The Bahrain protests can be seen as a part of the general Arab Spring wave in the Middle East that is still occurring. There are unique and separate factors that ignited these uprisings, but all intended to put an end to the corruption in various governmental sectors. Tens of thousands of people have been demanding their legitimate rights through peaceful protests. The demonstrators have been calling for greater powers for elected institutions, more restrains on the power of the ruling family, and a less corruption in the social, political and economic life of the country.
The roots of the ongoing protest in Bahrain can be defined in political terms, but since Shia citizens constitute a majority, authorities have always brought the focus on the sectarian differences between both sects. The main objective of the ruling family has been to rule and maintain political monopoly over the state. They have assumed that unless a necessary condition occurs (e.g a dismantling of the society’s structure) they will not be able to sustain their legitimacy. By breaking up existing powers and preventing the two sects from linking up, the authorities could possibly remain powerful. For example, the regime has worked on portraying the uprising as a concealed agenda of wilayet-e-faqih,1 in the public media and social life of Bahrain.
There is no question that Shia Bahraini has long standing cultural and religious connections with Iran, sharing a common sect. But this religious connection exists with Iraqi clerics too, and maybe more than that with Iran. Many people go to Iraq and Iran to study religious teachings. And “while some religious Shia Bahrainis seek religious guidance from Iran, most look to Iraqi clerics, especially Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who is not a proponent of clerical rule.”2 Equally important are the Shia of Bahrain, most of whom are Arab Peninsula tribes, and have inhabited the region since before the arrival of Al Khalifa (The ruling family of Bahrain).3 Their narratives of history often focus on the ‘Baharna’ (an ethnic group of Arab Shia) being ‘indigenous’. The religious connection with Iran is thus brought in in different and misleading contexts to serve political ends, and maintain continuous legitimacy over state power.
Protesters have always demanded that they get a fair representation and “economic inclusion in a democratic Bahrain.” They demand to have an equal and fair share out of the state resources. The distribution of wealth and power is widely believed to be inclined to Sunni citizens in general, but more specifically, to those who are in familiar terms with the ruling family.4 In addition, many who work in the security services in Bahrain and the military are mercenaries living in the poverty line, and some of them cannot in fact speak any Arabic. This has created tensions among Shia citizens for their exclusion from the security services, while selective Sunni foreigners get utilized for political ends. For instance, in an effort for Shia to have fewer shares in the economic life, authorities naturalized very selective Sunni groups from Pakistan and other different countries to serve political interests for the ruling family. The vast naturalization of Sunni citizens is aimed to outweigh Shia majorities in Bahrain. The naturalization “is selectively based on racial and sectarian origin rather than on the equal rights of foreigners in getting the citizenship”.5
For its part, the protest continues to call for reforms instead of a whole change in the political system. The political vision for Bahrain’s future, which entitled the ‘Manama Document’,6 is mainly suggesting an elected government under a constitutional monarchy, a fully elected parliament, a fair and transparent judiciary, and an end to the exclusion of Shia from the security service. They call for these reform proposals to be put to a referendum rather than to be decided by a King.
In addition, part of the continuous protest going on is due to the International negligence to people s demands in Bahrain. Worldwide organizations and U.S. position has been criticized by oppositions who realistically assume the United States is turning a blind eye on the regime abuses due to U.S. heavy dependence on the security relationship with the Al Khalifa.8 The Obama Administration has not called for a change of the Al Khalifa regime. This is apparently unlike the Syrian situation, where the U.S policies provided there were very critical to help rebellions against the Syrian military. The social media has enough spoken on behalf of the Syrian people, but this was not experienced in Bahrain at all. While we believe the U.S has some interests in the region, we also believe that any political interests and ends should not interfere with Human Rights responsibilities in the region.
U.S position should balance their relations with the Bahraini government and their commitment to Human Rights issues in the country. Bahrain has been a provider and a key supporter for U.S. interests by hosting U.S. naval headquarters in the past 60 years.9 Further development to the U.S. military in Bahrain is seeking to plan a $580 million military construction program in Bahrain, in which it will allow larger ships to dock at the naval facility.”10 However, it has to be understood that the current political status quo in Bahrain does not serve long-term American interests in the region, as it will continue to be a source of instability and chaos; economically or politically. As for that, counterproductive effects can be sought if these uprising eventually succeed in altering the political game in Bahrain. What is seen in the region today is unprecedented public and civil society that challenges the authorities for their rights as citizens. This is evident through the rise of people’s voices as to put an end to discrimination. The optimal path for the U.S should strive to create more prosperous societies that would need genuine political will; responsive, effective, accountable, and inclusive economic growth to all citizens equally.11 Without this enabling environment, development in Bahrain will be out of reach, and less importantly, U.S position will be at stake.
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