Bahraini security forces have detained a prominent pro-democracy activist for seven days, as analysts warn that the growing influence of hardliners in the Saudi-backed Sunni monarchy is placing the US at odds with democratic reformists.
Zainab al-Khawaja was arrested on Saturday night during a protest against Bahrain’s Formula 1 Grand Prix. Rights groups had called on race organizers to abandon the event in light of the government crackdown on opposition activists, including her father, veteran democracy advocate Abdulhadi al-Khawaja (left), who has been on a prison hunger strike for 76 days.
Bahrain’s authorities are “toying with” Khawaja’s life, says Amnesty International.
“He and the 13 other defendants in this case are prisoners of conscience, held solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression amid anti-government protests last year,” said Hasiba Hadj Sahraoui, the group’s MENA deputy director. “The Grand Prix has come and gone but Bahrain’s authorities have yet to turn the corner on human rights.”
Regime hardliners will become more assertive, analysts suggest, after international protests over the race highlighted the regime’s failure to honor promises to engage opposition groups and initiate political reforms.
“If anything the race will probably encourage the hardliners in government to say ‘we don’t need this sort of thing, we don’t make money from it and it brings troublesome Westerners’,” said Jane Kinninmont, a Chatham House analyst based in London.
U.S. President Barack Obama has called on the monarchy to engage Wefaq, the opposition Shi’ite party, but its leader says talks are “at an impasse.” “This government is not serious about having a real dialogue, to listen to the demands of the Bahraini people and implement those demands which cannot be ignored,” Sheikh Ali Salman told Reuters.
“Who are you to have a monopoly in power? Who tasked you with the job of appointing the government, controlling all ministries, taking advantage of national wealth?” he asked. The regime’s failure to discuss prospects for reform will only radicalize opposition activists and undermine prospects for peaceful change. “Petrol bombs only appeared after November and in recent months we have seen some bombings, though it’s still not clear who carried them out,” Salman said. “It’s just logical that political deadlock will result in deeper instability.”
The US is risking its credibility as a supporter of Arab democratic reform by aligning itself with the Saudi-led backlash against the Arab Spring, says a former CIA analyst.
“The US Sunni strategy in the Gulf enables Bahrain’s ruling al-Khalifa dynasty’s continued repression of its citizens; pits the US against pro-democracy forces in the region; and aligns Washington with Riyadh’s counter-revolution sectarian policies. The strategy is shortsighted, undermines US standing in the region and is destined to fail,” writes Emile Nakleh, a former director of the agency’s Political Islam strategic analysis program:
The strategy is based on the false assumption that the Sunni world is monolithic and that Shia Arab communities all turn to Iran for theological guidance and political support. In reality, Sunni Muslims have diverse cultural, political and social goals and are not preoccupied, as some Gulf rulers are, with anti-Shia or anti-Iran rhetoric and policies. Meanwhile, Bahraini and Saudi Shia do not consider Iran their point of reference.
Sunni regimes used the Shia scare to muzzle their domestic opposition and paper over genuine grievances. In a report on the “Shaykhly” rulers of the Gulf, we judged those regimes must address their peoples’ grievances if they hoped to survive in the long run. The “Shia crescent” claim was a tactic to hide discrimination and repression against Shia communities. Bahrain is the most glaring example.
Three steps are necessary to end the current violence and political impasse, writes Nakleh, author of Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing Society:
First, western powers must strengthen the pro-reform faction in the ruling family.
Second, Washington should urge the king to remove the prime minister, his uncle, from office; many Bahrainis think he symbolises corruption, repression and unyielding opposition to political reform. He has worked closely with Saudi Crown Prince Nayef to undermine the pro-democracy movement in the Arab world, especially in Bahrain.
Third, America should send a clear message to Bahrain’s regime to halt violence against the Shia and act on all the recommendations of the Independent Commission of Inquiry. Washington should also begin to pull its Fifth Fleet out of Bahrain.
But hardline elements are currently emboldened, having successfully resisted albeit anemic efforts to implement recommendations of the November 2011 report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, established by King Hamad bin ‘Issa Al Khalifa.
“I suspect now that those in the ruling family who argued that this is more trouble than it’s worth will be saying ‘I told you so’,” said Justin Gengler, a Qatar-based researcher, specifying the royal court and defense ministers.
Hardliners like Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa are more confident that they can veto any dialog or reforms that may empower the island’s majority Shi’a, observers believe. “It appears to be the case across the family and throughout the government that they think they are winning,” said Toby Jones, a Middle East historian at Rutgers University. “There is no sense of urgency or commitment to creating the kind of space necessary to arrive at a rapprochement,” Jones said. “If that’s true, then it seems that all this talk of a split – and contradictory agendas – does not really matter.”
“Thousands of workers have been dismissed for taking part in trade union activities supporting the peaceful calls for greater democracy and reform,” according to the Washington-based Solidarity Center.
As a bastion of non-sectarianism, the General Federation of Bahraini Trade Unions was targeted by the regime for supporting the pro-democracy movement. Of the 3000 workers in the public and private sectors sacked for participating in the uprising, only 134 workers have been reinstated.
“We believe that any true, democratic labor movement should be involved in the political, social and economic issues of a country,” said Salman Jaffar Al Mahfoodh (right), the GFBTU’s leader. “We don’t think that there is a separation between the political movement and the labor movement.”