Even as many people across the world celebrate Valentine’s Day, the Bahraini opposition is acknowledging the two year anniversary of the February 14th movement against the ruling Al-Khalifa family and the Sunni government elites that began as part of the wave of Arab Spring protests in 2011. The Bahraini regime has repressively and violently responded to the ongoing protests for the last two years, prompting outcry from prominent human rights organizations like Amnesty International. Today, a 16 year old boy, Hussam Al-Haddad, is among 50 other alleged casualties after a pro-Palestinian rally was fired upon by the interior ministry.
Bahraini security forces say they were merely "following procedures" and called Al-Haddad a "terrorist."
The February 14th movement actually began as a demand to return to a constitutional monarchy under the guidelines of the now defunct 1973 constitution. This constitution did not last long, as Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al-Khalifa abolished the National Assembly in 1975 over its refusal to pass the autocratic State Security Law of 1974.
When current ruler Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa succeeded his father as Emir in 1999, he made several conciliatory gestures by reinstating the National Assembly under the National Action Charter but proceeded to declare himself a king on February 14, 2002 and put the National Assembly under the control of a 40 person Shura Council which he appoints himself.
The Shura Council, alongside the overrepresentation of predominantly Sunni areas and underrepresentation of Shi’a communities in the National Assembly, has made it virtually impossible for the marginalized Shi’a majority to advocate for their social, economic and political rights. Thus, when the Arab Spring came to Bahrain, it was fitting that the protests initially began on the 10th anniversary of King Hamad’s institution of the Shura Council over the National Assembly.
Bahrain’s Sunni-dominated government has tried to frame the protesters as Iranian-backed terrorists, but the fact of the matter is that this is not a simple Sunni vs. Shi’a sectarian conflict, even if Bahraini and certain international media outlets try to frame it that way. Despite the fact that Bahrain’s population is 70% Shi’a, only 13% of Shi’as hold high level government appointments. Bahraini Shia’as are economically and politically marginalized throughout the country. One has to look no further than at the wealth disparity between Sunni dominated urban areas, like Manama, and Shi’a dominated rural areas.
In contrast to its staunch support for rebels in places like Libya and Syria, where the regimes were and are unfriendly to the U.S., the Obama administration has taken absolutely no action on the now two-year-old humanitarian crisis in Bahrain. One of the chief reasons for this is because the al-Khalifa regime allows the U.S. to station the Navy’s Fifth Fleet in his country. The Fifth Fleet is responsible for all U.S. naval operations throughout the Gulf and the broader Middle East. The U.S. military-industrial complex views the fleet as a necessary tool in the U.S.-Israeli cold war with Iran. This is why the Obama administration authorized a $580 million, five-year project to double the size of the Fifth Fleet’s base in 2010.
In addition, the Obama administration likely fears a Shi’a dominated government in Bahrain, which U.S. government officials believe would push the country towards closer ties with Iran. Ironically, many Bahrani Shi’a opposition leaders have called on Iran to stay out of Bahrain’s affairs, and instead called on the U.S. to show greater support.
The Shia’a opposition fears that Iran could drag their country in a proxy war with its Gulf Arab rivals, and this has indeed already happened to a certain extent. The Al-Khalifa regime has enlisted the support of neighboring Gulf regimes, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to help crush the protests. The Obama administration tacitly endorsed the deployment of Saudi and Emirati military personnel into Bahrain by stating that the Al-Khalifa regime had a right to invite them into his country, making no acknowledgement or condemnation of their oppressive behavior, merely requesting that both sides "exercise restraint."
The Obama administration’s empowerment of the Bahrani regime extended from tacit consent to overt support when they unilaterally chose to sell them weapons. When Congress refused to authorize the sale, the State Department used a loophole where they lowered the price and quantity of the sale to avoid Congressional authorization and a formal notification to the American public.
Despite U.S. inaction in Bahrain, government officials and opposition forces have recently begun a round of reconciliation talks. A similar attempt at talks failed in 2011 when the opposition withdrew due to a one-sided negotiation process. As the Bahraini government continues to crack down on, assault, and outright murder peaceful protesters, it seems that the current round of talks don’t hold much promise either.