Adel Marzooq

Adel Marzooq

Bahrain, Civil Society, Constitutions, Elections, Featured, Freedom of Expression, Political Reform

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Bahrain, the home of America’s 5th Fleet, has been witnessing political and security unrest since February 14, 2011. This unrest unexpectedly broke out as the democratic domino effect, paved by the waves of the Arab Spring that toppled some of the region’s most long-established dictatorships, hit the shores of Bahrain. Since King Hamed bin Isa Al Khalifa declared martial law and invited the GCC Peninsula Shield Force—a joint military force consisting of troops from the six gulf Arab states—the citizens of this tiny gulf island have faced the longest continual suffering in the country’s history, as evidenced by the Bahrain Independent Commission Inquiry Report (BICI), which found the regime to be using excessive force and torture to quell the popular uprising and those participating in it. Other details, however, are still in the shadow of silence.

At the top of the Bahraini opposition’s demands is the realization of a constitutional monarchy, allowing the people real political participation in order to curb the regime’s corrupt and discriminatory practices as well as its manipulation of natural resources and theft of public money. These demands have not come all of a sudden or in response to the Arab Spring in any way. Recent Bahraini history—in the wake of the British protectorate—has a track record of national movements aimed at implementing a civil and democratic state in a region led and monopolized by monarchical ruling regimes whose wealth is taken from its people.

The Arab Spring along with the international media’s focus on the region’s capitals has helped make the developments of Bahrain’s political crisis hit international headlines. Additionally, social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter played a role in ending the news blackout that Bahrainis faced for decades. The conventional regime policies to control the media outputs were unsuccessful as details of violations and crimes against peaceful pro-democracy protesters found their way into news headlines daily. This not only gave momentum to the popular uprising, but also grabbed the attention of several international political and media observers who support democracy to carefully watch the developments in Bahrain.

On the ground, the internationalization of the political crisis has complicated things as all regional players and global observers contest at least one aspect of the situation. As the ignited political and security events make it difficult for the country—whose population is less than one million—to reach a compromise, the chances of compromise are inextricably linked to the ability of the soft-liners in the ruling Al Khalifa family to reach a political compromise that realizes mainstream aspirations. Crown Prince Salman Bin Hamad, who initially led an initiative to find a solution to the crisis, could no longer stand the attack of the Al Khalifa family’s hardliners, therefore, the dialogue initiative was denied, sinking the country into an unjustified state of emergency and increasing violent security measures. As a result, the list of victims has accumulated, as have international pressure on the regime.

Despite the geopolitical sensitivity of Bahrain that, no doubt, has a negative effect on efforts to achieve political change, many depend on the efforts and movements of international players in the region that could contribute to it. Here one could highlight the role of the United States, which, until recently, relied on Bahrain as the ideal model for democratic transition from within. On the ground, complicated regional calculations hinder the possibility of such a transition, making it seem that the region has an open appetite for successive crises.  However, at more than one historical juncture, diplomatic efforts have been able to achieve remarkable successes that have been positively regarded when they are for the collective good and guarantee global stability.

In the context of dialogue, no demand is too intractable, and there is certainly an auspicious opportunity in Bahrain despite the complications imposed by regional developments. However, we have not given the diplomatic machine in the Gulf region a real opportunity to operate, and we should not overlook the gravity of that.

The Obama administration must be more active and influential in the region. In order to do so, the U.S. must review the Bahraini crisis—rather than examine Bahrain as a small island in the heart of the Gulf—and recognize it as a real opportunity to achieve the first true democratic transformation in the region. This is consistent with the principles and initiatives announced by the U.S. Department of State on more than one occasion, particularly in the Istanbul initiative.

The National Democratic Institute (NDI) has presented clear support of democratic movements through its work in Bahrain – after all, it was a program carried out by NDI that encouraged the Bahraini opposition to participate in the 2006 House of Representatives elections. It can play a similar role again, whether as a representative of the American government or of international civil society organizations.

Today, the United States stands before a great responsibility that has been imposed upon it, which is to provide new initiatives contributing to settling the Bahraini file and achieving democratic maturity, guaranteeing the aspirations of the Bahraini people as well as ensuring the stability of a region of great importance to the global economy.

The "Pearl Revolution,” whose name comes from the original location of the protests in the heart of Manama, marked its first anniversary last month. The Bahrainis are still looking forward to achieving their life-long dream, a dream to be shared by fellow citizens in other gulf countries and across the world. Nevertheless, challenges and complexities are on the rise, with the regime utilizing the phobia of sectarianism to galvanize domestic and regional support against the opposition. The pro-democracy protests have not been suppressed despite the continual violent security attacks which have claimed the lives of many protesters. The Bahrainis are completely aware of the regime's game to capitalize on the sectarian divide, widening its strife in order to buy some time and maintain the status quo. This is a testament to the maturity of the popular uprising on the one hand, and a regime dependent on repression and turning its back to the true political demands of the citizens on the other.

In reality, the topic of democracy in Bahrain is not restricted to its geographical boundaries in the heart of the Arabian Gulf. The internationalization of the crisis—a goal of the regime since the emergence of the uprising—appears to be its inescapable destiny. The other Gulf state heads are fully aware that the realization of a civil and democratic state in Bahrain will act as a gateway to other nations in the region. Along this analogy, the whole world can understand the hindrances and challenges blocking the Bahrainis path towards democracy and civilian rule. Let history, then, record that the battle for democracy in Bahrain is a battle in the Arab Gulf as a whole.

Adel Marzooq is a Bahraini journalist and chair of the London-based Bahrain Press Association.