Nicholas D. Kristof / Syndicated Columnist
Protests in Bahrain: a clash of U.S. interests and values
America has important interests at stake in Bahrain — but also important values, writes columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, who hopes our cozy relations with those in power won't dull our appreciation that history is more likely to side with protesters being shot with rubber bullets than with the regimes doing the shooting.
MANAMA, Bahrain — The gleaming banking center of Bahrain, one of those family-run autocratic Arab states that count as U.S. allies, has become the latest reminder that authoritarian regimes are slow learners.
Bahrain is another Middle East domino wobbled by an angry youth — and it has struck back with volleys of tear gas, rubber bullets and even buckshot at completely peaceful protesters.
In the early-morning hours Thursday here in the Bahrain capital, it used deadly force to clear the throngs of pro-democracy protesters who had turned Pearl Square in the center of the city into a local version of Tahrir Square in Cairo. This was the last spasm of brutality from a regime that has handled protests with an exceptionally heavy hand — and like the previous crackdowns, this will further undermine the legitimacy of the government.
"Egypt has infected Bahrain," a young businessman, Husain, explained to me as he trudged with a vast protest march snaking through the capital, Manama. Husain (I'm omitting some last names to protect those involved) said that Tunisia and Egypt awakened a sense of possibility inside him — and that his resolve only grew when Bahrain's riot police first attacked peaceful protesters.
When protesters held a funeral march for the first man killed by police, the authorities here then opened fire on the mourners, killing another person.
"I was scared to participate," Husain admitted. But he was so enraged that he decided that he couldn't stay home any longer. So he became one of the countless thousands of pro-democracy protesters demanding far-reaching change.
At first the protesters just wanted the release of political prisoners, an end to torture and less concentration of power in the al-Khalifa family that controls the country. But, now, after the violence against peaceful protesters, the crowds increasingly are calling for the overthrow of the al-Khalifa family. Many would accept a British-style constitutional monarchy in which King Hamad, one of the al-Khalifas, would reign without power. But an increasing number are calling for the ouster of the king himself.
King Hamad gave a speech regretting the deaths of demonstrators, and he temporarily called off the police. By dispatching the riot police early Thursday morning, King Hamad underscored his vulnerability and his moral bankruptcy.
All of this puts the United States in a bind. Bahrain is a critical United States ally because it is home to the American Navy's Fifth Fleet, and Washington has close relations with the al-Khalifa family. What's more, in some ways Bahrain was a model for the region. It gives women and minorities a far greater role than Saudi Arabia next door, it has achieved near universal literacy for women as well as men, and it has introduced some genuine democratic reforms. Of the 40 members of the (not powerful) Lower House of Parliament, 18 belong to an opposition party.
Somewhat cruelly, on Wednesday I asked the foreign minister, Sheik Khalid Ahmed al-Khalifa, if he doesn't owe his position to his family. He acknowledged the point but noted that Bahrain is changing and added that some day the country will have a foreign minister who is not a Khalifa. "It's an evolving process," he insisted, and he emphasized that Bahrain should be seen through the prism of its regional peer group. "Bahrain is in the Arabian gulf," he noted. "It's not in Lake Erie."
The problem is that Bahrain has educated its people and created a middle class that isn't content to settle for crumbs beneath a paternalistic Arab potentate — and this country is inherently unstable as a predominantly Shiite country ruled by a Sunni royal family. That's one reason Bahrain's upheavals are sending a tremor through other gulf autocracies that oppress Shiites, not least Saudi Arabia.
Bahrain's leaders may whisper to U.S. officials that the democracy protesters are fundamentalists inspired by Iran. That's ridiculous. There's no anti-Americanism in the protests — and if we favor "people power" in Iran, we should favor it in Bahrain as well.
Walk with protesters here, and their grievances seem eminently reasonable. One woman, Howra, beseeched me to write about her brother, Yasser Khalil, who she said was arrested in September at the age of 15, for vague political offenses. She showed me photos of Yasser injured by what she described as beatings by police.
Another woman, Hayat, said that she had been shot with rubber bullets twice this week. After hospitalization (which others confirmed), she painfully returned to the streets to continue to demand more democracy. "I will sacrifice my life if necessary so my children can have a better life," she said.
America has important interests at stake in Bahrain — but also important values. I hope that our cozy relations with those in power won't dull our appreciation that history is more likely to side with protesters being shot with rubber bullets than with the regimes doing the shooting.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a regular columnist for The New York Times.
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.