Yesterday, Matar Ibrahim Matar, a former member of parliament from the main opposition bloc, Al Wefaq, was released from detention after more than three months in a Bahraini jail, where, he told the BBC, he was tortured. Matar was pulled out of his home by Bahraini security forces on May 2.
The government has leveled a number of accusations against him and other detainees, including the charge of “deliberately spreading biased rumors”— a charge vague enough to provide plenty of leeway to throw anyone in jail, especially fluent English speakers able to make their case to the international media. When I met with Matar’s colleagues from Al Wefaq in March, they explained they had no interest in toppling the regime. Rather, said Al Wefaq member Khaleel Marzooq, “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 mainstream opposition seeks to implement the constitutional monarchy that the majority of the country voted for a decade ago. And yet, the government paints the uprising as a revolution engineered on behalf of Iranian agents who want to import Iran’s guardianship of the jurist—wilayet al-faqih—to Bahrain. Accordingly, figures close to the regime hinted at darker reasons for Mattar’s detention.
“He’s a Hezbollah agent,” one Bahraini MP visiting Washington recently told me. “What is your evidence?” I asked. “Believe me,” he replied.
Since February 14, the Bahraini government has justified its violence against the Shia-led opposition—detentions, tortures, and murders—by telling Washington that Manama is fighting the same enemy, the Islamic Republic of Iran. The ruling Al Khalifa family assumes that as long as they can color the opposition as an Iranian plant, a Hezbollah cell, etc., then Washington will back off, for fear of losing basing rights in Manama for the Fifth Fleet. It’s worth noting that that port is located in a Shia neighborhood, where the inhabitants have never given the Americans trouble; the major threats to the base have come from al Qaeda and other Sunni Islamist outfits.
Still, the regime in Manama got what it sought when it called in the Gulf Cooperation Council force in March. The Khalifa needed their Saudi allies to shield them from American scrutiny so they could use enough force to squash the uprising. The relative quiet in Bahrain is due less to the phony national unity dialogue that was foisted on the opposition—and from which it recused itself after pro-government officials used anti-Shia slurs—than the fact that there are still hundreds of people being detained by the government. The opposition has no cards left up its sleeve, for the time being at least. Whether Washington acquiesced or just didn’t have the manpower or wherewithal to do anything about it, the end result is the same—the Obama administration conceded. The Al Khalifa had successfully defended its exclusive privilege to rule.
But winning is apparently not enough for the Al Khalifa. If you’re not with them blood and soul, then you’re against them, you’re with Iran or Hezbollah. If you’re a U.S. diplomat like Ludovic Hood who shows any sympathy with the opposition, like sharing a box of donuts, then you’re liable to be threatened by pro-government forces. In this paranoid worldview, even the president of the United States, according to some pro-regime organs, is an Iranian tool. From this perspective, no one, and certainly no one who resides in Bahrain, has any real reason to oppose the policies of a government that discriminates against its Shia population. The only people who would dare complain are foreign agents.
Matar was in Washington three summers ago on an exchange program sponsored by the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative, and was named a leaders for democracy fellow. If the government of Bahrain believes that the State Department is backing Bahraini terrorists allied with Hezbollah and Iran, they should make their case—otherwise, it is clear that they don’t have a case. Rather, it would seem that they’re arresting members of the Bahraini opposition who have more American friends than a government whose allies threaten U.S. diplomats
In an Al Jazeera interview, Matar explained that he wants Bahrain to be a secular democracy, where “everyone can express his beliefs.” What he wants from the United States, he says “is a strong relationship… an opportunity for the progress of democracy in Bahrain.”
There have been rumors afloat the last few weeks that Washington may seek to relocate the Fifth Fleet’s homeport, with the UAE being talked about as one alternative. In the end, that would be a bad move, since it would signal to the Iranians that the U.S. can be forced out of a difficult position, and rather than take the reins and shape political outcomes, Washington will pull up its stakes when the going gets tough.
Bahrain is not high on the American agenda right now—even in the Middle East, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraqm and even Syria must take precedence. It’s perhaps understandable why the administration has let the Khalifa have their way without much ado. However, the situation must be repulsive to any U.S. policymaker—an alliance with a regime that treats more than half its citizens like slaves. In this case, at least the policy cannot steer too far from the ethics of the matter. In the long term it will only become clearer where American interests lie, and it is not with a repressive government that threatens our diplomats and jails our friends.