Bahrain’s Lost Uprising

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Reform in Bahrain is at an impasse with internal divisions within both the ruling family and opposition, and the resumption of U.S. weapons sales to Bahrain did not help Washington’s capacity to push change in the right direction.
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Bahrain’s ruling family seems to have weathered the storm brought on by the Arab Spring and is looking to show the world that business is back to normal. In a Q&A, Frederic Wehrey, who recently traveled to Bahrain, assesses the situation in the country and whether there is hope for political transition.

Wehrey says reform is at an impasse with internal divisions within both the ruling family and opposition. And the resumption of U.S. weapons sales to Bahrain did not help Washington’s capacity to push change in the right direction.

Are political reforms moving forward in Bahrain?

The major reform milestone was the issuance of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s report in November. Commissioned by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, the report charges that security personnel relied on excessive force to quell the uprising and specifies very clear steps that the Bahraini government has to take.

Right now, however, the general consensus is that the government has not made concrete progress on reform.

In May, the king announced some amendments to the constitution that were framed as reforms, but the main Shia opposition party, al-Wifaq, quickly rejected them as cosmetic offers that left the real power in the hands of the ruling family.

A major stumbling block is the 2002 constitution, created unilaterally by the king, that subordinated the elected parliament to an unelected “upper house,” the Shura Council, which holds ultimate veto authority. In the eyes of many activists, this was a staggering blow to the country’s democratic progress.  Parliament thus has no real authority—it can’t legislate real laws, it can’t hold ministers accountable, and it can’t monitor corruption. The parliament is now referred to by some opposition critics as a “debating society.”

Reform is clearly at an impasse. But the real story behind the stalemate is factionalism on both sides. Within the royal family, there is a division between the pro-reform side led by the crown prince and the hardliners, among whom a trio—the prime minister, the royal court minister, and the commander of the defense forces—holds a great deal of sway. They are well entrenched and trying to undercut the authority of the crown prince.

On the opposition side, there was an institutionalized opposition, al-Wifaq, that participated in elections, sought dialogue, and remains pragmatic. That party, however, is now under pressure from the more radical youth who led the protests that erupted in 2011 and are much bolder in their demands.

The presence of these more radical and fractured currents makes it very difficult to reach a compromise or for the United States to find an interlocutor in Bahrain.

What does the ruling family want?

The real power and ultimate authority over the instruments of repression reside with the hardline faction of the government. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa is granted some room to negotiate, but none of that really amounts to anything. Any opening is calculated and calibrated.

Still, the regime has made some attempts to curtail its tactics in the streets. Security forces have shown a bit more restraint when facing protests.

The turning point for the ruling family was the Formula One Grand Prix in April. The Bahraini regime is sensitive to the country’s image as a hub of commerce and liberal values and is competing with Dubai and Qatar as a place for global business. The regime saw the race as an opportunity to show the world that Bahrain is back to normal.

And this is exactly what happened. Despite scattered protests, the race was staged without major incident. The regime walked away thinking of itself as the victor—and now that the United States has resumed arms sales to the country there is a business-as-usual feeling in Bahrain.

Throughout Bahraini history there have been protests and waves of repression followed by promised reforms that placate the opposition. This is precisely what has happened over the last year. After the harsh crackdown and attempts at dialogue, multiple avenues are now being pursued—a media clampdown, arrests, and cosmetic reforms—to quiet the opposition.

What does the opposition want? Is the opposition speaking with one voice?

The root problem is that the opposition is not united. Al-Wifaq wants reforms within the system and is amenable to the al-Khalifa family staying in power with more checks and balances.

Al-Wifaq’s position came under fire after the protests broke out and more and more Shia voices began to openly call for the ouster of the al-Khalifa family. The harder line is attracting an increasingly large following and carrying greater weight within the country.

The followers of the February 14 Youth Movement, a somewhat amorphous network of youth communicating via Facebook and Twitter, are the ones out on the street. They are very radical and provocative and are challenging al-Wifaq’s role as the leading opposition group. They also loudly criticized the U.S. arms deal.

Al-Wifaq is losing support to the February 14 Youth Movement and its talks with the regime have broken down.

Have the political protests in Bahrain been quieted? What is the threat of renewed, violent protests?

