While we in the US ate chocolates and celebrated love, Bahrain commemorated another occasion. This year, Feb. 14 marks the fourth anniversary of the most recent revolution. Unfortunately, the repression continues, and this Valentine’s Day is marked by more forceful responses to continuing protests, complete with tear gas, sound bombs and police violence against demonstrators.
Bahrain has been turbulent since the 18th century, and recent decades are no different. The Khalifa family has controlled the small state since 1783, and the current Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa has held the position since 1971, giving him the longest period in this office in the world. Officially but not realistically, Bahrian is a constitutional monarchy. Because of the lack of variation in leadership, reform has been virtually nonexistent. The Khalifa family, including the current King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, benefits from the status quo and is reluctant to give the opposition an inch of influence.
The royal family and general population are constantly at odds. First, the Khalifas are Sunni Muslims, while the majority is Shia. But that is only the start. The Khalifas control the wealth, and citizens have to deal with 15 percent unemployment, discrimination and restricted freedoms. Dissatisfaction is high and loudly vocalized.
Bahrain did see a period of reform in the early 2000s under the current king. The 2002 Constitution made the National Assembly bicameral and gave the Elected Council of Representatives and Consultative Council new powers, including a veto. Political prisoners were released, dissidents were allowed to create opposition parties and the rights to assemble and speak openly were restored.
But the opposition was not satisfied and protests continued. Eventually, the period of increased freedoms ceased. According to Amnesty International, the kingdom has been cutting down on fundamental freedoms ever since. Today, Shia citizens are subjects of violence and discrimination, and opposition cannot compel the government to pass effective reforms.
Feb. 14, 2011 saw intense protests in the capital Manama’s Pearl Square. Their call was for equality and greater rights, but what they got were rubber bullets, live ammunition and no reform whatsoever. The 2011 protests were squelched mercilessly and violently by Saudi Arabian and UAE intervention supported by Khalifa’s permission. No change was sparked, but it remains an important day in Bahrain’s struggle for fundamental human rights.
After the revolution came crackdown. Dissidents are tortured, dozens have died and hundreds are held as political prisoners. According to a report released in 2011 by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, the government uses “excessive force” in curbing opposition. Dissent remains a dangerous position, and the risks of torture and exile are ominously real.
Bahrain goes through periods of revolt and repression, but human rights have not improved. Part of the problem is the government’s reluctance to accept the opposition. King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa benefits from ignoring challenges to his power and pretends dissidents and protesters do not exist or are the product of Iranian plots. As a result, the government refuses to engage in dialogue with dissidents.
In addition, Bahrain is an important ally for the US in the war on terror and ISIS and is the base of the US Navy’s fifth fleet. Therefore, the US does not pressure the Khalifa family to improve human rights.
The opposition is getting nowhere in their quest for a real functioning constitutional monarchy. The situation in Bahrain on Feb. 14, 2015 is no different from 2011, but hope continues. As one protestor told al Jazeera in the documentary “Shouting in the Dark” (2011), “We have touched the soul of freedom, we can’t go back now.”