Arrow Left Arrow Right Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
Popular Protests in North Africa and the Middle East (III): The Bahrain Revolt
Popular Protests in North Africa and the Middle East (III): The Bahrain Revolt
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
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

Popular Protests in North Africa and the Middle East (III): The Bahrain Revolt

Bahrain’s crackdown and Saudi Arabia’s 14 March military intervention could turn a mass movement for democratic reform into an armed conflict while regionalising a genuinely internal political struggle.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download Full Report

Executive Summary

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

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.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download Full Report

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