What’s behind Bahrain’s protests?
Eric Avebury outlines the systematic repression that has brought the people of Bahrain onto the streets
18 Feb 11

Eric Avebury outlines the systematic repression that has brought the people of Bahrain onto the streets

Bahrain is an hereditary dictatorship masquerading as a parliamentary democracy. The state has been ruled by the al-Khalifa family since the end of the 18th century, and still today all ministers are appointed by the King, who chooses 80 per cent from his near relations. The Prime Minister, who is the King’s uncle, has occupied the post since 1971, when Bahrain got its independence.

The al-Khalifas are Sunnis, but the majority of the population was Shia, at least until very recently. The regime has engaged in long-term demographic engineering, by granting citizenship, jobs and housing to Sunni immigrants. At the same time a clandestine organisation headed by another relative, Shaikh Ahmed bin Ateyatalla Al Khalifa, works to ensure that the Shia remain powerless, economically and politically. Gerrymandering at the last election saw to it that although 60 per cent of the votes were for Shia candidates, only 16 of them were elected to the lower house of parliament.

The smouldering resentment of the people against a system of governance that keeps them tightly under control has now burst into flames. There were nightly demonstrations even before the “Day of Rage” on 14 February, calling on the King to ease tensions by releasing detainees, dissolving the National Security Apparatus and engaging in serious dialogue on disputed issues. There are said to be 514 people officially detained, 116 of them children.

The Bahrain Center for Human Rights, which continues to operate from abroad after it was closed down by the government in 2004, was asking the authorities to avoid the use of force against peaceful protests, and to guarantee basic rights such as freedom of assembly and freedom of opinion including the free use of social networking.

These pleas fell on deaf ears. It was reported that one demonstrator was shot dead, and another critically injured by blows to his skull on the Day of Rage, and further deaths and serious injuries have been reported at continuing demonstrations since then – five on one day, prompting remonstrations by President Obama and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague.

Meanwhile, the 25 prominent human rights activists who were arrested in August have made several court appearances. To a man they said they had been tortured into signing false confessions, which they now repudiated. One of them, Abduljalil al-Singace, Professor of Engineering at the University of Bahrain and Human Rights Director of the opposition Haq Movement has become partially deaf from a blow to the side of his head.. Their lawyers asked the court to investigate this allegation before the prosecution made their opening speeches, and when this was refused, they withdrew from the case.

The activists are said to be accused of supporting “terrorist” cells seeking to overthrow the ruling system, though it is not clear whether formal charges have been made. The law dealing with “Protecting Society from Terrorist Acts” allows for extended periods of detention without charge or judicial review.

The west has tolerated human rights abuses by Arab dictators up to now, because they are seen to produce stability. In the longer term this may turn out to have been a mistake, because when the people do elect their governments freely, they may not be so friendly to states which colluded in their oppression.

Eric Avebury is a member of the UK House of Lords. He blogs at