Protests persist in villages across the island, but they are at a relatively low level. The main protests are planned for major events, most recently Formula One’s return to Bahrain. The protests are so hard to predict because they are being directed by the amorphous youth coalition without party control—al-Wifaq does not have command over the protesters.

At this stage, it is a relatively managed situation with tensions simmering just underneath the surface. The real apex of violence is over for now as the regime has realized this is not in its interest—the stronger security crackdowns do not sell well internationally.

What is Bahrain’s immediate outlook?

Tensions will most likely be managed and chaos will be contained. I do not see the opposition having enough clout or organization to mount more sustained protests. And the regime has certainly gotten much smarter about how to respond. With this being said, there could be a galvanizing event that alters the landscape, but for now the ruling family has the upper hand.

How has political instability impacted Bahrain’s economy?

Tremendously. The economy is a real sore spot for the regime. The Formula One race was intended to show that Bahrain is a beacon for business, but the economy is weak following the crackdown—banks pulled out and hotels remain empty. The country will continue to rely on subsidies from Saudi Arabia and the stark economic discrepancies between Shia and Sunni areas will continue to inflame tensions.

Another key story is that the crown prince wants to liberalize Bahrain’s economy, but his economic projects have been dismantled by hardliners. More anti-liberal policies are prevailing.

How does the Sunni-Shia divide in the population influence political developments?

Sunni-Shia tensions certainly exist. Shias are excluded from serving in government, certain types of jobs, the security forces, and the army.

That said, those divisions wouldn’t matter so much if the government were more representative. The emergence of Sunni-Shia schisms in Bahrain in many ways reflected what was happening in the region—the civil war in Iraq and the events in Lebanon were felt in Bahrain. This forced people to take sides as the region was in some ways dividing itself by religion.

The regime has skillfully played the Shia card, saying that any move toward democracy is a Shia bid for power and a power play by Iran. It’s working. People are divided along sectarian lines in jobs, in schools, and in communities.

The reform movement, at one time, included cooperation between Shias and Sunnis as both tried to promote democracy. And from the vantage point of those in power, the best way to fracture this cooperation was pitting groups against each other. This is not to say that there are not Sunnis in the opposition today, but the government’s efforts have been effective.

Is Bahrain serving as a proxy battlefield for the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia?

Bahrain is not a proxy battlefield. The tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia are magnified on the island nation, but Iran does not have proxies in the country even though there are Iranian voices at times laying claim to Bahrain. It is important to look at Bahrain independently of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.

The Sunnis and the monarchy have long accused the Shias of wanting to implement an Islamic republic. But al-Wifaq does not want to emulate the Iranian model and even puts Iran at arm’s length. There is very little evidence of Iran’s material meddling in the country even though Tehran rhetorically supports the uprising. The Shias in Bahrain are nationalists.

With this being said, the big regional player is Saudi Arabia. There is a credible argument to be made that the Saudis do not want a democratic Bahrain with a Shia majority in power because that would have ramifications for its own Shia population and would give Iran an opening. But the Iran issue is mostly used as an excuse—the real issue is democratization.

The Saudis played a major role by intervening in Bahrain last year to subdue the uprising. The military suppression undermined the crown prince’s attempt at dialogue with the opposition and effectively shattered any hope of compromise with al-Wifaq.

Is there any interest in the closer regional federation proposed by Saudi Arabia?

Saudi Arabia’s proposal to transform the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) into a closer union involving tighter military, political, and economic links was greeted with suspicion by most countries. But hardliners in the Bahraini government welcomed the idea.

Riyadh sees a deeper union as an opportunity to bolster its allies in Bahrain. The new initiative gives the al-Khalifa family an escape route to avoid the difficult issues of political reform.

The proposal has obviously antagonized Shias in the country and the opposition is calling for a referendum on it. The idea also provoked tensions with Iran. Tehran resurrected its claim to Bahrain as a result of this union attempt.

The smaller Gulf countries have always had a problem with Saudi attempts to impose its will on the GCC. They guard their own independence and there are historical territorial tensions, so it was hardly surprising that the other GCC countries would oppose the initiative.

When Saudi forces intervened in Bahrain it was technically under the guise of the GCC, but it was principally a Saudi move. The GCC did band together at that time because of the fear of the Arab Spring crashing over into the Gulf. But this does not negate the fact that there are long-standing differences between Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries.

