October 13, 2012

London's Political Battleground: Maryam al-Khawaja VS. Bahrain's Prince

She could never stop the onslaught, but Maryam al-Khawaja fired off as many shots as she could before yielding the spotlight. al-Khawaja recently met with William Hague, British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, to impress upon him the stagnation of Bahrain's political reforms and a theoretical dialogue with the island's opposition network. One of Bahrain's leading activists couldn't have minced words with the Secretary.

While no transcript is available, "diplomatic protocol" may have sounded something like this: "People today are saying the United States and the UK are to Bahrain what Russia is to Syria. They are countries willing to aid repression, people who are willing to overlook human rights violations because it's in their own interests. The only difference is that Russia doesn't try to present itself as a beacon of human rights and democracy."

Al-Khawaja's accusation carries a risk at the government level; Bahrain's monarchy is hypersensitive to being compared with Syria and the Arab revolutions in general. The U.S. and U.K. governments also reject comparisons between the two countries's situations, which have demarcated the ends of the region's violence spectrum. Yet the exiled Al-Khawaja cannot withhold the truth either and she's unpopular enough in Western capitals. Her jailed father and sister can't afford to wait, nor can Bahrain's democratic opposition, and reality must be expressed in order for her to retain credibility with them. Someone has to stand up when Crown Prince, Deputy Supreme Commander Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, pays a visit to London.

Acting as though he hadn't paid attention during Al-Khawaja's meeting, Hague welcomed Al-Khalifa with open arms on Thursday and proceeded to soften Bahrain's hardline environment. The young prince serves as his father's international face as well as the West's "moderate" savior in Bahrain, and Washington and London's doors always remain open as a result. Employing a script that has become set in concrete, Al-Khalifa would "affirm the unprecedented steps taken by the Kingdom of Bahrain had reflected His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa's commitment towards the comprehensive reform process that His Majesty had launched." He also claimed that the monarchy realizes "the need to push forward in facing challenges in the path of reform," and "within a pure Bahraini framework implemented in through a unified Bahraini spirit."

Hague, in turn, reciprocated a similar point of view through a combination of flattery and deception. Like his U.S. counterparts, the Secretary praised Bahrain's commitment to reforming its judiciary and police system. He welcomed "recent commitments made by Government of Bahrain last month at the Human Rights Council, in particular to consider ratifying the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture." Hague also supports a peaceful dialogue between the monarchy and democratic opposition, in line with U.S. policy. Most interestingly, his "open and honest exchange about political reform in Bahrain... confirmed to me the Crown Prince’s personal commitment to an inclusive political dialogue."

"His Royal Highness the Crown Prince expressed his satisfaction with the progress of ongoing cooperation and coordination between Bahrain and Britain and on working towards reinforcing stability in the region," Bahrain's state media reported of the meeting. "For his part Hague expressed his happiness for meeting His Royal Highness the Crown Prince, welcoming his visit and presented him with a letter from UK President David Cameron."

Of course they did.

Stronger in appearance than logic, the entirety of Hague and Al-Khalifa's meeting can be broken down to its rusted base. Hague's emphasis on the Prince's "personal commitment" is telling - does his father share the feeling? His hawkish great uncle, Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, surely doesn't. One of the opposition's fiercest enemies, the 41-year Prime Minister currently stands as the more influential voices in King Hamad's royal circle. Salman told Hague that "the insistence on practicing violence would lead to results harming all that in turn would cripple advancement," when his family is busy outlawing and gassing protests in Manama.

The idea of "considering" the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture is equally absurd. Many of Bahrain's leading activists have been physically assaulted over the past 19 months of demonstrations, including Maryam's sister Zainab. The latter resides in a cell for the seventh time in less than two years, awaiting 13 charges with their father Abdulhadi. King Hamad has made the Al-Khawaja's punishment a national priority, and Abdiulhadi sent her out of the country "to make sure people on the outside made sure what was happening on the inside." This harassment fits into a wider campaign to destroy Bahrain's activist network and the Bahrain's Center for Human Rights, which counts all three Al-Khawajas as senior members. Rajab Nabeel, the BCHR's director, also sits in jail after being given three years for instigating protests. He too reports cruel and unusual punishment of Bahrain's prisoners of conscience, including himself.

Accordingly, the Bahraini regime enjoys far greater access with the necessary Western governments. Al-Khalifa and Minister of Foreign Affairs Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed bin Mohammed Al Khalifa attended other meetings in London, including an "honorary luncheon" with Secretary of State for Middle East Affairs Alistair Burt.

Al-Khawaja argues that this double-standard has emboldened Bahrain's government to maintain its crackdown against the opposition. The West is too inclined to accept Manama's hollow promises and superficial attempts to reform, a process that comes nowhere near the opposition's demand for a parliamentary overhaul. Al-Khawaja told The Independent that statements from Washington and London "made a difference" last year, but, "Now they don't make any difference because the Bahraini government now knows that even if there are statements it won't result in any consequences." Western pressure has, from time to time, helped a Bahraini out of prison; Washington supposedly opposed Riyadh's March 2011 intervention, to no avail. Yet public and private comments achieved results only to the extent that Bahrain's monarchy initially believed them. With Rajab and the Al-Khawajas locked within cell walls and Western silence, Manama is visibly prepared to continue its repressive counterrevolution as opposed to a genuine dialogue with Bahrain's opposition.

"I had a meeting at the White House and I told them, 'Everything you fear and is making you not do the right thing because you fear it, you are actually making it a reality.' At the end of the day it only makes sense that when people feel polarized, cornered and ignored they're going to look for help from wherever they can get it. I'm actually really surprised that hasn't happened yet. I'm really surprised that we're still to a large extent peaceful. I'm surprised we're not as sectarian as I thought we would be and that we haven't yet reached a point where we say we'll find help from wherever it comes."

Either Washington and London don't realize this dilemma, or more likely, they believe that their position is as invincible as King Hamad's. Unfortunately Bahrain is traveling far off the path of democratic reform and Western powers comprise a big section of the roadblock.

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