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Why The West’s Silence on Bahrain Risks a Full-Blown Sectarian Conflict

Posted on 19 April 2011 by hashimilion

Today: It’s hard not to see a double standard in the West’s responses to the Arab Spring.

Western governments have had no problem in calling for Muammar Gaddafi to go. They have condemned Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen for firing on protesters, detention without trial and the usual responses of repressive regimes.

But on the topic of the equally repressive Khalifa family in Bahrain, diplomats of all stripes have been much more restrained.

Meanwhile, the Saudis have sent 1,000 troops to its neighbour to help put down the “coup” — what anyone else would call peaceful protests. Bahraini activists risk being arrested or threatened. Last week a fourth detainee died in police custody in less than two weeks. Witnesses said his body, like the others, bore signs of abuse.

The strategy of inertia could well blow up in the West’s face. The protesters in Bahrain are mainly Shiites, who form the majority of the population; the rulers are Sunni.

Shiite Iran next door is the wild card. No one can predict how the ayatollahs will respond. They are already suspected of covert meddling and it’s hard to imagine they will sit by while their co-religionists are massacred.

At the British newspaper The Guardian, Madeleine Bunting attributes the West’s silence in part to Britain’s relationship with the ruling Bahraini family.

“It has been one of the most successful chapters in British imperial domination; the Al Khalifa dynasty signed its first treaty with the British in 1820 and they finally ‘left’ in 1971. The British have backed a repressive regime in a very cosy, mutually advantageous relationship of finance, military training, arms deals and royal ceremony (one of the less edifying aspects of the imperial endgame has been the use of the royal family to flatter and seduce client regimes, however unpalatable). In the last few months the Bahrain government has beaten, killed, tortured the Shia protest movement …The west has done little but mumble incoherently; too many interests are at stake to live up to the grand moral rhetoric now being lavished on Libya.”
In an interview with the Iranian-owned Press TV, Christopher Walker, a former Moscow and Middle East correspondent of the London Times, has no problem in connecting the dots.

“The fact is that Bahrain is the regional base of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, and the U.S. Fifth Fleet is its major strategic arm in the Middle East. Although it is based in Bahrain, it is crucial to the current Washington policy in the region. So they are very worried that if something was to happen in Bahrain of deep instability, that Fleet would lose its base. That is really the guiding force …
[Covering] Bahrain has not frankly been of the Western media’s interest. You can see a conspiracy behind it if you want. It was the West’s interest not to encourage the downfall of the ruling Khalifa family in Bahrain. Bahrain is also a much easier place for the authorities to restrict press coverage. In Libya, for instance, when journalists could not get in, because Gaddafi did not at that time allow them, they just drove into the East or got there another way. But in Bahrain, they have to go via the airport and they are just not given visas.”
To have different levels of tolerance for different despots raises awkward questions, says The Observer in an editorial.

“One obvious lesson for the west from recent upheaval in the Middle East is that propping up authoritarian regimes on the grounds that they make stable allies is a terrible policy.
The stability procured by despotism is an illusion. Brittle police states can contain, but never satisfy, a captive people’s appetite for better lives. Eventually, they shatter and the more rigid the apparatus of repression, the more explosive the change when it comes.
That has been demonstrated clearly enough in North Africa and yet the west struggles to apply the lesson to the Arabian Peninsula. The contagious spirit of democratic springtime that provoked protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya also reached Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia. But there the west has been markedly less inclined to cheer it on.”
At the Christian Science Monitor, Kristen Chick explains why the U.S.’s silence could backfire:

“While the U.S. stance is generally attributed to an attempt to protect regional interests, the festering situation in Bahrain is actually increasing Iran’s opportunity for influence in the region and widening rifts between Arab nations – neither of which are in the interest of the U.S. … the U.S. failure to condemn human rights abuses committed by the Bahraini security forces while condemning such abuses in Libya and Syria is undermining any credibility it had with Bahrainis. If Saudi and the U.S had hoped to curtail Iran’s influence through Bahrain, they may have instead given it an opening …
Indeed, the situation in Bahrain has given Iran repeated opportunities to publicly criticize the oppression of Shiites and criticize Bahrain.”

By Araminta Wordsworth

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Protests in Bahrain, Yemen Beset by Violence

Posted on 15 February 2011 by hashimilion

Bahraini riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters Monday, killing at least one, according to eyewitnesses, while hundreds of Yemenis—regime supporters and antigovernment protesters—faced off violently in the capital, San’a.

