Monday, April 15, 2013

Bahrain: Hunger Strikes and Race Cars, Dr. MLK Jr. and Bitterness

As Bahrain continues to face the challenges of Arab Spring repercussions, this week’s theme of authoritarian governments attempting to prolong their rule through quasi-democratic institutions struck me as interesting, and also sadly made me think that Bahrain may be the exception to the rule. The Bahraini government has made some “attempts” to bring about justice for the one-sided violence unleashed on protestors beginning in February and March 2011. But these have done little to appease many protestors, looking at their actions illustrates how this is true, and also shows how embittering and relatively hopeless the case in Bahrain seems to be.

 Bahraini human rights activist and frequent political prisoner Zainab al-Khawaja was participating in a hunger strike from jail in March.[1] In her letter explaining her reasons for the hunger strike (posted in NYTimes March 24, 2013), she frequently referenced Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and how his message of nonviolent civil disobedience was inspiring her through the struggle in Bahrain. But there is one passage from her letter that I feel is particularly insightful:

When I look into the eyes of Bahraini protesters today, too many times I see that hope has been replaced by bitterness. It’s the same bitterness Martin Luther King Jr. saw in the eyes of rioters in the slums of Chicago in 1966. He saw that the same people who had been leading non-violent protests, who were willing to be beaten without striking back, were now convinced that violence was the only language the world understood.
Zainab al-Khawaja

That bitterness is being expressed in more than Molotov cocktails and rocks thrown at security forces. Yesterday (roughly) a car exploded in the Financial Harbour district of Manama, where security is considered to be fairly tight.[2] No one was reported to be injured, but this serves as a new escalation by the “embittered” perhaps, and is concerning for the regime as the Formula 1 race is scheduled for Bahrain next week. Many see the F1 races as a legitimizing event for the regime and there have been many protests and arrests (around 100 according to BBC article) against the hosting of the F1 race by Bahrain while torture and political repression and common (see Amnesty International report).[3] A group calling itself the February 14 Movement (after the initial protests in 2011) has taken responsibility for the explosion and promised more ‘“actions’ in a bid to force the cancellation of the race.”[4] The protests, both in MLK-esque civil disobedience and now in car bombings, show that the
lip service the government is giving to “justice” and “responsibility” for the violent crackdown is not enough. This is an authoritarian regime that is not giving enough concessions, cooperation, or co-option, but it also may be one that does not have to.

Why should we care, as students in the United States? We should care because torture is common for political prisoners in Bahrain, and some have even died as a result while in custody—we should care on human rights grounds. We should care because due to the geopolitical situation (oil, Saudi Arabia, military base) the U.S. government has abandoned the democratic aspirations of the Bahraini protestors. We should care because of the potential harm, to Bahrainis and perhaps even people from the U.S. should the “embittered” continue to escalate the protests into violent acts such as the recent car bomb. We should care because basic freedoms such as right to assemble, of speech, of information are being limited. 

Gandhi and Przeworski argue in our reading for Monday, that some faux-democratic institutions help to prolong an authoritarian regime. The Al-Khalifa regime has attempted some of these actions by opening up to independent investigation of the violent crackdown on protestors, (even if they have ignored the findings and made little to no effort to follow through on them).[5] They have sentenced two police officers to 10 years for the death of protestors,[6] amongst others. However many others have also been acquitted.[7] Even those security forces convicted of murder received 10 years, but 17 protestors were sentenced to 15 years for attempted murder of security forces.[8] This I feel shows the failure of these attempts at “justice,” and the Bahraini protestors are not stupid, they see this, and this is part of the reason why, after over two years, they are not going away. 

As far as policy makers, various things “should” be done, but I find that it is all too idealized to hope for. The Al-Khalifa regime should promote real justice; stop sentencing people of “threatening national security” while holding sit-ins, and have a real investigation into the continued practices of torture and repression. The U.S. government should support the opposition’s general democratic aspirations—although that is such an unlikely possibility that I feel silly writing it out on this page because of the geopolitical situation (Oil/Saudi Arabia/Military Base). But do they really have to? With Saudi Arabia’s support, does the Al-Khalifa regime even need to pretend to have democratic institutions? To me it seems that Bahrain may be a good counter argument to Gandhi and Przeworski, and shows that with the right geopolitical situation and powerful friends, a regime need not do much at all to prolong its rule.  

“While the BICI report was used by the Bahraini authorities as a narrative of change, in reality
the facade of reform crumbled as human rights violations intensified, the circles of repression
widened to include children and human rights activists, culminating with a ban on all
protests at the end of October 2012.” page 4.

1 comment:

  1. This weekend's race seems to have served as a platform for the protestors to show their demands to a global audience (in addition to an attempt by the government to display itself as legitimate). Aljazeera English reports 10,000 protestors ( and (

    Also, BBC,