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 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Anti-government demonstrators in Bahrain 370
(photo credit: 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 Spring” experience.
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, 2011.
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 government.
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 sectors.
“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.”
But how 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 year.
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 and media.
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.
Instead, 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.
For now, 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.