Popular Protests in North Africa and the Middle East (III): The Bahrain Revolt
MENA Report N°105
6 Apr 2011
Manama’s crackdown and Saudi Arabia’s military intervention are dangerous moves that could stamp out hopes for peaceful transition in Bahrain and turn a mass movement for democratic reform into an armed conflict, while regionalising an internal political struggle. They could also exacerbate sectarian tensions not only in Bahrain or the Gulf but across the region. Along with other member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Saudi Arabia purportedly is responding to dual fears: that the popular uprising could lead to a Shiite takeover, and a Shiite takeover would be tantamount to an Iranian one. Both are largely unfounded. It also is concerned protests might inspire similar movements among its own Eastern Province Shiites, oblivious that its involvement is likelier to provoke than deter them. Bahrain’s brutal crackdown and Saudi interference fan flames both want to extinguish. The most effective response to the radical regime change threat or greater Iranian influence is not violent suppression of peaceful protests but political reform. Time is running short and trends are in the wrong direction.
The small island kingdom has long been a place of popular ferment, owing in part to its relatively open society – relative, that is, to the low standards set by its immediate neighbours – and in part to the disenfranchisement of its majority-Shiite population by a Sunni monarchy. Intermittent uprisings have resulted in scant progress in broadening the political arena; instead the regime has been accused of importing adherents of Sunni Islam from other regional states, including non-Arab states such as Pakistan, inducting them into the security forces and offering an undetermined number among them Bahraini citizenship. To the extent that such a policy is in place, the predominantly Shiite opposition has rightfully denounced demographic manipulation that is clearly aimed at perpetuating an unequal state of affairs.
Taking their cue from protesters in Tunisia and Egypt, young Bahrainis fed up with politics as usual took to the streets on 14 February and, following a week of skirmishes with security forces, occupied Pearl Square, the heart of the capital. Over the next three weeks their activism was joined by opposition groups, both legal – in the sense of holding an official license to operate – and illegal. Over time, this medley of opposition groups, emergent political movements and unaffiliated youths extended their control of the streets in both Manama and other towns and villages and developed a set of demands that ranged from political and constitutional reform to outright regime removal. Their protest has been largely non-violent.
The regime initially answered the protests with force, opening fire at demonstrators in Pearl Square and allowing pro-regime thugs to attack them. Responding to pressure, notably from the U.S., it subsequently allowed peaceful protest to take place. A three-week period of behind-the-scenes discussions and continued demonstrations relatively free of violence failed to yield meaningful steps toward change. U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates, visiting Manama on 12 March, criticised the regime for its “baby steps” toward reform.
This apparent stalemate, coupled with increasingly provocative protester tactics and Riyadh’s view that protecting the regime was a red line, likely triggered the intervention of Bahrain’s partners. On 14 March, invoking a GCC security agreement, an estimated 1,000 Saudi troops crossed the causeway from the Saudi mainland, accompanied by some 500 United Arab Emirates police and some Qatari troops. The next day, dozens of tanks and over 100 army trucks, as well as armoured personnel carriers, also rumbled into Bahrain. Most disappeared into barracks, invisible to Bahraini citizens. But the warning was clear: desist or be made to desist. King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa accompanied this show of force with the announcement of a three-month “state of national safety”, including a partial curfew, a ban on rallies and broad powers for the military. In continued protests that day and next, Bahraini security forces and pro-regime thugs armed with swords and clubs attacked demonstrators throughout the kingdom, killing seven in the first three days and injuring many more. Since then, opposition leaders have been jailed.
Saudi Arabia’s intervention led leaders of Bahrain’s largest opposition group, al-Wifaq, to state that dialogue would not be possible as long as foreign forces remain on national soil. It prompted an immediate response from Iran, which called the intervention an unacceptable interference in Bahrain’s internal affairs. It put Bahrain’s U.S. ally in an awkward position, prompting the secretary of state to characterise the developments as “alarming”. It almost certainly further alienated Bahrain’s Shiite majority – with many Shiite officials resigning in protest – and, if anything, increased their sympathy for Tehran. It arguably inflamed Saudi Arabia’s own Shiite population. In Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the most senior Shiite religious authority, gave his support to peaceful protest in Bahrain, triggering Shiite demonstrations in solidarity with their Bahraini brethren there, in Kuwait and indeed in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, which has a significant Shiite population. In short, the intervention likely achieved precisely the opposite of what it intended.
The military intervention and Bahrain’s subsequent tough line have made peaceful resolution of the country’s political crisis immensely more difficult and the regional context significantly tenser. It is unclear how meaningful, peaceful dialogue can be resumed, but it is long overdue and remains absolutely necessary. Given the level of distrust, involvement of a credible third party facilitator appears to be both essential and urgent. The goal would be to work out a plan for gradual but genuine reform toward a constitutional monarchy, with real parliamentary powers and redress of sectarian discrimination. In this context, Saudi Arabia and the other contributing Gulf states should withdraw their security forces and equipment from the island. Protesters should continue to use peaceful means to express their grievances and demands while agreeing to negotiate with the regime.
As for the U.S., anxious about its relationship with Saudi Arabia and the GCC, it nonetheless should understand that repression in Bahrain will do neither it nor its allies any good in the longer term. Bahrain’s post-colonial history lends at least some hope to the possibility of dialogue and compromise, as despite its obvious problems the country has also known a degree of pluralism and a vibrant civil society. But the window of opportunity is fast closing.
This report, the third in an ongoing series that analyses the wave of popular protests across North Africa and the Middle East, describes the background and course of the current revolt, as well as key Bahrain players, their interests and positions.
Brussels, 6 April 2011