Joost Hiltermann is Deputy Program Director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group and Research Affiliate of the MIT Center for International Studies. (May 2012)
Part of what makes the current situation in Bahrain so disturbing is that the regime has succeeded in replacing the narrative of a peaceful movement for reform with an altogether different one: that the country’s majority Shia are intent on driving the Sunnis off the island and handing the country over to Iran. Although last year’s protests were led by predominantly Shia opposition groups, Bahrain’s urban populations have long been mixed and the uprising also drew Sunnis dissatisfied with how the country was run. But as I witnessed during a recent five day visit, by mobilizing Sunnis against Shia protesters on the claim the latter are manipulated by a predatory Iran, the regime has made Shia-Sunni hostility the conflict’s overriding theme.
On November 23, the government of Bahrain was in an uncharacteristically welcoming mood. The occasion was the release of a report about its handling of last spring’s popular uprising. Since the report had been requested—and paid for—by the government itself, officials were expecting a few minor criticisms. Then, they reasoned, the country would move on. Things didn’t go according to plan. The room fell quiet as Cherif Bassiouni, the report’s chief author, said words like “rape” and “torture” to King Hamad, the ruler of Bahrain. He was clear that these abuses weren’t just random acts by a few bad apples. “A number of detainees were tortured,” he said, “which proved there was a deliberate practice by some.” For the first time—perhaps ever—an independent jurist standing before a Persian Gulf monarch publicly accused that monarch’s government of systematic abuse.
A scorching summer heat is settling on Baghdad. The streets are calm and traffic flows, slowed only by the multiple checkpoints, especially near bridges and government buildings. Given that the policemen on duty cast only a cursory glance at vehicles and their passengers, it is perhaps surprising there haven’t been more frequent bombings in recent weeks.
The horrific twin bombings in Baghdad on October 25 that killed over 150 people, including children in two daycare centers, and injured many more, could easily be seen as supporting the increasingly common contention that Iraq remains profoundly unstable. That such an attack could take place in the center of the capital might demonstrate that security forces under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki are incapable of providing security; and that the United States will leave chaos in its wake when combat troops depart ten months from now. But the attacks must be seen in the perspective of deeper problems, even if the claim about Iraq’s instability is valid.