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The Bahraini Opposition

Lee Smith

Many assumed the recent large-scale protests taking place in Bahrain would turn into the next major Arab revolution. But Saudi-led GCC forces entered the country on March 15 and shut down the protests, leaving questions about whether or not reforms will be made and if the needs of the demonstrators, mostly Shia, will be taken into account by the Sunni ruling family.

NOW Lebanon spoke with the Bahraini opposition bloc Al Wefaq’s first deputy speaker, Khaleel Marzooq, about the demands of the country’s Shia majority, the reason behind the GCC crackdown on the demonstrations, US ambivalence toward the situation and the larger Sunni-Shia struggle Bahrain finds itself caught in.

Apparently it was the coverage of Bahrain provided by Iran’s Arabic-language TV station Al Alam that alarmed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Then, after Riyadh contributed some 1,000 troops to the GCC force, or Jazeera Shield, that was sent into Bahrain, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah also started to criticize the treatment of the Shia in Bahrain. Where Bahrain had once been considered part of the wave of regional uprisings, it’s now part of the regional struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Marzooq: We warned the international community that engaging regional forces would not be helpful to Bahrain, and that it should be solved within a local context. We didn’t want intervention on the ground. The key point was inviting the Jazeera Shield into Bahrain, which is what paved the way for others’ statements. Once the Bahraini authorities engaged the GCC and started killing and humiliating the Shia and dolling out collective punishment to that community, don’t expect the international Shia community not to have a say in condemning those actions.

Besides, we have been supported by Sunni scholars, too, like Ahmed al-Zain from Lebanon. Then there are Sunni scholars in Iraq, too, who support us, and denied that the movement is a sectarian one. But now the Bahraini government is escalating the issue by banning people from traveling to Lebanon, which, again, is the authorities turning an internal issue into a regional one.

Who believes that we need Hassan Nasrallah and Iran telling the Shia to fight for their rights? Do people believe Bahraini youth are naïve? How are we different from the Tunisians and Egyptians? That we’re Shia? Just because we’re Shia we have to be slaves who need to be told to fight for their rights?

Iran and Nasrallah’s encouragement seem to have lent support to the notion that the Bahraini uprising is sectarian in nature.

Marzooq: What happened in Tunisia and Egypt also found an environment here for people to march peacefully. The Bahraini government tried to make it a sectarian issue. They told the Sunnis here that it was a Shia revolution. The truth is that we want a civilian state, not a Shia state. We have no position on the Islamic Revolution or any desire for Wilayat al-Faqih [the Iranian institution of the Guardianship of the Jurist].

Still, they’re continuing to try to make it a sectarian issue. The authorities sent security officers in civilian clothes to storm Shia villages and search houses. They sent people to the Sunni regions to warn that it was a Shia uprising against the Sunnis, but this failed because people knew who was spreading the message: the authority’s thugs.

With the checkpoints and other instruments, the authorities are trying to dehumanize the Shia, to put them under pressure and force them to accept a lower ceiling for their political demands. The other purpose is to incite people to fight back, so that the authorities have an excuse to crack down more.

Some of your colleagues in the opposition have taken a more extreme position against the ruling establishment. For instance, Hassan Mushaima of the Haqq Movement was one among several activists who authored a document saying that they wanted to do away with the monarchy and topple the regime in favor of a republic. Hasn’t this added to tensions?

Marzooq: Al Wefaq is for a constitutional monarchy, but as long as what Haqq and others in the opposition said is peaceful, whether we consider it practical or not, I don’t think the way to respond to that is with tanks, collective punishment and murder. What if someone on the other side says, “This is the best regime, and we should leave it just the way it is.” We disagree with that, but does that mean we should kill him? No, the important thing is to challenge peacefully any argument as long as it is made peacefully.

Yes, but some say this demand for a republic is what justified the entry of the Jazeera Shield.

