In this New York Times op-ed, Bahraini human-rights activist Zainab Al-Khawaja makes a powerful case that the US cannot simply overlook the repression taking place in this small Gulf state with which we are closely allied. She has personal credibility because of what she and her family have been through. She writes:
My father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, was beaten unconscious in my apartment in front of my family, as a report last year by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry documented. He was then taken away with my husband and brother-in-law; they were all tortured.
My husband was released in January, and my brother-in-law was released after a six-month sentence in late 2011; my father was sentenced to life in prison. He staged four hunger strikes; the longest lasted 110 days and almost cost him his life. (He was force-fed at a military hospital.)
She herself was arrested and jailed earlier this month, charged with the “crime” of inciting hatred against the government.
Yet, as she notes, U.S. protests over such clear violations of human rights have been negligible. This is understandable, because Bahrain is the home of the Fifth Fleet and a close military ally. There are also fears that the Bahraini opposition, mainly Shiite in a country ruled by a Sunni royal family, is a stalking horse for Iranian influence. That, at any rate, is what the Bahrain government would like us to believe; but from everything I saw during a brief visit to Bahrain earlier this year, most of the opposition, while undeniably Shiite, is fairly moderate and not interested in creating an Iranian-style theocracy. Ironically what is most likely to drive them into Iran’s arms is if the Bahrain government continues its policy of repression in cooperation with the Saudis.
It is hard for the U.S. to apply pressure to Bahrain by cutting off arms sales (as Zainab Al-Khawaja suggests) or at least making them conditional on human-rights improvements. But it is also a step we need to seriously consider, lest we repeat the mistake we made with Egypt where we gave unconditional backing to another pro-American dictator, acting under the illusion that he could stave off the people’s demands indefinitely. He couldn’t, and, because we didn’t press Mubarak for reform, instead we got a revolution.
That would be the worst possible outcome in Bahrain. Instead, we need to push for the royal family to turn their country into a constitutional monarchy, reserving some power over the armed forces while ceding most authority to the people’s elected representatives. That is the only long-term formula for stability in Bahrain and indeed throughout the Gulf.