There has been a lot of fuss about Bahrain, especially this week as the Formula One race approaches. But are events in Bahrain really a popular revolution or a sectarian rift similar to many others in the region?
What is undeniable is the genuine demands for reform and for widening the scope of political participation. Bahrain is, relatively, one of the best states amongst 20 Arab countries, in terms of political rights, freedom and political participation, which makes critics of Bahrain’s authorities victims of their lack of knowledge in the state’s issues, mainly when comparing it to the rest of the region.
Here is an attempt to summarize the subject based on the following facts:
• Reforms actually began in Bahrain in 2002, when the stage for political participation was developed and then expanded, particularly with the decision to abolish the State Security Law, which contributed to improving human rights conditions in Bahrain. Women were, for the first time in the history of Bahrain, granted the right to run for public office.
• Bahrain is the only country in the Gulf region that has no oil resources, or any other important natural resource. The country survives by offering services to the neighboring oil markets.
• Despite the poverty in Bahrain, the country offers one of the best free education services in the region.
• Bahrain is considered to have one of the best political participation systems in the region, where the parliament is elected, and about half of it is from the opposition.
• In Bahrain, the media may not be completely free, but it fares better than the media in neighboring Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other nations. In addition to that, Bahrain tolerates the establishment of political organizations, human rights and civil society associations, and allows people to gather and protest. It is worth mentioning that the number of civil society organizations increased from 275 in 2002 to 452 organizations in 2010. Most other countries in the region prohibit political and student associations.
• Bahrain is one the most liberal Arab countries and the most advanced in terms of women’s issues. The government granted the right for women to work and to participate in the government as ministers. Women in Bahrain work side by side with men whether in the public or the private sector. The government does not impose any restrictions on women’s attires, such as wearing the veil.
The events that began last year on February 14 and lasted till end of March, were triggered by young people in Bahrain demanding political and economic reforms, but it soon transformed into a religious-led group of Islamic extremists and spiraled into a vicious circle of violence which led to 35 deaths in the period from February 14 to April 15. Most of the people killed were demonstrators, as were five policemen and four foreign workers who were victims of the violence. The numbers might appear small compared to 50,000 people killed in Libya or more than 10,000 in Syria. An International Commission of Investigation reported that the police in Bahrain dealt with the situation with discipline, despite the use of Molotov cocktails by some protesters, while others are reported to have run over policemen in their cars.
Although the events in Bahrain started as a youth movement asking for reforms, the fact remains that it was later appropriated by religious groups and soon enough, clashes erupted between some residents of Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods, and violent incidents took place on March 13, 2011 on the campus of the University of Bahrain between students from the two communities.
Acts of violence and abuse were also reported against dozens of expatriate workers, most of them from South Asia, which led to the death of several of them. The security situation in Bahrain has deteriorated, where residents in many areas have set up checkpoints to stop people from entering, on the basis of sectarian identity. Religious groups have also stoked the situation by issuing fiery statements.
Bahrain has a long way ahead in matters of reforms, but one must admit that the country is a victim of poor publicity created by sectarian groups, some human rights organizations that have not dealt justly and fairly with the situation and the western media that does not understand the difference between countries in the region and treat them all the same in their approach to events.
Bahrain is considered to be more advanced ─ be it politically, socially or in terms of women’s rights ─ and cannot be compared to countries like Saudi Arabia or Qatar, that are rich and conservative, or Yemen or Sudan, where human rights are practically absent.