Bahrain is facing “a perfect storm” of increasingly violent conflict, observers suggest, while one analyst cautions that the death of a hunger striking democracy advocate would end hopes for the “already creaking reform process” and mark a shift from a political to an existential conflict.
The eruption of sectarian conflict represents a dangerous escalation, Elizabeth Dickinson writes on World Affairs:
Bahrain has been locked in conflict for the last year, since police cracked down on Arab Spring-inspired Shia-led protests in the small island country. The protests and the government response have since ebbed and flowed. But there is one thing that has remained constant until now: there have been very few (and very infrequent) instances of violent confrontation between Sunni and Shia groups.
Until this week, that is.
“A near perfect political storm has been developing in Bahrain in recent days,” says Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He cautions that growing sectarian tension between majority Shiites and the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family could play into the hands of extremists:
In one incident on April 9, seven policeman were injured, three seriously, when their checkpoint was devastated by an improvised explosive device attached to a container of gasoline. As an apparent consequence of this, a mob of Sunnis armed with iron rods and sticks ransacked a supermarket owned by a major Shiite-owned business group.
The Obama administration expressed deep concern about the deterioration and urged all parties to reject violence “in all its forms.” The White House also joined civil society groups and international figures, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, in calling on Bahrain’s authorities to “consider urgently all available options” to resolve the case of hunger striking human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja (above), and to “redouble” efforts to implement the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry.
Human rights groups have called on organizers of the Bahrain Grand Prix to cancel the race in light of al-Khawaja’s deteriorating condition. But Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone today insisted that race will go ahead.
“I don’t see any difference between here [China] and Bahrain. It’s the same. It’s another race on the calendar,” he was quoted as saying.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon implored the government of Bahrain to transfer Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja to Denmark for medical treatment on humanitarian grounds, says the Project for Middle East Democracy:
Ban’s spokesman Martin Nesirsky said the Secretary General expects due process to be granted in any appeal of the conviction and that all the governments in the region should respect the right of its people to peaceful protest. Danish Foreign Minister Villy Soevndal also submitted a letter to Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmad al-Khalifa, requesting that al-Khawaja be returned to Denmark, where he holds dual citizenship.
“Al-Khawaja has a long history as the lone voice on taboo issues in the nation’s political battle for self-determination,” writes Dr. Ala’a Shehabi, an economics lecturer in Bahrain and former RAND policy analyst:
He turned his back on the militant Islamist group Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (IFLB) that he was associated with in the 1980s and evolved into a leading advocate of non-violent direct action against the al-Khalifa ruling family. In exile in Denmark in the 1990s, he absorbed the human rights discourse and the democratic experience of living in the West. When he returned to Bahrain in 2002, he was determined to fight the system on a human rights platform — a campaign he brought to the international arena as well as to Bahraini civil society.
“There are very few men like al-Khawaja, with as much resolve and audacity in speaking out against injustice, in a region where the choice for activists is either petro-dollars or prison,” she notes, but warns that his death would play into the hands of extremist elements:
The opposition will be forced to escalate its demands to meet the anger on the street. The long-feared rise of a more radical opposition movement appears to be coming closer to reality. Two bombs went off in the first two weeks of April alone, and militant rhetoric can be heard increasingly publicly from opposition cadres. As their frustration builds and their demands escalate, the conflict increasingly would shift from a political battle to an existential one.
“The regime now faces a moment of truth. Will it allow him to die for his beliefs while the world, finally, is paying heed?”
The recent escalation of conflict presents the Obama administration with a political conundrum.
“For Washington, concern for human rights and political reform in Bahrain has always been seen in the context of the island’s longtime hosting of the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which plays a crucial role in protecting oil-export routes in the Gulf and conducting antipiracy patrols in the Indian Ocean,” notes Henderson. “The base has not been a political issue except for Shiite extremists, but with tensions rising and the ground being cut from underneath more moderate elements on both sides, the American naval presence could become contentious.”
Washington needs to emphasize to Bahrain that the current tension can be eased by releasing the hunger striker abroad. In addition, this message should be delivered to Saudi defense minister Prince Salman, who this week has been meeting with President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Washington. Prince Salman should also be warned that hardline elements in the Bahraini ruling family all too often find support for their intransigence in Riyadh, and that this is unacceptable to the United States, as is any prospect of further Saudi military intervention on the island.