Bahrain Burning

Eric Bouvet/VII Network
Hassan Mushayma, leader of the banned opposition group al-Haq, at a protest in the Pearl Roundabout, Manama, Bahrain, after his return from exile in London, February 26, 2011

In mid-March, a violent government campaign to put down a month-long popular revolt turned Bahrain into an island of terror. Images of security forces firing on unarmed protesters chanting “peaceful, peaceful” went around the world via YouTube and other media. Today Bahrain has largely receded from the news, emerging only briefly in an Obama speech or when Formula One organizers had to ex-plain why they postponed and finally canceled the annual Bahrain Grand Prix.

What happened in this small Persian Gulf nation off the coast of Saudi Arabia is the latest episode in a long-running conflict. For over two hundred years Bahrain has been ruled with a heavy hand by a family of sheikhs, the Al Khalifas. Sunni Muslims from the Saudi mainland, they have regarded Bahrain’s Shia population as Iranian proxies who cannot be entrusted with full political rights. The Shias, who make up some 70 percent of the country’s 1.2 million people (of whom some 666,000 are nonnationals), have long felt discriminated against in access to jobs, education, housing, and much else. In particular, they accuse the government of trying to dilute their numbers by naturalizing expatriate workers, especially Sunnis from Arab countries and Pakistan.

The current king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, began his reign in 1999 as an avowed reformer. He freed jailed activists, allowed exiled opposition leaders to return, and promised a new constitution with greater rights for all citizens, including political participation. Opposition groups, foremost among them the newly formed alliance of Shia Islamists called al-Wefaq, welcomed these pledges, but as the King largely failed to make good on them over the next decade, the Shia opposition grew increasingly disillusioned, complaining in particular about gerrymandering that prevented Shias from gaining a parliamentary majority.

Beginning in mid-February of this year, protesters inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt gathered at a centrally located traffic intersection known as the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain’s capital, Manama. In its center then stood a sculpture of a dhow—a traditional local sailing vessel—with six arches for its sails, representing the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the regional economic and political body of which Bahrain was a founding member. At the top perched a simulated pearl, Bahrain being well known for the pearls it harvests from the Gulf.

Fearing the protests would get out of control, King Hamad announced that the government would allow peaceful demonstrations and would punish no one for participating in them. His son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, opened secret talks with al-Wefaq and six other legal opposition groups about organizing a public dialogue on political reform. (By law Bahrain has no formal political parties, only political societies that effectively function as parties. These have to be registered with the government, however, and some refuse to do so, dividing the opposition into licensed and unlicensed groups.)

After these discussions began, however, more radical elements on both sides gained the upper hand. Thugs sponsored by the regime disrupted peaceful opposition rallies. This angered activists gathered at the Pearl Roundabout, and they escalated their slogans from calls for reform to explicit demands for the ouster not only of the government and its hated prime minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, but also of the monarchy. As the prime minister, who is the King’s uncle and has been running the government for forty years—the longest-sitting unelected prime minister in the world—prevailed, the King called in assistance from Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. On March 14 over a thousand Saudi troops moved into Bahrain, later joined by police officers from the United Arab Emirates. The King also declared that martial law was in effect, and government forces began to hunt down protest leaders and anyone associated with them.

Three months of terror followed. By June, the government had a distressing record of human rights abuses: hundreds arrested, torture, five deaths in detention, trials before special security courts, and lengthy jail terms (including life imprisonment) for twenty-one political activists for their participation in peaceful protests. Some 1,850 professionals, mostly Shias, were forced from their jobs. The government also destroyed or damaged over forty Shiite mosques and prayer houses, including several historic buildings, claiming they were built without a license.

The regime thus returned to the dark days of torture and repression that characterized its dealings with the political opposition from the 1970s until the late 1990s. Like the other Gulf states, it fears any sign of popular discontent reflecting the events in Egypt and Tunisia, where mass action, in a matter of weeks, succeeded in removing long-sitting autocrats from power. The Gulf states are mostly governed by autocrats unaccountable to their people; they have attempted to buy social peace with oil revenues and by reducing the relative size of their native populations by bringing in more pliable foreign nationals. The Gulf rulers’ first reaction to the Arab Spring was to give Bahrain and Oman, the Gulf Cooperation Council’s two less wealthy members, $10 billion each over a period of ten years to help them pacify their respective populations.

