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Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (VIII): Bahrain’s Rocky Road to Reform
Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (VIII): Bahrain’s Rocky Road to Reform
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Disengagement and Its Discontents: What Will the Israeli Settlers Do?
Disengagement and Its Discontents: What Will the Israeli Settlers Do?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary

Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (VIII): Bahrain’s Rocky Road to Reform

Unless all sides to the conflict agree to an inclusive dialogue in order to reach meaningful reform, Bahrain is heading for prolonged and costly political stalemate.

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Executive Summary

Following a spasm of violence, Bahrain faces a critical choice between endemic instability and slow but steady progress toward political reform. The most sensible way forward is to launch a new, genuine dialogue in which the political opposition is fairly represented and to move toward changes that will turn the country into a constitutional monarchy. In order to create an environment in which such talks could succeed, the regime should take immediate steps to address the human rights crisis, including by releasing political leaders jailed for peacefully expressing their views, and reverse the alarming sectarian polarisation that has occurred. 

In February and March 2011, Bahrain experienced peaceful mass protests followed by brutal repression, leaving a distressing balance sheet: over 30 dead, mostly demonstrators or bystanders; prominent opposition leaders sentenced to lengthy jail terms, including eight for life; hundreds of others languishing in prison; torture, and at least four deaths in detentions; trials, including of medical professionals, in special security courts lacking even the semblance of due process of law; over 40 Shiite mosques and other religious structures damaged or demolished; the country’s major independent newspaper transformed into a regime mouthpiece; a witch hunt against erstwhile protesters who faced dismissal or worse, based on “loyalty” oaths; serious damage to the country’s economy; a parliament left without its opposition; and much more. More significant for the long term perhaps, the violence further polarised a society already divided along sectarian lines and left hopes for political reform in tatters, raising serious questions about the island’s stability.

The regime – a Sunni monarchy headed by the Al Khalifa family – gave a pseudo-legal cast to the repression it unleashed by issuing a “law of national safety”, emergency legislation that permitted some of the human rights violations listed above. And it enveloped itself in the protective embrace of its neighbours, fellow members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), avowedly to ward off a victory by the perceived proxies of Iran, its own Shiite population.

As the crisis escalated in the second half of February and first half of March, two parallel battles unfolded within the opposing camps: a reformist crown prince wagered his political future on reaching out to a pragmatic segment of the (mostly Shiite) opposition, angering more hard-line regime elements, including the septuagenarian uncle of the king, who is the world’s longest-sitting unelected prime minister. In turn, the largest licensed opposition society, Al-Wifaq, risked alienating its popular base, including many of the protesters gathered at the central Pearl roundabout in Manama, by agreeing to engage in informal, semi-secret talks with the crown prince.

While mostly calling for political reform leading to a constitutional monarchy in the uprising’s early days, protesters steadily began to embrace the more radical demand for the regime’s replacement with a democratic republic, and they began to radiate throughout the capital to bolster this demand. Feeling threatened, the regime lashed back. This spelled the end of talk about dialogue and reform and weakened dialogue’s main protagonists. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad appears marginalised within the royal family, at least for the time being; Al-Wifaq is struggling to hold onto its popular base, as it seeks to keep reform prospects alive while opposition leaders remain in jail and repression continues.

Under pressure from its Western allies, mostly the U.S. and UK, and seeking to recover from the shock to its economy, King Hamad bin Isa lifted the emergency law on 1 June, agreed to an independent international investigation of the events of February and March and ordered a “national consensus dialogue”, which began on 5 July. While on their face these are positive developments, the lifting of the state of emergency and the start of a national dialogue appear designed more to placate these same allies than to significantly alter the regime’s approach toward its own citizens. 

Repression has eased but not ended, and none of the worst excesses – the lengthy prison sentences for political offences, job dismissals based on participation in peaceful protests, mosque destruction – have been reversed. Foreign troops remain on Bahraini soil, with the prospect of a prolonged GCC military presence at some level. And the “national consensus dialogue” appears to strive for neither consensus among an inclusive group representative of society nor genuine dialogue between opponents; so far it has been instead an exercise in make-belief. The only positive development that has the potential to trigger a course correction is the independent commission, headed by international war crimes expert Cherif Bassiouni, but it is not expected to complete its work until the end of October.

There is reason to fear that Bahrain is heading for prolonged political stalemate, enforced by a heavy security presence backed by foreign troops and punctuated by protests when circumstance permits. The consequences could be costly. Already, divisions between Sunnis and Shiites are deeper than ever; many Shiites have a family member or friend killed or in jail. By oppressing Shiites as a group, the regime is erecting communal boundaries; by closing off any avenue of political participation and targeting even moderate opposition groups such as Al-Wifaq, it is laying the groundwork for a potential future uprising. In this tense atmosphere, any further provocation or violent action could trigger an explosion; unfortunately, hardliners in both the Shiite and Sunni communities as well as within the regime seem to be preparing for precisely this. 

Further repression and violence will not unlock this complex political equation or defuse this combustible situation. The better alternative is for the parties to find a path to dialogue and inter-communal accommodation, paving the way for a constitutional monarchy that treats its subjects as citizens with full political rights. As a first step, the regime should take a series of confidence-building measures, including freeing those arrested for their participation in peaceful protest, ending its stigmatisation of the Shiite community and halting the practice of destroying or damaging Shiite mosques and prayer houses. 

Backed by Saudi Arabia and other GCC states, the regime will not contemplate such measures in the absence of a combination of pressures. Some are likely to occur no matter what. Already, the regime is aware of mounting economic cost after investments shrank, businesses suffered a downturn in their profits, banks began contemplating the possible relocation of their operations, and major events were cancelled, such as Formula One’s annual Grand Prix. But this alone is unlikely to produce a change, as it seems to believe it can survive economically as long as oil prices remain high, and Saudi Arabia maintains financial support. 

