How the US Can and Should Urge Bahrain Towards Democracy in the Wake of the Arab Spring
By Jonathan Ng
February 14, 2011. The stage was set for revolution.
It was the 10th anniversary of the signing of the constitution of the small, island state of Bahrain. Just three days before, the President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, had been ousted following riots and violent clashes. Exactly a month earlier, on January 14, Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had relinquished power in another revolution. The Arab Spring was in full swing.
In Bahrain, sectarian tensions, among other grievances, were reaching a boiling point. The country was dominated by a predominantly Sunni ruling class despite being majority Shi’a. Inspired by the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt on the other side of the Arab World, Bahrainis captured the public eye as thousands of protesters took the streets and engaged in a number of peaceful demonstrations. Calling for democratic reform of the constitutional monarchy of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the Bahraini people expressed grievances reflecting those of people in neighboring countries against authoritarianism, corruption, and economic stagnation. Hamad (r. 2002-present) had opened the door for change and revolution by releasing political prisoners and abolishing the 1974 Decree on State and Security Measures, which had facilitated the use of routine torture of prisoners and perpetuated human rights violations. The uprising, initiated by people from the Shi’a majority who were poor, disenfranchised, and excluded from the state’s bureaucracy, gained support from Sunnis as well, especially those in the political opposition to the Bahraini government. One participant in the protests, interviewed by National Public Radio (NPR), said that he “cannot forget [that] night.”
Protests in Bahrain in 2011.
However, a little more than one month after this pivotal day, known as the “Day of Rage,” the nascent flame of the rebellion was extinguished. After a request from King Hamad for military support to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a Saudi-led regional alliance consisting of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman, 1,000 Saudi troops and 500 Emirati troops crushed the uprising.
After the failed uprising, it was evident that King Hamad needed to implement reforms. As such, in June 2011 he established the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which was tasked with examining the unrest that had shaken Bahrain earlier in the year and discern whether or not the response had been a violation of international human rights law. However, nearly five years after the fateful events in February and March, Bahrain is not any closer to reform. Dissidents continue to be monitored by the state, occasionally being incarcerated or tortured for their beliefs.
How can the United States (US) help Bahrain to reverse this trend and democratize? So far, the US has failed to address the atrocities and human rights violations perpetrated by the GCC during the uprising. Former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton initially commended King Hamad’s “initiative in commissioning [the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry]” when the task force was established in 2011.
However, the US has an interest in having Bahrain uphold human rights. The US Fifth Fleet is stationed in Bahrain in order to maintain American security interests in the Gulf; thus, the US would be directly impacted by further unrest caused by Bahraini human rights violations that could jeopardize the stability of Bahrain. Moreover, the US needs a stable Bahrain in its campaign against the Islamic State, of which Bahrain is a member. Against the conventional wisdom, stability would be maintained if Bahrain democratizes, rather than remaining an autocracy.
By what mechanism might Bahrain democratize? The BICI Accountability Act of 2015, spearheaded by Ron Wyden and Marco Rubio in the Senate and by Jim McGovern, Joe Pitts, and Hank Johnson in the House of Representatives, has encouraged discussion in the US about Bahrain and pressures Bahrain to uphold its human rights commitments. However, as part of the GCC, which is pivotal to the US’ fight against the Islamic State, Bahrain enjoys some protection: if the US needs Bahrain unconditionally in this effort, it may be unlikely to push Bahrain too forcefully to democratize for fear of losing its cooperation.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that the US’s attempts at nudging Bahrain towards democracy is futile. There is a fatal flaw in the constitution of the GCC: it is strictly a security alliance, and includes almost no political or economical arrangements. With oil prices plummeting, the Bahraini economy, which relies heavily on oil, is being hit hard. The island state lacks the financial cushion of bank reserves possessed by its Gulf neighbors. These financial troubles coupled with an increase in raids and arrests prior to the five-year anniversary of the “Day of Rage” show cracks in the relatively rigid structure of the Bahraini state. Economic vulnerability and political unrest thus might provide the US with the opportunity it needs to propel Bahrain towards a democratic future that would be beneficial towards both Bahrain and the US.
Jonathan Ng is a sophomore in Morse College. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.