After the Day of Rage, the months of repression
The leader of the Bahrain Freedom Movement tells spiked that the situation in his country is grim. But is Western intervention the solution?
Dr Saeed Shehabi, leader of the London-based Bahrain Freedom Movement, is quick to get to the point. ‘The situation in Bahrain is very grim at the moment’, he tells me within seconds of our meeting. It’s a pretty accurate assessment.
Since the government of Bahrain declared a state of emergency on 14 March, the situation for Bahrain’s half-a-million semi-citizens has indeed been very grim. Up until then, of course, the situation had been tense but, at times, optimistic. And with good reason. The thousands of protesters who had been gathered in Pearl Square since the Day of Rage on 14 February, demanding the political reform of an apparently democratic but essentially monarchic regime, had seen off the government’s tentative attempts to ‘restore order’. Yes, the regime’s security services had shot and killed people during those first few weeks, but the protesters had remained, defiant, in and around Pearl Square. And they remained so in the knowledge that similar shows of popular discontent had recently brought an end to similarly autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.
But the Al Khalifa family, Sunni rulers of the mainly Shia Bahrain for the past 220 years, have ceded nothing to their opponents. Instead, they first allowed armed forces from their Gulf Cooperation Council ally Saudi Arabia to roll across the border and into Manama before, on 15 March, implementing martial law. Pearl Square was quickly cleared.
Then the clampdown began. Shehabi paints a bleak picture: ‘The regime’s forces are on the streets at the moment, on every corner, at checkpoints stationed at the entrance to villages and towns. And nobody can move around. The regime has also carried out a sweeping wave of arrests – more than 700 people have been arrested and detained. And you can gauge the extent to which those arrested are being tortured by the fact that four people have died in custody in the past week.’
Even the newspapers and political groupings that have been allowed to exist since the monarchy began a period of ostensible reform in 2001 have seen what liberty they had vanish in the past few weeks. At Bahrain’s major independent paper Al Wasat, the editor-in-chief Mansoor al-Jamri, British managing editor Walid Noueihed and head of local news Aqeel Mirza have all resigned – under extreme pressure from the regime. And now opposition political parties, including Al Wefaq, are in the process of being disbanded. Shehabi is not surprised: ‘Although [these people and parties] have been offering almost a decade’s worth of support to the regime – indeed, they’ve been part of the regime – that was not enough to save them from the wrath of the regime.’
The presence of a foreign army, the imposition of martial law, mass arrests, the torture and killing of detainees, the removal of liberties from even those tacit in the maintenance of the Al Khalifa family’s reign… it is indeed a grim situation. As Shehabi notes, ‘the situation is under control now, but not because this is the people’s will but because of the harsh measures taken by the regime’. Yet despite all this, despite the clear demarcation between an oppressive, autocratic regime and a large mass of disenfranchised people, the crisis in Bahrain seems to have been both largely forgotten by the world’s media and, more importantly, ignored by Western politicians.
All of which has more than a whiff of hypocrisy about it. Over in Libya, the NATO coalition of the will-less has been attempting, busily and loudly, to earn some cheap moral capital by bombing baddies, while assorted commentators, still inspired by the memories of liberal intervention Before Iraq, worry them on. But when it comes to Bahrain – a nation ruled over by a regime no less autocratic than Colonel Gaddafi’s – Obama, Cameron, Sarkozy and pals seem far less strident.
In fact, confronted by the sight of a Saudi-backed regime bloodily suppressing its own people, the US has barely been able to muster much beyond a quiet rebuke. And more often than not, the tone is plain conciliatory. White House spokesmen have been urging the Al Khalifa family to produce a ‘dialogue’ and to ‘show restraint’. And just last week, State Department spokesman Mark Toner was still calling on the government of Bahrain ‘to support freedom of association and expression, and to foster an environment that encourages political pluralism and participation’.
Not that the wilful inconsistency of ‘humanitarian interventionism’ in action has gone entirely unnoticed. Over the past week, for instance, several commentators have seized upon the story of a Bahraini woman who, following the arrest of members of her family, wrote to President Obama to tell him she holds him responsible for anything that might happen to them. The implication is clear: the US should do something about Bahrain, too. ‘I would like to see the world take a stand’, Shehabi tells me: ‘I would like to see the UN, the EU, the West condemn the arrest and torture of prisoners… And if the regime continues to attack peaceful demonstrations, then they should issue an ultimatum: “Look if you use force, we have means of targeting your forces”.’
This rather suggests that the hypocrisy of the intervention in Libya can be made right if Western powers also intervene in Bahrain. In other words, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with Western intervention – it just needs to be applied more universally.
However, the real problem is not that Western intervention is undertaken in some places but not in others; the real problem is not with the hypocrisy of the Western interveners, but with intervention itself. There is something fundamentally wrong with the interventionist creed. The dead hand of external interference will always stifle and corrupt any striving for self-determination. A people fighting for their freedom are turned into objects to be protected as soon as NATO, the UN or even a ramshackle Western coalition get involved. That is because, internationalised, a civil conflict ceases to be a struggle in which a people are shaping the future of their own society, and rather it becomes a global affair in which prominent international players shape a people’s society for them.
