On February 14, 2011, protestors in Bahrain marched in the streets with the goal of obtaining greater political freedoms. The protest movement came in the wake of similar demonstrations throughout the Middle East and North Africa, which brought down the governments in Tunisia and Egypt. In Bahrain, however, the ruling al-Khalifa family greeted the protesters with force. In mid-March, Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa called in Saudi troops, declared emergency law and launched a fierce crackdown on pro-reform protestors. With these steps, the “Falcons,” as royal family hardliners are known in Bahrain, are firmly in control.

Since the crackdown began, approximately 20 people have been killed and more than 400 arrested, including doctors, nurses and journalists.[1] Hundreds more, some of them teachers, have been fired from their jobs for supporting the protest movement.[2] The editor of the main opposition paper was removed, while the home of a female opposition figure was firebombed twice.[3] Military trials, on which the press is forbidden to report, are underway or starting soon. The emergency law’s ban on public gatherings and imprisonment of many opposition leaders also means that party politics are moribund—a major change for a small island of around 570,000 citizens that had a remarkably diverse and vibrant political scene.

Besides Sunni religiously-oriented parties that supported the ruling al-Khalifa family, there was a wide range of opposition groups representing secular liberals, former communists, pro-democracy Islamists and revolutionaries seeking the monarchy’s overthrow. Unfortunately, this political scene reflected Bahrain’s sectarian divide. The al-Khalifa dynasty, which dominates all top government jobs and the island’s finances, is Sunni, yet 60-70% of Bahrain’s population is Shi`a.

In addition to their exclusion from the halls of power, the Shi`a complain of discrimination when seeking government jobs, particularly in the security forces. They deeply resent the government’s long-time policy of recruiting foreign Sunnis—many of whom do not speak Arabic—to fill positions in the police and military. Often these foreign recruits are given citizenship to swell the Sunni portion of the population. As a result of these grievances, Shi`a Bahrainis have always been more politicized than their Sunni peers, and opposition parties are mostly Shi`a.[4]

For the United States, Bahrain has strategic importance far beyond its tiny size. It is home to the headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, a vital force ensuring that the Gulf’s oil shipping lanes are not compromised. The fleet also reminds Iran that the United States is standing with its Arab Gulf allies. For Washington, any political crisis or long-term unrest in Bahrain that adversely impacts the fleet’s operations would be a threat to U.S. interests in the region.

The Protests
Bahrain’s youth-led protest movement began on February 14—four days after a similar movement forced Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power. The first rallies were in response to calls for demonstrations on Facebook. Some Bahrainis believe that the Facebook page, where initial demands had an Islamist flavor such as a ban on alcohol, was created by militant Islamist Bahrainis living outside the country. These demands later disappeared from the page after the daily protests began attracting huge crowds of people from across the political spectrum.[5]

In the beginning, the protests had no visible leadership, although one of the first politicians to arrive on the scene was Abdul Wahab Hussain, the leader of the radical Shi`a Wafa’ Islamic Society.[6] Youth activists soon formed the “February 14 Youth Group” to provide some direction to the protesters, who were asking for a greater voice in the political system, the release of political prisoners and an end to discrimination against the Shi`a. According to Jane Kinninmont, an expert on Bahrain at Chatham House, “February 14” was “a loose coalition of groups [with] different agendas and objectives.”[7] At one point, the protesters’ central staging ground at Manama’s Pearl Roundabout had about 35 different groups, some of them in tents, proselytizing to the crowds, according to one visitor to the site.[8]

The single largest political party in Bahrain, the moderate Wefaq Islamic National Society,[9] had no role organizing the first protests, but obviously wanted to take advantage of the enthusiasm they were generating, especially after government security forces stormed sleeping protesters in Pearl Roundabout on February 17, leaving four dead. This action only increased the number of demonstrators. Protesting the night-time raid and deaths (three other protesters were killed in separate incidents), Wefaq’s 18 delegates quit parliament.[10] The government then withdrew its forces, allowing the protesters to reoccupy Pearl Roundabout. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, regarded as head of the ruling family’s tiny, dovish faction known to Bahrainis as “Pigeons,” offered dialogue with the opposition.[11]

