The Bahraini monarchy is one of the few regimes that experienced the raw power of the Arab Spring but withstood it, emerging unscathed. So it comes as something of a surprise that the government campaigned for an Arab Human Rights Court at the pan-Arab Summit in Qatar this week, the same conference that centered on the plight of Syria’s fragmented opposition.
But when one takes stock of the litany of human rights abuses (including alleged torture and sexual assault on detainees) going on inside Bahrain, along with the fact that the proposal has not been picked up by major news outlets outside the country but rather is fanning out across state media, a sinister reality begins to take shape. Which is that the human rights “push” (such as it is) comes just as the government faces fresh scrutiny for hunger strikes and the harsh sentencing of pro-democracy activists arrested in 2011 when Arab Spring protests against the Sunni royalty first broke out. The Shiite majority has been shut out of political life under King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, but it remains energized and volatile, reconciliation talks having failed thus far to produce any meaningful concessions from either side.
Perhaps because of the presence of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in its waters, Bahrain has thus far seemed to steer clear of the same attention from multinational institutions that other Arab nations have enjoyed since the protest explosion began years ago. But opposition leaders must know that hunger strikes and decade-long prison sentences for democracy protesters are the kinds of public media flares that can change the game. Especially when the hunger strike by Zainab al-Khawaja in solidarity with her imprisoned father is getting prominent treatment in Western media. In the short-term, the harsh jail sentences are likely to isolate those mainstream Shiite political groups that were seeking some form of rapprochement with the monarchy. More aggressive, militant alternatives — perhaps coupled with some kind of Internet-based media campaign to counter the monarchy’s line — can be expected to take flight. Bahrain’s struggle for democratic reform may never be as attractive to Western journalists as that in Egypt or Tunisia, but the irony of an autocratic regime going to bat on behalf of the entire Arab World’s human dignity might help gin up some outrage.
Looking ahead, it’s difficult to envision the government’s steadfast refusal to share power with the opposition passing muster much longer. Unlike Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who at least shares ethnic and religious identity with his subjects (and has made incremental efforts to assuage their reformist dreams), Khalifa lacks any meaningful cultural connection — besides that rather passé concept of nationality — with those who are rising up around him. Saudi troops lent a hand as American forces watched passively last time the monarchy was truly threatened, and opposition groups have been ripped apart by security forces ever since. But that the government is even attempting to bill itself a human rights reformer speaks to the power of the Shiite majority rumbling beneath the surface, one the regime must be well-attuned to as it tries to maintain a grip on power.