A major crackdown on opposition groups has restored security to Bahrain, but the island risks a long-term sectarian conflict unless meaningful reform occurs
Bahrain has been governed under emergency laws, initially set for a three-month period, since 15 March 2011
At Bahrain’s National Stadium in late April, people queue up to sign a loyalty pledge to show their support for the ruling Al-Khalifa family.
While some cheerfully take up the opportunity to show they are behind the country’s rulers, others are signing it out of fear the list will become a tool in the government’s campaign to crush opposition.
Human Rights activists in Bahrain already claim people are being intimidated into signing the pledge. Mohammed al-Maskati, president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, says he is aware of at least two people who have been arrested for refusing to sign the pledge.
One Western diplomat says people fear recrimination if their names are not on the list.
Time for retribution
The opportunity to pledge allegiance to the government and the Sunni ruling family comes as Bahrain undergoes a crackdown against those involved in the protests, which started on 14 February.
Locals say more than 1,000 people have been fired from government and private-sector jobs for taking part in the protests. Doctors, nurses and activists have been arrested and tortured. Even professional sportsmen have been detained. More than 30 Shia mosques, which the government claims were unlicensed, have been demolished.
“It is retribution time now,” says one foreign diplomat in the country.
Bahrain has descended rapidly from one of the most liberal and forward-thinking Middle East countries, to a state under emergency law. Manama now appears to be embarking on a witch hunt of those linked to the protests that threatens to split the country.
The tipping point was the shift from peaceful pro-democracy movement, to attempts to bring the country to a standstill by marches on government buildings. This began on 11 March, when protesters marched on the royal palace in Riffa to try to take control of central Manama.
“The strategy was to paralyse the functioning of the state, which in the minds of the protesters, would lead to the collapse of the regime and the declaration of the republic,” says Abdulnabi Alekry, president of the Bahrain Transparency Society. It was a flawed plan.
Although the protests managed to reach a size that demanded state response, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, they neither had the support of the army nor the police.
“There is evidence of wider discrimination, as well as a lack of clarity about the detention process”
Bahrain-based foreign diplomat
Instead, the government could call on the security forces to stop the demonstrations. On 14 March, GCC troops, including a strong Saudi Arabian presence, arrived to help the government restore order. Protesters have now been forced off the streets and out of Manama. The Pearl Roundabout, which became a symbolic home of the protest movement, was demolished. Access to the site is now cut off by tanks and armed guards.
The Shia in Bahrain complain of greater persecution. “The government is really clamping down on the Shia, which we expected after the protest,” says one expatriate close to the Bahraini government.
“But the ferocity of that, as well as the systematic abuse that is occurring, are a lot more than many were expecting.”
Al-Maskati accuses the government of torturing political prisoners detained for participating in protests. Several people have died in prison, although the government denies the allegations of torture.
The state’s response so far has concentrated on security. Even mainstream opposition groups agree this was necessary as a crudely armed opposition began to take control of areas of Manama in mid-March.
“What has gone wrong since then is the direction of that security push,” says the diplomat. “There is evidence of wider discrimination, as well as a lack of clarity about the detention process.”
There are suggestions the three month-long emergency laws, imposed on 15 March, could be extended further.
This strategy risks radicalising even moderate Shia. “Everyone now knows someone who has been arrested or sacked in this crackdown,” says one local business head. “That is polarising a large number of the population.”
The diplomat goes further. “Even moderate Bahraini Shia are finding it difficult not to become radicalised,” he says.
How long the government will continue with its current aggressive clampdown on dissent is uncertain. What is clear is that while security has been imposed, the island is potentially storing up much more dramatic confrontation as it mistakes security for stability.
“The authorities think they have won, but they are not winning the hearts and minds of the Shia,” says Jasim Husain, former member of parliament for Al-Wefaq, Bahrain’s largest opposition group, which resigned all its seats in mid-February.