Wefaq responded ambivalently to the offer. Although willing to dialogue, it was mindful that, given street anger about the seven deaths, radical Shi`a parties would batter Wefaq’s image if it agreed to talk before it received significant concessions.[12] In alliance with other smaller parties, Wefaq set tough conditions for a dialogue: an elected constituent assembly should write a new constitution and the long-time prime minister should resign.[13]

Meanwhile, as part of its new conciliatory approach, the government pardoned the leader of the more radical al-Haq Movement,[14] Hasan Mushaima, opening the way for his return from exile to Bahrain where he was acclaimed in Pearl Roundabout on February 26.[15]

On March 8, the three hard line Shi`a groups announced they had formed the “Coalition for a Bahraini Republic” to oust the monarchy and, as al-Haq leader Mushaima told reporters, establish “a democratic republican system.”[16] This marked a turning point in the protest movement because it raised Sunni fears to new heights. Since the government had long maintained that al-Haq has ties to Iran, most Bahraini Sunnis believed that Mushaima was advocating an Islamic republic.[17] The radical parties also encouraged the youth camped out at Pearl Roundabout not to dialogue with the government, and organized provocative street actions, including a march on a royal palace. Wefaq and moderate allied parties denounced that march, fearing it would incite government retaliation. Some in the “February 14” youth group urged protesters not to join the march; another faction allied to the radical Shi`a parties told reporters they supported it.[18]

The government’s patience finally cracked on March 13 when, in a pre-dawn move, protesting youths erected barricades on the access road into Manama’s financial district. One source said that the barricades were deployed by 350 men organized by Wafa’ party leader Abdul Wahab Hussain.[19] This was a direct challenge to the government’s burnished self-image as a safe business and investment hub for the Gulf. Nevertheless, the crown prince made a last ditch effort to draw Wefaq and other opposition groups into dialogue without pre-conditions on March 13. He listed seven topics for discussion, including the naturalization of foreigners, and agreed to put any agreement to a referendum.[20]

The game, however, was already over. His father, the king, was on the phone with Saudi Arabia, asking Riyadh for a demonstration of support for Bahrain’s ruling family. The Saudi government was eager to oblige, and 1,200 members of the Saudi National Guard crossed the causeway the next day on March 14, along with 500 policemen from the United Arab Emirates—a force described in Bahraini and Saudi media as sent by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Emergency law was declared on March 15, and Bahraini security forces raided Pearl Roundabout the next day.

Riyadh and Tehran Compete for Influence in Bahrain
As has been its practice for years, the Bahraini government accused Iran and the Lebanese movement Hizb Allah of fomenting the country’s unrest and having ties to militant Shi`a parties in Bahrain. King Hamad clearly had Iran in mind when he told Saudi and Bahraini military officers on March 20 that “an external plot has been fomented for 20 to 30 years until the ground was ripe for subversive designs.”[21] He added, “I here announce the failure of the fomented subversive plot.”[22]

Yet journalists covering the protests and experts on Bahrain did not see evidence of Iranian instigation. Asked if he had seen Iranian or Hizb Allah involvement with the Shi`a opposition, Christopher M. Davidson, a scholar of the Gulf at Durham University, wrote, “None whatsoever. Lots of fake reports and planted stories in GCC state-controlled media, but nothing of substance.”[23]

Although a minority of Bahraini Shi`a have Iranian ancestry, most are of Arab descent. They look not to Persian Iran, but to Arab Iraq for religious leadership, particularly to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf.[24] That did not stop Iran, which sees itself as leader of the world’s Shi`a, from using the Bahraini government crackdown and Saudi troop arrival in its propaganda war against Sunni regimes, portraying these events as evidence of Sunni perfidy against Shi`a. Although the Saudis were camped for the most part on Bahraini military bases and rarely interacted with the public, the Iranian press carried exaggerated reports of alleged crimes by Saudi troops against civilians. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called on Riyadh to withdraw its forces, adding that “the Saudis did an ugly thing to deploy troops” and “the Bahraini government also did an ugly work to kill its own people.”[25] A day later, 200 Iranian parliamentarians condemned the “frightening crimes” of “un-Islamic” Saudi troops in Bahrain. Iran’s hypocrisy, given the brutal suppression of its own anti-government protesters, was not lost on the Gulf’s Sunni Muslim leaders.[26] The GCC, incited as well by Kuwait’s discovery of what it called an Iranian spy ring, expressed deep concern “over the continuing Iranian intervention in the internal matters of GCC countries by conspiring against their national security.’’[27]