Why did the United States resume arms sales to Bahrain?

When the United States held up $53 million in arms sales last year, the obvious motive was concern over the repression going on domestically and the desire to see some progress on reform.

The United States resumed arms sales by moving forward with turbo-fan upgrades for the F-16 fighter jet and providing Bahrain with advanced air-to-air missiles, harbor patrol boats, and a frigate. Ostensibly this is because the equipment is used for external defense and the United States is engaged in an effort to help modernize the Bahraini military. Washington made a point to say that this resumption does not include items directly tied to internal crowd control. The result, however, is debatable.

Washington’s thinking is that the weapons being sold can be separated from the ones used for domestic control. The flawed logic with this contention is that when the United States halted the munitions transfers, Bahrain simply went to other suppliers, including Brazil and China. The Bahraini regime notably turned to Turkey for its Cobra armored vehicles to fill in for the gap left without U.S. Humvees. These vehicles are considered by many to be more effective than American-supplied Humvees in patrolling the narrow streets in Shia villages.

There was a great deal of criticism in Bahrain when arms sales were stopped that Washington is an unreliable security partner. The recent release alleviated this a bit, but among many hardliners and others in government there is a fear that they cannot count on the United States. They saw what happened to Hosni Mubarak. Any attempt at mediation by Washington is seen as siding with the Shias and cozying up to al-Wifaq.

Symbolically, the resumption really sent a signal to the opposition that its demands do not trump other U.S. interests in Bahrain. The arms sales are a reward for the regime when there has not been any progress on reform. The announcement was meant to signal support for the crown prince’s reform efforts—he was in Washington at the time—but this logic does not hold, as it really is a victory for the hardliners.

The United States arguably lost its biggest stick when it resumed arms sales.

How should the United States respond?

That is a tough call. The parties are at a deadlock and there are no easy ways to move reform forward.

There is a need for external mediation and the opposition has called for this, but the government has rejected outside involvement in talks, saying it is an internal matter.

In the meantime, some of the most effective U.S. measures have been publically calling out Bahrain’s excesses. The opposition points to this and argues that backdoor channels can only do so much.

One major thing that the United States could do would be to move its Fifth Fleet out of Bahrain. This would certainly be a blow to the country, but even the opposition warns that this is not a good option. It would simply empower the hardliners even more and push them further into the Saudi embrace. The U.S. presence is a check on the Bahraini regime.

End of document

About the Middle East Program

The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, sociopolitical, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key crosscutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The program has special expertise in political reform and Islamist participation in pluralistic politics.


Comments (10)

  • Turning Points
    1 Recommend
    I recently produced a one-hour documentary on the protests of February 14th in Bahrain. I used the Independent Commission's report as a starting point, but also did extensive investigative work with sources from both sides of the conflict. Thus, I believe I have some credibility on this subject.

    Many of your conclusions are not correct as are some of the points you stated as fact. You have made the same mistakes much of the international media made in their reportage.

    Bahrain is very different from other countries in the Middle East. Yes, they have a monarchy and a ruling family, but they do have a Parliament and although reforms have been slow by Western standards, they have progressed rather quickly by Middle East Standards.

    You don't fully understand the purpose of an appointed Shura Council. If both houses were elected, there would not be adequate representation of minorities in Parliament. The Shura Council consists of women, Jews, Christians, etc. The Shia in Bahrain represent 70% of the population. Minorities would never find their way into an electoral Parliament and thus they would not be represented in government.

    The Saudis did not intervene during the protest period. They did send personnel into Bahrain, but they remained on the southern part of the island, away from all the action. They did not take part in putting down any of the protests. The Commission Report bears that out.

    You have made other mistakes, too numerous to mention in this post, but I encourage you to take a more investigative look at the events. I realize the Commission Report is over 500 pages, but it details each day of the protest hour-by-hour. No stone was left unturned.

    There were abuses on both sides. No question. But I found in my reporting that those I spoke with on the government side freely admitted their abuses and pledged to make changes. No one I spoke with on the opposition ever admitted they had committed abuses and in some cases atrocities. Read the report regarding the bloodshed at Bahrain University, in which dozens upon dozens of innocent, unarmed students were bloodied and beaten by opposition protesters who stormed the otherwise peaceful university.

