10 years later the popular protests in Bahrain, The European Microscopy of the Middle East expresses its grave concern over the severity of repression and tyranny.
According to a study published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Bahraini authorities have not made tangible progress in reform and continue its approach of crackdown against opposition groups and human rights defenders.
“Reform in Bahrain has reached a dead end,” confirmed Frederick Wehry, a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment, attributing this to internal disputes within the ruling family and the opposition parties.
The study further explained that the resumption of US arms sales to Bahrain did not help Washington’s ability to push change in the right direction.
The main reform milestone in Bahrain was the issuance of the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry after the events of the suppression of popular protests in the country.
The committee’s report accused members of the Bahraini security services of relying on excessive force to suppress the uprising. Later, the Bahraini state announced constitutional amendments that were drafted as reforms.
However, the main opposition Shiite party Al-Wefaq swiftly rejected these reforms and described them as “cosmetic displays that left real power in the hands of the ruling family.”
According to the study, the major obstacle has been the 2002 constitution unilaterally drawn up by the king, which subjected the elected parliament to an unelected “Supreme Council”, the Shura Council, which has ultimate veto power.
For many activists, this was a terrible blow to the country’s democratic progress. Parliament thus has no real power – it cannot legislate real laws, it cannot hold ministers to account, and it cannot monitor corruption. Therefore, parliament is now referred to by some opposition critics as a “debate society”.
Reform in Bahrain has reached a dead end, but the real story behind this impasse is discord, within the royal family and the opposition.
Within the royal family, a split between pro-reform personalities led by the crown prince and hardliners is taking place. Among hardliners is a trio – the prime minister, the royal court minister and the commander of the defense forces – all of whom have huge leverage and power. They are entrenched in power and seek to undermine the authority of the crown prince.
Al-Wefaq, as a result, has lost support from the February 14 Youth Movement, and its talks with the regime collapsed.
Opposition in Bahrain does not have enough influence or organization to launch sustainable protests, especially given that the Bahraini regime has certainly gotten smarter on how to respond.
Bahrain will continue to rely on support from Saudi Arabia and blatant economic contradictions between the Shiite and Sunni sects will continue to fuel tensions, suggested the study, stressing that Shiites are excluded from service in government or holding security or military positions.
On the opposition side, there is an institutionalized opposition, al-Wefaq, which participated in the elections and sought dialogue and is still pragmatic. However, this party is now under pressure from the more enthusiast youth who led the protests that broke out in 2011 and are bolder in their demands.
The existence of these enthusiast voices calling for radical change makes it extremely difficult to reach a compromise, or for the United States to find interlocutors in Bahrain.
Real power and ultimate authority over the tools of repression rests in the hands of the hardline faction in the government, despite Crown Prince’s attempts to make room for negotiation, according to the study findings.
However, the regime has made some attempts to scale back its tactics on the streets. Security forces have shown greater restraint when facing protests.
One turning point for the ruling family has been hosting international sporting events like the Formula One race to display the country as a center of trade and liberal values and compete with Dubai and Qatar as a place for global business.
The regime found the race as an opportunity to show the world that Bahrain had returned to normal, and this is exactly what happened. Despite sporadic protests, the race was held without disturbance.
As a result, the Bahraini state believed it’s victorious, especially after the United States’ resumptions of arms sales to the country.
Throughout Bahrain’s history, there have been various protests and waves of repression followed by promised reforms demanded by the opposition. Last year and after dialogue attempts have failed, new approaches of oppressions have been sought by the government, including media repressions, arrests and low-level reforms, only meant to pacify the opposition.
The root problem for the opposition in Bahrain is its disunity. For instance, Al-Wefaq Party calls for reforms within the system that strengthen the survival of the Al Khalifa family. Thus, Al-Wefaq’s position was severely criticized after the outbreak of protests and more Shiite voices began to publicly call for the overthrow of the Al Khalifa family.
February 14 Youth Movement, an amorphous network of young Bahrainis who communicate via social media platforms, have challenged Al-Wefaq’s role as a leading opposition group. They have also severely criticized the US arms deal to Bahrain. Al-Wefaq, as a result, has lost support from the February 14 Youth Movement, and its talks with the regime collapsed.
Sunni-Shia divisions in Bahrain reflected in many ways what was happening in the region – the civil war in Iraq and events in Lebanon were all being felt in Bahrain. This forced peoples to take sides because the region was somehow dividing itself on the basis of religion.
The Bahraini regime considered any move toward democracy as a Shiite attempt at power or a play of power by Iran.
The reform movement in Bahrain, at one point, involved cooperation between Shiites and Sunnis as both attempted to consolidate democracy, yet those in power used this to break cooperation by pitting groups against each other. This doesn’t deny the existence of Sunnis among opposition groups, but the government’s efforts have been effective.Saudis might not want a democratic Bahrain with a Shiite majority in power because that would have repercussions on its Shiite population and would give Iran a chance. But the Iran issue is often used as an excuse – the real issue has always been democratization, found the study.
Saudis might not want a democratic Bahrain with a Shiite majority in power because that would have repercussions on its Shiite population and would give Iran a chance. But the Iran issue is often used as an excuse – the real issue has always been democratization, found the study.
Saudi Arabia played a major role by intervening in Bahrain last year to quell the uprising. The military crackdown undermined the crown prince’s attempt to dialogue with the opposition, effectively dashing any hope for a settlement with Al-Wefaq.
When Saudi forces intervened in Bahrain, it came under the support of the Gulf Cooperation Council, but it was primarily a Saudi move. Despite long-standing differences between Saudi Arabia and other GCC, its countries joined forces then to counter the Arab Spring protests in the Gulf.