The March of Bahrain’s Hardliners

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Conservative figures within the Bahraini royal family seem to be redoubling their efforts to subdue the opposition.
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Conservative figures within the Bahraini royal family are redoubling their efforts to subdue the opposition. This is plainly visible in new arrests, media censorship, warnings to Shia clerics, and more aggressive counter-demonstration tactics. As a result, the institutionalized non-violent opposition represented by the Shia political society al-Wifaq is losing ground to the more radical February 14 Youth Movement.

Regime conservatives have been further emboldened by the Saudi proposal for the transformation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) into a so-called Gulf Union that would entail closer economic, political, and military ties. While the idea has been greeted with skepticism by most GCC governments and prompted Shia protests in Bahrain and across the Gulf, conservatives in the Bahraini ruling family have responded eagerly.

In this climate, the recent decision by the United States to resume weapons sales to Bahrain, intended to shore up the pro-reform Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, has had the opposite effect, encouraging royal hardliners, who see a new normalcy in U.S.-Bahraini relations. The arms transfers have placed al-Wifaq further on the defensive and provoked a new turn toward anti-Americanism from the February 14 Youth Movement.

The net effect of these developments has been the further deterioration of centrist politics in the kingdom and diminished prospects for peaceable dialogue, although the government has made some moves to appease the United Nations Human Rights Council. Both sides are now engaged in an intense round of mutual de-legitimization.

New Crackdown with Token Concessions

Buoyed by the successful convening of the Formula One Grand Prix in April, hardliners have taken a number of steps to further consolidate control. Much of the kingdom’s political power resides in a conservative triumvirate comprised of Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, Royal Court Minister Khalid bin Ahmad bin Salman al-Khalifa, and the commander of the Bahrain Defense Forces Khalifa bin Ahmed al-Khalifa—with the latter two being brothers, part of the al-Khawalid branch of the al-Khalifa family.

The crown prince, considered to be the member of the royal family most open to the idea of responding to the unrest with reforms and dialogue, has seen his influence steadily decline since mid-2011, epitomized by the dismantling of many of his economic projects aimed at liberalizing the Bahraini market. The king, also somewhat more open minded than the true hardliners, has been similarly overshadowed without gaining any support from the opposition. He recently ratified a constitutional amendment that required him to consult with the heads of the elected parliament and the Shura Council before dissolving the legislature, but the measure was quickly dismissed by the opposition as falling far short of their demands.

The hardline faction, which controls the security forces as well as the instruments of censorship, is now very open about its intention to silence the opposition. In late April, it appointed Samira Rajab, a polarizing figure who has praised Saddam Hussein and whose anti-Shia statements have aroused the ire of the opposition, as information minister. Concurrently, it arrested human rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja for staging a protest to demand the release from prison of her father, the prominent activist ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja; she has since been sentenced to a month in prison. On May 5, it detained another popular dissident, Nabeel Rajab, for his tweets. Most recently, on May 27, it sentenced six Bahraini nationals to fifteen-year sentences for plotting attacks in Bahrain on behalf of Iran.

To make matters worse, the Bahraini parliament passed legislation on May 9 that increased the punishment for assaults on security forces and issued a number of threats against the Shia cleric ‘Isa al-Qasim. Most recently, state television renewed attacks on Bahrain’s only independent newspaper, al-Wasat. On the streets, meanwhile, opposition sources cite increasingly aggressive tactics by security forces, such as shooting bird pellets and tear gas rounds at close range and forcibly breaking into homes.

In tandem with this crackdown, however, the regime has taken some steps to convince the international community, particularly the UN Human Rights Council, that it is taking positive steps to curb human rights violations. In anticipation of the publication of a critical report by the Human Rights Council, Bahrain’s lower court acquitted 14 defendants on May 15 accused of illegal assembly and rioting, including a member of al-Wifaq’s consultative council. And a week later on May 22, the government began (but then delayed) the retrial of ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja and 20 other activists. This was a key recommendation of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, an autonomous fact-finding body that issued a highly critical report of the regime’s response to the 2011 uprising. On May 28, it released the activist Nabeel Rajab, and Zainab al-Khawaja was released on bail the next day.

