Protests in Bahrain first started on February 14 as young people took to the streets in large numbers to voice the same demands for reform heard recently around the Arab world. But unrest in Bahrain has additional dimensions. While protestors in the capital, Manama, and its surrounding villages are overwhelmingly Shias—with a sprinkling of liberal Sunnis—security forces on the other side are predominantly Sunni and propping up a Sunni monarchy in a majority-Shia country. 

As a result, protest in Bahrain is not simply a domestic struggle for political rights and liberal reform, although it certainly has that dimension. It is also a sectarian conflict with ugly overtones of ethnic cleansing and collective punishment against the Shia community—the government is targeting Shia institutions such as the main opposition newspaper al-Wasat and health centers, not just specific individuals. The protests have also become part of a growing conflict between Saudi Arabia and the United States—with Iran ready to take advantage of the trouble.

The Sectarian Divide

The population of Bahrain is predominantly Shia. Estimates range from as high as 75 percent in the past to about 65 percent at present—but these figures are imprecise. The decrease is the result of an extraordinary attempt to change the composition of the population in order to dilute the Shia presence. While the government has never admitted the existence of such a program, there is no doubt that the regime has granted Bahraini citizenship to thousands of Sunni immigrants—estimates vary widely, from about 60,000 people (according to Bahraini human rights sources), to as much as double that figure. What is clear, however, is that many of the new citizens were recruited into the security forces and have become the hated face of the repression.

The ruling al-Khalifa family is Sunni, as are all ruling families and republican governments in Arab countries—with the exception of Syria and Iraq. It thus receives strong support from the Sunni population, including from Salafis and Muslim Brothers who tend to be strongly anti-government in other countries. Discrimination against Shias is rife. They are mostly excluded from high government positions and the military and security forces. They also constitute the bulk of the poor. 

The Quest for Constitutional Monarchy 

Because of the sectarian divide, the Bahraini monarchy has faced much greater and much earlier unrest than those in neighboring countries. For decades, the opposition’s central demand has been for a transition to a constitutional monarchy. 

Prior to recent events, the major outbreak of protest came in late 1994, when demonstrations calling for the restoration of the suspended national assembly led to weeks of unrest and the arrest of hundreds of activists. The demands of the protesters were not sectarian. Instead, they focused on political and civil rights for all citizens. 
But the movement for change was led by prominent Shia clerics, including Sheikh Abd al-Amir al-Jamri and Sheikh Ali al-Salman, now the head of Bahrain’s major Shia political organization, al-Wifaq. Participants in the demonstrations were mostly Shias then, as they are today. 

The country never settled down completely in the following years. Although many of the leaders were arrested or sent into exile, small-scale protests erupted periodically. A new crisis arose in 1996, when the government claimed to have uncovered a coup plot masterminded by the Bahraini Hezbollah with the backing of Tehran and thus enacted new repressive measures.

After the death of the emir in 1999, his son, Sheikh Hamad, tried to appease the opposition by introducing limited reform. He proposed and submitted to a referendum a National Action Charter that proclaimed Bahrain to be a “constitutional monarchy” with a bicameral parliament that included an elected lower chamber and an appointed upper one. He also changed his title from emir to king. However, constitutional monarchy was a misnomer for a system in which power remained in the hands of the king and the parliament was both powerless and dominated by appointees. Dissatisfied by the narrowness of the reforms, Shia parties, including al-Wifaq, decided to boycott the 2002 elections. Large-scale protests also took place in both 2004 and 2005.

In 2006, al-Wifaq concluded that boycotting the elections was a dead-end road and presented candidates. It did well, carrying most of the Shia vote but winning only seventeen of 40 seats in the lower house because the regime had gerrymandered the districts (it gained an additional seat in the 2010 elections). More radical Shia groups, most importantly al-Haq, continued to boycott the elections in both 2006 and 2010.

Domestic Struggle Becomes International 

The protests broke out on February 14 and quickly escalated into demonstrations that, proportionately to the size of the population, were the largest any Arab country has experienced in the current wave of unrest. The protest was a continuation of the unrest that had shaken the country for almost twenty years—not a new development triggered by events in other countries. But those events, particularly the success of Tunisian and Egyptian protesters in bringing down their presidents, changed the nature of the confrontation in Bahrain. 

From the point of view of the ruling family, their stand against the protesters turned from an effort to maintain near-absolute power—like past crises—into a struggle to survive. Fear that the protesters might succeed in overthrowing the regime also turned a long-standing domestic Bahraini problem into an international one. For Saudi Arabia, supporting the Bahraini monarchy means protecting all Gulf monarchies, sending a clear message to its own Shia population, and containing the much-feared Iranian influence in the Gulf. For the United States, dealing with Bahrain’s turmoil is a balancing act among protecting access to the military base that serves as headquarters for the Fifth Fleet, restoring U.S.-Saudi relations badly shaken by Saudi anger at Washington’s decision not to support Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and the embarrassment of being seen as ignoring the brutal Saudi-Bahraini repression of the demonstrations in order to protect access to the Bahraini base and Saudi oil.

From Constitutional Monarchy to Republic

When protests started in 2011, transition to a constitutional monarchy was at the top of the list of demands. It was endorsed by the six political associations—parties are not legal in Bahrain—that formed the National Alliance. Along with al-Wifaq, the other key member is al-Wa’ad, which includes liberal Sunnis working for reform. The national coalition called for the abolition of the 2002 constitution, the election of a constituent assembly to draft a basic law (a constitution), and the election of a parliament with full legislative powers.

While these demands clearly fell within the parameters of democracy, in the Bahraini and more broadly in the Arab context, they were nothing short of revolutionary. During a recent trip to Bahrain, the author explicitly heard from al-Wifaq leaders that the monarchy would have no direct role in writing the new constitution, but would simply be represented by any of its supporters elected to the constituent assembly.

The national coalition claims that it represented the bulk of the demonstrators who took to the streets of Bahrain—a credible claim in light of al-Wifaq’s electoral record. But al-Wifaq admits that it was not behind the original call for protest disseminated though social media. No organization took credit for it. One hypothesis is that the call to protest may have originated outside Bahrain among exiled members of the more radical Shia opposition.

Wherever the call for protest originated, organizations with radical demands were part of the protest from the outset. The radical and moderate agendas increasingly diverged as repeated attempts to start negotiations with the government failed. By March 8, radical groups closed the door to any possibility of reconciliation and compromise by announcing the formation of the Coalition for a Bahraini Republic—the name clearly explained its goal. 

The coalition included three organizations: al-Haq, al-Wafa’a, and the Bahrain Freedom Movement, all Shia organizations that had rejected political participation under the 2001 constitution. A key player in the coalition’s formation was Hassan Mushaima, an exiled al-Haq leader who was unexpectedly and surprisingly allowed to return to Bahrain after the outbreak of protest and became the group’s most public face until his arrest on March 17.

The call for a republic was an open challenge to the Bahraini ruling family and to all other Gulf rulers. The idea of a true constitutional monarchy—one where the king rules but does not govern—remains anathema to all Gulf monarchies, including in Kuwait, where the ruling family has been forced to co-exist with the cantankerous parliament. 

With the exception of Saudi Arabia—where theological arguments deny that the king’s power can ever be limited or shared because it emanates from God and the sharia—most Arab monarchs, including Bahrain’s, have proven willing to accept façade reforms as long as most power remains firmly in their hands. By calling openly for a republic, the Coalition for a Bahraini Republic crossed a red line: republic meant the overthrow of the ruling family. Furthermore, although the coalition did not call for an Islamic republic, Sunnis in Bahrain and beyond are convinced that republic can only mean an Iranian-style theocratic system. 

The Regime’s Response

The Bahraini government responded forcefully and prospects for a negotiated compromise faded quickly. In the early hours of March 14, Saudi Arabia sent more than 1,000 troops across the causeway linking Bahrain to the Saudi mainland and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries followed, with smaller numbers in the following days. The region’s message was clear: Shias are a fifth column for Iranian ambitions and under no circumstances could a Shia-dominated government be allowed to form on the island.

During the first month of the protest, the moderate parties in the National Alliance and the moderate wing of the ruling family represented by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the king’s son, attempted to open a dialogue. Hardliners in the family coalesced instead around Prime Minister Khalifa Bin Salman al-Khalifa, the king’s uncle. Khalifa is the only prime minister Bahrain has had in its forty years of independence and is considered extremely corrupt (visitors to Manama are regaled with horror stories of land he misappropriated and buildings acquired in shady deals). He has been from the outset a major target of the protesters, who disagree on the choice between a constitutional monarchy and a republic but are unanimous in calling for the prime minister’s ouster. 

As a result of the divisions in the ruling family on one side and in the ranks of the opposition on the other, the dialogue proved impossible. After March 14, even the crown prince and the more conciliatory wing of the ruling family pulled back from talks, arguing that protests must end and order restored before talks could take place.

The Internationalization of the Bahraini Problem

Attempts to solve the current crisis in Bahrain have been deeply affected by competing international interests and, above all, by the direct involvement of both the United States and Saudi Arabia. Iran has also influenced the process—not through direct involvement but because it is the lurking presence that colors the Saudi perception of events in Bahrain. The Saudi and Bahraini governments claim that Iran has engineered the protests as a means of establishing control over Bahrain. But Washington and Bahrain’s opposition believe that Iran has not played a central role so far—although Tehran is now undoubtedly trying to derive whatever advantage it can from the situation.

Saudis believe their concerns in Bahrain—containing Iran, protecting Gulf monarchies, and sending a clear message to their own Shia population—are best addressed by a hardline policy of suppressing the protests. Negotiations over political issues would just lead to a compromise that erodes the power of the ruling family and creates a dangerous precedent that could potentially set other Gulf countries on the same slippery slope. A compromise leading to an elected parliament with real power could also empower the Shia majority and open the door to Iranian domination—which is what the Saudis and other Gulf countries believe happened in Iraq because of the United States’ misguided insistence on a democratic system. Whether the hardline truly protects Saudi interests or amounts to turning a blind eye to the inevitability of change, the policy is at least clear.

But U.S. concerns in dealing with the Bahrain crisis—protecting access to the military base that houses the headquarters of the Fifth Fleet, restoring damaged U.S.-Saudi relations, and at the same time showing support for pro-democracy protesters—cannot be satisfied through one clear policy. This places the United States in a difficult position. If Washington presses the Bahraini government to enact real reforms, it shows that it is committed to democracy in the Middle East but angers the Saudis and the ruling family in Bahrain, putting access to the naval base in jeopardy. If it does not push the ruling family too hard but backs modest reform measures, it can maintain good relations with the Bahraini government and keep the naval base; however, such a stance does not help its reconciliation with Saudi Arabia nor will it convince Arab advocates of change that the United States is on their side. On the other hand, if the United States implicitly backs Saudi Arabia and the Bahraini ruling family by ignoring the repression of the protests and the collective punishment of the Shia population, it will repair relations with the Saudis, please other ruling families in the Gulf, but destroy its credibility on democracy. It will be seen as business as usual, with the United States once again siding with an autocratic regime. 

Initially, Washington opted to push for reform in Bahrain, moving quickly to promote negotiations in the face of escalating protests. Within ten days of the outbreak, Assistant Secretary of State for the Middle East Jeffrey Feltman was in Bahrain. He visited the country four times in rapid succession between February 25 and March 3, met with government officials and representatives of the opposition, and tried to push all sides toward talks and compromise. Defense Secretary Robert Gates also visited Bahrain, stating at the conclusion of his visit on March 12 that the country had to introduce significant reform and that baby steps would not be enough. 

At the same time, Saudi Arabia was trying to convince the ruling family not to give in. In the end, Saudi advice prevailed. Bahrain asked for the assistance of other GCC members and Saudi troops moved onto the island, followed by small contingents from other GCC countries in the following days. Assistant Secretary Feltman returned to Bahrain on March 14, after the Saudis had moved in, but he had trouble meeting with government officials, let alone convincing them of the necessity of negotiations. 

The policy adopted by the government was to restore order first—by blanketing Manama and the surrounding villages with tanks and armored personnel carriers, using live ammunition as well as tear gas and rubber bullets to break up demonstrations, and creating a general sense of insecurity among the Shia population. 

The United States has kept largely silent since the crackdown—criticism has been muted and has come from mid-level officials. Washington has seemingly accepted that for the time being the Saudis have won the battle for influence in Bahrain and concluded that mending relations with Saudi Arabia should take precedence right now. 

This is a policy that cannot continue. The Obama administration has so far been spared the cost to its reputation and its credibility on democracy by the crisis in Libya and now the mounting trouble in Syria, which has distracted attention from Bahrain. But sooner or later, attention will refocus on the tiny island, and Washington will have to reconsider which of its conflicting interests it wants to protect.