Elsewhere in the Arab world, Shi`a nerves were set on edge. In Shi`a-majority Iraq, marches were organized in support of Shi`a in Bahrain, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki warned that the Saudi and Emirati “intervention” raised sectarian tensions. “It has become a Shiite-Sunni issue with the entrance of forces from Sunni Arab countries,” al-Maliki said. “This has become like a Sunni mobilisation against the Shiites,” which “may have a snowball effect,” he added. “The region could be drawn into a sectarian war.”[28]

For Saudi Arabia, Bahrain is a red line. It believes that concessions to the Shi`a opposition would put the island on the road to having a Shi`a-majority government. From the Saudi perspective, not only would that open the door to Iranian influence in Bahrain as it has done in Iraq, but it also might embolden the kingdom’s Shi`a minority to more aggressively seek redress for its grievances. For several weeks, Shi`a youth in the Saudi town of Qatif and surrounding villages held brief, peaceful marches every Friday demanding that Saudi troops withdraw from Bahrain.

Unfortunately for Bahrain, it has become prime turf in the increasingly razor-sharp competition between Riyadh and Tehran, as well as between Sunni and Shi`a in the wider Arab world. “This is what we are trying to prevent,” said Wefaq party leader Shaykh Salman. “And this is one main reason for rejecting the engagement of the Saudi troops—so there will be no excuse for Iran or others to engage in this situation because we are against any interference, especially military, in Bahrain by any regional powers.”[29] Yet given the Riyadh-Tehran rivalry, Saudi troops are unlikely to depart soon. As Bahrain’s defense force chief of staff said, they “will remain in Bahrain as long as there is a constant external threat against the security and stability of the Arabian GCC member states.”[30]

More significant for the people of Bahrain will be the repercussions of the government’s harsh and unrelenting repression of its Shi`a majority. “With the window on dialogue now closed and no support from the international community, the opposition will become increasingly militant and a campaign of civil disobedience will intensify, possibly backed by some guerilla warfare,” wrote Davidson. This will not be good news for Wefaq. “As violence spreads, Wefaq’s support may decline as increasing numbers of young men turn to more militant groups and parties, including al-Wafa, that are seen as offering a more concrete solution,” Davidson predicted.[31]

Indeed, during a recent interview at Wefaq’s headquarters in Manama, Shaykh Salman called for an outside party to mediate between the government and the opposition to get past what he called the “very deep distrust between government and people.” Despite the crackdown, he added, the party is striving to stick to its peaceful policies and “prevent confrontation of our people with security people.” Yet “as the crisis is sustained,” he said, “doors open that nobody can control.”[32]

For now, the long-term outlook seems bleak in Bahrain. The government has shut down the moderate Wa’ad Party and is threatening to take legal action against, and possibly ban, Wefaq. This would leave the government with virtually no credible interlocutor in opposition ranks. While the current crackdown has brought quiet to Bahrain’s streets and given the government a greater sense of security, without popular support from the majority of its people, that security may ultimately prove ephemeral.

Caryle Murphy is an independent journalist based in Riyadh. She is the author of Passion for Islam.

[1] “Bahrain: State of Fear Prevails With Arbitrary Detentions, Pre-Dawn Raids,” Human Rights Watch, April 7, 2011; “Two Shiite Activists Die in Bahraini Custody,” Agence France-Presse, April 10, 2011; Kristen Chick, “Amid Unrest Bahrain Companies Fire Hundreds of Shiites,” Christian Science Monitor, April 7, 2011. Some of this information was also based on personal interviews with the fired editor and victim of firebombing, April 2011.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Personal interview, Bahraini university professor, Manama, Bahrain, March 25, 2011.