What is curious about Shehabi’s tentative support for intervention – understandable, perhaps, given the dire straits in which Bahrainis currently find themselves – is that he is under no illusions about the vested interests that will always undercut America or Britain’s claims that they are taking action in the universal interests of humanity. ‘Neither America nor Britain are known for their real and practical support of pro-democracy movements in the world’, he says. ‘They may use democracy as a slogan but they don’t practice it. They have always tried to present their arguments on the basis of strategic balance in the Gulf region, citing the Iranian element. Because of this they are not going to support the movement in Bahrain because of the belief that Iran will benefit.’
It’s a fair point. But it is also one which actually speaks to the history of overseas interference that has left Bahrain in the hands of a profoundly unpopular hereditary dictatorship. For, although the Al Khalifa family has been in power since the eighteenth century, its reign has not been supreme. In fact, from 1868 until formal independence in 1971, Bahrain was essentially a British protectorate, its royal family propped up by the support of the British empire which, from the end of the Second World War, made Bahrain its political and military base in the Gulf region. One enduring legacy of this period was the malingering presence of Colonel Ian Henderson CBE as head of Bahrain’s intelligence and security services, a position he occupied from a wave of anti-colonial unrest in 1966 until his retirement in 1998. ‘The Butcher of Bahrain’, as he was unaffectionately known, is currently in the news for his alleged part in the torture and killing of several members of the anti-colonialist Mau Mau group in Kenya during the 1950s and 60s.
As Britain’s empire crumbled, so the US came to the fore, establishing a naval and military base where Britain’s used to be. Admittedly, there was a glimmer of a democratic, self-determining future in the early 1970s, when the Al Khalifa family, desperately wanting legitimacy in place of British patronage, briefly allowed a degree of parliamentary democracy. But this liberalising moment soon passed in 1975, when parliament was dissolved following its refusal to pass a ‘security law’ allowing political prisoners to be detained without charge for three years – a law which was only relaxed in the late 1990s.
In fact it did seem that the coronation of Sheikh Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa in 1999 might herald a period of reform. In 2001, there was even an overwhelming referendum vote in favour of constitutional reform, the 10-year anniversary of which prompted this year’s Day of Rage in February. Shehabi, however, was never convinced by Hamad’s reformist posture: ‘I met the King himself [in 2001], and I met him in 2008, but in both cases I realised that we are not in business together.’ Or as a leaked diplomatic cable put it in 2006: ‘The King [talked about the] case of London-based opposition leader Saeed Shehabi, who refused to return to Bahrain when most of the other opposition leaders in exile did after the reforms were announced in 2001. The King said that he recently sent a Shia emissary to London to engage with Shehabi and encouraged him to return and open up a business. The King said that he would even offer Shehabi a ministerial position, but he refused.’ The same cable also showed quite how reliant the Al Khalifa family’s reign is on the backing of the US: ‘We feel we are protected by [America’s] presence. Without you, we would be squashed.’
On the whole, then, Bahrain has remained largely in thrall to overseas interests, most recently those of the US and its chief ally in the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the extent to which Saudi Arabia has a vested interest in preserving the dictatorial status quo in Bahrain is reflected not only by its decision to assist the Al Khalifa family’s cause with an invasion force of 2,000 troops, but also its decision, via the Gulf Cooperation Council, to give the Bahraini regime $1billion per year in aid over the next decade. The Saudi government, as feudal and undemocratic as Bahrain’s, will not allow the Al Khalifa family to fail. Because to let Bahrain fall to its people – a Shia majority disenfranchised both explicitly and implicitly by outright discrimination and a combination of dodgy constituency boundaries and voting rights – is seen as too much of a risk by an already nervous Saudi regime and its American backers.
All of which makes it absurd to believe that the interests of the Bahrain people would be best served by yet more overseas meddling. The people protesting and struggling in Bahrain want freedom, some control over their lives and destinies. As Shehabi explained to me, the people’s struggle in Bahrain has never been religious or ethnic, ‘Sunni v Shia’: ‘The regime, in order to split the people, in order to cause arrests inside the country, came out and said that [the struggle is] sectarian. Yet several people who have been arrested are Sunni. When you are majority, as the people of Bahrain are, you are not rising to have another set of people removed. We want a political system based on one man, one vote. We want every citizen in the country to have the same rights. No Sunni must be undermined and no Shia must be undermined. Both should be treated equally, and both should have the right of citizenship. At no point have [protesters] talked about Shia demands. They have always been political demands, just as they were in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya.’
And that’s the key. If those political demands are to remain the political demands of the Bahrainis, and not the political imperatives of Saudi Arabia, the US or the UK, then it is vital that there should be no ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Bahrain.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked
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