The Bahraini Shura Council also approved an amendment to a law against spreading false information, rewording it to specify the crime as “deliberately” spreading false information with “intention of causing harm.” Most recently, Bahrain agreed to “consider” UN recommendations to release political prisoners, ban torture, and join the International Criminal Court.

But given the current balance of power within the royal family, it is doubtful that these gestures presage deeper structural reforms. Most likely, as the opposition charges, they are tactical stop-gap measures to remove the regime from the spotlight of international scrutiny.  

Gulf Unity and Its Discontents

At the same time it has been trying to convince the United Nations of its intention to improve the country’s human rights record, the regime has been asking for a “fast-tracking” of the union with Saudi Arabia. Union has long been the rallying cry of many of Bahrain’s Sunni figures. Since early 2012 there have been routine demonstrations at Manama’s al-Fatah mosque in support of unity.

Merger between the two kingdoms received a surprisingly formal endorsement when Saudi and Bahraini officials referenced it on the sidelines of a May 14 meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh. Mutual defense, presumably against Iran, was cited as a major impetus for the unity scheme. But given the prominence of U.S. training and arms transfers to both states’ militaries, political motives are more likely at work—unity is a means for the al-Saud, Saudi Arabia’s ruling royal family, to shore up their conservative allies in the al-Khalifa family. 

Regardless of the motives, the announcement of a possible union at such a sensitive time has had a polarizing effect domestically and regionally. Predictably, the scheme garnered backing from outspoken Sunni supporters of the Bahraini regime. The Sahwat al-Fatah Youth Group, the Salafist member of parliament Jassim al-Saidi, and the leader of the National Unity Gathering ‘Abd al-Latif Mahmud all expressed support via Twitter or Facebook.

From the Shia side, the February 14 Youth Movement denounced the move as the “GCC falsity union.” Al-Wifaq and ‘Isa al-Qasim argued that any decision on union should be made through a popular referendum, citing the precedent of the country’s vote for independence in 1971. There were widespread Shia protests against the union in Bahrain and across the Gulf, while in Tehran, Iranian officials resurrected their longstanding claim to ownership of Bahrain.

U.S. Arms Transfers Backfire

Since the beginning of the uprising in Bahrain in February 2011, the United States has been hard pressed to devise a policy that signaled its support for reforms without creating further friction with Saudi Arabia or jeopardizing its access to its military bases in Bahrain.

In recent weeks, the United States reportedly renewed its offer to the crown prince to help mediate the conflict between the monarchy and the opposition, but was rebuffed on the ground that it was a purely internal matter. Low-level Track II meetings are underway inside Bahrain and senior U.S. officials continue to exhort their Bahraini counterparts to press forward with reforms. In tandem with these approaches, the United States concluded that it could use the resumption of arms transfers as a form of leverage to convince the Bahraini authorities to pursue reforms.

The State Department announced on May 11 the resumption of U.S. arms sales to Bahrain, including turbo-fan upgrades for the F-16 fighter jet, advanced air-to-air missiles, harbor patrol boats, and a frigate. Not included in the release, the State Department emphasized, are Humvees and munitions used by ministry of interior forces for crowd control, such as tear gas canisters and stun grenades. These sales were halted in last fall by a Congressional resolution; on May 24, the Senate Appropriations Committee placed further restrictions on these items and made foreign aid contingent on improvements in freedom of expression.

Withholding crowd control items may be an attempt to limit the symbolic damage to U.S. legitimacy caused by the regime’s crackdown. But such restrictions have had a negligible effect on the street.

The Bahraini opposition points out that the regime has circumvented U.S. restrictions by purchasing small arms munitions from Brazil and China. Most significantly, the regime bought Turkish-made Cobra armored personnel carriers as a substitute for the Humvee and they were deployed on the streets of Manama in time for the one-year anniversary of the February 14 uprising. According to several activists, the Cobra is actually a more effective crowd control tool than the Humvee because its smaller chassis allows it to traverse the narrow backstreets of Bahrain’s Shia villages.

