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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
Bahrain: A New Sectarian Conflict
Bahrain: A New Sectarian Conflict

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

Bahrain: A New Sectarian Conflict

Originally published in The New York Review of Books

Until 2011, the tiny island nation of Bahrain was mainly known to the outside world for one thing: an annual Formula One car race, the first of its kind in the Middle East, that signified the country’s arrival among the community of stable advanced nations. But then came last spring’s popular uprising and brutal government crackdown, and a different side of this Gulf monarchy came to light: the longstanding grievances held by many Bahrainis, including above all members of the island’s Shia majority, against its Sunni ruling family, who in turn seem prepared to use force to hold onto power. The regime prevailed, and after inviting an investigation of human rights abuses last fall, it suggested it was bringing the country back to normal; this spring’s Grand Prix would show the world it had succeeded.

But as I discovered during a five-day visit shortly before the race, nothing could be further from the truth. Talking to dozens of people both in Manama and in smaller communities outside the capital, I was told again and again that the situation was becoming worse, not better: police forces have been using large quantities of tear gas against protesters, repeatedly causing deaths; police brutality had not ended but moved from police stations to alleyways and undeclared detention centers; young activists are increasingly resorting to Molotov cocktails, subverting the peaceful nature of the protests; and the government has not opened any dialogue with the opposition or offered hope for political reform. Protests occurred nightly in Shiite villages and neighborhoods during my stay, and a veritable battle of graffiti took place on the walls of shops and houses, with protesters writing slogans calling for the end of the regime, police erasing them with a quick coat of paint, and activists scribbling new ones seemingly before the paint had dried.

And so while the Grand Prix, Bahrain’s single prestige event, did take place in late April, it happened amid clouds of tear gas and wafts of smoke from firebombs, as well as an outcry over the death of a protester apparently as a result of shotgun pellets fired by riot police. On the day of the event, a political activist, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, was into his eleventh week of a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment on allegations of plotting to overthrow the state during last year’s protests. (As of this writing, the hunger strike is now in its ninetieth day.)

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