Few countries so small resonate so widely as Bahrain does today. The island kingdom has become a center of attention for all the wrong reasons. Bahrain was for decades the beacon of freedom and social activism that the rest of us in the Gulf looked up to. Today the island is almost unrecognizable. But there is hope yet.
Despite regional agitation and news media misrepresentation, the majority of Bahraini citizens refuse to be dragged into sectarian rhetoric and have started grassroots initiatives to rebuild bonds across the country such as a popular video produced by a group of cross-sect Bahrainis as well as the Bahrain Debates series.
Bahrain’s political landscape is significantly more developed than other countries in the region and includes more than 500 civil society organizations whose presence stretches back several decades, like the National Union Committee, which was founded in the 1950s and demanded a fully elected parliament, as well as the legalization of workers’ unions.
There have been encouraging signs over the past few days, with the secular activists Nabeel Rajab being released from prison on bail and Abdul Hadi Khawaja ending a hunger strike.
As the dominant world power, the U.S. can perhaps remind its allies in the Bahraini government that without serious reforms, support will vanish. The U.S. can also use the mechanism of the Free Trade Agreement signed with Bahrain in 2004 to encourage steps toward more reforms like fighting corruption and creating jobs for the disenfranchised.
Ultimately, the current political impasse that Bahrain is witnessing will only be solved with the involvement of all sides of the Bahraini divide including the government, the opposition and civil society groups. Bahrainis have gone through difficulties several times before only to come out stronger and more resilient. The U.S. along with other influential allies should either encourage reconciliation and reform or simply get out of the way.
This article was originally published in The New York Times on May 30, 2012.