In Bahrain’s case, it didn’t work. The Arab Spring led to the revival of an opposition movement that had been deeply divided over how to confront the monarchy. The main groups are al-Wefaq, which remains committed to—but is deeply frustrated by—its experience with electoral politics, and its more radical spin-off al-Haq, a banned society whose leader, Hassan Mushayma, was living in exile in London when protests erupted in February. Al-Wefaq, headed by a relatively young cleric, Ali Salman, believes it can effect change through political participation; Al-Haq, by contrast, distrusts and shuns the political game, placing its faith in the public in the streets.

The government has accused both of these largely Shia groups of promoting the theocratic notion of Wilayat al-Faqih, the rule of a Shia religious leader in the tradition of Ruhollah Khomeini and his successor Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader. The Al Khalifa family and their Sunni allies feared that Bahrain’s Shias would take advantage of the Arab Spring to overthrow the monarchy and bring the country under Iranian influence. The Islamists deny that this is their aim, insisting that their sole objective is to turn Bahrain into a democracy. Their critics have presented no hard evidence of their supposed loyalty to Iran.

During the crisis this spring, a deep rift opened between, on the one hand, the reformist King and his son, and, on the other, the King’s hard-line uncle and his powerful associates who run the army and royal palace. Prime Minister Khalifa carries on the family’s profoundly conservative, patriarchal tradition, whereas the sixty-one-year-old King Hamad and the forty-one-year-old Crown Prince Salman are Western-educated and, in the Crown Prince’s case, liberal in outlook. The prime minister, who is in his seventies, has amassed immense wealth during his forty years in office; one of the Crown Prince’s aims since graduating from American University and Cambridge has been to build his own economic power base, ostensibly to eventually challenge or replace his great-uncle.

Alarmed by the uprising, seeing the outcome in Cairo and Tunis, and undoubtedly opposed to the prime minister’s inclination toward violent crackdown—security forces killed seven protesters in the first four days—Prince Salman, with his father’s evident blessing, arranged secret talks with the legal opposition societies. By mid-February both sides seemed to be making a genuine effort to negotiate, aware that if they failed to make headway swiftly, the hard-liners in their ranks would outmaneuver and supersede them. And in fact the negotiators ran out of time as the situation on the ground became chaotic.

Bahrain is connected to Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province via the King Fahd Causeway (see map on page 50). Financed by Saudi money, construction on the causeway started shortly after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, when Gulf rulers suspected their Shia populations of harboring sympathies for Khomeini and his followers. Both the Bahraini and Saudi governments—each in its own way—have come to depend on it. A broad highway sixteen miles long, the causeway is essential for bringing goods into Bahrain, while providing Saudis and other Gulf Arabs access to a strikingly cosmopolitan country.

On any evening, but especially on weekends, Manama becomes an entertainment center for Saudis who flock to its restaurants, cinemas, and nightclubs, where women sing and dance and alcohol flows freely into the early morning hours. The protests brought this business to a near standstill, but by the time we visited in early May, groups of young Saudis were again letting off steam on the rooftop of our hotel in central Manama.

While Saudi women are not allowed to drive, the taxi we hailed on a Manama street was driven by a woman, her head covered by a scarf. We asked her to take us to al-Wefaq’s headquarters; apparently fearing trouble as part of the ongoing crackdown, she stopped halfway there, near a towering complex called Bahrain Financial Harbour, a self-described “complete financial city” with a projected population of seven thousand. This is part of a giant land reclamation and construction scheme, widely seen as a source of corrupt profiteering and one of the objects of the protesters’ anger. Waving one-dinar bills, they had chanted slogans against the prime minister, whom they accused of having bought the land for a symbolic single dinar.

As in other parts of the Middle East, the organizers of the uprising were not established opposition groups but an ad hoc amalgam of youths, civil society activists, and urban professionals—most of them Shias—who found common cause in opposing economic discrimination, political exclusion, and pervasive corruption. Initially organized in villages and neighborhoods, they mobilized supporters through the use of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. The political societies soon threw their support behind the protesters, but al-Wefaq and al-Haq took diverging positions. While al-Wefaq agreed to sit down with the Crown Prince in secret talks, al-Haq attempted to seize leadership of protests in the streets, especially after its leader Hassan Mushayma returned from London, receiving a hero’s welcome. Al-Wefaq, along with other licensed societies, futiley tried to dissuade some of the more radical organizers from carrying out their most provocative actions, including a march on the royal palace and blocking the city’s main streets four weeks after the uprising began.

