Sunday, November 27, 2011

Bahrain: All the King’s Men

By William Fisher

With conflict wracking larger and more influential countries like Egypt and Syria, last week’s developments in Bahrain might well get pushed to the bottom of the world’s news budget or ignored altogether.

But that would be shameful and shortsighted.

Because what happened in the tiny Gulf kingdom last week is truly remarkable. A reigning monarch commissioned a report that was devastating in its condemnation of his regime – and the King accepted it and vowed to implement its recommendations.

Skeptics are saying talk is cheap – follow the feet. And where the Middle East is concerned, a healthy dollop of skepticism is always welcome.

Especially because the report to King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa left no room for doubt as to who was responsible for widespread death and destruction: All the King’s Men. All the King’s Men are Sunni Muslims. The vast majority of Bahrain’s people are Shia Muslims. The Royal Commission found this situation to be central to the conflict. (The King disagreed.)

The commission, headed by Egyptian judge Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni, also found "systemic use" of “physical and psychological mistreatment, which in many cases amounted to torture, with respect to a large number of detainees" held in detention by the authorities.

The Guardian newspaper reports that the commission also demolished a key government claim, stating baldly that it found no "discernible link" between specific incidents in Bahrain and Iran — a charge heard repeatedly.

Bassiouni's team also found that some mosques and prayer houses that were destroyed by the government had no building permits. However, the report says, "The government should have realized that … the timing [and] the manner in which demolitions were conducted and the fact that these were primarily Shia … would be perceived as a collective punishment and … inflame the tension between the government and the Shia population".

The report also confirmed that hundreds of students were dismissed from university after being photographed demonstrating. And more than 1,600 people say they were dismissed or suspended from their jobs. It added that Shia employees were often treated differently from non-Shia, "creating a reasonable presumption that many were subjected to discrimination."

Maybe, in accepting the report and promising reforms, the Royal Family is simply trying to mollify its subjects. But window dressing is not going to impress the opposition. Just a whiff of insincerity in the dialogue the King says he wants and the people will be out in the street once more.

Correcting the abuses committed by the security forces will not be easy, but it is not impossible. The King needs to replace the people in charge of the security services. He must resist appointing someone who is a member of the Royal Family. The entire culture of the security forces must be changed. It must be fair. It must respect the rule of law. It must abandon torture. And it must be inclusive of Bahrain’s Shia majority. And King Hamad and his people need to recognize his people’s inherent right to peacefully protest. That’s a very tall order, but it is doable over time.

Much less certain is whether the pervasive discrimination felt by the Shia population can be reversed. The Shia majority complains of being zeroed out of competition for top jobs in both the public and private sectors and discriminated against in housing, finance and the country’s social life. They say this discrimination has existed for many years and has become firmly embedded in Bahraini culture, thus even more difficult to correct.

But unless the majority begins to see concrete signs that the King is at least trying to effect this transformation, we can expect more divisiveness and conflict, death and destruction.

King Hamad has a tough job ahead. But he has also an enormous opportunity. Pray that he takes it.

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