On My Mind: Bahrain’s Arab Spring (JERUSALEM POST OP-ED) By KENNETH BANDLER 04/03/12)
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Bahrain is preparing to host the Formula One Grand Prix later this
month. The annual international racing car spectacle was cancelled
last year as protesters and police clashed on the streets of Manama.
It was the island nation’s “Arab Spring” experience.
Each Arab country that has endured a popular uprising in the past 15
months has handled the situation differently. Where the longstanding
ruler was deposed – Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen – the aftermath
of the political crisis is still evolving with the final outcome in
each country uncertain. The Syrian nightmare, with President Assad
still in power and brutally murdering his own people, continues
Bahrain has taken a different, and more encouraging, approach. King
Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa created last June the Bahrain Independent
Commission of Inquiry (BICI) to examine his own government’s response
to the protests that began on February 14, 2011.
The prevailing questions surrounding this bold yet risky initiative
were how much latitude the BICI chair, international human rights
advocate Professor Cherif Bassiouni, and his colleagues would have
investigating, what they would recommend, and how King Khalifa, who
had commissioned the inquiry, would react to the final report and
Importantly, what happens in this country has implications for the
country’s 525,000 citizens, its neighbors and the United States.
Bahrain, a country about the size of New York City, exists in a very
complex, challenging neighborhood, a primary source of the world’s
petroleum. It is linked by a 16-mile causeway to Saudi Arabia and
sits across the Gulf from Iran, a country that has assertively
meddled in Arab countries to advance its regional hegemony.
LONG SUSPICIOUS of Iran, the Bahrain government’s first instincts had
been to blame Tehran for fomenting the protests among its restive
Shia majority, who have long complained of discrimination by the
Sunni ruling Al-Khalifa family. The intensity of the clashes in the
first few weeks prompted Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both partners with
Bahrain in the Gulf Cooperation Council, to send in troops to shore
up the government.
The US Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain to help ensure security of a
region so strategically important to the world, did not intervene nor
was it asked. President Obama, however, did speak out, reflecting the
depth of concern about the situation in Bahrain where the violence
already had tarnished the country’s international image and dealt a
blow to its banking and tourism sectors.
“Bahrain is a longstanding partner, and we are committed to its
security,” Obama said in his Middle East policy address last May,
including Bahrain, briefly, in his review of Arab countries in
turmoil. Obama also called on Bahrain’s “government and opposition to
engage in a dialogue.”
But how to get the sides to sit down has been an ongoing challenge
for years. The government’s efforts over the past decade to initiate
a conversation on national reconciliation have been rebuffed by the
opposition, some of whom want nothing less than a political reform
that includes replacing the monarchy. On the other hand, many
Bahrainis contend that not enough has been done by the government to
address issues of inequality that had been festering, with exchanges
of recriminations, long before the crisis erupted last year.
Bahrain’s government today seems committed to transparency as it
seeks to address and resolve internal challenges. The Bahrain News
Agency website prominently displays the 500-page BICI report and
lists steps taken so far to implement its recommendations for reform
in a broad range of institutions, including the security forces,
judiciary, education, social policy and media.
King Khalifa, frankly, could have ignored the BICI report. After all,
it concluded that Iran was not involved in the anti-government
protests, a view Bahrain rejects. BICI also found in its extensive
research, including 9,000 interviews, that police engaged in
systematic torture of prisoners and some protesters were dismissed
from their jobs.
Instead, the king welcomed the report’s presentation last November,
and shortly afterwards he created the body to implement its
recommendations. Rehiring fired workers and redressing the claims of
abuse already are reportedly underway. “We want our people to feel
and see the differences these changes have on their lives,” Khalifa
proclaimed last month.
Ultimately, real reforms that gain the confidence of citizens in
their government and its institutions will take time, as will the
healing needed to reduce tensions and erect a more cohesive society.
It’s a long process, with plenty of hurdles to overcome. And,
undoubtedly, it will be monitored inside and outside Bahrain.
For now, compared to what has transpired in other Arab countries,
there is reason to be hopeful for Bahrain. Long after Formula One
moves on to its next country to compete and entertain, Bahrain’s
rulers and opposition, hopefully, will continue to seek ways to
achieve the societal changes needed to ensure a future that benefits
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media
relations. (© 1995-2011, The Jerusalem Post 04/03/12)
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