Bahrain and the Arab Spring

Speech given at today’s rally for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain:

I am out here today because I stand with the people of Bahrain against their corrupt and vicious monarchy, because I stand in solidarity with the people who are protesting throughout the Arab world (in Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Lebanon and on and on), and because I believe that these protests are in direct response to policies that the US has pursued throughout the 1970s until today, the most horrible examples of which have been the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the undeclared war in Pakistan.

But the protests that have broken out in Bahrain in the past five months, did not come out of the blue. They are part of a long process of economic change and struggle that has been developing in Bahrain and has followed a similar pattern to economic and political processes throughout the Arab world, where in order to control the wealth of the country, the leadership of those countries exercised increasing amounts of state power and violence and restricted democracy by choking the life out of it – all while the US encouraged it.

In order to maintain its economy, the ruling class in Bahrain has done two things. One is to create two pools of low-wage workers and pit them against each other –this keeps the capitalists happy and the workers at war with each other. Starting in the 1970s, Bahrain began importing workers (more Sunni than Shi’a) into Bahrain from Pakistan, Syria, Yemen and Iraq in order to run basic industries and services. These immigrants are then put at the head of the list for jobs, education, and housing, while Bahraini Shi’a are often left to fend for themselves, creating a deep sense of injustice in the population. The immigrants are themselves exploited but they depend on the state for their jobs, so they often side with the state. Shi’a on the other hand are not only kept out of the economy, they are discriminated against politically, and the official sentiment in Bahrain is that all Shi’i are agents of Iran in Bahrain.

These divisions are new, and based on the strategic plan of the Bahraini monarchy to divide and conquer their population. In the 60s and 70s, for instance, there was quite a bit of intermarriage and integration in Bahraini society – there is much less so now. But this is on the backs of pursuing a massive neoliberal program in order to make Bahrain open for business — the second important feature of the Bahraini ruling class’s economic strategy. Bahrain is the only country in the Gulf to have signed a Free Trade Agreement with the US. The result has been massive inequality in the region: desperate poverty and homelessness in parts of the country despite being awash in oil wealth.

Bahrain has a long history of social protests, especially over housing and jobs, because despite being an oil-rich country, Bahrain survives on a deep economic inequality that is often expressed along sectarian lines. The Shi’i majority by and large are substantially worse off. Not only economically, but also politically – despite being the majority in the country they are outnumbered in the Parliament and completely barred from the security forces, which consist of mostly Pakistani and other Arab nationals. The idea in Bahrain is that no Shiite should have a gun.

Starting in February, the people of Bahrain have been protesting for greater democracy in Bahrain. Signs called for more democracy and said things like “not Sunni, not Shi’a, we are all Bahrainis.” The protests gathered in the Pearl roundabout in Manama and were beginning to turn into Tahrir Square, when the Bahraini government declared martial law in March and allowed the Saudi national guard to enter the country and begin a massive crackdown on protesters. Doctors and nurses who were treating protesters have been arrested and are now being subject to military tribunals. It has meant an intensification of torture, secret trials, demolition of Shia mosques, and repression against human rights activists, labor, lawyers, students, political figures, and others.

The US media has not covered any of this. They have made the problem out to be one of sectarian violence or of Iranian meddling. Or they’ve talked about how the US is working patiently to help the Bahraini protesters. Don’t believe it. We have every reason to believe that the US has given the Bahraini government as well as the Saudi government the green light to continue their attacks on protesters. Barack Obama spoke out about the violent crackdown against the Bahraini protesters back in May, but last Tuesday, Bahrain’s crown prince, Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa meet with Obama and Hillary Clinton. The Crown Prince says he is open to dialogue about national reconciliation in Bahrain, but this is utter nonsense as the entirety of the leadership of the opposition and many key activists are all sitting in jail, many awaiting illegal military trials.

When the media isn’t covering this nonsense, it is covering the formula one race. It’s very sad when the FIA, the organization which hosts the Formula One Grand Prix has better politics than most western governments. They agreed to cancel the race in Bahrain because of the crackdown on protesters and the instability in the country – which is a whole lot better than the US.

But because of its small size and relative weakness, the Bahraini government has allied itself to the Saudi government, itself no friend of democracy or human rights, but it must be added, good friend to the Americans. And Saudi Arabia has helped in the crackdown viciously, by sending in its own national guard to help the Bahraini government stay in power.

I think that it’s time that activists in this country stand up and say that US foreign policy has been an agent of much violence in the world and little good. Lupe Fiasco was not that far off when he called Obama a terrorist. The hypocritical support for the Gulf regime and the cynical backing of some of the worst forces in Libya (like the National Transitional Council) against Qaddafi, a man they sold weapons to for decades.  It must be added that Saudi Arabia’s support for the No Fly Zone over Libya was only secured by giving the Saudis a free hand to crush protests in Yemen and Bahrain.  And the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have all demonstrated over and again that the US is not interested in improving the lives of ordinary people in the region – it is only interested in the welfare of the rich corporations that do business here and over there.

The only thing that can help the Bahraini people will be the active solidarity that they get from activists in the US and from the successful completion of the revolutions of the Arab Spring. Their liberation won’t come from Saudi Arabia, it won’t come from the 5th Fleet, it won’t come from Iran. Their liberation and the liberation of all Arab peoples depends on activists in this country putting an end to the meddlesome and destructive foreign policy of the United States.


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