    Yes, even in a complex geopolitical neighborhood like the Middle East, there are still two sides to every story.
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  • Duri Mohammed
    A good article by far however the shortcomings overweigh the true picture depicted by the author.The uprising in Bahrain from the very begining in the early 80's until now can be summarized in one word, irrespective of different words described and that is is SECTARIAN.The demand for democracy the abuse of human rights by the regime and other terms used to dscribe rogue regimes are irrelevaant to the government of Bahrain.I worked as a journalist for the last 18 years in Bahrain and I have seen how the protests grew in time.True there are social issues to be resolved, such as eqaul representation in jobs and other social amenities. This is where the governmnet was very slow to implement.In February 2011, when the protests were made around the then Pearl round about, I managed to taalk with some of the protesters and all of their concern revolved around lack of jobs , housing facilities. But the old hardline opposition took over and the demand turned into regime change.Ofcourse with Iran's blessings.It is very difficult to call for the protesters to call them nationalists.Many indeed resonate with the concern of Shietes in Iran and iraq, and lately with the Assad regime in Syria.This worried the Sunnis and brought a sectarian dimension to the uprising and now the society is dided across sectarian lines and it has reached a point where negotiation seems remote, not to mention the prospect of rocky road to political settlement. At the heart of the problem is the opposition groups dont have a clearly defined political agenda and add to to this scenario the emergence of hardlinre and violence -oriented youth groups , who follow the steps of Hizbullah complicates the matter further.With the influence of iran becoming evident and the double standard of the USA the situation on the ground seems a complex issue.What's more the ninternational media 's report always favours the opposition and ignores the efforts made by the governmnet to ameliorate the situation. The establishment of the compensation fund for victims is rarely mentioned, and instead the alleged detentioned of oppositon figures is seen widely covered by the main stream media.The expected Gulf inoin will give a good leverage of security for the GCC against the expected Iranian threat, and it was not aimed at putting off the demand of the Bahraini people . So far the internationally accepted means of crowd control have been used aginst the protesters, such as tear gas and sound granades.

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  • Ali Bucheeri
    The civil rights leader, Martin L King, Jr once stated: "True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice". This statement explains the situation in Bahrain. The government must address the issue of institutional discrimination against majority of its people. It must put an end to systematic torture against prisoners. The govt of Bahrain also must stop protecting torturers of high ranks who, so far, left with impunity.
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  • Sawa Bahrain
    Dear Mr. Wehery,
    I just wanted to point out that on many occasions the Carnegie scholars and analysts have never mentioned Bahraini democratic institutions like our 10 year old parliament. Before even considering discussing the relationship of the royal family and the opposition, you make no mention of the mechanism of political power sharing in Bahrain/ and real political factions within the Shiite community and the sunni community . It all seems to be so simple and clean cut when real political voice is constantly missing from your analysis.
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  • Munthir
    I have the urge to correct some of the information shared on this Q&A I'll put them down in points:
    1. The Prime Minister, the Royal Court Minister and the Commander of he Defense Forces are definitely not trying to undercut the authority of the Crown Prince as each has its own role and tasks to handle, the CP has always been a reformist and since Feb 2011 and has been trying to negotiate and have a dialogue with the opposition, last night there was a launch of a new society backed by the CP to promote reconciliation, bring all fabrics of society closer and fight sectarianism. This move was applauded by everyone in the Government and also the loyalists.

    2. In the era of King Hamad democratic reform took place starting with the 2002 constitution referendum. This was the first "wave" of protests that took place in the time of his ruling and which was obviously lead by extremists.

    3. Protests in villages are not mainly lead by youth coalition, the protesters and alwefaq follow their religious shia clerk Ayat Allah Isa Qassim who gave the infamous fatawa of "Crush them" which instructed the protesters to crush and kill policemen, alwefaq never condemned that call especially after their secretary general called him self "The Servant of Isa Qassim". Protests in Bahrain are directed by religious orders. Isa Qassim has been named as Ayat Allah by the Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenie. If this does not show the iranian interference with the protests in Bahrain I don't know what will make you see it.

    4. Shias are not excluded from the Governmental jobs as they do occupy jobs in all fields including the military and security forces. Few months ago in Sitra village a shia security officer was arrested for attacking other policemen with molotov cocktails. Many are in the security forces serving with their fellow policemen in containing the illegal protests in Bahrain and maintaining security.

