October 9th, 2014
Fighting for Democracy While Supporting Autocracy
ISIS and Bahrain’s F-16
by Matar E. Matar
For the second time in recent history, the United States is trading away support for democracy and fundamental human rights protections in Bahrain as part of an effort to establish democracy and human rights protections in another Muslim country.
In March 2011, while the Obama administration was building a coalition to defeat Qaddafi in Libya, Saudi and Emirati troops were rolling toward Bahrain to reinforce a massive crackdown against unarmed pro-democracy protesters.
In her book, Hard Choices, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reveals how a very senior Emirati official pressed her to mute US opposition to this invasion if she wanted the UAE to join the anti-Qaddafi campaign. “Frankly, when we have a situation with our armed forces in Bahrain it’s hard to participate in another operation if our armed forces’ commitment in Bahrain is questioned by our main ally,” she quotes him as saying. It worked. Later that same day, in stark contrast to the US State Department’s response to the Russian intervention in the Crimea, Clinton issued a statement intended to soothe Saudi/Emirati concerns, saying in essence that their intervention in Bahrain was legitimate.
At that same time, large parts of the Bahraini population were being subjected to beatings, torture and imprisonment that had never occurred in the history of our country. Given our inability to protect our people from such abuse, several colleagues and I decided to resign our positions in Parliament in protest. I was then arrested while trying to inform the world about the casualties from excessive force and extensive torture. But Secretary Clinton was at peace with the trade-off: “I felt comfortable that we had not sacrificed our values or credibility,” she wrote in her memoir.
Today Bahrain is facing a similar situation. The US needs the appearance of strong Arab cooperation against the Islamic State (not because the US actually needs assistance from Bahraini F-16s), giving the Bahraini regime an opportune time to force bad deals on the people of Bahrain without criticism from Washington.
This time the regime is moving ahead, claiming that it has achieved consensus through what has clearly been a phony “National Dialogue”—the government’s response to international pressure for reconciliation after the repression of the pro-democracy movement.
The country’s absolute monarch, King Hamad bin Isa, dominates all power centers. He appoints all senior judges, members of the upper house of Parliament, and members of the cabinet, which is headed by the world’s longest-serving prime minister, Khalifa bin Salman (first appointed when Nixon was president). In addition, the King has given himself the right to grant public lands and citizenship to whomever he wants. He has abused these powers in a wide and systematic manner by concentrating wealth among his family and allies including within Bahrain’s minority Sunni population.
On October 12, 2011, half a year after the Bahraini uprising, opposition parties representing well over half of the country’s population issued a blueprint for democratic reform in Bahrain, the Manama Document. This paper identified a path toward an orderly transition to a constitutional monarchy, ensuring an inclusive government that represents all Bahrainis in the cabinet, parliament, and security and judicial institutions. Specifically, it called for the establishment of representative electoral districts; free elections; a single elected chamber in Parliament instead of the current bi-cameral arrangement, where the upper house is appointed by the king and only the lower house is elected; an independent judiciary; and the inclusion of Shia among all ranks of the military and security forces.
Instead of embracing any of these ideas, the unaccountable king has offered up pretend reforms, and the US government, with an eye to keeping the Fifth Fleet’s headquarters in Bahrain and now on keeping Bahraini F-16s in the air over Iraq and Syria, pretends that these reforms are real. Central to this pretense is the “national dialogue” that has been running in fits and starts since July 2011. In reality, it has been a one-sided conversation, since key leaders of the opposition have been systematically arrested.
Last month, the king tapped Crown Prince Salman Bin Hamad to assume his first real political role in the government—namely taking the lead in closing the door on the dialogue and submitting what he considered to be its “common ground.” Among other things, the crown prince proposed a meaningless plan for redistricting that was later imposed by the king by royal decree. Under this plan, Shia constituencies, which comprise about 65% of the total population, would receive only about 45% of the seats in Parliament. The redistricting plan was apparently designed to reduce the variation in the size of districts by scattering the opposition throughout majority loyalist districts. Moreover, the variation in the size of districts would remain huge. For example, a loyalist-majority district of less than 1,000 voters would elect one MP while an opposition-majority district with more than 10,000 voters would receive the same representation in Parliament—a ratio of more than ten to one. In fact, 13 opposition-majority districts with more than 10,000 voters each would be treated this way under the plan.
Another part of the supposed “common ground” relates to the formation of the cabinet, which must be approved by the majority of the elected chamber of Parliament. If Parliament fails to approve the appointed government three times, then Parliament would be dissolved.
Thousands of Bahrainis rejected this proposal Sept. 19 by marching in western Manama in a demonstration of determination on the part of pro-democracy forces that have not diminished despite the repression of the last three and a half years.
Nonetheless, based on the purported “common ground,” the government now intends to hold elections on Nov. 22.
Time is short for constructive engagement between the opposition and the regime to resolve these political disputes, and the US needs to be heard. Washington should not think that its interests require it to remain silent about the need for real democratic reform in Bahrain. In fact, failing to speak out is detrimental to its own stated interests in Iraq and Syria. While the regime in Bahrain is participating in F-16 sorties against the Islamic State, its policies of systematic discrimination against its majority Shia population and its ongoing incitement in the media against Bahraini Shia (as agents of Iran and the US at the same time!) create a perfect environment for incubating terrorists who consider Americans and Shia their greatest enemy. Moreover, while the US government trains Bahraini “security forces” that exclude Shia (on sectarian grounds), it appears that some Bahrainis working for these same forces have left to fight with the Islamic State.
Yet when Nabeel Rajab, a prominent human rights activist, recently tweeted that the security institutions were the ideological incubator of sectarianism and anti-American attitudes in Bahrain, he was arrested on the grounds that he had “denigrated government institutions.”
Bahrain is a small country, but it represents a major test for US credibility. The Obama administration has traded Bahraini democracy away once before. Three years of bloodshed in Bahrain has not only radicalized elements of the opposition there but has also instilled a culture of abuse and impunity in Bahrain’s government and security forces, some of whom are now looking to the Islamic State to satiate their new-found appetite for violence. Any potential benefit the US thinks it might gain from an unaccountable (Sunni) autocrat’s F16s in the bombing campaign against the Islamic State is more than offset by the sectarian extremism that these alleged allies continue to provoke (and promote) at home.
Washington should not sell out democracy in Bahrain again. With a little attention and encouragement, President Obama could help bring democracy to this Arab country and claim at least one good result for his (currently empty) “win” category.
Matar Ebrahim Matar is a former Member of Parliament who served as Bahrain’s youngest MP representing its largest constituency. In February 2011, along with 18 other members from his Al-Wefaq political party, he resigned from Parliament to protest the regime’s crackdown against pro-reform demonstrators. During the Feb. 14 uprising, he served as a major spokesman for the pro-democracy movement. Matar was subsequently arbitrarily detained, and, after his release, left Bahrain for exile in the United States. In 2012, he received the “Leaders for Democracy Award” from the Project on Middle Democracy (POMED).