The protests brought together a cross-section of the population, including thousands of women and children. The atmosphere in the Pearl Roundabout at times had the feeling of a liberated space, with speeches, families celebrating, and food handed out for free. But the initial violence, and subsequent attempts by regime-sponsored thugs to disrupt the protests, prompted many of the youths and groups like al-Haq to escalate their demands. In turn, this persuaded many Sunni protesters to withdraw from the roundabout. Drawn to the earlier call for political reform, most of them remained fervent supporters of the Sunni monarchy. With government backing, they began to stage counterdemonstrations at Manama’s al-Fateh Mosque, declaring their loyalty to the Al Khalifa family. From that moment, the uprising assumed a sectarian overtone that subverted its original impetus and set in motion the events that would bring it to a brusque and violent end.

Mike King

Such openly sectarian polarization is new to Bahrain, long a part of the Gulf’s mixed coastline society, where different peoples, cultures, and cuisines have been brought together and blended under authoritarian regimes. Bahrain’s Shias claim that their ancestors were the island’s original Arab inhabitants (the Baharna), conquered in the eighteenth century by Sunni marauders from Saudi Arabia—the Al Khalifa—who pushed out its Persian rulers. But many others arrived on its shores, including Arabs who had migrated to Iran and returned to Bahrain in the twentieth century (the Huwala), Persian Shias (the Ajam), and more recently South Asian workers attracted by a fast-growing economy based initially on oil but since the mid-1970s especially on tourism and banking.

Bahrain’s Sunnis and Shias long lived side by side peacefully—“a bird with two wings” was how a government minister put it—but as a middle class emerged in the mid-twentieth century, Shias began to complain of job discrimination in government, the security forces, and private business in Bahrain’s crony capitalism. They resented in particular the practice of recruiting foreign nationals, mostly Sunnis, into the police.

Protests increased throughout the 1990s and were met with repression, including the arrest and sometimes banishment of the organizers. Early in his reign, in February 2001, King Hamad announced dramatic reforms. He promised that he would draft a new constitution allowing for an elected parliament and banish state security courts and other such institutions of the police state. During the following decade Bahrain had a relatively free press and an active involvement of associations and political parties in political life. These were uncommon features elsewhere in the Gulf, although none of the reforms fundamentally altered the Al Khalifas’ grip on politics and the economy.

To the opposition groups’ bitter disappointment, the constitution, promulgated in 2002, fell far short of the King’s earlier promise to expand political participation and limit the ruling family’s power. The King retained the right to appoint parliament’s upper house, as well as the prime minister and his government. The electoral districts of the lower house were drawn in a way that discriminated against Shias. Labor unrest and street protests again became the norm, but throughout the 2000s they were largely tolerated. A police chief told us that in 2010 Bahrain had about one thousand organized protest actions, or 3.4 per day: “We got used to it,” he said.

In August 2010, the government, fearing its rule was threatened, decided to crush these freedoms in an appalling fit of repression. It cracked down on dissidents, from bloggers to human rights activists and opposition politicians, and hundreds were arrested. In a subsequent trial of leading dissidents the charge was the same heard today: they were guilty of a treasonous plot to overthrow the regime in collusion with foreign powers, a barely veiled allusion to Iran. Protest leaders jailed last summer were given an amnesty in February—a measure clearly intended to placate the Pearl Roundabout protesters—but they were sent back to prison, where most of them remain, once the government put an end to the uprising a month later.

Despite such repression, electoral politics continued, and al-Wefaq, the largest of the licensed political societies, took all the opposition seats in the October 2010 elections, sending eighteen members into the forty-seat parliament. In February, it stayed on this political course, agreeing to secret talks with the Crown Prince, whom it saw as an ally in its struggle against the prime minister. But it never wavered from its principal demand for an openly elected constituent assembly based on fair districting, followed by the drafting of a new constitution—the way it calculates will give it political dominance. The Crown Prince, by contrast, appeared to accept nearly all the opposition’s demands except a new constitution. On the day before the Saudi intervention on March 14, he offered to discuss these demands in a public dialogue and have any resulting agreement submitted to a referendum—a move widely seen as promising and serious.Al-Wefaq rejected the offer, claiming it would be insufficient to persuade the protesters at the roundabout, including groups such as al-Haq.

Things came to a head in mid-March when younger protesters and supporters of al-Haq and other such groups moved out from the roundabout to demonstrate in other parts of the city. As talks faltered and the Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Saudi Arabia, stepped in to support the shaken Al Khalifa family, the government and its Sunni supporters began to make claims about a foreign plot. Al-Wefaq’s aim, they said, never was reform but part of an Iranian attempt to install Wilayat al-Faqih in Bahrain; they accused the more radical elements at the roundabout of having received instruction in civil disobedience techniques at Hezbollah training camps in Lebanon, and of inciting the masses by appearing on Hezbollah’s al-Manar and Iran’s al-Alam (Arabic) satellite channels.