Marzooq: The crown prince [Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa] accepted the opposition’s principles to renew dialogue. But 12 hours later, Saudi troops came into Bahrain. What is the point of them coming to kill Bahrainis? How can we believe that they are serious about dialogue? And now the Bahraini foreign minister, Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmad Al Khalifa, is rejecting any kind of mediation.

The US failed to help contain the Bahrain crisis as a domestic issue when [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton and the Americans said the Jazeera Shield is lawful. Where is the condemnation of the authorities’ abuses that are taking place on a daily basis now? We don’t see the international community here. We’ve called for the international community to send a UN mission and let them investigate what’s going on, and make whoever’s responsible for trouble accountable, whether those troubles issue from the authorities or protestors. They will protect the Libyans, but as for the Bahrainis, well, we’re on our own. Apparently, there are other “difficulties” and “complications.”

You’re referring to Washington’s special relationship with Saudi Arabia?

Marzooq: Saudi Arabia wanted to crack down on the reform movement in Bahrain to protect its own regime internally. The Americans are OK with it because the US has based its relationship with Saudi Arabia [on] its strategic interests. But what if the Saudis have internal problems of their own? My sense is that Bahrain will not pave the way for Saudi reform, but something else will. This is an era of political change; if the Saudis and their international allies don’t get this, they’re in a coma.

These legacy systems have been around for 40 years, but look at all these republican revolutions — Egypt, Syria, Iraq, etc. — they all failed. They said, “No to reform, no to change, no to doing anything for their own people because we have to fight Israel.” But for 20 years or more there has been no war with Israel, and now there has to be change because people will no longer continue to be fooled like this.

But Bahrain was never a front-line state in the war with Israel. What’s been the excuse here?

Marzooq: The issue in Bahrain comes from our neighbors. The idea of the regime here is that since we are dependent on our neighbors economically, especially Saudi Arabia, we cannot reform faster than the rest of the GCC states, especially Saudi. However, in 1973 we had a constitution, but in 1975 the parliament was dissolved, which stopped people’s participation in the Bahraini government for 27 years. We want the implementation of the 2001 National Charter, which is supposed to restore the constitution and was accepted by 98.4 percent of the voting public. The authorities imposed their own constitution, which, since it was not accepted by the majority, caused the problems that we are seeing today.

Some in the government were arguing that if the Shia get too much power, they’ll discriminate against the Sunnis. Our response to that was: You are in full control now, so why not write laws to protect everyone? This will protect them, not repressing the Shia. All our initiatives to establish a citizen-centric society were hindered by the regime and its allies in the parliament.

There is no protection for the Shia; they’re vulnerable. There’s no police, security or judicial system protecting the Shia. Now the authorities have intensified their ill treatment of the community – harassment on the streets, housing and job discrimination, and systematic attacks in the media. They say we’re the problem, because of Iran. They’re using the Iran issue in a way similar to how the regimes use Israel in order to deny us justice and justify their preventing us from participating in the government.

You think Iran is not a genuine concern for the Al Khalifa family and the Americans?

Marzooq: Coming by way of Bahraini Shia? No. When the UN mission came to Bahrain in 1970, we said we did not want to be part of Iran, but wanted to be an independent Arab state, and under the Al Khalifa but under a democratic system. As it is now, the Al Khalifa will continue to rule, but they don’t have people’s hearts after all that they have done in the last few weeks.

Since the 1920s, Bahrainis have demanded their rights for participation in their own governance. Bahrain has an ancient civilization. This is not about the Islamic Revolution, or any other revolution except what is happening in Bahrain. The French Revolution did not wait to be inspired by the Iranian Revolution or for the Americans to bring down Saddam Hussein. The French did it on their own within their own political context.

The key agent is repression. If you continue to repress people, eventually they’ll respond. Human beings cannot continue to live like this. If we’re being killed anyway, the question will become: Are we going to have death with dignity, or are we going to die like slaves? There will be a turning point.

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