Bahrain needs anti-sectarian social compact


Jasim Husain, a leading opposition figure in Bahrain, does not look like a pawn of Iran’s mullahs,” writes Eli Lake:

Husain doesn’t sound like a pawn of Iran’s mullahs either. In an interview Tuesday, he praised the U.S. role in the Persian Gulf and said he was grateful that the U.S. Navy base in his country had brought McDonald’s and T.G.I. Friday’s to the capital, Manama. But as a leading figure in his country’s Shiite opposition, Husain is just the type of person Bahrain’s government and other Gulf allies have tried to paint as the tip of Iran’s spear.

“The issues at stake in Bahrain predate the Arab Spring,” Husain tells Lake, writing in The Daily Beast.

“The issues are local, they are not regional; hence it is not Iran fed. The main demands of the position center on turning Bahrain into a true democratic nation, a civilian democracy, not an Iranian-style or a Saudi-style theocracy,” he insists. “We’d like a society where there is tolerance and active civil society, cosmopolitanism, free media; all of which are not on offer in Iran and Saudi Arabia.”

Bahrain’s democracy movement does not want to make a revolution, said Dr. Amal Habib Al Yusuf, an ophthalmic surgeon and a member of Al-Wefaq, the largest opposition party. The Manama Declaration affirms the opposition’s commitment to “change within the system,” leading to a constitutional monarchy, she told this week’s National Democratic Institute forum on the Arab Spring.

As a US ally and host to the US Fifth Fleet, Bahrain presents the Obama administration with an especially acute dilemma in reconciling interests and ideals, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton conceded this week.

“Meaningful reform and equal treatment for all Bahrainis are in Bahrain’s interest, in the region’s interest, and in ours—while endless unrest benefits Iran and extremists,” she told NDI. The administration would hold the monarchy to its commitments to allow access to human rights monitors, to permit peaceful protest, and hold accountable “those who cross lines in responding to civil unrest.”

But there was little evidence of restraint on the part of security forces last Friday. Police used tear gas and armored cars to violently disperse hundreds of protesters converging on Pearl Square, the reform movement’s former epicenter, in the capital Manama. The violence followed a funeral procession for Ali Hasan al-Dehi, the elderly father of an opposition leader, who was “beaten to death” by riot police, according to the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights.

The government is also planning to prosecute Alaa Hubail (left), Bahrain’s soccer superstar and all-time top scorer (see above ESPN documentary) for his involvement in pro-democracy protests. He was reportedly tortured following his arrest, while his brother and fellow national team member Mohammed has already been sentenced to two years in jail.

Sectarianism has “dramatically eroded [Bahrain’s] national cohesion” over recent years, a new report suggests. Government, civil society and political parties should forge a new social contract out of a process of reconciliation, says Which Future for Bahrain, the result of a fact-finding mission from Human Rights Without Frontiers.

“The regime should take a series of confidence-building measures to restore a social dialogue and rebuild an inclusive society. Bahraini civil society is certainly not devoid of peacemakers,” the mission concludes. “In the Sunni and Shiite communities, some prominent religious figures are in a position to build bridges over the religious divide and to mediate between the conflicting parties.”

The report also details the repression of Bahrain’s trade unions (right) which have been a bastion of non-sectarian politics and the labor movement will also be an important architect of any new social compact.

Dozens of union leaders and some 3,000 workers were dismissed for supporting the reform movement. But contrary to government claims that the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions has been dissolved, it “remains a vital, democratic and non-sectarian force,” says the International Trade Union Confederation.

“The GFBTU had repeatedly called for national dialogue on economic, social and political issues even in the face of continued government crackdowns on peaceful demonstrators,” said ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow.

The Sunni monarchy has tried to portray the reform movement as an Iranian front or proxy, but Tehran’s response to the pro-democracy protesters has been characterized by ineptitude and confusion, says a leading analyst.

“When it comes to Shiite protests in Bahrain, the Islamic Republic’s national interests appear to have trumped its ideological ambitions,” writes Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran specialist at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Tehran was “not involved initially” in the protest movement, an Iranian government official admitted to Simon Henderson, another WINEP analyst, but it “hasn’t missed an opportunity” to influence events since the monarchy’s repression aggravated sectarian tensions.

“The Shiites of Bahrain see themselves as ‘Baharna,’ indigenous Bahrainis, rather than putative Iranians,” writes Henderson. “But events are pushing them ever closer to Tehran, where they will surely be greeted with open arms.”

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