This commentary was published on 15/02/2011
According to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, all was well in the Persian Gulf emirate of Bahrain just two months ago, when she paid a visit. "I am very impressed by the progress Bahrain is making on all fronts -- economically politically, socially," she enthused as a town hall meeting. Speaking of the ruling al Khalifa family, she said, "I think the commitment to democracy is paramount."
Now, however, Bahrain is at the forefront of the continuing Arab uprising -- the only Persian Gulf state where the popular protests of Tunisia and Egypt have spread. On both Monday and Tuesday thousands of protesters gathered in the center of Manama, the capital, only to be frontally attacked by riot police. So far, two have been killed. The demonstrators nevertheless managed to reach a central square, dominated by a statute of a pearl, that they are calling "Tahrir," or "Liberation" square in honor of the Egyptian revolution. Their demand is the same as that in Cairo: genuine democracy.
So why is this happening in a country that, according to Clinton, had an election for parliament in October that "was free and fair" and "was a really strong signal of the progress this is being made." The answer is simple: Bahrain, which is host to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, is not free after all. It is, rather, another Arab country where the Obama administration chose to ignore growing popular unrest -- and serious repression by the regime -- in the interests of good relations with a friendly autocracy.
In fact, as in the case of Egypt, human rights groups have been warning for some time that Bahrain was headed in the wrong direction -- and that the Obama administration's silence about it was dangerous. The island nation, with a population of only 1 million, is one of only two Gulf nations with an elected parliament. But it is far from a real democracy: A parliamentary upper house with veto powers is appointed by the king, and elected seats are gerrymandered to minimize the influence of the country's majority Shiite population. The al-Khalifa family and the traditional elite are Sunni.
Last August, with the parliamentary election approaching, the regime launched a crackdown against the Shiite opposition. Hundreds of suspected activists were rounded up, and 23 leaders -- including two clerics and a prominent blogger -- were charged under anti-terrorism laws with trying to overthrow the government. A human rights group that had received U.S. funding and that had planned to monitor the election was taken over by a government ministry.
Human rights groups sounded the alarm. "What we are seeing in Bahrain these days is a return to full-blown authoritarianism. The government has taken over associations and shut down media it doesn't like to silence the loudest critics and intimidate the rest," said Human Rights Watch in an Oct. 20 statement.
The Obama administration was silent. "Although the U.S. embassy in Manama is fully apprised of the current situation, the Obama administration has failed to speak out about what has become a serious human rights crisis," said Human Rights Watch.
Not long afterward, the U.S. ambassador to Bahrain, Adam Ereli, offered an on-the-record statement for a Post editorial on the subject, expressing "concern" and calling for "respect for the rule of law." But any notion that the administration was taking the issue seriously was undone by Clinton, who was dismissive of the case during her visit.
"Yes, I mean people are arrested and people should have due process, and there should be the rule of law, and people should have good defense counsel," she said when asked about the prosecutions by an opposition member of parliament. "But on the other hand the election was widely validated...so you have to look at the entire picture." (The trial of the two dozen leaders, by the way, still continues; they remain in prison, and several of them have alleged they were tortured.)
"I see the glass as half full," Clinton declared. "I think the changes that are happening in Bahrain are much greater than what I see in many other countries in the region and beyond."
Evidently, a large number of Bahrainis don't agree with that assessment. And once again the Obama administration may have to rush to catch up with an opposition movement that it underestimated -- and a regime to which it gave too much credit.