The fate of Bahrain’s protest movement is a stark reminder of how Western and regional power politics can trump reformist yearnings, even in an Arab world convulsed by popular uprisings against entrenched autocrats.
Bahrain is not Libya or Syria, but Western tolerance of the Sunni monarchy’s crackdown suggests that interests such as the US naval base in Manama, ties to oil giant Saudi Arabia and the need to contain neighboring Iran outweigh any sympathy with pro-democracy demonstrators mostly from the Shiite majority.
“The response from the West has been very timid and it shows the double standards in its foreign policy compared to Libya,” Nabeel Rajab of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights said. “Saudi influence is so huge on Bahrain now and the West has not stood up to it, which has disappointed many. They’re losing the hearts and minds of the democrats in Bahrain.”
Iran has hardly been consistent either, fiercely criticizing Bahrain’s treatment of its Shiites and praising Arab revolts elsewhere as “Islamic awakenings” — except the uprising in its lone Arab ally Syria, which it blames on a US-Israeli plot.
Bahrain’s king said on Sunday a state of emergency, imposed in March after Saudi-led troops arrived to help crush protests, would be lifted on June 1, two weeks before it expires.
That would be two days before a deadline set by Formula One organizers for Bahrain to decide whether to reschedule a Grand Prix it was to have hosted on March 13. The motor race was postponed because of the unrest then shaking the Gulf island.
Bahrain is eager to prove that stability has returned after the upheaval in which at least 29 people, all but six of them Shiites, have been killed since protests erupted in February.
Apart from verbal slaps on the wrist, the US and its allies have stood by as Bahrain, egged on by Saudi Arabia, has pursued a punitive campaign that appears to target Shiites in general, not just the advocates of more political freedoms, a constitutional monarchy and an end to sectarian discrimination.
Some protesters had gone further, demanding the overthrow of the al-Khalifa family that has ruled Bahrain for 200 years.
Bahrain, which accuses Shiite Iran of instigating the unrest, has detained hundreds of protesters and put dozens on trial in special courts. Others have lost their government jobs.
The dragnet has swept up politicians, journalists and even medical staff. Four detainees have died in police custody. The government denies reports by rights groups of torture and abuse.
Last month the main Shiite Wefaq opposition party reported the demolition, often by night, of at least 25 Shiite mosques — described by the authorities as illegal structures. Pro-government media have depicted the protesters as violent traitors, driven by sectarian designs to disenfranchise Sunnis and encouraged by Iran to further its regional influence.
“Bahrain has killed twice as many of its citizens as Syria has if one adjusts for population size. Yet its ambassador was welcome at the royal wedding in Britain and Bahrain was given a pass for repressing its revolution,” said Joshua Landis, a Middle East expert at Oklahoma University.
“Either it is because Shiites are not considered as highly as Sunnis due to Western enmity with Iran and fear of the ‘Shiite Crescent,’ as it is often called, or it is because the US has a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia and needs oil and military bases in the Persian Gulf,” Landis said.