Thursday, 23 June 2016
For The Bahraini Regime The Only Way Out Is All In
Gambling terms are becoming increasingly appropriate in describing the policies of the Bahraini regime and the country’s ‘forgotten’ revolution, which kicked off in the early days of the so-called Arab Spring in February 2011.
More than five years on, the Al Khalifa monarchy in Manama is taking a page from the playbook of its patron, Saudi Arabia, and going all in.
A series of recent crackdowns on dissent culminated in the Bahraini regime revoking the citizenship of the tiny kingdom’s Shiite spiritual leader, Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim, accusing him of serving “foreign interests” and promoting “sectarianism and violence”.
Manama’s decision came only days after the monarchy suspended the country’s leading opposition grouping, Al Wefaq National Islamic Society, closing its offices and ordering its assets to be frozen. Al Wefaq’s political leader, Sheikh Ali Salman, is in prison and has recently had his jail term increased to nine years.
The re-arrest of prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, travel bans on activists planning to attend this month’s UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, and a new law barring religious leaders from membership in political societies are among the most recent efforts to further the extent of political repression.
Resigned Bahraini MP Jalal Fairooz says he is not surprised by Manama’s decision to revoke Sheikh Isa Qassim’s citizenship.
“I was expecting this. This is part of an ongoing crackdown against whatever is left of liberty in Bahrain,” he stressed.
“[The Bahraini regime] abducted Sheikh Ali Salman, and then they doubled his [prison] sentence, and then they came to Al Wefaq and they said you have to abandon Sheikh Ali Salman because he cannot be your leader. We said no. So they closed down Al Wefaq. They started escalating the situation by abducting people, like the prominent human rights figure Nabeel Rajab,” Fairooz added.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander, General Qassem Suleimani, is one of many to condemn the Bahraini regime over its move against Sheikh Qassim, telling Manama that it had crossed a “red line”.
“Al Khalifa will definitely pay the price for that and their bloodthirsty regime will be toppled,” warned the Iranian commander.
Several governments and rights organizations worldwide echoed a similar sentiment.
An exiled opposition group, the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy [BIRD] warned that the decision would stoke unrest, adding that it may, “even lead to violence, as targeting the country’s leading Shiite cleric is considered… a red line for many Bahrainis.”
Even Al Khalifa’s allies in Washington said that they were “alarmed” by the move.
But the monarchy in Manama is looking to raise the stakes.
According to the head of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, Massoud Shadjareh, “the Bahraini regime did not need the people to tell them that this was a red line – they already knew this was a red line and in crossing it, the regime is basically giving a signal that they have no intention whatsoever to find a solution for the crisis in Bahrain… The latest episode signals that the regime is not looking for a solution; instead, they are moving towards further complications.”
While attempting to portray a bolstered regime no longer interested in entertaining serious reform, the latest maneuvers are actually further evidence of Manama’s increasing vulnerability.
Aside from the Shiite-led protest movement, a fiscal crisis resulting from low oil prices has forced Bahrainis to endure cost-cutting measures that are responsible for dramatic increases in the prices of basic goods.
By the end of 2017, Bahrain’s debt is expected to reach 65% of its GDP. The country needs an oil price of US$ 120 per barrel to balance its books. The price of crude currently stands at just under US$ 50.
Meanwhile, Manama is promising additional fiscal tightening in line with a GCC-wide value-added tax.
The economic hardship runs the risk of uniting Bahrainis against the government while threatening the Manama/Riyadh sectarian narrative used to discredit Bahrain’s revolution as a Shiite-dominated, Iran-backed affair.
“The reality is that the situation in Bahrain is getting much worse. The situation of ordinary Bahrainis – not just the Shiite community – but of all Bahrainis, is getting worse,” Shadjareh said.
In Saudi Arabia, the birth of a similar economic crisis was followed by the execution of the kingdom’s most prominent Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
Shadjareh thinks that, “the Khalifa family and their backers in the region are getting ready to push ordinary Bahrainis into escalating the conflict. Over the last few weeks and months, we have seen repeated and systematic escalatory measures by the establishment aimed at fueling the conflict.”
On Monday, anti-government protesters took to the streets to vent their anger following Manama’s move against Sheikh Qassim. Some of the protesters wore white funeral shrouds to demonstrate their willingness to die for their cause.
Bahraini and Saudi security forces deployed in force.
Jalal Fairooz believes that the sidelining of figures like Sheikh Ali Salman and Sheikh Isa Qassem is a recipe for violence.
“Over the past few years, they have adopted very harsh and terrifying measures against the Bahrainis, from torturing people, to death in prisons, to revoking citizenships… But all of that did not turn the protesters to violence because there were very wise people like Sheikh Ali Salman and Sheikh Isa Qassem, who said no to violence. Now we are seeing further provocations. The Bahraini and Saudi armies took up positions around the area where Sheikh Isa Qassem lives, where tens of thousands of people have been pouring in to protest. The situation is very volatile. Anything can happen, there might be bloodshed because Sheikh Isa Qassem is not a political figure – he is a religious figure,” Fairooz said.
The stakes are high for every player sitting at the table. In a region plunged into chaos over global and regional geopolitical aspirations, Bahrain is a petri dish, housing the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, UK and Saudi military installations, Daesh sympathizers and an increasingly disillusioned populace frustrated with the brutality and incompetence of an outdated form of governance.
And as the Al Khalifa monarchy pushes all of its chips into the middle, the stage is being set for more oppression and inevitably, more bloodshed.
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