As hopes for reform fade, Bahrainis turn their anger on the US

The US has made an effort at changing the regime’s approach, but the opposition says it is cosmetic, and compares US statements on Bahrain to Russia’s on Syria

By Kareem Fahim  /  NY Times News Service, MANAMA

Tue, Jun 26, 2012 - Page 9

In a dark alleyway of a low-slung suburb in Manama, two dozen protesters gathered quietly and prepared to march toward a US naval base. A teenager wrapped his scarf close to his mouth, bracing for tear gas. A man peeked out of his doorway, holding his infant daughter above his head, to show her a ritual of defiance that has become a grinding way of life.

For months, the protests have aimed at the ruling monarchy, but recently they have focused on a new target. To their familiar slogans — demanding freedoms, praising God and cursing the ruling family — the young protesters added a new demand, written on a placard in English, so the US citizens might see: “USA stop arming the killers.”

Thousands of Bahrainis rose up 16 months ago, demanding political liberties, social equality and an end to corruption, but the Sunni monarchy, seen by the US and Saudi Arabia as a strategic ally and as a bulwark against Iran, was never left to face the rage on its own.

More than 1,000 Saudi troops helped put down the uprising and remain in Bahrain, making it a virtual protectorate. The US, a sometimes critical, but ultimately unshakable friend, has called for political reform, but strengthened its support for the government. Last month, US President Barack Obama’s administration resumed arms sales to Bahrain.

Backed by powerful allies, the government has pursued reform on its own terms. Dialogue between the country’s Shiite majority and the king has stopped. Twenty-one of the most prominent dissidents still languish in prison, and no senior officials have been convicted of crimes, including dozens of killings, that occurred during the crackdown last year. Opposition activists are still regularly detained or interrogated for their words.

On Friday, in what activists called a dangerous escalation, riot police officers forcefully dispersed a rally by Bahrain’s largest opposition party, injuring its leader. Every night, protesters march and clashes erupt, in a violent standoff that often seems a breath away from an explosion as political leaders pursue sectarian appeals and a once cosmopolitan society comes undone.

Some Bahrainis had pinned hopes for reconciliation on a report, issued six months ago, that investigated the events of February and March last year and found that the security forces had used indiscriminate force and torture in putting down the uprising. Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa promised to heed the report’s findings and punish officials responsible for abuse.

Government officials assert that reforms are bearing fruit, that a new special unit is investigating allegations of abuse, and that thousands of people who lost their jobs because they participated in the revolt or were accused of sympathizing with it have been rehired. Foreign advisers have been hired to overhaul the security services.

Bahraini Justice Minister Khalid bin Ali al-Khalifa said the polarization in Bahrain had not “reached a dangerous level yet.”

“It reaches a dangerous level when you don’t have a government in place,” he said. “Many of the people are getting along with each other.”

John Timoney, a former Philadelphia and Miami police chief who was hired to help reform a Bahraini police force implicated in torture and killings, said that new curriculums were being taught at the police academy and that police stations were being fitted with cameras to prevent torture during investigations. He also said that the current climate could overwhelm his efforts.

“It’s a heavy lift, changing the culture,” he said. “If there’s no political solution here, it’s all for naught.”

POLITICAL SOLUTION

The possibility of a solution seems remote. Opposition groups and human rights activists say that the reforms leave the state’s undemocratic core intact, and that they fail to address central grievances like corruption and the institutionalized discrimination against the Shiite majority.

Nabi Saleh, an island suburb of the capital, graphically illustrates their complaints. A Shiite village in the center is surrounded by seafront homes or compounds that residents say belong to government loyalists, members of the royal family or expatriates. Two slivers of beach are available for the public.

During the day, police officers sit at the entrance to town, tear gas launchers on their laps, waiting for the inevitable nightly skirmishes with young people in the village.

A few months ago, when one of the village’s few Sunni residents put his house up for sale — fed up with the nightly smell of tear gas — his neighbors begged him to reconsider, and he did.

“This government wants us to separate,” said the man, a business owner who requested anonymity, fearing retribution by the authorities.

He added, speaking of the royal family, “When their chairs shake, they take action.”

Men like Ali, 22, a resident of the island, are shaking their chairs. Several months back, during an antigovernment protest, he lost an eye to a concussion grenade fired by the police. After he was fitted with a glass eye, he quickly returned to the streets. He said he had no intention of stopping now.

“Until they fall,” he said.

Opposition activists say the government often casts them as a fifth column, backed by Iran and bent on toppling the Khalifa dynasty, which conquered Bahrain in the 18th century.

At a rally at a Manama mosque last month, a mostly Sunni crowd gathered in support of a proposed union with Saudi Arabia. The monarchy has said such a union would strike a blow to Iranian interference, though Iranian officials frequently proclaim their solidarity with the protesters.

People stubbed out cigarettes on a portrait of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader. Sheik Abdul Latif Mahmoud, the leader of a Sunni political group, warned darkly of a plot to “redivide” the region.

“Those who created the crisis wanted us to separate from each other on a sectarian basis,” Mahmoud said.

Bahrain’s mainstream Shiite political opposition has taken a gradualist approach to reform, calling for a constitutional monarchy.

“Saying we want to bring the regime down makes Sunnis live in fear,” said Hadi Hasan al-Mosawi of the Wefaq party, the largest Shiite opposition group. “We don’t want to threaten people.”

Opposition activists say Wefaq is losing support from members frustrated with its inability to bring change and independent activists frustrated with its religious focus and limited view of reform.

“When a huge number loses patience, what will happen?” al-Mosawi asked.

The march on the US naval base, the headquarters of the Fifth Fleet, never reached its destination. When the protesters got to the road leading to the base, riot officers surrounded them, firing tear gas.

It was one of several protests last month that focused on Bahrain’s decades-old alliance with the US, which includes close military cooperation and a free-trade agreement. Days earlier, the Obama administration announced the resumption of arms sales after a seven-month suspension.

ANTI-AMERICANISM

At the start of the uprising last year, a spokeswoman for the US Navy said that the protests “were not against the United States or the United States military or anything of that nature.”

That has changed. In a Shiite village, protesters burned US flags, and in another, a young man held up a sign reading, “The American administration supports the dictatorship in Bahrain.” Activists frequently liken US statements — condemning violence by both the government and its opponents — to Russia’s on Syria.

A senior Obama administration official said last month that the weapons sales would not include arms used for crowd control like tear gas. Security challenges required the sale, the official said, adding: “Maintaining our and our partners’ ability to respond to those challenges is an important component of our commitment to Gulf security.”

Officials framed the sales as an attempt to support Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, who was visiting Washington at the time and is seen as representing a reform-minded faction in the government.

Many analysts say it is too late for such a strategy. After the uprising was put down by force in spring last year, they say, hard-liners in the government, backed by the Saudis, became ascendant, eclipsing the reform faction represented by the crown prince.

A young activist with the Bahrain Center for Human Rights who attended the march, Said Yousif al-Muhafdah, said he was unmoved by US assertions that the country was pressuring the Bahraini government.

“I don’t want to say [US Secretary of State] Hillary [Rodham] Clinton is lying,” he said. “I want to say this government doesn’t care.”

The US approach faced a critical test this month. Doctors who had been convicted in a military court for their participation in the popular uprising, on charges widely seen as political, appeared before an appeals court. Michael Posner, the US assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, had taken up their case and said he had tried to get the government to dismiss the charges, several of the doctors said.

Posner was visiting Bahrain when the verdicts were announced: Nine of the convictions were upheld. He said the US was “deeply disappointed.”