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The Bahraini opposition

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.

  • darius

    Ali, sami, mohammad fawaz or whatever else you wanna call yourself you can't even convince yourself of what you're saying and that's funny.

    April 13, 2011

  • i cannot excuse other arab countries to be suspicious of the bahraini revolution. it is good that the interviewee complained about the treatment of his monarch, because he has a right to do so.... but his silence on the interfeerence of iran and hizbollah during the revolution is just not on. iran and hizbollah should have been condemned by the protesters but they were not. this leads to many mistrusts and suspicions.

    April 12, 2011

  • ali

    @XYZ How nice of you to become a polite person again, bingo! Iran occupies its own islands in the same way that XYZ occupies his/her own home.

    April 12, 2011

  • XYZ

    Thats their problem, I was referring to Iran as an Occupier

    April 12, 2011

  • ali

    @XYZ Firstly, it's very unfortunate you are using such a language in refering to me that forces the Now Lebanon comment moderator to exclude some parts of your original text. Secondly, You'd better take a look at the ME map and find the tiny zionist occupied island of israel implanted in the heart of the vast sea of Arabian countries. Finally, there seems to be 2 axes formed in the ME politics. First, Saudi American Zionist axis and second, Resistance axis which is formed around Iran. The oil rich, geopolitically important ME region has attracted many countries to have a say in its affairs. That's what brings the US Navy from thousands of miles away to our region. And the Al Khalifa royal family is a good host for these foreign guests. As you may know, Manama is home to the US 5th fleet headquarters.

    April 12, 2011

  • XYZ

    Ali (...) Ahwaz,for your information is between Southern Iraq & Iran,look it up you may learn something useful today, and the UAE Islands, and Politically it control Lebanon,Iraq,Syria,Gaza and trying to spread its filth to other Arab Countries like Kuwait,Bahrain,Yemen,Eastern Saudia ..etc, ALL under the 'Protection of Shiaa Sect'...enough of this spent slogan, wake up before the Shiaa become so isolated & marginalised in the large Sunni World that it may be too late to salvage, we shouldn't not continue to accept their fear policies as a reason to divide...& please spare me your 'facts & figures' & (...) replies.

    April 12, 2011

  • ali

    Why should Bahrain territorial waters be home to the US 5th fleet? Why is all around Iran surrounded by US military bases and aircraft carriers?

    April 12, 2011

  • ali

    @XYZ The best choice for Bahrain is to have a government which is representative of its population distribution. Would it be acceptable if the christian majority Britain were ruled by the Muslim minority and only a few (if any) christians were allowed to have some trivial posts?

    April 12, 2011

  • XYZ

    Ali..the demands started fair & must be implemented, but the Government,mainly the prime Minister had so good for so long that is reluctant to give so easily..so you have a party(People) wants so many things done so quickly & the other side (Government-Ruling family) are slow in letting off some of their power..this is human race for you,especially in the Arab World,,Look at Syria,100's of innocents being killed & all we get is promises...and now, Army & Police are being killed,are you telling me thats the work of the protesters ?..wouldn't it be possible to be self-inflected so to blame the other side or use it as an excuse for more heavy-handed handling of the demonstrations ??..Syria isn't Lebanon, its very tightly controlled & their Security Services even know how much Oxygen you breath & not to know the shooters is just a joke !!

    April 11, 2011

  • ali

    @XYZ I presented you and others with obvious facts and figures and concluded that the current situation is unsustainable. If you want to pretend that everything is ok and everyone is happy with the status quo, feel free to do that. Also feel free to label the unhappy ones as "the other protesters". After all, Bahrain is your territory!

    April 11, 2011

  • XYZ

    1 more thing ya Ali..7 protesters or more were killed which is a shame & unacceptable, BUT the TV stations you tend to watch don't show you the other side death & destruction of private & public properties, Bahrain State TV can't show such as this will inflame tension & division within Bahrain & the Arab World & this is part of their National responsibility, where other stations that you like have no such responsibility other than create chaos &^ division. Bless and for your info, I'm a Shiaa

    April 11, 2011

  • XYZ

    Ali..The government should be the true representative of the people, fine , but in Bahrain this system has been in operation over many years & everyone was happy with till after 1979i !! and improvement is being implemented since 2002, I know a lot more about Bahrain than you listing the minister's names.The true opposition were working with the Government,a little slow yes, but getting there till the 'other' opposition jumped on the band-wagon to implement certain demands..if you base your system on Sect numbers than Syria qualify to be the 1st to change, you can't ask for democratic system based on religion/Sect,you marginalise the minority(s) which the difference could be very small.

