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Understanding unrest in Bahrain

Of course, we prize the security our alliance provides in a region that is beset by terrorism, piracy, suspicion, and sectarian divisions. But we also value our association with the world’s greatest democracy, a nation whose idealism has set the universal standard for freedom and whose pragmatism and self-criticism has enabled it to acknowledge and rectify its flaws while the entire world watched and judged.

Our relationship with the United States is one of our most important, and we believe that it must be based not only on shared security interests, but also on shared values and aspirations. Our emerging democracy may never look like American democracy, but the United States is our great example as we fashion our own system. 

Our greatest aspiration is for all of our citizens to believe that their government represents them–that they can realize their ambitions and gain redress for their grievances as Bahraini citizens equal before the law. Bahrain is a young democracy, less than a decade old. We have been in a state of reform since 2002, during which time we established a constitutional monarchy, elected a parliament, and established municipal councils. Although the pace of the reforms may not have been fast enough, the reforms are genuine and permanent.

That is why we must proceed with the National Dialogue that our Crown Prince called for more than seven weeks ago. The protestors are not united in their demands, and we must have a means of determining which views have broad and deep support. There is a silent majority, comprised of Sunni and Shia, who have supported the ruling family for generations and who are also looking for reforms.

We have the means and the will in Bahrain to hear all sides and to hold a serious and purposeful national dialogue. We have embraced representative government and established the infrastructure of democracy, and we must now use it. All sides–the government, the opposition and the silent majority–must come to the table. The government has been ready to negotiate for several weeks, without preconditions. We believe that offering to negotiate without preconditions is a major concession for a government to make; it means that everything is on the table. Unfortunately, we are currently at an impasse because the opposition has been unwilling to meet us without preconditions. 

In the meantime, we have been forced to confront the ugly reality that constant protests can make daily life unbearable for the average citizen. The protests had brought Bahrain to a standstill, and it is fair to say that this was an objective of some of the protestors.  Protestors were blocking roads and preventing people from attending work or school. 

I am confident that as the protestors see life returning to normal in Bahrain – banks have reopened, students have returned to class and traffic is flowing again – that they will come to the table to make Bahrain stronger than ever.

When I look at the changes occurring in Bahrain, I think back to my childhood and what it meant to be Bahraini. We were Muslims, Christians and Jews, but we had a singular identity – we were all Bahrainis first and foremost. That tradition of tolerance and moderation is a vital national asset as we confront this great challenge. The great Western democracies have trusted their values and used their democratic systems to sustain them in times of social and political stress. We Bahrainis have a new democracy, but we are committed to improving it.

Houda Nonoo is the ambassador to the United States from the Kingdom of Bahrain.


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