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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

sowing seeds of discontent

Comment: Bahrain sows seeds of discontent
Published: October 11 2010 16:30 Last updated: October 11 2010 16:30

Arab solidarity is at its best when a member state turns the heat on its own people. And so it is with unabashed enthusiasm that Gulf rulers have greeted Bahrain’s crackdown on Shia activists, applauding the charges issued against what Manama describes as a “terror network”.

Neighbours may think this wholehearted support does Bahrain a favour by helping to suppress unrest provoked by a small group of radicals. But in the long run, their cheers could instead help sow the seeds of broader discontent.

For now, no one seems willing to look at the broader picture. Driven, I suspect, by a sense of paranoia that sees Iran’s hand in every trouble that stirs in the Middle East, Gulf states are taking no risks. No matter that Bahrain’s Sunni ruling family, which governs a Shia majority, has deliberately steered clear of accusing Iran of fomenting the unrest – whispers in the region are that Tehran surely has a hand in it.

The latest round of rioting in Bahrain was sparked by the arrest in August of four activists who the government says are ringleaders of a plot against the state. As a wider wave of detention ensued, the government said it would charge 23 people with planning to overthrow the regime.

But this has turned out to be more than a security crackdown. Human rights groups and moderate Shia organisations that still plan to take part in the October 23 election have come under pressure, and their media outlets shut down. As Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for the Middle East says, the events in Bahrain are “an attempt to reassert full control over civil society”.

The timing of the crackdown is a mystery.

Officials say it was driven by evidence of something sinister brewing against the state and they point to a violent escalation, including explosions that have targeted security forces vehicles. Some observers argue that hardliners within the ruling al-Khalifa family have gained the upper hand, convincing King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa that the political reforms he has adopted since the late 1990s have emboldened Shia dissidents, encouraging them to direct their criticisms against the monarch himself. This, combined with suspicions of Iranian encouragement for Shia radicals, could have prompted the authorities to act with a heavier hand.

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