    April 11, 2011

  • ali

    @XYZ Also notice that the cabinet was reshuffled by the king, only after 7 protesters were killed by the security forces in the recent uprising. There were 13 members from the Al Khalifa royal family in the previous cabinet.

    April 11, 2011

  • ali

    @XYZ 10 out of 23 Bahraini cabinet members are from the Al Khalifa royal family, including Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, Minister of Interior, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Finance, Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs, Minister of Culture, and 3 out of 4 Deputy Prime Ministers. X: In a democracy, the government should be representative of the people Y: Bahrain is a Shia majority society Z: Bahrain has an Al Khalifa (let alone Sunni) majority cabinet Conclusion: That's an unsustainable system which will collapse sooner or later

    April 11, 2011

  • XYZ

    To Ali...you are right in part, but there are 5 Shiaa ministers out of 23 and no need to refer to Bahrain as a Shiaa majority, as such will apply to Syria as a Sunni majority..Never mind the religion/sect of whos in government as long as they put the Country & its people first.

    April 10, 2011

  • ghadanfar

    mo fawaz aka ali or whatever you want to go by, being a Jew, a Christian or a Buddist, Hindu or a Sunni is not a crime except in the inept Iranian ideology you follow. Alawis are a small minority in Syria yet the fact that they have been in power for over 40 years does not bother you or Hassan so called Nasrallah. Your hate filled ideology is despised by everyone in Lebanon including the Shiite Berri and no amount of syrup will make that fact any sweeter.

    April 9, 2011

  • ali

    @Mustapha You are apparently out of touch with the reality. Did you know that "Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo", the Bahraini Ambassador to the US is a female jew? Did you also know that less than 50 jews live in this Shia majority country? Did you also know that only 1 out of 25 cabinet members is a shiite?

    April 9, 2011

  • XYZ

    May be none of you ever been to Bahrain, the fact is ,there is a problem with Housing,Education,jobs...etc and the respected Shiaa have been marginalised over the years, worse when the nationalisation of foreign Sunnis, which in real terms affected every Bahrainis in every aspect.The Government have improved over the years, since the referendum when most of the opposition came back from Exile and everyone was working to speed the improvement up & extend it to other areas.The recent demands by the opposition were accepted & all parties were willing to sit down to discuss,ONLY then, a certain element undercover of Opposition, things got out of hand & demands issued that were never ever mentioned in the past nor ever be accepted, these demands that let to the HIJACKING by certain elements of the Opposition & the whole things became a danger to the core fabric of Bahrain, the Governemnt had no other option BUT to take what was needed & STILL the offer to sit down & discuss whats the real

    April 5, 2011

  • Moonsear

    Actually when it was accused of giving military training to the rioters in Bahrain the so called hezb Allah admitted that it was only providing "political assistance" to the Bahrain demonstrators. But the so called hezb Allah always maintained that their military and political wings are not separate but are one and the same. (...)

    April 4, 2011

  • Nabz Kay

    Re-Mustafa: If that's the case, then we can fairly say that the so-called Syrian protests IS a plot by the US and Saudis. ...

    April 3, 2011

  • cnm

    I beg to differ with the interviewee, this is very much a sectarian movement, in the manner these protests were carried out and dissolved into complete chaos. it is very puzzling that for 2 months prior to feb 14, that the weekly burning of tires, blowing up of gas cylinders etc suddenyly stopped. The planning of this movement is clearly marked by a hand that is far more organizing in mobilizing what happened during the last few weeks in Bahrain.

    April 3, 2011

  • maarouf beini

    This so-called Bahraini 'protest' is a sectarian movement financed and supported by Iran just like the militia of Hassan Nasrallah. Bahrain has less corruption than any other state in the region and the King is very just. These protesters came to Bahrain less than 50 years ago and were generously given Bahraini citizenship. Look at how they behave and return the favour. All of their so-called leaders are Iranian supported and financed.

    April 1, 2011