Conflict Risk Alert: Bahrain
16 Apr 2012
Beneath a façade of normalisation, Bahrain is sliding toward another dangerous eruption of violence. The government acts as if partial implementation of recommendations from the November 2011 Independent Commission of Inquiry (the Bassiouni Report) will suffice to restore tranquillity, but there is every reason to believe it is wrong. Political talks – without which the crisis cannot be resolved – have ground to a halt, and sectarian tensions are mounting. A genuine dialogue between the regime and the opposition and a decision to fully carry out the Bassiouni Report – not half-hearted measures and not a policy of denial – are needed to halt this deterioration.
Clashes between young protesters and security forces occur nightly, marked by the former’s use of Molotov cocktails and the latter’s resort to tear gas. Several have died, in most cases reportedly due to tear gas inhalation. The 9 April explosion of a handmade bomb in al-Akar, a Shiite village in the east of the Kingdom, which injured seven policemen, crossed a significant threshold and could be followed by worse. Already, even before authorities could investigate, pro-government Sunni vigilante groups retaliated, vandalising two cars and a supermarket owned by a Shiite firm accused of supporting the February 2011 protests.
Amid these and other violent events – including the death of a young protester apparently shot from a civilian car – there are two potential time bombs. The first concerns Bahrain’s scheduled hosting of a Formula 1 race on 22 April. On 8 April, the Coalition of the Youth of the February 14 Revolution, an umbrella for an array of opposition groups that commands the loyalty of Shiite neighbourhoods, warned that it would consider participants, sponsors and spectators as regime allies and declared that it would not accept blame for “any violent reaction” during the event. The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights has pledged to use the expected presence of foreign tourists and journalists to highlight human rights violations; the government’s 15 April arrest of human rights activists shows that it will try hard to prevent this.
Despite internal disagreements over the wisdom of proceeding with the Grand Prix, and amid repeated opposition calls to cancel, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, the Formula 1 governing body, gave its definitive go-ahead on 13 April. The regime is trying to make the competition a symbol of national unity and is banking on it symbolising a return to stability. Instead it is underscoring deep divides and risks further inflaming the situation.
The second time bomb relates to the fate of Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, a well-known human rights activist. Charged with attempting to overthrow the regime due to his participation in last year’s demonstrations, he has been on a hunger strike since 8 February to protest his conviction and obtain his release. Despite a groundswell of support for his cause in Bahrain and around the world, the regime has not relented. His death likely would spark a serious intensification in anti-regime activism.
The only path out of the current crisis is a return to dialogue and negotiations over real political reforms, much as the Bassiouni Report suggested. The regime has shown little enthusiasm for talks – not least because its Sunni supporters oppose them, fearing that any accommodation of the opposition’s proposals could jeopardise their privileged status. Both of them insist that violence must end before dialogue can begin. The opposition argues in turn that the regime is unserious about resuming talks, let alone reforms; that it torpedoed secret negotiations held in February by leaking them to the public; and that it failed to follow up on demands put forward by the opposition a month later at the government’s request.
To break this stalemate and move forward, the government should fully implement the Bassiouni Report’s recommendations, releasing all political prisoners (including Alkhawaja) and holding senior officials accountable for excessive force and torture. It also must begin reforming the security forces, ensuring they fully reflect Bahrain’s make-up by integrating members of all communities. For its part, the opposition should abjure violence more explicitly than in the past and declare its readiness to participate in a dialogue on reform without preconditions.
The alternative is a serious escalation in violence and the empowerment of hardliners on both sides. It is quite clear where such a process would begin. It is far less clear where it might end.