Written by Ryan J. Suto, graduate student in the Public Diplomacy Program and the College of Law at Syracuse University.
Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any agency, organization, or department.
This summer I have been in Bahrain as an intern with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) country office there. I was there to assist the office with its projects in the realm of democratic governance. As a self-proclaimed student of the Arab Spring, I kept abreast of the goings on in Bahrain. Yet pre-departure my conception of what was occurring on the ground was strikingly different than what was to be my experience over the next 11 weeks. Standing at the finish line of my experience, I struggle to sum the whole thing up succinctly. I can’t claim that I am in possession of any objective truth toward Bahrain, nor can I paint a complete picture of Bahrain’s present. A much longer stay is needed for this. So let’s talk about what I know.
I know that during the month after the February 14, 2011 protests the government of Bahrain failed its duty to protect the rights of its own people and used levels of violence, torture, and a suspension of due process which is intolerable. Governments have a greater responsibility to rise above the actions of protesters and hold themselves to greater standards of human rights—lest the authority of the state lead to abuse. Violence from both sides has continued. Since my arrival, the episodes of protest and tire burning that can be tracked via Twitter and watched on YouTube have occurred on a weekly basis. The ‘good news’ here is that there is a rather small population of Bahrainis that support these actions and they often occur in sparsely-populated regions of Bahrain. The corresponding ‘bad news’ is that while the complaints of these protesters and tire-burners are legitimate and their marginalization real and important, their actions and plight have become a part of life in Bahrain. No longer do these protests prompt a re-evaluation of national values—instead they prompt a re-evaluation of which sheesha place to patron that night.
I know that there are two major factions in the government: the hardliners and the softliners. The hardliners, embodied by the Prime Minister, generally oppose governance reforms, have little interest in human rights or combating corruption, and view the protesters as criminals who have little respect for the rule of law or institutionalized channels of political grievance. The softliners, embodied by the Crown Prince, at times agree with the complaints of the opposition groups and seek a slow, methodical reformation process which internalizes human rights and international standards as necessary steps toward economic and political stability. The opposition is splintered, from groups who wish to maintain and reform the monarchy to groups that wish to topple the royal family and seek full democracy right now. Their language used by the opposition ranges from the secular Tweets of Nabeel Rajab to the Friday sermons of al Wefaq. While generalizations are part of human nature, to view the government and the oppositions as unitary forces which are politically and religiously directly opposed to each other shows a lack of comprehension.
I know that there are serious human rights violations. Let’s go beyond the assessment of Bahrain’s human rights situation by the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of Bahrain in May. As of this writing http://www.bahrainrights.org/ remains blocked in Bahrain, as is content which is deemed pornographic in nature. I have discovered that occasionally news sources are blocked, as well. The domestic general-circulation newspapers are shamelessly biased toward the royal family and explicit and implicit censorship occurs regularly in Bahrain. This is perhaps the very reason why social media are so popular in Bahrain: they present real information. Especially considering the arrest of Nabeel Rajab for his tweets, I did not feel comfortable publishing anything about the royal family while in Bahrain. On the other hand, the freedom of verbal communication is strong. Many Bahrainis feel open to express their views on the government, the opposition, and the faults of either side. Many times during my stay I have been in a group of Bahrainis whom would openly speak against the actions of the government, and no one is visibly shocked by this. Moreover the King himself commissioned the BICI report and the government institutions have made a number of honest attempts at addressing all the recommendations of that document. The rule of law is maintained in Bahrain, and many people in Bahrain are able to live their lives with little thought given toward government powers.
I know that the untold story of those reading about Bahrain’s civil unrest is that of transmigrant workers, or expats as they are called in Bahrain. Foreign workers, who originate mostly from India, Pakistan, and Southeast Asia, constitute a majority of the population of Bahrain. Despite the presence of expats in Bahrain for most of the country’s history and their literal building of modern Bahrain, expats have historically been subjected to inhumane living and working conditions. Recent efforts have made strides to alleviate these issues, but expats remain separate and distinct from citizens, and rarely do these groups interact socially or as peers in the workplace. I know that generally Bahrainis desire government jobs, and that Sunnis are generally more successful at obtaining them—no small coincidence being that the royal family is Sunni, as well. Shia are generally worse-off than Sunni, and a definite stratification exists between the groups. Combining the clashes and economic differences between Sunni and Shia and the station of expats in Bahrain and the question of what does it mean to be Bahraini? becomes important and must be answered by Bahrainis in order to go forward as a unified society.
Simplistic media headlines and talking points from all sides of the issue try to paint Bahrain as a simple kind of story: an autocratic Sunni Muslim minority regime is repressing a democracy-loving Shia Muslim majority population which has lashed out as part of the Arab Spring. Alternatively, that the Shia protesters were being materially supported by Iran and the government was militarily supported by Saudi Arabia and the U.S.—making Bahrain a stage for a Middle East cold war. Unfortunately for those who love sound bites, these oversimplifications lose much of the nuance I’ve tried to hint at above—without going into an extensive analysis of all the relevant groups and issues in Bahrain as I have come to understand them. Like other political issues throughout the world, neither the opposition nor the government in Bahrain can be viewed as singular actors with coherent goals which are wholly ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Some organizations and individuals in both groups have turned to violence while others have made honest efforts toward solving the current issues in Bahrain.
At the simplest, in Bahrain there are issues of economic inequality for Shia Bahrainis and expats. There are human rights issues with respect to media law, expat wages, and protesters. There are political issues of gerrymandering, a King-appointed upper house in parliament, the status of political parties, and corruption. There are legal due process issues of the treatment of protesters. There are social questions of reconciliation and inclusion. There are forces on both sides of all of these issues in Bahrain. All of these issues are relevant in Bahrain, but they are simply too complicated for most commentators and observers. That’s simply the story of Bahrain.