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Bahrain’s Arab Winter

Erected in 1982, the Pearl Roundabout long stood as a major landmark in the heart of Manama, Bahrain’s capital. This rather bizarre-looking monument served as a focal point for popular mobilization during the Arab Spring – very much Bahrain’s Tahrir Square. However, while Tahrir Square stands today as a proud symbol of Egypt’s triumph over authoritarianism, the Pearl Roundabout is now just a pile of rubble. Rather than a symbol of hope, the Pearl Roundabout has become a symbol of despair, a constant reminder of Bahrain’s ongoing Arab Winter.

A year ago, the prospects of political liberalization in Bahrain seemed bright. With an authoritarian Sunni monarchy ruling over a Shiite-majority population, Bahrain’s political situation has long appeared unsustainable. Unlike most Arab Gulf countries, Bahrain has some experience with democratic institutions. There is certainly an anti-regime opposition – the system of apartheid practiced by Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy means that Bahrain’s Shia-majority population hates their ruling regime with a vehemence that transcends description. Moreover, Bahrain’s dwindling oil reserves means that unlike the governments of oil-rich Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain’s government simply cannot afford to buy popular support through massive social spending.

Inspired by successful popular mobilization in Egypt and Tunisia, thousands of Bahrainis poured into the Pearl Roundabout in mid-February of 2011. While understandably furious about the injustice and illegitimacy of their government, protesters vowed to eschew violence, convinced that that their unity, sheer numbers, and sincerity would be enough to bring political liberalization to Bahrain.

Like in Egypt and Tunisia, the initial government response of violence only antagonized the protesters and swelled their numbers – around half of Bahrain’s entire population turned out for an anti-government rally one week later. Over the next month, Bahrain’s government showed an inability to suppress the burgeoning protest movement, furthering hope that Bahrain could become the next Egypt or Tunisia, a beacon of democracy in a still largely authoritarian Arab world.

Such optimism soon vanished. About a month after the first protests, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates announced that GCC troops would be immediately deployed to Bahrain on behalf of the Al Khalifa monarchy. Pearl Roundabout, the nucleus and symbol of Bahrain’s Arab Spring, was forcibly cleared of protesters and razed to the ground. Since then, death tolls have risen into the thousands, mass arrests and lifetime jail sentences are commonplace, and the use of torture has become routine. Popular discontent has not yet been completely crushed, but the government has largely regained control of Bahrain.

Bahrain’s Arab Winter has exhibited a dynamic increasingly important to contemporary Middle Eastern politics – a regional power struggle pitting Sunni Saudi Arabia against Shia Iran. In Bahrain, the Al Khalifa regime has asserted that protests are a conspiracy led by Iran and Hezbollah to extend Shia regional influence. Despite little evidence supporting this position, it is clear that by framing Bahrain’s popular uprisings within such a context, the Al Khalifa monarchy has attracted the Saudi and Emirati support that has proved vital in maintaining their rule. It has become clear that since Riyadh views political liberalization and Shia empowerment in Bahrain as an existential threat, it will stop at nothing to preserve Bahrain’s status quo.

For Bahrainis suffering under Al Khalifa rule, American diplomatic pressure on Manama represents their only realistic hope for a brighter future. If America is to live up to its self-promotion as a champion of democracy and human rights, to be “the hope of the Earth” (as Mitt Romney has rather grandiosely said), it cannot remain silent while its allies demonstrate flagrant disregard for these principles. It is imperative that Washington condemns the suppression and blatant anti-Shia discrimination that has become the norm in Bahrain.

However, because U.S. condemnation of Saudi and Bahraini government actions would jeopardize its strategically important relationships with both states, it is highly unlikely that such action will be forthcoming. Unfortunately for the people of Bahrain, it seems almost certain that Bahrain’s Arab Winter will last long into the future.

–  Paul Cipriani 

(Featured photo: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Al Jazeera, Creative Commons, Flickr)

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