Like a vise which first grips its object and then slowly, deliberately and inexorably crushes it, the al-Khalifa regime has done similarly to civil society in Bahrain. It did not stop when peaceful, pro-democracy, reform protests erupted in 2011 and were violently put down by government forces aided by an invasion of Saudi troops in March of that year. Indeed, the vise continues to close and relentlessly so.
Nationalities have been revoked, mosques razed, citizens deported, human rights activists imprisoned on flimsy charges of insulting the monarchy at the least or plotting its overthrow at worst, and the most perfunctory of dialogues with the opposition abandoned. By smothering the figures and institutions who dare challenge the authority of the ruling dynasty in the most benign of fashions – a tweet, waving the country’s flag, tearing up a photo or merely questioning the tenure of the world’s longest serving prime minister – the Bahraini regime and its Gulf allies would like to believe monarchical rule has been preserved. Such desperate measures however, only speak to its precarity.
The stalwart activist Zainab al-Khawaja was given a sentence of three years and one month in Dec. 2014 for (again) tearing up a picture of King Hamad. She refused to be separated from her infant son whom she took with her to prison. Al-Khawaja has just been released on “humanitarian” grounds after serving 15 months in jail.
Her father though, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, remains imprisoned serving a life sentence on trumped-up charges of attempting to topple the government. While authorities may have set Zainab al-Khawaja free, they simultaneously doubled the sentence of Sheikh Ali Salman, head of al-Wefaq, an opposition political party. Initially given a term of four years incarceration for alleged incitement against the regime, it was increased to nine years on appeal. The unflinching President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and founding Director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights Nabeel Rajab, remains banned from leaving the country despite the need to secure medical treatment for his wife.
Busy highlighting the nation’s cordial relations with the United Kingdom and United States, the latter of which headquarters its Navy’s Fifth Fleet in the capital Manama, the Western media has largely ignored the plight of Bahrain’s ordinary citizens. The arrest and torture of disabled youth has now been documented by the BCHR. Indeed, for more than a decade, the Center has meticulously chronicled the dismantling of Bahrain’s civil society in all its forms by the al-Khalifa regime.
Most recently, with the passage of a law preventing any religious figure from joining political societies or engaging in political activities, the BCHR issued a statement condemning, “… the Bahraini parliament and Shura Council’s passage of amendments to the Political Societies Law, which places a ban on participation in political decision-making based on discriminatory religious grounds. In defense of this draft amendment, lawmakers supporting this motion argued it would prevent religious acts from being politicized. This decision restricts people’s ability to freely engage in religious practices, as those members willing to join political activities pertinent to the legislative process in Bahrain would now need to refrain from any activities carrying religious connotations.”
In the face of widespread and open abuses in civil society, lack of proportional parliamentary representation, curfews, detentions, and imprisonment and torture of those who dissent, these practices have nonetheless failed to adversely impact the ties enjoyed between Bahrain and the United States. But when a regime becomes alienated from those whom it rules and for example, gives lengthy jail sentences for tweets it finds offensive, it speaks to a tenuous reign.
The pillars of civil advocacy in Bahrain – Nabeel Rajab, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, Maryam and Zainab al-Khawaja, Abduljalil al-Singace (sentenced to life in prison for participating in pro-democracy protests), Naji Fateel, Hussain Jawad and countless others both named and unnamed – have consistently engaged in purely secular, nonsectarian activism. Unlike the practice of the regime, the designations Sunni and Shia need not be applied when discussing the ongoing struggle for legal, political and socioeconomic rights in Bahrain. The people have waited too long for the West to recognize their demands are not based on sect, but on equity.
Despite an oppressive regime and the long shadow cast by the U.S. Fifth Fleet, resilient Bahrainis remain unintimidated.
Rannie Amiri is an independent commentator on Middle East affairs.