June 5, 2012

Bahraini Protesters Know No Rest

Over the weekend Bahrain's Justice Ministry announced that it would move to dissolve the oppositional Islamic Action group, or Amal, for committing several administrative violations. Matar Matar, a media-savvy member of Al-Wefaq, took notice of King Hamad's lawfare and expects his officials to explore the same tactic against Bahrain's largest opposition group. The mere attempt to close Al-Wefaq would be ludicrously counterproductive to the island's stability, but this outcome also fits snugly into the King's worn pattern. 

Judging by Bahrain's overall drift and the monarchy's veiled threat to Al-Wefaq, King Hamad and his hardline family members erroneously believe that they have established a sustainable counterrevolution. 

If left unchanged, the factors of Bahrain's uprising could easily push the pro-democracy struggle beyond 2015. Most parts of the monarchy and nearly all areas of a diverse oppositional network have only grown more hostile towards each other, with each failed round of "dialogue" breeding new distrust. As a result, neither side is tired of assaulting the other in the streets. Bahraini security forces continue to funnel demonstrations out of Manama in order to create the illusion of a normal capital, and lay down an iron fist when they venture into Shia territory. Dispersing funerals or clearing oppositional homes with U.S.-made tear gas is relatively common. Meanwhile Bahrain's agitated street coalitions have openly justified the use of Molotovs and other low-intensity weapons (rocks, bottles, crude explosives) in response to the government's disproportionate crackdown. This blend of non-violence protest, civil disobedience and low-intensity violence is a natural product of fourth-generation warfare (4GW), and thus cannot be suppressed by the government's current tactics. 

Deteriorating economic conditions or another Saudi intervention could accelerate a political transition; more likely, Riyadh's cash flow and military arsenal will continue to enflame and prolong Bahrain's conflict. A possible union with Saudi Arabia has already erected a counterproductive lightning rod, preemptively fueling the instability that Riyadh is trying to extinguish.

Bahrain's pro-democracy movement isn't going anywhere with leaders like Nabeel Rajab and Zainab Alkhawaja, both fresh out of jail as they await their court dates. Speaking to Democracy Now's Amy Goodman, they also sound more determined to oppose the monarchy - and the Obama administration's policy - than ever before. "So far, the American government played only negative role on Bahrain," Rajab opened before launching himself into Washington's "double-standard." The head of Bahrain's Center For Human Rights rhetorically wondered when the international community would sanction King Hamad's regime. After criticizing the Obama administration for "always asking both parties to stop violence," a propaganda tactic that "presents us as a people using violence," Rajab then proclaimed that the Gulf is a "big arm market, because it’s a big oil exporter, we have to suffer for that." 

"We are a victim of being a region that have an interest with the United States. Unfortunately, the United States - and the West, as well, comes after United States - have ignored completely the crime what’s happening here."

No U.S. official would venture on record to contest Rajab's three-week imprisonment, instead saving their obligatory (and infrequent) "concern" for the still-jailed Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. His daughter, Zainab, was recently freed from custody after staging a sitting protest in the middle of a road leading to Bahrain's International Circuit. Arrested five times herself, Zainab recounted a moment that Washington has publicly ignored and possibly underestimated: the May summit between Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. These meetings would unfreeze a portion of Bahrain's latest arms package, ending months of loophole searches and triggering a new wave of anti-American protests. The Obama administration counter-argued that crowd control weapons had been withheld - deeper sources claim that the administration views this package as a "carrot" to engage the opposition - but Rajab explains how the decision was interpreted by all sides. 

"Here, the silence of United States are being seen as a green signal to go ahead with more repression, more violation. This is how the Bahrain government see it." 

However al-Khawaja confirms a prior observation that U.S. arms are peanuts compared to the all-powerful access of royal officials. "I mean, this is one thing that really upsets the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain," she tells Goodman - "showing so much support for dictators in our country.” Access is king in the political world and Bahrain's oppositional leaders loathe the monarchy's open-door, red-carpet treatment in Washington. To them, no amount of arms or political statements can trump the visceral hypocrisy of cordial U.S.-Bahraini relations. 

"And, I mean, it’s very ironic that while I was in prison," says al-Khawaja, "I read headlines in the newspaper saying that Bahrain, our country, is turning a new page, where activists have the freedom to speak and to move around. And at the same time, I’m in prison, my father is in prison, Nabeel Rajab is in prison, and all the prominent activists that I know were imprisoned or in hiding. So, really, and here on the ground in Bahrain, we’re seeing all the crimes that are happening, all the violations that are happening. Nobody feels safe." 

Bahrain's opposition will never enjoy the same international opportunities to promote their cause and thus accept the fact that they must rely on themselves to succeed. They will never be embraced like Libya and Syria's opposition, or experience the charm that Clinton tried to rub off on Egyptians. They have been black-balled for interrupting Washington and Riyadh's imperialist vision of the Gulf, turned into an Iranian scapegoat and left for dead. The Obama administration is committing a strategic error by burning all bridges with Bahrain's opposition, which clearly possesses the energy and determination to protest year after year. 

"We are going to carry on going out," al-Khawaja promised. "It doesn’t matter if we get arrested five, six, 10 times. It’s not going to stop, because in the end, we have sacrificed a lot for democracy and for freedom."

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