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Bahrain: forgotten member of the Arab Spring

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In 2011, Bahrain saw mass protests and an uprising that threatened to topple its oppressive monarchy - as did the many other nations witnessing an 'Arab Spring'.

Back in the present day, the government survives - its human rights record shady as ever - and the protesters are still fighting.

Prominent Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab was recently sentenced to three years in prison for participating in illegal gatherings, reigniting fears about the Bahraini government’s supposed commitment to reform.

Protests in Bahrain have been ongoing for eighteen months. The unrest that began in 2011 made headlines because the country is a former British protectorate and remains a key US ally in the Middle East against countries like Iran.

The country has been ruled by the Khalifa family since 1783, only becoming independent thirty years ago. Since then it has been relatively stable and prosperous, benefitting from vast oil reserves within its borders.

In February of last year though, protesters exploded in anger at what they deem a lack of political freedom, widespread poverty, and employment discrimination favouring the ruling Sunni minority. Bahrain consists mostly of Shia Muslims, like its neighbour Iran; Bahrain’s King, Hamad bin al-Khalifa, has said these protests are being orchestrated by Iran’s leaders.

Pro-democracy opposition to Khalifa rule initially centred on wide-ranging reforms, rather than regime change as in other Gulf states during last year’s Arab Spring. Nevertheless, the government response was forceful.

A state of emergency was declared and government troops brutally clamped down on opposition in an effort described by the UN as “shocking”, as the ruling family feared a coup. Protesters faced tear gas and rubber bullets, leading many formerly peaceful activists to push for an overthrow of the monarchy.

Opposition groups claim more than 70 people have died in the uprising against the Bahraini government. A report authorised by the government itself has described the armed reaction to the uprising as “disproportionate and indiscriminate” and records instances of torture.

Despite promises by King Hamad to reform his political institutions and grant his people greater freedoms, progress has been painstakingly slow. Tensions have not dissolved, as the debacle preceding this year’s Bahrain Grand prix showed.

Protesters continue to march – some in favour of regime change, most supporting democracy or significant political reform of some kind. Meanwhile, King Hamad remains in power, head of a monarchical state that operates in much the same way as it did before the uprising.

Western support for Bahraini protesters has been noticeably lacking. The coalition government has taken action to help rebels in Libya, and David Cameron has stated he feels a “responsibility” to help those appealing for democratic change.

This hasn’t translated into direct action to support the Bahraini protesters, however. A few stern words urging King Hamad to reform aside, the West has largely overlooked Bahrain’s tentative situation.

The US in particular is likely steering clear because of Iran. Topping President Bush’s list of enemies, Iran remains a significant concern for Barack Obama and his administration. It may be that propping up an oppressive monarchy is deemed a necessary buffer to Iran’s influence in the Middle East.

So long as Iran’s President vows to destroy the “cancerous tumour” that is Israel, the US will do all in its power to prevent its influence spreading. Unfortunately for the people criticising the Bahraini government, that means little support from America and its Western allies.

Many of the Western powers appear to have forgotten the protesters’ cause, hoping the uprising convinces King Hamad to implement tangible reforms or else quietly withers away and stops being such a nuisance to the fragile world of inter-government diplomacy.

All the while the people of Bahrain continue their fight for fundamental rights and freedoms. They protest what they perceive to be terrible injustice, and as the case of Rajab shows, real progress is still a long way off for the people of the Gulf state.

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