In his State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama stated that, in the Middle East, the United States "will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights and support stable transitions to democracy." He said that the process "will be messy" and that the U.S. cannot presume "to dictate the course of change" but would insist on respect for fundamental rights of "all people."

If indeed the White House and State Department looked at events in the Middle East with a different view and based their judgments on which leaders and groups were really interested in "universal rights," a transition to stable societies that value fundamental rights would be much more likely. It’s about time we took an honest look into the fact that Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia are not good examples for democracies.

When the Arab Spring broke out two years ago, Western politicians, the public, and political organizations were quick to take the side of those who went on the street and protested. Some of them genuinely wanted democracy, but many were actually protesting against corruption or for more rights and resources. And, anyway, not everyone who claimed to be protesting for democracy was talking about rights and values but about voting systems.


A Bahraini anti-government protester poses for a photograph flashing the victory sign in front of burning tires on a road in the village of Dumistan, Bahrain in January. Photo by Hasan Jamali/The Associated Press

Having a democratic voting system is no guarantee for establishing democratic values. In the last couple of months, the situation in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia has taught us to take a step back and look again at what the uprisings meant for democratic values, women’s rights and the rights of minorities. Taking a step back and looking more broadly at the case in Bahrain would also be a good idea. There is no doubt that human rights violations were committed during the protests two years ago, and human rights groups and governments in the West have put pressure on the government to reform.

Bahrain’s leadership responded and the King, Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa, took an unusual step for a leader, and not only for a leader in the Arab world: He invited an independent commission to research what happened during the events. Some groups had requested the same steps from the U.S. government to shed light on possible human rights violations during the “war on terror.”

Since February 2011, right after the crackdown, I have travelled frequently to Bahrain, most recently for my research here at the Nieman Foundation on long-term strategies of terrorist organizations since the Arab Spring. Diplomats and opposition leaders criticize the fact that many minister and advisor posts are taken by members of the al Khalifa family, and that will surely be one of the things that has to change in the long term: The ruling family will have to share some of its power with Bahrainis who are not members of the clan.

But the situation today is not the same as that of two years ago, and the leadership in Bahrain is different from the one in Libya, Egypt or Syria. A few weeks ago, the Bahraini king invited different groups to participate in a national dialogue, a step that many Western diplomats and governments supported. It would be a historic chance to end a conflict that has not only cost the lives of protestors and police but also created a deep mistrust between the Shia and Sunni sects in Bahrain.

Despite the urgings of European diplomats for a halt to protests to give the dialogue a chance, the leadership of the opposition movements did not agree. In some areas, protestors warned storeowners who opened their businesses that they would be treated as "traitors". According to members of the protest movements and Bahraini government officials, some protests turned violent. Police were attacked with Molotov cocktails and sticks, which led to clashes in which a policeman and a 16-year-old protestor were killed. Other protesters were wounded, and the government reported that several policemen were severely injured.

Leaders of the protest movements have often used "democracy" as a demand. But does the change in the voting system really mean that they want to implement democratic values? In discussions with younger protestors, some of whom showed me how they built Molotov cocktails, it became clear many of them had a different idea of democracy. Changing the family law, so that Shia women could get a divorce? The answer was, "Only if Ayatollah Isa Qassim says so!" Would they stop the violence so that the new dialogue would have a chance? Again the answer, "If Ayatollah Isa Qassim says so."

Issa Qassim is one of the highest religious leaders of Shia Muslims in Bahrain and has a tremendous influence on al Wefaq, the largest political party in Bahrain, and the neighborhoods where most of the protests take place. He could have the authority to stop the protests and give a dialogue a chance but instead he called for more protests.

Looking at his speeches and actions, Issa Qassim is not a great supporter of the rights that usually would be supported by a democrat. He was against the change in the family law, which would have given women the right to ask for a divorce, and has so far not condemned the violence from some protestors, violence that has increased in the last year. Molotov cocktails, roadside bombs and, just days ago, a remote-controlled device that exploded in a supermarket do not make it easy for the reformists within the royal family and the government.

When some European diplomats in Bahrain increased pressure on al Wefaq to participate in the dialogue and work on a political solution, the party’s General Secretary Ali Salman accepted an invitation from the Russian foreign minister and travelled with some of his members to Moscow. These actions raised among some diplomats the question of whether al Wefaq was really interested in finding a political solution for all the people in Bahrain, as it claims.

If so, the other question it raises is how much influence the Shia religious leadership in and outside Bahrain would have on internal state politics. We do not know how many Bahrainis are Shia and how many are Sunnis; there isn’t an official statistic so far. One can assume Shias are the majority, but does al Wefaq really speak for all of them? Most probably not.

There are still Shia ministers, and many members of the business community in Bahrain are Shia. I met one of them, who spoke against the protests during an event at Harvard. She said she wanted reforms but not to see a group in power that would deprive women of their rights and establish an Ayatollah state. Two week later, one of her businesses was burned down in Bahrain. Therefore the issue for Western, and especially U.S., foreign policy is, if human rights are truly universal, they shouldn’t be seen in a vacuum but fairly from all sides.

Souad Mekhennet, the 2013 Barry Bingham Jr. Nieman Fellow, is studying how the uprisings in Arab countries in 2011 have influenced the long-term strategies of terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda and how Shariah (Islamic law) deals with human rights, women and democracy.

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