Since its start, the democracy movement in Bahrain has been the most inconvenient uprising in the Arab World for the United States. The United States saturates its political discourse with idealism and notions of American exceptionalism, yet when confronted with the island Kingdom of Bahrain, the United States is reduced to a mere cynical world actor that readily accommodates a monarchy over the many of tens of thousands of Bahrainis who are demanding the democracy the U.S. allegedly exports.
The United States can claim the distinction as the superpower that not only arms the brutal regime in Bahrain, but which also arms neighboring Gulf states which invaded Bahrain in order to participate in the crackdown. These are very inconvenient facts we must bring up as Bahrain continues to be normalized by the U.S. and the international community, a normalization that is illustrated by the Formula 1 event underway in the country.
The regime in Bahrain has vocally defended the Formula 1 race as a sporting event entirely unrelated to the political turmoil affecting the country. This comes as no surprise. No one counted on the regime to pass up a racing spectacle to distract itself from the bloodshed caused by its security forces in the poor and neglected villages on the outskirts of the capital. The difficulty with the Formula 1 race rests in the inability of the West to address its role in the ongoing repression in Bahrain.
The tear gas powering this weekend’s Formula 1 event was fired last week as it will surely be fired a week from now. The international film crews may disperse alongside the race car drivers but the diplomatic and military support offered by the West to Bahrain is a permanent fixture on the calender. The West simply can’t confuse itself as a neutral actor merely trying to decide if the race is in bad taste. Having intervened on behalf of the regime and at the expense of the Bahraini people, the West has no standing to condemn the Khalifa ruling family.
The protests by Bahrainis against F1 will rightly turn myself and many others away from the television broadcast, but will we be stirred next week when the protests dwell less on our sporting event and more on our teargas shipments? It’s a much easier task to question Bahraini and F1 officials about the appropriateness of the event, it’s far more difficult to question the appropriateness of our own conduct. The race is a travesty but F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone can’t drown out Bahrain’s cries for democracy with his race cars, nor can he be scapegoated for all the accumulated sins of Western powers.
I came across this stunning video out of Bahrain, purportedly showing a faction of regime opponents effectively besieging a compound belonging to security forces:
This follows weeks of protests, attacks by security forces, and mass funerals for demonstrators who’ve been killed. With the anniversary of the peaceful uprising last February just days away, the regime is restricting access to the country, preventing Western journalists and even Al Jazeera from drawing attention to calls for democracy unheeded by those clinging to power.
Without a doubt, supporters of the regime will seize on the video I posted above as evidence of a violent plot within the country -advocates of despotism long disregarded originality. But the stones and molotov cocktails now being thrown by a segment of regime opponents can’t be equated with the violence of the regime, let alone used as justification for regime violence. The regime has full responsibility for security forces they employ, thereby having the ability to discipline and fire. Yet, security forces continue to inflict regular brutality on citizens. The broad opposition, however, has no such mechanisms or uniformity as the regime. After dozens of deaths at the hands of security forces, broken promises to reform and end abuses, the path to avoid greater unrest in Bahrain is by transitioning to democracy. This is a reality the regime will seek to obscure with a media blackout and more clouds of teargas.
It’s been a long struggle for Bahrainis. February’s mass demonstrations in favor of democracy, and the violent repression by the regime of those protests, are nearly a year old. Since then, there’s been a commission investigating abuses of human rights, and positioning by the regime to prosecute a few purported bad apples in the security forces. But today, the last day of the year, we saw the following on the streets of Bahrain:
According to the opposition, a sixteen year old boy was killed by security forces during today’s clashes. It’s the continuation of protest and crackdown that has recently escalated following the commission of inquiry that failed to deliver any measurable amount of reform to a regime whose willingness to kill may prove its unwillingness to reform. The violence from the protesters today, notably evident in the clips above and which contrast from months of peaceful protests and civil disobedience, suggests a population exhausted with a regime trying to delay but ultimately avoid reform. The regime has not opened any political space to be filled by ordinary Bahrainis, so it’d be natural for Bahrainis to have no space for the regime in a democratic and free Bahrain of the future.