The government and many Sunnis began using overtly sectarian rhetoric. “They started killing the Sunnis,” said a Sunni businessman, who told us he had joined a Sunni-led rival protest at the al-Fateh Mosque “because we didn’t want to hand our country over to another country”—Iran. He did not mention the presence of Saudi troops in Bahrain, and the Saudi flag in effect flying over the capital.

Iranian leaders largely maintained silence during the month of protests, giving no indication that Tehran had a hand in the events; but they quickly condemned Saudi Arabia for dispatching its troops. The Bahraini government has not presented any evidence of direct Iranian interference; Iran may well have seen Bahrain’s turmoil and Saudi Arabia’s panicked response as an excellent opportunity to take a rhetorical poke at its rival, at no cost to itself.

In the ethnic and sectarian cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia—Persian against Arab, Shia against Sunni—Bahrain has become the latest focal point now that Iraq, from a Sunni perspective, has been lost to Tehran’s sphere of influence. To Sunnis, Bahrain is the peninsula’s soft underbelly, vulnerable to Iranian penetration through its Shia population. As in Iraq, however, Bahrain’s Shias are mostly Arab; many are deeply suspicious of the Iranian regime, and find religious inspiration primarily in senior clerics based in Iraq, not in Iran. They have become the victims in a proxy war sustained by the hard-liners among the Al Khalifa family, who are seeking to hold on to power through repression, while leaning on a Saudi crutch.

The Obama administration has stayed largely aloof from this struggle, thus implicitly endorsing the Al Khalifas’ continued reign. Washington is concerned about turmoil in Bahrain since the US Fifth Fleet is based there. The State Department has protested some of the worst human rights violations and insisted on the need for dialogue and democratic reforms. In the administration’s view, the more Bahrain experiences sectarian polarization and the more repressive the regime’s measures, the more likely Shias will turn to Iran for support. Moreover, the administration wants to shield Saudi Arabia, with whom it recently negotiated a $60 billion arms deal, from turmoil in Bahrain. US officials also believe that, unlike in Egypt or Tunisia, the Bahraini military is not likely to turn against its political leaders. In March they privately conveyed to al-Wefaq’s leader Ali Salman the need to show greater flexibility in the secret talks by accepting the Crown Prince’s offer of dialogue without preconditions; they say he ignored their advice.

To emphasize US support for Crown Prince Salman, President Obama received him at the White House on June 7, a week after King Hamad lifted emergency law and announced a planned return to dialogue. In late June, Saudi officials signaled their intent to withdraw most Saudi troops in July, and a June 29 decree by King Hamad held out the possibility of transferring all pending cases before the special security courts to civilian courts. Moreover, on June 29 the government also announced the creation of an inde-pendent commission of human rights experts and lawyers, led by the UN war crimes expert Cherif Bassiouni, to investigate what happened during the uprising and its violent suppression in February and March. This, along with American and British pressure, helped to persuade al-Wefaq to accept the King’s invitation to take part in a “national consensus dialogue.”

Arranged by the regime’s hard-liners, who appear to have sidelined Prince Salman, these talks, which started on July 5, threaten to become an exercise in talking about everything and nothing, with no clear objectives or even the prospect of reform. The opposition, while participating, is grossly underrepresented; key leaders, such as Hassan Mushayma and Ibrahim Sharif, a prominent secular Sunni opposition leader, are in jail rather than at the table. Meanwhile, Shia villages and neighborhoods remain under siege, their mosques under threat of destruction. Although the special security courts are being phased out, the sentences they handed down remain in force. Having just joined the talks, the four al-Wefaq delegates walked out barely a week later, on July 12, angered by an anti-Shia epithet uttered by one of the participants and discouraged by the failure of the proceedings to address issues of democratic reform and release of political prisoners. Throughout June, street protests picked up again, with hundreds of Shia youths clashing with security forces firing tear gas and rubber bullets.

Obama was right when he said in his May 19 speech on the Arab Spring that “you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.” Yet it will take much more pressure than the President’s words to persuade Bahrain’s rulers to treat the Shias as full citizens, organize serious and inclusive talks with the opposition, open up the political system, and move toward democracy, especially as long as the Al Khalifas can rely on their powerful neighbor across the causeway. In the absence of such pressure, Bahrain is likely to see a good many more protests before the end of the year.

—July 19, 2011