Bahrain – The Forgotten Revolution

In late 2010 we witnessed the beginning of a series of events that would radically alter the political and social landscapes of the Middle East and Northern Africa. These events, which later became known as the “Arab Spring”, began with an unprecedented wave of pro-democracy protests against the various authoritarian regimes of the region. Beginning with demonstrations in Tunisia against the 23 year rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali that soon led to the dictator fleeing the country, the spirit of revolution quickly spread to the country’s neighbors as well. In Egypt large protests broke out in the now-famous Tahrir Square against the Mubarak regime, resulting in his eventual overthrow. Libya was next, which saw an armed rebellion against Muammer Gadaffi ending with the dictator’s death in October 2011. Yemen too witnessed protests and violence causing longtime president Abdullah Saleh’s eventual resignation. These monumental power shifts captured the world’s attention and indeed still continue to dominate headlines with the descent of Syria into civil war following the Assad regime’s brutal repression of similar protests and the controversial new Islamist-led government of Egypt.

Largely unknown to the world however, is the ongoing struggle in the tiny Persian Gulf island nation of Bahrain. Similar to Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, protests erupted in this majority Shia country in early 2011 against the Sunni Al Khalifa dynasty that has ruled the island for hundreds of years. Unlike the previously mentioned countries this was given only fleeting mention in international media and quickly faded from news headlines. Protests involving hundreds began in Pearl Square in the capital Manama on February 14th. In the following days these were violently broken up with 6 protestors killed and hundreds wounded in the process. Protests quickly resumed and grew larger and larger, at one point involving more than 150,000 people, almost half of Bahrain’s population. The demands changed from initially seeking greater equality to the all-together replacement of the monarchy with a democratic system. The fall of the Al Kahlifa dynasty seemed inevitable, and this did not sit well with the neighboring Sunni country of Saudi Arabia.

In March the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council sent 1,500 troops to help quell the dissent. A state of emergency was declared and security forces backed by tanks and helicopters stormed Pearl Roundabout and swarmed the hospital where wounded protestors were being treated, killing six and arresting over 1000. Pearl Roundabout was demolished and in the days that followed protestors were identified, arrested, beaten, tortured, and occasionally killed. Doctors who had assisted wounded protestors were arrested along with many opposition politicians. Eventually the state of emergency was lifted and demonstrations resumed, although violence, arrests and intimidation continue to this day. According to the Center for Human Rights in Bahrain 84 people have been killed since the beginning of the unrest and hundreds more imprisoned. Although an independent inquiry into abuses was set up by the King the government has largely failed to act on its findings. Human Rights Watch has criticized the country for severely limiting access by human rights groups. Meanwhile the struggle of the Bahraini people remains largely off the radar of the rest of the world and meaningful change has yet to occur.

The United States is a very close ally of Bahrain. The two countries share a defense agreement and it is the home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. U.S. diplomatic cables from 2008-9 released by WikiLeaks detailed the close relationship between the two. They spoke of the strategic significance of having an ally in close proximity to Iran and Iraq and praised various figures in the royal family and government. As it was with Egypt, the United States is in a unique position to apply pressure to the government to address the grievances of the protestors and end the conflict. The defense strategy of the country, which lacks the oil revenues of other Gulf nations, depends almost entirely on the presence of the Fifth Fleet and U.S. military aid. In addition to this, in 2005 a free trade agreement with the U.S. was completed on the condition that certain labor reforms would be implemented. Despite this leverage the U.S. has largely refrained from taking any meaningful action aside from occasionally voicing some concern. In fact, a $53 million arms deal that was frozen in September 2011 following an outcry from human rights groups was resumed in May 2012. The Obama administration has also been reluctant to take economic action despite the failure of Bahrain to implement the reforms agreed upon in the trade agreement.

In May 2011 President Obama, during a policy address on the Middle East and North Africa, announced the complete support of the U.S. for pro-democracy reform movements in the region, calling it a “historic opportunity”. The Bahraini people still struggle to attain freedom and the U.S. has the potential to provide them with significant assistance. If the Obama administration continues to neglect this it will represent an opportunity tragically missed.