Inspired by the largely peaceful overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt, protests have spread from one autocratic regime to the next throughout the Middle East and North Africa. This week the Bahrain government has launched a brutal and deadly assault, culminating in an overnight attack on unarmed protesters, many of them sleeping, in Pearl Square in Manama, Bahrain’s capitol.
Like Egypt, Bahrain is a close US ally, and it’s very likely that US-supplied tanks, tear gas and other weapons were used in last night’s assault. This is rightfully prompting some US policymakers to ask questions.
A top Senate appropriator has asked the State Department to determine whether Bahraini security forces may have misused U.S. military aid in its overnight crackdown on Bahraini protesters in Manama.
Bahraini riot units reportedly used tanks and tear gas in a brutal overnight assault on the crowd of demonstrators many of whom had fallen asleep in Manama’s central Pearl Square when the assault occurred. Reports said a few hundred people were wounded and four people killed in the attack.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate State/Foreign Ops appropriations subcommittee, “has asked State officials … to identify the equipment and units” involved in the attacks,” Leahy’s spokesman David Carle told POLITICO Thursday.
The so-called Leahy Law – which requires the cut-off of U.S. military aid to forces determined to have perpetrated human rights abuses — “does apply to Bahrain,” since “the U.S. Government provides support to the [Bahraini] Army,” Carle said.
Whether the Leahy law “comes into effect of course … depends on what the facts are determined to be,” he said.
What’s happening in Bahrain certainly does seem worthy of a freeze on military aid. Nicholas Kristof, reporting from Manama, gave a powerful eyewitness report of a crackdown that apparently included targeting medical workers caring for the injured.
Viewed within the context of a growing grassroots call for democracy throughout the Middle East and North Africa, the need to examine who we arm is becoming more urgent. Clinton has expressed her “deep concern” to her counterpart in Bahrain, but seriously, what do we do about the fact that we are materially helping the wrong side? Invoking the Leahy law now could add crucial heft to US calls to respect the basic rights of protesters throughout the region. Further, these events should provoke a much broader look at the kinds of incentives the US has been using to court allies. In general we rely far too heavily on military aid, giving short shrift to the kinds of aid that could actually improve people’s lives. For instance, development aid, which can be used for agriculture projects, education, or even job creation.
Elsewhere, there have been reports of violence against protesters in Libya, while in Iran, protests appear to have led to the disappearance of Mir Hussein Moussavi, a key opposition leader and reformer.