Huffpost WorldPost
Amir Madani Headshot

Arabian Spring: The Hidden Tragedy of Bahrain

Posted: Updated:
BAHRAIN IRAN TROOPS

"The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."
- Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, his account of the war between Sparta and Athens (fifth century BC)

This statement seems to me not only unfair but, at the current stage of development of civilization, a threat to human survival.

Let us read a modern tragedy together. Nicholas D. Kristof, one of the most authoritative New York Times columnists, wrote about Bahrain in these terms a few weeks ago:

In Bahrain in recent weeks, I've seen corpses of protesters who were shot at close range, seen a teenage girl writhing in pain after being clubbed, seen ambulance workers beaten for trying to rescue protesters -- and in the last few days it has gotten much worse. Saudi Arabia, in a slap at American efforts to defuse the crisis, dispatched troops to Bahrain to help crush the protesters.

In order to better understand what is happening in Bahrain, Kristof speaks with a colleague who is on the field and writes:

My New York Times colleague Michael Slackman was caught by Bahrain security forces a few weeks ago. He said they pointed shotguns at him and that he was afraid they were about to shoot when he pulled out his passport and shouted that he was an American journalist. He said the mood then changed abruptly and the leader of the group came over and took Mr. Slackman's hand, saying warmly : "Don't worry! We love Americans!"

"We're not after you. We're after Shia," the policeman added. Mr. Slackman recalls: "It sounded like they were hunting rats."

Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused the regime of creating a "climate of fear," particularly in Shia neighborhoods and villages where nighttime raids appear designed mainly to instill terror among the mostly poor residents.

This is the sense of what is happening in Bahrain, the tiny isle located on the south side of the Persian Gulf where the ruling al-Khalifa from the Sunni minority is threatening the majority Shiite population. Of course there is diversity and ethnic variety in Bahrain, as elsewhere, which extends even into the religious field. Tulin Daloglu, a Turkish journalist based in Washington, writes: "Sectarianism in the Middle East is grievous, pernicious and enveloped in denial."

However, the Bahraini have not taken to the streets for primarily sectarian reasons, but rather to demand democracy and the recognition of civil rights; and, yes, the end of the apartheid system that excludes the majority of the population from full political life and reserves all the levers of power for the minority. As in other Arab countries, the Bahraini have begun pushing their own political and economic demands.

The Saudi and Bahraini political narrative blames Iran for Bahrain's unrest. Yet U.S. Defense Deputy Robert Gates sounded remarkably different. While visiting Bahrain, he said there was no evidence of Iranian complicity behind the unrest there. However, "emerging from a meeting with King Abdullah, Gates claimed for the first time to have 'evidence that the Iranians are trying to exploit the situation in Bahrain.'" That remark stood in sharp contrast to his dismissal during his last trip to the Gulf three days before the martial law declaration of Saudi and Bahraini charges that Tehran was behind the unrest.

Gates' sudden conversion to the Saudi and Bahraini political line clearly needs some explaining. The United States has repeatedly dismissed claims by the Bahraini government that Shia Muslim unrest in the Gulf island state is backed by Iran, while, on the other hand, there is a deep-rooted, indigenous democratic movement within civil society.

The speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum indicates the right direction to follow: A political process that "advances the rights and aspirations of all the citizens of Bahrain" because "security alone cannot resolve the challenges." Everyone is aware that only constitutional order and the rule of law can isolate the radicals of all backgrounds and provide a lasting stability in Bahrain and in the region. However, the royal family has talked about dialogue but has not made any meaningful concessions, and the security forces remain almost as brutal as any in the region.

In light of all of this, a question arises: Why did the United Nations approve the no-fly zone to stop crimes against humanity in Libya, but remain silent about the on-going secret terror and genocide in Bahrain ?

North American and European governments, so vocal recently in espousing the cause of human rights in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, need also to speak out loudly about what is going on in Bahrain," said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International's director for the Middle East and North Africa.

What could be the basis for this double standard, if not the self interest of the great powers? Why does the U.S. put pressure on Syria for change, yet remain silent in front of Saudi Arabia's brutal policy of suppressing the protests and sending troops to Bahrain?

According to the Washington Post:

President Obama has backed a NATO intervention to stop crimes against humanity in Libya, and he has denounced as "abhorrent" the bloody crackdown in Syria. But the president and his administration remain mostly silent about another ugly campaign of repression underway in the Arab world, in the Persian Gulf Emirate of Bahrain.

Let us forget for a moment those millions of people who took to the streets demanding democracy, rights and new stability. Let us think following the thought of Thucydides : "Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."

In some "realist" circles of Western chancelleries it is believed that Arab country dictatorial systems can no longer ensure stability. So it was thought to set a new stability. In order not to alarm the ruling elite, which they have supported for decades, an "orderly transition" was envisioned. It was thought that they would not press for instant democracy everywhere, but would urge Arab ruling elites to respect basic rights -- the rule of law, free speech and fair elections -- precisely because denying people such basic rights was the cause of instability. No more Neocon bombs dropped from 40,000 feet to install democracy, but rather real reforms. No more exporting democracy -- but extending it. Something like: a low-key version of neoconservatism, wagering that gradual reforms would bring more stability than despotism.

This moderate approach could be a step toward a major equilibrium with the capacity to promote a new stability through some basic rights. Yet what has been done, in practice? The weak economies in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen are left more or less to their destiny, while efforts are directed toward trying to destabilize Syria. At the same time, the rich oil kingdom of Saudi Arabia is allowed to suppress internal protests and send troops into Bahrain and support the fundamentalists in "Syria, where citizens are engaged in the struggle for democracy."

The United Nations approves the no-fly zone to stop crimes against humanity in Libya, now in danger of becoming a classic endless war. Is the goal to drag the Libyan dictator in front of an international court for horrendous crimes, or just to get their hands on Libyan energy resources?

While President Obama has taken on the heavy neocon legacy (Afghanistan and Iraq) he continues with uncertainty some policies that are still awaiting a clear direction. The direction that was indicated by the Nobel Prize.

Nicolas Sarkozy, "an alarmingly mercurial figure," insists on bombs while Mr. Cameron assures British voters "this mission is not merely an outbreak of do-goodery, rooted in national interests and, limited in scope."

The general trend in Germany to seeking a diplomatic solution for a "soft transition" remains a minority voice. Meanwhile, China looks on all this in silence and advances in small steps trying to stop the protests on its borders, while Russia shows signs of impatience by trying to cover all positions.

All this tells us that democracy in the Arab world is not a foregone conclusion and that global political players are still hesitant to promote a new stability without dictatorships. There is the predominance of geopolitical logic over the desire to promote basic rights. This means a lack of security and stability for Arabs. As far as security is concerned, either it is there for all or for no one (in the words of President Kennedy) -- we all have less security. We saw that during the peaceful popular protest of Arab streets, al Qaeda has been forced into silence and retreat. The lack of democratic reforms could only give back life-blood to that monster.

Although Thucydides seems to be dramatically present, millions of human beings are moving against the tide, demanding laws and civil rights, including the pro-democracy inhabitants of the tiny island of Bahrain. If those who hold power at the macro level are not committed to finding even minimum solutions, the human collective will continue its path marked by general insecurity.