Bahrain Burning

Protestors in Bahrain A look at recent headlines coming out of the Middle East reveals the dominance of coverage on Egypt, Syria, and Iran. This comes as no surprise; Egypt remains a focal point of political turmoil in the Arab world, violence in Syria threatens to destabilize the entire region, and Iran seems to stand in the distance forever and always as a source of conflict and dissension. Elsewhere, Tunisia, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen struggle with changes brought about since revolution swept through the region, and the trajectory for these countries is anything but clear. In some sense or another, all of these countries (save Iran), have undergone a political facelift over the past two years, or are indeed primed for one. As their stories unfold, the international media eagerly reports.

And then there is Bahrain, that small island kingdom in the Persian Gulf. Protests against the ruling al-Khalifa family monarchy have been a mainstay in the country since early 2011.  Last month marked the two-year anniversary for demonstrations against the political domination of the Sunni ruling family and the marginalization of the Shi’ite majority. A 16-year-old boy was killed during clashes with the police at that time, as have scores of others since the outburst of hostilities in February 2011. Granted, Bahrain has been in the news, but the escalating situation continues to fly largely under the radar. This undoubtedly is in part due to the government clampdown on journalism and social media. Yet at the same time, the United States government and major American media sources have been conspicuously silent on the issues in Bahrain. It is no secret that as the al-Khalifa family sits on its throne with ever-increasing discomfort, the U.S. and its allies look anxiously on, paralyzed by a full-force collision between interests and ideals.

There is no novelty to America’s predicament. While on the one hand the U.S. hails itself as a standard-bearer for freedom and democracy, it is also very sensitive of the fact that Bahrain is the home to the Navy’s 5th Fleet, which anchors U.S. influence in the region, and stands as a pillar of containment against neighboring Iran in the Gulf region. Should a Bahraini revolution succeed, or if America were to pressure the monarchy too hard to reform, the U.S. would be at risk of losing its privileged military relationship with the ruling family. But should the opposition movement ultimately fail, the U.S. will be blamed as part of the problem, both in Bahrain and in the greater Middle East. The same kind of sentiment shared in Egypt about America’s corrosive influence as a supporter of Morsi and as an obstacle to democracy will also arise in Bahrain. Indeed it already has.

Within Bahrain, the situation is at a very delicate juncture. While the opposition initially called for increased parliamentary powers, it has witnessed a growing movement for the regime’s removal all together. Furthermore, clashes with police, alleged human rights abuses, and a political stalemate continue to mar the security situation and stoke civilian frustration. Violent demonstrations on March 14th marked the two-year anniversary of the Saudi-sponsored military intervention in Bahrain, which was carried out to crack down on a growing protest movement. The implications of the intervention in 2011 were clear: Bahrain’s big brother (and fellow kingdom) across the causeway will not tolerate any serious flare up that threatens the stability of the ruling monarchy. This event has since hung over the heads of the Bahraini opposition. The path for the opposition to reform the politics of the ruling monarchy has thus become more treacherous by the obvious influence of international forces—both in their overt support of the monarchy and silent complicity of its crackdown.

Meanwhile, opposition members and government representatives are currently engaged in a “national dialogue” to address major opposition grievances. Yet this dialogue has yet to bear any fruit, and both sides involved are still hung up on establishing an agenda. The refusal of government to include a direct representative of the King to the talks reflects a fundamental asymmetry between King and country. The pro-government coalition argues that the King stands above the national dialogue, and so it is unnecessary to include a representative within the discussion. So while the dialogue aims to resolve the major issues—most of which are symptomatic of monarchy’s rule—the monarchy refuses to actually engage in the dialogue itself.

Should the National Dialogue ultimately fail, the situation in Bahrain could blow up. A stalemate would further empower a growing movement, the February 14 Coalition. Many affiliated with this new group of young protestors principally stand against the power of the ruling family. They have criticized the national dialogue, as they don’t trust the government or the political process. Their more violent means of resistance stand in contrast to the more conciliatory approach of al-Wafeq opposition party, which has unsuccessfully tried to employ political means to achieve reform for a number of years.

At this critical moment, the U.S. can no longer stand on the sidelines. Now is the time when the U.S. must seriously reconsider its loud silence, and confront the tension that has plagued its policy abroad for decades.  It has already tried (and failed) to leverage its influence over the al-Khalifa family by delaying arms shipments in sponsorship of reform. Yet it must redouble its efforts. The monarchy will only risk its future legitimacy if it ultimately suppresses any armed uprising. Shi’ite Iran lurks nearby, and so the Sunni monarchy, its GCC allies, and the U.S. fear an Iranian presence within the Shi’ite opposition. Whether or not Iran has attempted to play its hand, the Bahraini monarchy also fails to recognize that current policies only risk pushing the opposition towards the Iranian camp. Instead of perpetuating a growing sectarianism in the country by suppressing the mostly Shi’ite opposition, the Bahraini government must promote a Bahraini identity, and look to include the opposition in the political system. A failure to do so will only force the hand of the protest movement to jump ship entirely, and fundamentally threaten the unity of the state and the rule of the al-Khalifa family.

With the Alawi regime on the brink in Syria, the Bahraini Sunni monarchy may very well soon be the only ruling minority in the region. But the situation is still salvageable, and so the U.S. must step up, encourage reconciliation, and make clear that embracing reform is beneficial to both Bahrain and America. Thus, the U.S. can still protect both its democratic ideals and its security interests in Bahrain.  At the same time, the Bahraini monarchy can still promote democracy and continue to rule—albeit in a reformed manner.  The opposition movement still does not yet represent a zero-sum game, yet it very well might if the situation continues to escalate (see Syria).

So while Bahrain burns, America remains silent. The situation hasn’t yet exploded, but the voice of the Bahraini people grows in strength. At this decisive point in the conflict, the U.S. can no longer ignore these voices, and must seize the opportunity to nudge Bahrain forward by stressing common objectives and democratic principles. Perhaps then, both nations will sit with greater ease. And maybe then Bahrain will emerge in national headlines for the right reasons.