By Andrew England in Cairo
14/01/2008 – 9:04 p | Hits: 14179
When George W. Bush became at the weekend the first US president to visit Bahrain, he was quick to compliment the small archipelago’s ruler.
King Hamad bin Issa was at the “forefront of providing hope for people through democracy” the president said, and was “showing the way forward for other nations”.
If Mr Bush had been speaking five or six years ago many Bahrainis might have agreed with him – after inheriting power in 1999, the monarch released political
prisoners, adopted a new constitution, reconstituted a bicameral arliament and has since held two elections for the lower house.
But when the American leader touched down in Bahrain during his Middle East tour, Bahrainis were still coming to terms with the death of a man involved in a
demonstration in December, with some blaming the state security forces.
Subsequent protests led to dozens being rounded up. Human rights workers say about 20 people remain in prison, some of them allegedly tortured and denied access to lawyers.
An interior ministry spokesman dismissed allegations that security forces
used excessive force, describing the protests as a “sabotage spree” and accusing demonstrators of attacking police with petrol bombs. The spokesman also rejected the torture claims and described those arrested as criminals.
But opposition politicians and activists say the episode shows that, rather
than being a model of progress, Bahrain is an example of the weakness of the type of democracy in some Middle Eastern states. They express the frustration felt by reformers throughout the region who argue the US administration has bolstered authoritarian regimes and weakened reform movements by reneging on earlier promises to push for greater democracy.
Bahrain is an important Washington ally, as it hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. It also boasts a reputation for being more liberal and open than its neighbours and is a big financial centre. But the events in December highlight underlying problems which critics say
the government has failed to address, including alleged discrimination against the Shia community, inequitable distribution of wealth, corruption and the slow pace of reform.
Bahrain stands out as the only Gulf nation with a Shia majority – Shia Muslims account for about 60 per cent of the population – but the state is ruled by a Sunni royal family.
“There was reform in 2001, significant reform, but then in 2002 it was put on the back seat. Actually, it’s not even on the back seat, it is in the trunk now,” says Ebrahim Sharif Al Sayed, secretary-general of the opposition National Democratic Action Society. “It’s what you call a decoration of a so-called
modern democratic state that meets that minimum required by the US president.”
Small protests, mainly by young, disaffected Shia – who tend to be the poorer
community – have been held sporadically for more than a year. These created cycles of arrests that triggered more demonstrations, but activists say security agents used greater force than usual.
As in other Gulf states, the Sunni-Shia violence in Iraq has exacerbated
sectarian tensions in Bahrain, which worsened amid allegations that the government had been giving citizenship to Sunni from other countries in a bid to change the state’s demographics.
A Shia Islamist movement won 17 seats in the 40-member parliament in last year’s election, but the assembly has limited powers. Shia also complain they
are excluded from many civil service jobs.
“The mother of the problem is the discrimination against the Shia. There’s a strong feeling among the Shia that they are not only marginalised but they are being squeezed so they have to leave the country,” says Nabeel Rajab,
vice-president of the banned Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. He describes Mr Bush’s remarks as “very disappointing”.
“I’m afraid the government will take it as support by the US government for
its internal policy and that for sure will weaken all the reformists and political and human rights activists.”