Matar Ebrahim Matar

Bahrain, an absolute monarchy and a US-designated major no-NATO ally (MMNA), is nonetheless considered by the US government to be a constitutional monarchy – a form of a democratic state – despite the reality that King Hamad bin Isa Al Kalifa holds complete power. He appoints the executive cabinet, with more than 40 percent of its members coming directly from his family, placing Bahrain among the most extreme cases of oligarchy in the Persian Gulf and around the world. Pro-democracy movements, including al-Wefaq, the main Shia opposition party, consider the election an obvious whitewash and decided to boycott.

The Obama Administration’s position towards Bahrain is strikingly inconsistent with its rhetoric with respect to the upheaval in, say, Ukraine. There, President Obama described a people who “rejected a government that was stealing from the people instead of serving them.” In the case of Bahrain, however, the US administration somehow wasn’t disappointed when King Hamad reappointed his uncle, Khalifah ibn Sulman al-Khalifah, as prime minister, an office he has held since 1971 (he is the only prime minister Bahrain has had since independence).

But, somehow, the Obama Administration was disappointed in the Bahraini political groups deciding to boycott the election.

“The United States congratulates the Kingdom of Bahrain on the conclusion of its 2014 parliamentary and municipal elections,” writes the State Department in a statement posted to its website. “Although the elections did not enjoy participation by the full spectrum of Bahrain’s mainstream political societies, the elections provided an important opportunity to address the legitimate aspirations of all Bahrainis.”

When the people of Bahrain rose up in the name of dignity in 2011 and called for real elections – for a government that actually represented the people – Bahraini forces, backed by the Peninsula Shield Force of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), crushed the uprising, despite the fact that it was described as peaceful by 13 international organizations including Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights and Human Rights First. In fact, the uprising in Bahrain, in proportion to the size of the country, was described by Human Rights Watch as “the largest of the Arab Spring and included a broad cross-section of society.” It was met by the Bahraini regime with systematic widespread torture, lethal and excessive use of force and the mass sacking of workers from their jobs.

Yet when the regime began the crackdown, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on “all sides for common restraint.” Such a symmetric statement for asymmetric struggle wasn’t helpful, but the US administration is consistent on this approach. While it is obvious that King Hamad, who controls the state’s wealth and power, believes that he can manage dissent without compromise, the US consistently repeats the same tired lines, calling on Bahrain’s constituencies to work “in good faith.”   

One of the primary strategies used by the regime to maintain power is by playing on sectarian differences, running an ongoing campaign to spread fear among the Sunni minority by portraying the Shia majority as agents of Iran laying in wait for its moment to violently retaliate for decades of marginalization. After the crackdown in 2011, the regime expanded its policy of discrimination against Bahraini Shia, and the gerrymandering in the current election was part of this agenda. The strategy was to scatter the voices of Shia in constituencies with the majority of voters under the regime’s influence. Meanwhile, the discrimination policies favor Sunnis in hiring for public sector jobs, positions in the security forces and the military, making them indebted to a government providing their income and job security. In a small country like Bahrain, such control over public workers and their families places a major part of the electorate within a system of regime blackmail.

Yet another kind of blackmail occurs with the “new Bahrainis.” The King retains the exception to grant citizenship to any foreigner without any criteria or regulation. The King uses this right in a systematic way to change the demography of the country within the broader plan of marginalizing the Shia majority (and even the indigenous Sunnis). Since King Hamad came to power, he has naturalized about one fifth of the current population. These new Bahrainis feel vulnerable and expect to be the first scapegoats in any political resolution that dilutes the regime’s power. They are excluded from high official positions, such that they always need to prove their loyalty to the regime.

Moderate Sunni are another target for marginalization. For example, Ebrahim Sharif, a Sunni political prisoner who is the leader of the secular party Waad, was running for election in 2010 in a constituency which was deliberately expanded to include voters under the regime influence, and thus to avoid any secular Sunni voice calling for change to reach the parliament. 

In 2010, when I was elected to Parliament, I represented a constituency with more than 15,000 voters, while another loyalist constituency had only 700 voters. When the opposition decided to boycott the election this time, the turnout was very low. In my constituency, I got 47 percent of all eligible votes in 2010, while the winner this time got only 4 percent. Such is the “legitimacy” of the current elections, yet in its recent statement, the US State Department said “the elections provided an important opportunity to address the legitimate aspirations of all Bahrainis.”

The US government keeps praising initiatives employed by the regime merely to buy time and for public relations consumption, ignoring not only abuses of power on the part of the regime, but also systematic procrastination designed to undermine each promise. The US government welcomed the announcement of a “national dialogue” in 2011, even as the government of Bahrain failed to show any rea intention of compromising. These US policies broke trust and undermined US advice to the opposition to participate in fake initiatives, as if the opposition’s goal is to merely be consumed in endless processes without the hope of real change on the horizon.

When it comes to Bahrain, the question is not about whether the US should or shouldn’t interfere. With is the powerful American 5th Fleet stationed in Bahrain, the US is already involved. The current US military relationship with Bahrain has had a negative impact on the democratization process in Bahrain, and that is not just the opinion of the opposition. Using recently declassified documents, Amy Austin Holmes, assistant professor of sociology at The American University in Cairo, demonstrates that “US officials gave precedence to maintaining basing access over supporting the parliament, and hence were complicit in the de-democratization of Bahrain.” Ironically, the most extreme elements of the ruling family are reaping the benefit of this relationship, including Khalifa bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, who belong to Al Khawalid, the most sectarian branch of the ruling family.

The US government, at least rhetorically, considers itself as having an important role in the struggle for democratization in Bahrain, and surely that’s true. The US obligation to Bahrain should be more about action than words, and the US might well have started by avoiding an investment in a sham process called elections.

Matar Ebrahim Matar is a Bahraini opposition leader, one of 18 members of the al-Wefaq political party who resigned from parliament in February 2011 to protest the Sunni regime’s crackdown on predominantly Shiite protesters. The then-35-year-old father of two young children, who worked openly out of his party’s headquarters, was arrested late at night later that Spring by masked members of the government’s security forces – pulled from his car in front of his wife – and spent 98 days in prison without a trial, 45 of them in solitary confinement (Matar’s mistreatment was profiled in an op-ed in The Washington Post co-authored by Warscapes editor Michael Bronner). At risk in Bahrian, Matar is currently in exile in the United States. A member of the National Endowment for Democracy’s Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellowship Program, he is also a winner of the “Leaders for Democracy Award” from the Project on Middle Democracy (POMED) and testified before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the US Congress.