Bahrain remains stuck in what seems an intractable political crisis. Since March its security services have waged a brutal campaign to suppress the country’s pro-democracy movement. Thousands of citizens suffered injury, and dozens were killed in the violence. No one who supported the call for political reform was spared: journalists, well-known athletes, activists, students, teachers, and thousands of workers (even medical professionals who treated the wounded) suffered trauma—from widespread loss of employment to physical harm.
While the intensity of the violence has since diminished, the cycles of protest and recrimination continue. For the most part, however, the regime has succeeded in bottling up the protest movement by permanently establishing a security presence in the poor villages that are home to most would-be demonstrators. Police continue to use disproportionate force to break up funerals, protests, and otherwise peaceful political gatherings.
The country’s rulers, however, do appear to understand that intimidation and violence are unsustainable. The costs of the crackdown have been considerable. The economy has slowed. Investors have moved capital abroad. And although the United States (to date) has refused to directly challenge the regime’s excessive responses, there is the fear that American officials may be eventually compelled to rethink their long-standing strategic relationship should the crisis endure—or worsen.
The BICI report has inadvertently provided the opposition with renewed power, and the only path forward is for the government to get serious about fundamental political reform.
The most significant sign of this recognition came in late June, when King Hamad issued a decree establishing the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), an investigatory body chaired by the respected legal scholar Professor M. Cherif Bassiouni. Along with establishing a narrative timeline and context for the protests, the commission was asked “to determine whether the events of February and March 2011 (and thereafter) involved violations of international human rights laws and norms, and to make recommendations that it deems appropriate.”
Since the summer, activists and a wide range of opposition figures have expressed skepticism about whether the commission was capable of independent analysis. Bassiouni stoked uncertainty after making careless comments to the media that suggested the government was not responsible for March’s horrors. Despite this skepticism, a great deal has been pinned on the commission’s recommendations both locally and internationally. Most immediately affected in US-Bahrain relations has been a $53 million arms sale, which remains dependent on the Bahraini government’s response to the report’s recommendations.
On November 23, the BICI released its findings, and they are nothing short of remarkable. The BICI made clear that Bahrain’s security services had used “excessive force” in breaking up the protests, documenting a devastating pattern of violence, torture, and systematic abuse. In exacting detail, the report confirmed virtually every criticism of the regime that surfaced in the past ten months. Contrary to the shrill cries of conspiracy in Manama and Riyadh, the commission concluded that there was no “discernable link” between protests in Bahrain and the Iranian government, and that the pro-democracy movement was not part of a broader international scheme.
To be sure, the report was also critical of demonstrators who used violence, and it criticized al-Wefaq and several other leading political societies for failing to seize an opportunity for dialogue offered by Crown Prince Salman in March.
The real political utility of the commission’s findings remains unclear. It documents the excessive use of force and a scope of human rights abuses, but it is less clear on matters of accountability. The commission directed its most significant criticisms toward the security services at large rather than their political masters. It demands punishment for those who violated the criminal code and an end to military trials, but stops short of holding senior government officials responsible—let alone members of the ruling family.
Bahrain’s rulers have predictably given no indication that real political reform is even on the table, and on this, the commission provides no guidance. In his comments following the report’s release, King Hamad indicated that he sought to turn the page. But in reality, officials appear to be looking for ways to evade the structural political issues facing them. One of the king’s first directives was to establish a second commission to study BICI’s recommendations: a project that could drag on indefinitely and which was rejected by the opposition. The government has sought to implement minor security reforms, but these seem mostly cosmetic—gestures that technically comply with report’s recommendations, but do little more. On November 29 the king sacked Sheikh Khalifa bin Abdullah, who had headed the National Security Agency. Authorities also announced that they would develop a code of conduct for police and bring in foreign security personnel to help with training.
Most telling about how far the ruling family may be willing to go is that the security presence on the streets has hardly diminished—if anything, state violence has intensified. Just hours before the public ceremony in which the commission outlined its findings, police killed Abdulnabi Kadhem in the village of A‘ali. At the same time Bassiouni was outlining the report’s findings in front of the king at a public press conference, police brutally dispersed protesters in nearby villages.
Although the commission has avoided any direct political guidance, that it was created at all has certainly impacted the country’s political landscape. It is widely believed that in the chaos of the spring Bahrain’s long-serving Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa and the hardliners around him had asserted their primacy and marginalized more “moderate” figures within the ruling family—most notably Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who in March had tried and failed to negotiate a political compromise with al-Wefaq.
Many believe that the creation of the commission and its resulting recommendations would create a new opening for the Crown Prince and his supporters. It is clear that the report considers the opposition’s failure to accept the Crown Prince’s March offer for dialogue as the moment when the situation unraveled. Even so, and while implicitly casting the regime’s hardliners in a bad light, the report does not offer a roadmap nor set of political mechanisms for more moderate figures to reassert themselves.
The BICI made clear that Bahrain’s security services had used “excessive force” in breaking up the protests, documenting a devastating pattern of violence, torture, and systematic abuse.
Most importantly, though, the report’s wrenching account of official brutality has emboldened a cross-section of Bahrain’s opposition—raising expectations that sweeping changes are necessary. Opposition leaders, from al-Wefaq to those who have led small, but ongoing street protests since the spring, including those who identify with the youths who spearheaded the original February 14th movement, have already gone on record calling for the resignation of the government, a real commitment to fundamental political reform, and justice for those killed and tortured in the last ten months. Anything else, they aver, will render the report a lost opportunity.
The apparent hardening of al-Wefaq’s position is a direct result of the BICI report. In October, along with several other opposition societies, the country’s largest political organization sent signals that it would be willing to revisit the terms offered by the Crown Prince in March as a way out of the impasse. With the release of the BICI report, this may no longer be the case. For the thousands of Bahrainis who are not aligned with the formal opposition, and who have driven the protest movement, the report has had a similar effect, legitimizing their struggles and convincing them that they now possess a significant source of credible leverage to insist on sweeping political change. While the king and his supporters may have believed that the commission would alter the country’s political landscape in their favor, it appears that they miscalculated, at least in the short term.
For now, Bahrain is stuck: the burden to act is clearly on the regime, which does not appear to possess the political will to move forward seriously. Their preference, it seems, is to turn the clock back to early March in the hope that they will convince the opposition to meet them half-way. Given their long-term track record, the consequences of their own brutal choices, and BICI’s findings, this is wishful thinking. The BICI report has inadvertently provided the opposition with renewed power, and the only path forward is for the government to get serious about fundamental political reform. In the short term, it can send a clear signal by releasing political prisoners, reducing the security presence on the streets, and taking immediate measures to hold all of those responsible for torture accountable. Anything short of real reform will only ensure that Bahrain’s crisis will go on.
Toby C. Jones is an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University. You can follow him on Twitter at @tobycraigjones.