Ostensibly, the arms sales are also intended to shore up the more moderate, pro-reform crown prince against the hardliners—the State Department announced the approval during a visit by the crown prince to Washington. Yet the crown prince has been steadily stripped of significant authority since the Saudi intervention in Bahrain and diplomatic support from Washington is unlikely to restore this. Moreover, the conservative faction—which includes the commander of the Bahraini defense forces—has likely interpreted the transfer as a “win” and sign of normalcy in U.S.-Bahrain relations.

Al-Wifaq Faces the Street

For al-Wifaq, the release was a disheartening blow, confirming that Washington, in the words of one activist, “carries a large carrot and a small stick” in its dealings with the regime. Its activists argue that the United States should halt all training and assistance to the Bahraini military until steps have been taken to integrate Shia personnel into the security forces. It believes that private, backchannel exhortations by U.S. defense officials to their Bahraini counterparts are not enough, arguing that real shifts in policy have occurred only when the regime has been publicly called out in high-level speeches.

Importantly, however, many in the opposition recommend against the United States moving its bases, such as the Fifth Fleet headquarters, or its forces at Shaykh ‘Isa Air Base, arguing that this would only further empower hardliners in the regime who doubt the reliability of Washington as a security patron. Worse, it would strengthen the case for union with Saudi Arabia and further diminish the prospects for reform.

Most significantly, the recent arms transfer placed further pressure on al-Wifaq by enabling rejectionists in the opposition. The sale, followed by the push for union with Saudi Arabia, has animated al-Wifaq’s rival in the streets, the February 14 Youth Movement, toward a more aggressive anti-American stance.

The group declared a “Week of Resisting American Arms Sales,” on its Facebook page, emblazoned with blood-drenched shotgun shells stamped “U.S.A.” Its tactics on the streets have also shifted, moving away from Molotov cocktails and toward crude improvised explosive devices. If the current crackdown continues and if Washington is perceived to be supporting the regime’s security response, the ranks of the rejectionists will swell.

In the wake of these developments, al-Wifaq is appearing beleaguered and weaker. Its talks with the regime reportedly ended in late March, foundering on the issue of the appointed Shura Council, which al-Wifaq contends is the principal obstacle to democratic reform and which the regime believes is a necessary buffer against what one official called a “fractious and divided parliament.” Al-Wifaq is now seeking external mediation—despite objections from the royals, this may be the only route out of the current impasse.


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Comments (7)

  • Christina
    1 Recommend
    No doubt the hardline faction of the alkhanifas have been pushing hard for a return of the national security law in Bahrain to further expand their crackdown on HR and civil rights activists. What is happening today is merely a continuation of the alBandar plan which was drawn up by the same faction more than 10 years back aiming to marginalise the Shia as second class citizens devoid of any political, economic or social power. The continuing political naturalization of bedouin and balouch families will undoubtably breed more and more dangerous problems for bahrainis future
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  • SM
    Although I agree with the view that centrist politics has been the overall loser in the political battle for Bahrain, I find many other conclusions unsubstantiated and questionable. Can the author please name those economic projects spearheaded or managed by the Crown Prince and which have been 'dismantled'? Also how does the author define an open-minded vs hardline member of the royal family? This view of decision-making seems too simplistic and there is certainly no evidence provided to back it up. Similarly, how does one identify an 'independent' newspaper? Can any media in Bahrain be classified as independent? Do they not all serve the purpose of their stakeholders? Finally the portrayal of the opposition view that the headquarters of the Fifth Fleet and US forces stationed at the Shaikh Isa Base is necessary is weakly presented as a pro-American ally stance seemingly only in order to maintain the picture of moderation...
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  • Duri Mohammed
    The author has missed a very important point that broke the creadibilty to his article.True ,the scenario in Bahrain is not condusive for a democratic transition because the situation has been polirized along the sectarian lines.The first cause of the 'revolution' was social justice and economic freedom. It was only when the Governmnet has delayed to respond that the revolution was hijacked and took the form of sectarian agenda.The shias and the sunnis found themselves in different niches.Al wefaq played an important role in widening the sectarian rift by reying on Iranian propoganda and Iraqi's hardliners.The Sunnis then forced to group together and form a political group.Things become aggravated when the Shia youths started to attack Sunnis both citizens and expatriates.The result was no body believed that the Alwefaq and cohorts are genuine democracy promotors, rather they are considered as Iranian lackeys. Al wefaq instead of seeking international support for its cause , it would have been good for them to try to start build confidence among the Bahraini population.The solution rests here. The demand for an elected governmnet at this stage , for which the alwefaq and cohorts were campaigning will hand over one sect to revenge against the other and it would seem the same fault line as present day Iraq.Dialogue was the only way forward, but time again Alwefaq has rejected, it wants to come to the negotiating table only as a winner.Now it has become a cornered animal ready to negotiate on any terms , inorder not to lose its political credibility.Last year's rejection of dialogue which was called by the Crown Prince was mentioned in the BICI report as ' a missed chance'. With the expected Union of the Gulf countries, the political agenda of alwefaq is going to be thrown into the air.Now again the only way forward is to dialogue as harad lineres in Governmnet have to change their attitude , the hard liners in Alwefaq, considered to be as foot soldirs of Iran by the bahraini people should leave the political stage and give way to new ones with internal agenda rather than promoting foreign ones.Then will be the time to neutralize sectarian feeling aand start to talk democratic transition.
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  • Jake
    1 Recommend
    I teach a lot of Shia youth and children in Bahrain. I try to maintain friends on both sides of the sectarian divide and am aware of the myriad of different stances on the situation. One thing, however, that hasn't come into the spotlight is the effect that the events of the last 16 months are having on the residents of the Shia villages.