In tandem with the tough government response has been a shift in the powerbase of the country. Sources close to the government in Bahrain say Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa is now taking an increasingly strong hand in running the country, after several years in which he was viewed as having drifted into the background.
The reformist Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, who had been taking an increasingly visible role in setting the direction of the country, has now done the opposite. As a result, the future of the reform movement in Bahrain is in doubt.
“The Crown Prince is the only hope we have in the whole country now,” says Husain.
His ability, however, to broker a deal has been severely diminished. Protesters’ refused to engage with him in late-February, when he offered a national dialogue with opposition groups. The Crown Prince had put almost everything on the table, offering talks on electoral and government reforms.
He even offered to look into some of the most controversial claims of opposition groups, including allegations the government was nationalising foreign Sunnis to try to tip the ethnic balance of the country.
But the youth groups behind the protests demanded the removal of the prime minister before talks could start, which went beyond what Manama was willing to concede. The failure to accept these talks is now seen by most Bahrainis as a mistake. “We have to admit there were blunders by the opposition,” says Alekry.
“When [the protesters] refused dialogue [with the government], a lot of people started to lose trust in the protests”
Sunni Bahraini government official
As the opposition demands escalated, they began to lose the support of moderate Sunnis. “To begin with, most people supported the call for more freedom and democracy,” says one Sunni Bahraini in the government. “But when they refused the dialogue, that was when a lot of people started to lose trust in the protests.”
The failure of the dialogue is a slight for the Crown Prince and is believed to have even hit his support among Sunni hardliners, who see him as being all too ready to give way to protesters’ demands.
For now, restarting a political dialogue with opposition groups seems to be far down Manama’s agenda. Instead, staunch members of the government, including the head of the Bahrain Defence Force, Commander-in-Chief Marshal Sheikh Khalifa bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, and Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Bin Abdullah Al Khalifa, have been given the responsibility necessary to return security to Bahrain. They are leading the regime’s extreme wing in the current crackdown on opposition.
This is expected to be part one of a three-phase response by the state. The second phase will be announcing a package of stimulus spending to kick-start Bahrain’s economy, due to be announced in May. This will be followed by political engagement with opposition groups and a limited reform package put in place.
“The government’s position now is that it will only do reconciliation in a situation of relative security,” says the diplomat. Opposition parties indicate there are still some background talks going on between them and the regime, although to a much more limited degree than was offered in February. Any reform package is now more likely to be decided upon unilaterally, rather than as a result of political dialogue.
Unless a deal of some sort is done, Bahrain risks remaining a powder keg. The diplomat adds, “What the government is doing at the moment in terms of the emergency laws, it will have to continue indefinitely, otherwise when it stops the situation will just overflow again.”
The sense of uncertainty about how Bahrain navigates its way out of this crisis is palpable throughout the country. No one is clear how the government can marry both the hardline response it is currently engaging in with the reform necessary to ensure a peaceful future.
As the crackdown continues, accusations abound that the opposition was acting with Iran to destabilise a Gulf country. Although this is denied by most opposition parties, many in Bahrain believe it to be true.
“We are becoming a place where Saudi Arabia and Iran settle accounts,” says Al-Wefaq’s Husain. “The reform movement has been hijacked by extremists on both sides now.”
The next few months will be crucial to Bahrain’s long-term stability. Without a deal with the opposition groups, Bahrain will face an unhappy and desperate future trying to continually keep a lid on an oppressed majority.
But with the main candidate to lead a reform package, the Crown Prince, in a much weaker position politically, he may not have the support within the government for anything other than piecemeal reform.
With the Shia now back in the villages and too afraid to launch more protests, it is easy for steadfast government supporters to see themselves as victors in this latest round of conflict between the island’s Sunni and Shia. That would be wrong. Bahrain is currently storing up for itself an even more unstable future.
As Husain says: “There is currently no winner in Bahrain. It is lose-lose on both sides now.”