia majority, who have long complained of
discrimination by the Sunni ruling Al-Khalifa family. The intensity of the
clashes in the first few weeks prompted Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both partners
with Bahrain in the Gulf Cooperation Council, to send in troops to shore up the
The US Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain to help ensure security
of a region so strategically important to the world, did not intervene nor was
it asked. President Obama, however, did speak out, reflecting the depth of
concern about the situation in Bahrain where the violence already had tarnished
the country’s international image and dealt a blow to its banking and tourism
“Bahrain is a longstanding partner, and we are committed to its
security,” Obama said in his Middle East policy address last May, including
Bahrain, briefly, in his review of Arab countries in turmoil. Obama also called
on Bahrain’s “government and opposition to engage in a dialogue.”
to get the sides to sit down has been an ongoing challenge for years. The
government’s efforts over the past decade to initiate a conversation on national
reconciliation have been rebuffed by the opposition, some of whom want nothing
less than a political reform that includes replacing the monarchy. On the
other hand, many Bahrainis contend that not enough has been done by the
government to address issues of inequality that had been festering, with
exchanges of recriminations, long before the crisis erupted last
Bahrain’s government today seems committed to transparency as it
seeks to address and resolve internal challenges. The Bahrain News Agency
website prominently displays the 500-page BICI report and lists steps taken so
far to implement its recommendations for reform in a broad range of
institutions, including the security forces, judiciary, education, social policy
King Khalifa, frankly, could have ignored the BICI report.
After all, it concluded that Iran was not involved in the anti-government
protests, a view Bahrain rejects. BICI also found in its extensive research,
including 9,000 interviews, that police engaged in systematic torture of
prisoners and some protesters were dismissed from their jobs.
the king welcomed the report’s presentation last November, and shortly
afterwards he created the body to implement its recommendations. Rehiring fired
workers and redressing the claims of abuse already are reportedly underway. “We
want our people to feel and see the differences these changes have on their
lives,” Khalifa proclaimed last month.
Ultimately, real reforms that gain
the confidence of citizens in their government and its institutions will take
time, as will the healing needed to reduce tensions and erect a more cohesive
society. It’s a long process, with plenty of hurdles to overcome. And,
undoubtedly, it will be monitored inside and outside Bahrain.
compared to what has transpired in other Arab countries, there is reason to be
hopeful for Bahrain. Long after Formula One moves on to its next country to
compete and entertain, Bahrain’s rulers and opposition, hopefully, will continue
to seek ways to achieve the societal changes needed to ensure a future that
benefits all Bahrainis.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s
director of media relations.