    Every day I observe the increasing politicization and traumatization of Shia children and young people. This is creating a potentially horrific harvest for the future and no side seems to be taking this into account as they stand firm in their entrenched positions.

    Speak to any older generation Bahraini, and they say that a 'Civil war and ethnic cleansing' scenario is impossible in the context of Bahrain's tolerant and inclusive social contract. But, this 'social contract' is exactly what is in danger of breaking down, with a new radical generation pushing against Al-Wefaq's leadership as has been documented. In addition, an even more radical generation waits in the wings, as children raised playing 'Masiras' on the street, singing opposition songs and feasting on the latest gruesome images from Twitter will mature into the 'Shebab' of tomorrow.

    My question to both government and opposition is this: your stalling over dialogue for the sake of your position is causing unspeakable trauma to the most vulnerable of your people ie: the children and raising the spectre of a potentially disastrous future for Bahrain, what are you going to do about it?

    This situation demands some bigger men in Bahraini politics to make decisions that will make steps to bring healing to a society that is wounded but not broken beyond repair. Where are such men?
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  • Ali Hassan
    Thx for the article. The political struggle in Bahrain is between pro dictatorship and pro democracy. Pro dictatorship are those who prais the Prime Minister who has been in power and holding the same job for more than 40 years.   On the other hand, pro democracy people want a contitutional monorchy that treats people equally. It's a civil right movement to stop institutional discrimination in Bahrain where majority Shia have no access to government jobs especially security and military. They also want to stop systematic torture by authorities. Fair representation in decision making is a fair demand and Bahraini people deserve it.
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  • Doubledutch20
    The situations in Lebanon, Bahrain, Syria, and Saudi Arabia all have very similar root problems; the Shia and Sunni must be separated, the two cannot live together, as has been the case for some 1,400 years. Since Iraq has now a conducive climate for the Arab Shia, then the Shia from Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria, and Saudi Arabia should be encouraged to emigrate to their Shia province in Iraq. Their religious sites are there, oil wealth is there, and the Sunni Arabs from the countries from where the Shia will emigrate can ensure that money is made available to build homes and business for the Shia to move to their new home in Iraq.
    This is the only solution that is viable for all their futures; anything else will not create peace. A deep and honest review of history exposes this fundamental issue; read what the Persian Shia , Ahhmed Kasravi wrote about his own religion, and for which he was assassinated in the Iranian court.

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  • DisappointedAtPoorAnalysis
    I don't understand. Samira Rajab is a shia. Why would she make anti-shia comments? Or is it her comments are directed against hardline rejectionist opposition members (nabeel rajab is her first cousin incidentally) that the author with his simplistic understanding of Bahrain simply understands to be "anyone who criticizes the dissident, criticizes the shia" without even looking into the content of what that criticism is?
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