The clashes in Bahrain represent a significant escalation of the Arab unrest that has fanned out from Tunisia, culminating in the resignation of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak Friday. Bahrain is the only Arab state so far in the oil-rich Persian Gulf beset by unrest amid protests across much of the rest of the Mideast.

Bahrain, a small island kingdom in the Gulf, has little oil wealth of its own, but is home to a thriving regional banking and financial-services sector, and hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, the American naval command in charge of patrolling the Persian Gulf and the surrounding region.

Sunni rulers have struggled for years with a restive Shiite population. In recent days, the Shiite-led opposition has capitalized on the regional unrest to renew its own calls for political reform. Besides regime-toppling protests in Tunisia and Egypt, large demonstrations have rocked Algeria, Jordan and Yemen.

A doctor at Salmaniya Medical Complex, a hospital in the capital, Manama, where wounded protesters were being sent, said one man died of wounds from pellets, apparently fired at his back at close range. Eyewitnesses said the man was shot by security forces.

The Bahraini government said it was saddened by Monday’s events, but stressed that government’s policies were “on track” and wouldn’t be derailed.

“This is shocking, it shouldn’t have happened. Maybe the police presence should stay high so this doesn’t escalate,” said Nada Haffadh, member of the Shura council, the appointed upper chamber of Bahrain’s parliament.

In a midday interview, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid al Khalifa said the kingdom welcomed peaceful protests, but said protesters must obey the law.

“Bahrain is used to having protests…but we need to make sure this is done with law and order—there should be no violence,” he said.

In a main traffic circle on the outskirts of Manama, a gathering of around 200 male and female protesters stood waving Bahraini flags and chanting “our demand is a constitution written by the people… We demand the release of all political prisoners.” Some held posters of prisoners.

Riot police stood on another corner of the roundabout, then charged, firing tear gas and rubber bullets. The crowd dispersed, then reformed several times. Each time, the police closed in, chasing protesters into side streets.

In Yemen, thousands of antiregime protesters marched through San’a on Monday, demonstrating against the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Pro-government demonstrators also gathered in the capital, according to eyewitnesses, and scuffles broke out between security forces and pro-government demonstrators and protesters.

At one point, pro-government demonstrators, armed with sticks and knives, hurled rocks at protesters, who had gathered at San’a University, chanting: “Peaceful, peaceful protests is our path.”

Security forces intervened. There were dozens of arrests and injuries, according to eyewitnesses. But by midafternoon, the streets of San’a were quiet again. Officials from the government and Mr. Saleh’s ruling party weren’t reachable for comment late Monday.

In Bahrain, by contrast, protests gained momentum through the day with larger groups simultaneously protesting in several locations on the outskirts of the capital as people finished work midafternoon. Protesters continued to gather after nighfall, with police units maintaining a heavy presence and helicopters circling the capital.

Security forces had stepped up their presence across the capital and in the Shiite Muslim-dominated villages that surround it, as the country’s opposition called for Monday demonstrations.

Protests in some Shiite villages started immediately after morning prayers on Monday, eyewitnesses said. Checkpoints sealed off villages, while police units patrolled shopping malls and other public areas Sunday.

At the Pearl roundabout in Manama, cited by protesters as a possible place of protest, police manned each corner in a show of force.

In the Shiite village of Sitra, a few miles from the capital, armed riot police patrolled networks of side streets. Local men, women and children marched to protest immediately after morning prayers but were blocked before they reached a nearby highway, eye witnesses said.

Those who refused to disperse were shot at with tear gas, sound bombs and rubber bullets, with some exhibiting injuries, witnesses said.

Jafer Hassan, a 25-year-old man from Sitra, showed a wound on his leg he claimed was from a rubber bullet.

“The police started shooting and I was hit… But I will protest again this afternoon.”

Abdul Wahab Hussain, a prominent opposition figure, attended the protest Monday, then retreated to his house in Sitra, where he received locals in a room covered in posters of jailed activists.

“The number of riot police is huge, but we have shown using violence against us will only make us stronger… This is just the beginning,” he said.

In Beni Jamra, another Shiite district a few miles west of Manama, 300 to 400 people, mainly young men and women, walked up a long street chanting “Release the Prisoners.” They were stopped by police, firing tear gas. Most darted into nearby houses or side streets to escape, but many then regrouped.

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