Bahrain's Regime Talks Softly While Bringing the Big Guns In
The international community is taking weeks to decide whether to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. Meanwhile, in the eerie quiet of a Bahraini afternoon a deployment of 1,000 soldiers from the Saudi Arabia who are part of the Pensinsula Shield Force entered the country.
Bahrain TV proudly aired clips showing cheering Saudi soldiers in their tanks and armoured personnel carriers as they rolled across the 16-mile causeway between the two countries. Tellingly, a man at the parapet of a tank sits behind his machine gun waving a peace sign at the camera. This is a snapshot of the regime's current strategy, smile sweetly and say peace for the cameras – and bring in the big guns.
While pro-government commentators allege Iranian support of the current uprising, US defence secretary Robert Gates, who visited Bahrain on March 12, said there is no evidence of interference from Tehran. Unsurprisingly though, the White House issued a statement on Monday saying it does not consider the entry of Saudi troops on to Bahraini land an invasion.
Since the beginning of this uprising – which calls for constitutional reform, an investigation into theft of public land worth billions of dollars, and an end to systematic discrimination, among other things – the regime has implemented a soft-talk big-stick strategy. Its security personnel killed two protesters, and the king appeared on national television to speak of his regret, promising an independent investigation to hold those responsible accountable. Two days later, government security personnel stormed the encampment of protesters at the now-famous Pearl roundabout, killing four more. Later the same day, the crown prince appeared on TV urging calm, while the Bahraini army opened fire on unarmed demonstrators, killing another two.
The government then said it was open to dialogue with protesters (who are understandably sceptical). Distrust of the government emerges from a history of state oppression and reneged promises much longer than this long month of protest in Bahrain.
Our mothers and fathers, teachers, lawyers, activists and unionists were among the people of Bahrain who expressed their social and political grievances and desires for change in 1954, 1965, 1972, 1994, and 2002. The response of the government has always been the same: unleashing violence against calls for meaningful change, exaggerating the superficial self-imposed changes which include little concession towards sharing of power, and turning to its powerful friends for backing.
Sure enough, almost immediately after announcing the invitation to dialogue, top figures in the government held talks with their counterparts in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the US, and the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC). In 1965 the British RAF helped the regime oppress its population; today that dishonour belongs to Saudi Arabia and other GCC states.
Almost as disturbing as the military intervention is the government and its supporters' incitement to sectarian violence, and the use of baltajiyya (armed thugs), which has already led to violent attacks among civilians. Since Friday, when protesters marched towards the Royal Court in Riffa (an upscale area also inhabited mainly by members of the royal family) the regime has allowed mob rule to proliferate in the country. Many pro-government supporters and baltajiyya were photographed at the rally, and at subsequent clashes between civilians. In broad daylight with the silent approval of security personnel milling around them, these masked thugs are carrying makeshift weapons including large planks of wood and swords.
To generate support for the deployment of GCC troops – and protect the international reputation that it cares about so much more than its own people – the Bahraini government appears to have begun a media campaign that walks a dangerously thin line between representing the government as a beleaguered advocate of restoring of peace and order and inciting sectarian hatred.
After a day of clashes between civilians and the riot police's use of excessive force against unarmed protesters and the high number of casualties on Sunday, Crown Prince Shaikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa issued a statement that spoke again about dialogue, but finished with a warning that "the right of security and safety is above all considerations".
The mouthpiece of the regime, Bahrain TV, spent the day running incendiary, selective and factually skewed coverage of the day's events, portraying protesters as violent thugs, with a caller asking for GCC intervention to "protect" Bahrainis from protesters.
Presumably to impress an international audience, protesters are now being described as "terrorists", "gangsters" and "foreign elements" among government officials and loyalists on web forums.
Bahrain TV is also providing a platform for extreme voices among government loyalists, with one caller reportedly offering demonstrators a "return to the days of Saddam, how he [Saddam] dealt with his Shia population". It is worth mentioning that although the Shia make up the majority of protesters because they are the majority of the population and the majority of the disenfranchised have-nots, this is not a "Shia uprising". Amid all this hype, the government emerges as a moderate party, giving it licence to continue its anything-but-moderate practices of violence and suppression of dissent.
But for all the talk and big tanks, the regime's strategy has one major failing; its stubborn myopia. The Bahraini youth it criminalises with false talk and disingenuous action are not terrorists: they are educated, open-minded children of a time in which information is free.
They do not want sweet words, they do not want foreign military intervention, nor a system of Makramah and privileges. What they want is what they know they were born with: rights. And the Bahraini regime would do well to rethink its strategy of good PR and bad policies, because for now the voices of their youthful opposition resonate louder than the rumble of foreign tanks destroying Bahrain's sovereignty and threatening the lives of Bahraini dissenters, because it seems they too have said "kefaya" – enough.
© 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited