Bahrain: Stranded on the Island
By Roula Khalaf and Simeon Kerr
July 13 2011
It is as if Manama’s Pearl roundabout never existed. The site that Shia protesters in Bahrain turned in February into their own version of Cairo’s Tahrir Square has been erased from the map – literally. The statue in the middle of the traffic circle was razed, the streets were repaved in the form of a crossroads and Pearl’s name was changed to Farooq junction.
The centre of the Bahraini capital is again clogged with traffic and the chic restaurants in the Adliya district are brimming with customers. Across town, billboards display serene-looking young people pledging “Our Bahrain, our unity” – the slogan of a national dialogue launched last week by the ruling al-Khalifa family. “The healing has started,” a local businessman says confidently.
Under the veneer of normality, however, the Gulf state of about 600,000 citizens remains in deep crisis, damaged by repression and sectarian hatred. Whether it can overcome its wounds is still uncertain but the outcome of the conflict will have ramifications well beyond the tiny island. The turmoil has drawn in regional powers and has alarmed the US, which considers Bahrain a strategic ally, and reconciliation between the Shia and the royal family as crucial to the stability of the Gulf – across which Iran looms large.
That security is allowing King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa to risk a few conciliatory moves – ordering, for example, an independent investigation by international legal experts into human rights abuses. Activists’ trials have also been moved from military tribunals to civilian courts.
Yet amid widespread doubts that the national dialogue, packed with regime loyalists, will lead to a credible democratic transition – the main Shia party participating is already threatening to quit – it is far from clear that the regime’s security will be permanent. As a senior US official says, Bahrain today “is a divided country and a divided ruling family”.
The protests by the Shia enraged the island’s large Sunni minority, which has rallied more fiercely than ever around hardliners in the monarchy and is even less willing for the Shia to be granted more rights. “King Hamad is the most democratic royal monarch that has ever reached the throne in the Arab world,” says Anwar Abdulrahman, editor of Akhbar al-Khaleej, a pro-government newspaper: the opposition “wants to take the nation to catastrophe”.
Inside the regime, the chasm has widened between reformists led by the 41-year-old US-educated Crown Prince Salman and hardliners grouped around the prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa. The conservatives gained the upper hand after attempted negotiations in March between the crown prince and the opposition were derailed by radicals on both sides, with protesters overrunning police and paralysing Manama; Saudi troops then entered Bahrain. People close to the crown prince say he is dissociating himself from the national dialogue, perhaps because the Sunni now see him as too accommodating towards the Shia.
While protesters still focus their ire on the prime minister, a businessman seen as a symbol of royal excesses, Sheikh Khalifa’s supporters have plastered his picture all over Manama shops, leaving no doubt that he is the strongman today. “The crown prince was given a chance [to negotiate] and the opposition refused,” says Abdelatif al-Mahmoud, head of the National Unity Gathering of Sunni parties. “Today it has to be a group, not an individual, leading the dialogue.”
Bahrain’s uprising may not have received the same attention as other revolts in the Arab awakening that has swept the Middle East over the past six months, yet it was the most predictable and one of the most strategically important. Disgruntled by decades of discrimination – excluded from most high-level positions and the security forces, which recruit Sunni from other parts of the region but rarely employ Shia – tensions have been simmering for decades. They were already on a perilous rise last summer, when several opposition leaders were arrested and accused of a plot to overthrow the regime.
In part because of its specific circumstances – it was a revolt largely driven by Shia in a Sunni Gulf region where the royals see the hand of Iran in every hint of unrest – the uprising was treated differently in the Middle East media and even by western governments. No sooner had protests erupted on February 14 than they turned into a regional stand-off, pitting Riyadh against Tehran and trapping in the middle the US – a close ally of Manama with a valued defence relationship that includes the island acting as base for the Fifth Fleet.
As the traditional conflicts in the Middle East merged with the challenge of the Arab spring, Saudi forces sent to Bahrain in mid-March were joined by those of other Sunni Gulf states, to bolster the Khalifas. In Washington, the administration of Barack Obama was confronted with one of its most difficult policy decisions of all the Arab upheavals, scrambling to strike a balance between its support for allies in Manama and Riyadh, and its pledge to back the people of the Arab world in their pursuit of freedom.
The Sunni Khalifas who were challenged by the demonstrators are secure again, emboldened by the backing of neighbours including Saudi Arabia, and a security crackdown that locked up hundreds of Shia leaders, activists and medical staff who treated protesters. Others were punished with a wave of sackings.
“The stability of the Khalifas is in our strategic interests,” admits a western official. “But that continuity is not viable long term unless [Shia] grievances are addressed... and there have been so many scars and [so much] damage done.”
About the same time that 300 Bahraini personalities gathered for their first talks at the Isa cultural centre last week, a helicopter was hovering above Sehla, a Shia village 10km away. It was the third day after the funeral of 30-year-old Majeed Ahmed Mohammed, who died from head injuries received in March when the security crackdown was launched.
Young men and women streamed in their hundreds out of the graveyard carrying photocopies of his picture under the banner “No to dialogue” and chanting “Down with Hamad”.
Within minutes, they were confronted by a dozen policemen firing teargas. As police reinforcements stormed in, the protest was dispersed. The demonstrators’ plan to join others from a nearby village and march to Manama was stopped in its tracks.
The young Bahrainis who led the protest movement – they take their name February 14 from the first day of the uprising – are not giving up, plotting rallies and denouncing as a sham a national dialogue to which they were not invited. “If the dialogue is to stop the protests, and the protesters are not represented, then how can you have a dialogue?” asks Mohammed al-Maskati, president of the Bahrain youth society for human rights.
The disillusionment of the Shia has been magnified by this year’s security crackdown, which they see as a collective punishment. How can they give up now, asks another activist. “This was an existential conflict about being recognised as equal citizens. But the crackdown was so vengeful, designed to demean one as a Shia. It is unacceptable to make us feel that we have to prove our loyalty.”
But with the Bahraini authorities and the whole Gulf Cooperation Council (the umbrella group of six states that intervened in Bahrain) standing against them, the movement’s options have been severely constrained. The repression has shattered February 14’s embryonic organisation, putting leaders behind bars and sending organisers underground. Five months on, the government has in effect relegated protests to the villages, with checkpoints around Shia areas and on the way to Manama to prevent another congregation of protests such as occurred at Pearl.
From the regime’s perspective, February 14 is a radical movement that associated itself with those who dared raise the banner of a “republic” (a word into which officials immediately read Islamic Republic of Iran) and must be isolated. Instead, the government’s chosen interlocutor is al-Wefaq, the largest and most moderate Shia party represented in parliament. It entered the dialogue reluctantly and despite the fact that two of its MPs are in jail, charged with passing false information to the media. A week into the talks, al-Wefaq is losing faith, its officials predicting that they could soon withdraw.
Government officials say that if an understanding could be reached with al-Wefaq, the more hardline elements in the opposition would be marginalised. They insist, too, that however small the opposition’s representation, its demands will be considered. “Whether there is one or five members of the opposition in the dialogue they will be heard and the recommendations will be put down on the table,” says Abdelaziz bin Mubarak al-Khalifa, a government spokesman.
But the changes al-Wefaq is seeking – a constituent assembly to write a new constitution with the aim of having an empowered parliament and a government formed as a result of elections – are not about to be embraced by the king.
More limited reforms are possible, including a redrawing of electoral boundaries – which are now designed to ensure that al-Wefaq can win no more than 18 out of 40 seats in parliament – and more powers to the elected chamber. Some MPs could be given places in the cabinet, suggest people close to the government, but the removal of Sheikh Khalifa as prime minister is a red line.
“We don’t know if we will continue with this dialogue,” says Ali Salman, the al-Wefaq leader, describing it as a social gathering in which the loyalist voice is loudest. “I am not ready to support lies that will get us in trouble again.” Dismissing claims that the Shia take orders from Iran as a “blatant lie”, he says he is told that Saudi Arabia will not allow a constitutional monarchy in Bahrain. “Isn’t that interference? And they even have troops and weapons in Bahrain,” he says of the Saudis.
Among opposition members, the speculation is that the dialogue will fail, which would allow the crown prince to step back into the picture and hold a more convincing round of talks with al-Wefaq. “When the dialogue fails, the crown prince will be called and we’ll have a second phase of talks,” says Mounira Fakhro, a secular opposition leader whose Waad party colleague, Ibrahim Sharif, has been jailed for five years for “plotting” the monarchy’s downfall.
On both sides of the divide, everyone agrees that the next few months will be critical, as the results of the dialogue and the findings of the human rights commission emerge and the trials of activists, politicians and doctors resume.
Holding out little hope of change at the top, the youth movement is convinced that only street pressure will make the rulers listen, recalling the promises of reforms made a decade ago that fell far short of expectations. “We are inspired and we feel powerful,” says another young activist, arguing that new ways of challenging the authorities will be found.
“The same tools used in the past won’t lead to stability – and stability in Bahrain is crucial for the whole world,” says the activist. Pearl roundabout was a source of power, he goes on. “But it was a location, and there are plenty of areas where we can be in the future.”