    5. It should be emphasized that KSA did not intervene in Bahrain, the Peninsula Shield was invited by the Bahraini Government to protect vital institutions and did not at any point interact with the protesters.

    6. It must be noted that USA has always been an ally to Bahrain and have a great relationship that goes back for many decades. The US spoke up when things seemed out of control in Bahrain and now taking a step back because they are witnessing the reforms and implementations of the BICI taking place. It always supports Bahrain in moving on the right track.

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  • Jan
    1 Recommend
    What Turning Points writes is a little difficult to believe since a report from a Bahrain University lecturer who witnessed what happened at UOB is the opposite of what he says. I was also in Bahrain then and everything I witnessed pointed at a brutal regime terrified of being toppled by the people they have discriminated against for generations.
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  • Jan
    A small group of young protestors use molotovs to keep police out of villages. The vast majority of protestors do not use violence. However, violence against them continues. There are no reforms. There appears to be no real intent to introduce any true reforms.

    Exactly who was invited to the launch of this new society formed to bring people together? Withe the intention of helping the less privileged it was launched at a top-end hotel and will hold conferences and events. It sounds off-target for bringing about anything but pleasant morning teas.
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  • amazedatincompetentreporting
    1 Recommend
    Gosh, this is remarkably shortsighted. Did you even read the constitutional amendments - what you describe as the Shura Council's power is now the elected house's power. So why boycott? Iran has no proxies in Bahrain? Really? Have you read the statements of the leading clerics and some political parties/NGO activists? Simple test: ask them to condemn the Syrian Government and you will have your answer. Regime is playing sectarian card (what terrible language you use!) -- but what of the NGO/human rights activists chanting political slogans at funeral marches, using shrouds in political rallies, calling the victims "martyrs"? Does this not impose a sectarian identity on the problem? And who is doing this? Certainly not the regime. But ask any NGO about the mortally wounded and suddenly they are "martyrs" - evocatively denominational language. Violence doesn't sell internationally and that's why its stopped -- have you even read the BICI report? Does the ratio of police:civilian deaths and injuries reflect your sentiment of "crackdown" and "ruthlessness"? You will see the ratios are 1:1 or 1:2, not 1:10 or 1:100 as they should be if you are right. Finally, how long did you spend in Bahrain to speak of the "general consensus"? Please Mr. W, I know an expert. You are no expert.
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  • SM
    1 Recommend
    This analysis is sadly superficial and political, rather than academic. In commenting about parliament powers, your answers should have taken into consideration the recent constitutional changes and defined them. Moreover the regional context is paramount to any analysis of domestic politics in Bahrain, meaning that the situation in Bahrain cannot be regarded separate from other Gulf regimes. Al Wefaq National Islamic Society were not the only institutionalized opposition although they are amongst the loudest internationally. Moreover any analysis of Bahrain politics should examine the role of religion and religious leaders in political debate as well as patron client relations. To take on the mantle of sectarianism is too simplistic and ignorant of the pluralism of this diverse society. Shiite Bahrainis are represented in the Royal Court, Cabinet and throughout government entities. These simplistic and propaganda messages obscure some of the real problems in Bahrain - the role of religion in politics and society, the role of a constitutional monarchy in politics, economic diversification and accountability, the judicial system, education and national identity and outside interferences...
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  • Omar Alansari-Kreger
    Obviously, the mutual animosities and discrepancies between pro and anti-government segments will not disappear overnight. The international community has a moral obligation to the people of Bahrain in order to ensure that human rights are not stifled and this can be redeemed by enforcing a code of political, social, and economic transparency in which the Bahraini government must follow. This mandate, which would initially transcend through a U.N. resolution, can only prevail if its ordinances are faithfully upheld by a competent governing body. It is rather unfortunate to suggest that competence is not directly attributable to the United Nations considering its tremendous shortfall to its own standards and proclamations as an international organization. After all, no nation should get away with the perpetration of human atrocities which further reinforces the fact that the rule of international law is much greater than an isolationist form of sovereignty. The use of excessive force and the murder of unarmed protesters must be recognized as a crime against humanity; any other action that fails to reach such specific criteria prevents the distribution of justice to those who have been oppressed. Even U.S. allies should not get away with breaking international law. After all, the world is watching.
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