Since the uprising erupted last year, Bahrain has continued to experience unrest. Despite continuing reforms by the government, the opposition movement has steadily hardened its stance against the al-Khalifa monarchy.
Last weekend, protests in Bahrain escalated in one of the most violent confrontations between the opposition movement and police. Tens of thousands blocked King Faisal Highway, the main thoroughfare to Manama’s financial district, demanding an end to the al-Khalifa monarchy.
The government of Bahrain has responded to the unrest using a number of tactics, including restricting the media (international and domestic) and the Internet. This week, Reporters without Borders released its annual “Enemies of the Internet” report highlighting the government of Bahrain as one of the worst offenders.
Bahrain’s abuse of bloggers and journalists as well as extreme measures for handling protestors, including allegations of torture and murder, cannot be excused. Although the government is working toward reform, particularly following the release of the report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, the process has been slow and not has kept pace with the growing demands of the opposition.
On the other side of the debate, Bahrain’s opposition movement isn’t necessarily as innocent and well-meaning as the media portray it. Opposition members, particularly those who are part of the February 14th Movement, have wreaked havoc on the streets. Leading figures such as the influential cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim have incited violence against police and have contributed to Bahrain’s instability. Armed with Molotov cocktails and homemade weapons, protestors have injured not only police officers but also innocent bystanders.
The international media have tended to take a very superficial view of the events in Bahrain, failing to take Bahrain’s complex history and political dynamics into consideration. When I was in Bahrain last January, many Bahrainis expressed their frustration with international coverage of the crisis. One of their criticisms was the media’s lumping of Bahrain into the rest of the “Arab Spring” countries.
Indeed, Bahrain is no Egypt or Syria. Since its independence from Britain in 1970, Bahrain has made remarkable progress in building a pluralistic and open society that respects freedom of religion, women’s rights, and economic freedom. Bahrain also has a stark sectarian divide that has sparked uprisings and coup attempts in the past. Loose figures estimate that two-thirds of the country’s citizens are Shia, whereas the remaining third are Sunni. In a geopolitical context, the sectarian dynamics have major implications. Bahrain’s ruling Sunni minority considers Iran’s Shia regime a major threat to security and holds it responsible for provoking unrest.
Bahrain is also a key ally to the United States. The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based in Manama and is essential to monitoring the Strait of Hormuz and safeguarding the oil that flows through it. The fleet’s presence is also essential to containing Iran and protecting international access to the Persian/Arabian Gulf. Considering Iran’s recent saber-rattling, Bahrain’s partnership with the United States should not be taken lightly.
Too often, governments facing criticism from their opposition and the media take a hard-line approach and restrict journalists’ and others’ ability to communicate information. This exacerbates the crisis. The government of Bahrain has taken major steps toward reform, and it should continue. However, reform is a long-term process, and the government should be held accountable for progress or lack thereof. Cracking down on the media while implementing reform will overshadow any improvements the government has made.