*By Husain Abdulla
Last month, frustration over the Muslim Brotherhood’s power grab in Egypt sparked a resurgence in massive demonstrations that resulted in the military-led ouster of President Mohammed Morsi. While people around the world remain captivated by events in Egypt, the Bahraini people continue their struggle for a representative government and basic human rights. As chaos continues to envelop the rocky transition in Egypt, Bahraini activists have been planning their own “Tamarrod” movement, hoping to draw attention to the stagnation of reforms promised by their government.
Tamarrod, an Arabic word meaning “rebellion,” has come to represent the struggle many countries face as they work tirelessly to achieve goals of democracy, accountability and human rights. Although events in Egypt, Syria and other hot spots dominate news coverage of the region, Bahrainis – faced with suppression at home and ambivalence from the world – continue their solitary struggle for political change. On August 14, Bahrainis plan to take to the streets once again in an effort to reinvigorate the same democratic fervor that inspired more than one-third of the population to demonstrate for reform in February 2011.
When the Arab Spring first rolled through Bahrain in February 2011, it was met with a violent crackdown by the Bahrain government, leading to thousands of injuries and arrests, hundreds of torture accusations and dozens of deaths. Now, more than two years later, human rights abuses continue unabated, while perpetrators enjoy impunity. As August 14 approaches, there is widespread concern over the possibility of another brutal response from the Bahrain government.
In a move that prompted harsh condemnation by human rights organizations and the United Nations, Bahrain’s parliament recently issued 22 recommendations, endorsed by the king, who ordered their swift implementation. Couched in vague terrorism and national safety terminology, the new measures expand executive authorities to curtail free speech and peaceful assembly without offering any meaningful human rights protections.
The Bahrain government habitually relies on ill-defined security and terrorism crimes to prosecute protesters and human rights defenders for exercising their free speech rights. The parliament’s recent proposals would take things further, effectively allowing for the institutionalization of rights abuses through various measures, including bans on gatherings in the capital, the revocation of citizenship of anyone deemed to have instigated “terrorism” and punishment for using “social networks in an illegal way.”
Ahead of the demonstrations, the international community, and the U.S. in particular, should send a clear message that such attempts to restrict the people’s rights will not be tolerated. The U.S. should use its historically strong bilateral ties with Bahrain to urge non-violence by both sides, and to warn the government of Bahrain against the excessive use of force and arbitrary detention of protesters.
Unfortunately, U.S. efforts to positively address the political crisis in the past have been vastly overshadowed by its security relationship with Bahrain, which serves as host to the U.S. Naval Fifth Fleet. This has led activists on the ground, who believed they garnered U.S. support when President Obama reacted to the 2011 crackdown by reminding the Bahrain government that there cannot be a “real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail,” to become frustrated and disappointed by what they view as Washington’s unwillingness to leverage its full range of diplomatic tools to encourage reform.
As the U.S. shies away from applying consistent and substantive pressure out of deference to perceived near-term security imperatives, Bahrain’s bold disrespect for basic freedoms continues to fuel growing discontent and instability on the island. This tenuous situation has led an increasing number of U.S. national security leaders and policy makers to call for contingency plans for the relocation of the Fifth Fleet. In a Brookings Institution report, U.S. Navy Commander Richard McDaniel outlined the need for such options out of concern for the impact that ongoing human rights and governance challenges in Bahrain pose to U.S. operations. Admiral Dennis Blair, former Director of National Intelligence and head of U.S. Pacific Command, echoed these sentiments, asserting that the U.S. should put its “interests where its values are in Bahrain.”
While much uncertainty surrounds Bahrain’s tamarrod, one thing is clear: The only way forward for stability is through serious dialogue, accountability, respect for human rights and democratic reforms that allow for the realization of the Bahraini people’s aspirations. In this vein, human rights promotion should be a top priority for U.S. national interests, out of recognition that such efforts are crucial for safeguarding the U.S.-Bahrain relationship over the long-term.
Since the onset of democratic uprisings, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has been muddled by inconsistent reactions from U.S. leaders. With August 14 rapidly approaching, the United States has a chance to change this trend with Bahrain – and hopefully help to spare the Bahraini people another bloody episode like that of February 2011.
*Director, Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain
This oped originally appeared in US News and World Report.