June 22, 2012

Nabeel Rajab Buried Beneath Washington's "Gulf Security Architecture"

Forced to confront Bahrain's uprising during the renovation of Washington's "Gulf Security Architecture," the Senate Foreign Relation Committee played its full hand to minimize the island's democratic convulsions. After simultaneously acknowledging a problem and defending the monarchy's "reform" process, the Senate relies on third parties to send an unusually truthful shot across King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa's bow: "Human rights groups and political analysts remain concerned about Bahrain’s trajectory." 

A quoted press release from the International Crisis Group ventures far beyond the Obama administration's formulaic criticism of the monarchy: "A genuine dialogue between the regime and the opposition and a decision to fully carry out the [BICI report]—not half-hearted measures and not a policy of denial—are needed to halt this deterioration.’’ 

Including this stern warning suggests that Washington's parts collectively sense the growing danger in Bahrain, and are trying to reign in the King's crackdown before he loses control over the island. However this reality is incomplete. Fundamentally, any U.S. support for Bahrain's democratic movement and universal human rights has been corrupted by Washington's reliance on Bahrain's "lily-pad," and its strategically controversial location between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Stability and control go hand in hand, leading the Obama administration to seek a swift end to Bahrain's nascent uprising. Democracy promotion becomes a means of preserving self-interests in the country and region. 

One can easily imagine Washington's reaction if the opposition somehow rose to power and altered the terms of Manama's Fifth Fleet. 

As the situation stands, U.S. policy is rife with contradictions that measure the denial infecting both governments. Still believing that the opposition can be suppressed in the long-term, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee "recommends" a policy that would drain the opposition of its legitimacy and preserve the government's authoritarian influence. Specifically, the Committee builds on existing media reports by recommending a new "dialogue" and the promotion of "moderate figures within the ruling family, including Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, as well as within the political opposition." 

This advice, if sincere, is both sound and necessary. Not only does King Hamad stand to exit his conflict faster through a moderate path, he continues to sabotage a genuine resolution by persecuting oppositional moderates. The same goes for Washington, whose welcoming ceremony for "liberal" Crown Prince Salman was intended to buttress his influence. Instead, the administration's decision to approve a delayed arms package antagonized the street opposition and ultimately strengthened the hands of hardliners such as Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa. The Obama administration also tolerates the arrest of Bahrain's leading human rights activists, a process that has further increased the national trust gap and anti-American sentiment amongst groups that Washington should be cooperating with. 

After the State Department's Victoria Nuland refused to answer initial questioning over Nabeel Rajab's latest arrest, Washington has remained silent during the 11 days following his detention. The head of Bahrain's Center for Human rights and a leading moderate would appear in court on June 12th, only to be sentenced to another week in detention on June 19th. Rajab's supporters believe the government is dragging its feet to cook his charges; already condemned as politically-motivated attacks, several of his five pending cases were recently postponed. One case of "illegal gathering" was pushed back to September 26th. 

Activists accuse the King of organizing a systematic campaign to keep him off the streets, but such efforts cannot stop Rajab - his Twitter account is drafting a list of crimes committed by Prime Minister (and "corrupt thief/murderer") Al Khalifa.

Another high profile detention has also been recorded by the Monitoring and Documentation Department of the European-Bahraini Organisation for Human Rights. Family members first reported the arrest of Zahra Salman Al Shaikh, a 22 years old media student at the University of Bahrain, on June 15th and proceeded to fill in the blanks on her interrogation. Zahra's family claims that she was berated and knocked unconscious a Jordanian officer digging for fabrications confessions on Rajab, fellow BCHR member Yousif Al Muhafdha and Naji Fateel, a leading member of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights (BYSHR). All three men endured the regime's harassment and abuse before February 2011 unleashed the full extent of Bahrain's oppositional energy. 

Visibly unconcerned with the possibility of losing Washington's patronage, the monarchy has once again ordered its security forces to suppress the aftereffects of Friday prayers. Today's target: none other than Al Wefaq, Bahrain's largest opposition group and the main conduit that the Obama administration hopes to run a dialogue through. Al Hassan al-Marzooq, Ali Almowali and Sheikh Ali Salam, Al Wefaq's Secretary-General, were all struck by projectiles (tear gas canisters and rubber bullets) as they headed a small, flower-wielding protest in Bilad al-Qadeem, on the outskirts of Manama. The Interior Ministry had denied a permit request and apparently decided that the application of force would end the protest. This relatively small event is certain to spark a larger reaction in the impending days, links in a chain that is beginning to stretch into years. 

"More violations will complicate our efforts for reconciliation and a meaningful dialogue,” Salam said. “We continue our democratic demands and call for universal human rights principles through peaceful assemblies. It is the people’s right.” 

By abandoning Bahrain's opposition movement, Western and Gulf capitals have contributed to the island's polarization and rise in hostilities. While the monarchy must organize a credible reform process in order to end the uprising, the U.S. is suffering from the same condition - fear of looking in the mirror.

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