Should it remain inflexible, the royal family also in all probability will confront pressure in the form of renewed protests by those who have been discriminated economically and marginalised politically, mostly members of the majority Shiite population. This could well be effective, but only if opposition leaders can persuade their followers and other protesters to continue to pursue peaceful means.

Finally, Western states and notably the U.S. have a key role to play. Washington, which has enormous assets and interests in the Gulf, including Bahrain, would do well to step up its efforts, in coordination with influential allies such as the UK, to persuade the regime to loosen the reins and institute meaningful reform. Failing such steps, and facing an Al Khalifa family unresponsive to its entreaties, the U.S. should also be prepared to take more dramatic action, including a reduction in its military support. For its part, the opposition should seek to reassure the royal family, and the Sunni community that largely supports it, that it seeks an expansion of political rights, not the monarchy’s overthrow, and that it accepts the concessions offered by the crown prince in mid-March as the starting point for negotiations.

Manama/Washington/Brussels, 28 July 2011

Disengagement and Its Discontents: What Will the Israeli Settlers Do?

Scheduled for 15 August 2005, Israel's disengagement from Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank has already begun. How Israel for the first time evacuates settlements in the Palestinian Occupied Territories will have profound implications for Israeli-Palestinian relations, but also for Israeli society.

Executive Summary

Scheduled for 15 August 2005, Israel's disengagement from Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank has already begun. How Israel for the first time evacuates settlements in the Palestinian Occupied Territories will have profound implications for Israeli-Palestinian relations, but also for Israeli society. Regardless of one's assessment of the settlers and their enterprise -- regarded internationally as illegal, by many Israelis as irresponsible and by others as the embodiment of the Zionist project -- it is bound to be a traumatic event for Israel. If it should be mishandled, accompanied by violent settler resistance or Palestinian attacks, the prospects for subsequent peace would be much bleaker. The international community's interest is to press for complete disengagement and then a credible follow-on political process.

That the disengagement plan has been initiated and propelled virtually single-handedly by Ariel Sharon, dubbed by many the father of their movement, has made it all the more distressing to the settlers and all the more difficult to combat. Beyond the erosion of their support within Israeli society at large, settlers have suffered from sharpening internal differences, based on generation, worldview, and territorial location. A minority is determined to resist any evacuation, including forcibly, seeing it as a betrayal of faith and a threat to the legitimacy of Zionism. But even among the majority who consider the battle for Gaza lost, tensions exist between those who believe a traumatic, violent evacuation would lessen the prospect of further withdrawals and those who believe it would further alienate the public. Less pragmatic elements, in particular young settlers who evince little loyalty for either the state or the institutions of their elders, are setting the tone, intimidating the more moderate and engaging in disruptive activities, such as blocking highways and encouraging soldiers to disregard disengagement-related orders.

As the mid-August onset of the disengagement plan approaches, and with the defeat of parliamentary and judicial efforts to thwart it, fears have increased that they may resort to more desperate tactics, such as violence against Palestinians (as already witnessed in the attempted killing of a Palestinian youth in late June) in the hope of provoking violence in return, an attempt to blow up Muslim holy sites, or an attempt on the life of Ariel Sharon, who has certainly taken personal as well as political risks in bringing the process this far.

This background report describes the disengagement plan, maps out the settler constituencies that are bracing for it, and assesses the resistance scenarios being contemplated. Several conclusions emerge, based on the assumption -- now shared by a large majority of disengagement opponents and settlers -- that the plan will go through, no matter the scope of last-minute efforts to derail it.

  • The tone is being set by ideological settlers in general and extremist elements in particular, though most settlers can be characterised as moderate or pragmatic, in particular so-called economic settlers who live in large settlement blocs abutting the Green Line and do not fear eventual evacuation. With the Yesha Council -- the institution representing most settlers -- either unwilling or unable to rein in their activities, the likelihood is high of a difficult, possibly drawn-out affair; some bloodshed is likely, though violence will probably be sporadic and localised. Divisions within the settler community, the absence of a coordinated strategy, and the marginalisation of the radicalised hilltop youth, exacerbate the perils.
  • The key to a relatively smooth withdrawal lies in drawing a wedge between various strands of the settler movement, in particular distinguishing between those infiltrating the settlements in order to stir disorder, and long-time residents. The government and security forces need to treat the latter with as much dignity as possible and the former with as much firmness as required. Although there are many reasons to criticise the performance of the Yesha Council leaders in this period, it is important for the authorities to work with the relatively mainstream settler establishment on relocation and housing to prevent the emergence of a vacuum likely to be filled by more radical figures from the charismatic militant right. Some suggest dialogue should be between settlers and symbols of the state they mostly respect -- police, army, and president -- rather than politicians who lack legitimacy in their eyes.
  • At the end of the day, the battle over Gaza does not chiefly concern Gaza, but rather what comes next. The various actors -- Sharon, the settlers, the Palestinian Authority and militant Palestinian groups -- will gauge how to act based on what scenario (more or less traumatic, more or less confrontational) best fits their vision for the future. The international community, led by the Quartet, ought to have one priority: to ensure that disengagement is complete and is followed by a credible political process leading to far more substantive territorial withdrawals and settlement evacuation, an end to the armed confrontation and the reining in of militant Palestinian groups. It should press both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government to curb any attacks accompanying the disengagement and then to engage in a genuine political process after it is conducted.

 Amman/Brussels, 7 July 2005