[5] Personal interview, Bahraini novelist Fareed Ramadan, Manama, Bahrain, March 25, 2011.

[6] Ibid. The Wafa’ Islamic Society is one of three radical Shi`a organizations that want to overturn the monarchy and refuse to participate in electoral politics. None of them are officially registered as “societies,” the official term for political parties in Bahrain, and operate semi-clandestinely. In addition to Wafa’, they include the Bahrain Freedom Movement, headed by London-based exile Said al-Shehabi, and the al-Haq Movement for Liberties and Democracy, led by Hasan Mushaima.

[7] Personal interview, Jane Kinninmont, April 7, 2011.

[8] Personal interview, Abdulnabi Salman, Manama, Bahrain, March 27, 2011.

[9] Formed in 2001 and led by Shaykh Ali Salman, Wefaq is the most popular party among the Shi`a underclass. Mainstream and moderate, it would like to see Bahrain become a genuine constitutional monarchy, rather than the “pretend” one it is now. After initially rejecting electoral politics because it views the current system as unfair, Wefaq participated in the 2006 elections. In the last election of 2010, it became the largest parliamentary bloc, winning 18 of the lower house’s 40 seats. Wefaq works closely with several smaller opposition parties. Among the most notable are Wa’ad (National Democratic Action Society), a party of mainly middle-class, secular liberal professionals, who are both Sunni and Shi`a; the party is led by Ibrahim Sharif, a Sunni Muslim. Another Wefaq partner is the Democratic Progressive Tribune, comprised mainly of former communists and trade unionists. For details, see the following article, which relied on U.S. Embassy cables published by Wikileaks: Guardian, February 15, 2011.

[10] “Major Shia Party Withdraws from Bahrain Government,” Irish Times, February 18, 2011.

[11] “Bahrain’s Crown Prince Calls for ‘Dialogue’ After Bloody Protests,” USA Today, February 18, 2011.

[12] Personal interview, Abdulnabi Salman, Manama, Bahrain, March 26, 2011.

[13] These were the demands of the radical al-Haq Movement for years. For details, see Guardian, February 15, 2011.

[14] The al-Haq Movement for Liberties and Democracy is the largest and most influential of the three radical Shi`a organizations that want to overturn the monarchy and refuse to participate in electoral politics. Its leader Hasan Mushaima broke away from Wefaq, which he helped found, in 2005. Al-Haq has demanded a new constitution written by an elected assembly and the resignation of Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who is widely seen as head of the “Falcons,” and has been in his job for 40 years. In 2008, U.S. officials reported that many Bahrainis believed that al-Haq was responsible for “inspiring many of the small gangs of Shi`a youth who throw stones and Molotov cocktails at police almost every weekend.” In 2010, Mushaima, who was then living in Britain, was among 25 people charged with belonging to a terrorist network. Although al-Haq has fewer supporters than Wefaq, its followers are generally considered more vocal and more active on the street. Much of this information is based on personal interview, Bahraini university professor, Manama, Bahrain, March 24, 2011. Also see Guardian, February 15, 2011.

[15] “Bahrain’s Protesters Struggle to Define Goals,” Associated Press, March 2, 2011.

[16] “Hardline Shi’ite Groups Demand Republic in Bahrain,” Reuters, March 8, 2011.

[17] Personal interview, university professor, Manama, Bahrain, March 24, 2011.

[18] “Bahrain’s Youth Movement Not to Join March,” Reuters, March 10, 2011.

[19] Personal interview, Bahraini journalist, Manama, Bahrain, March 23, 2011.

[20] The other topics were: a parliament with full powers; a representative government; fair constituencies; combating financial and administrative corruption; public properties; and addressing sectarian tensions.

[21] “HM Visits Peninsula Shield Command,” Bahrain News Agency, March 20, 2011.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Personal correspondence, Christopher M. Davidson, April 7, 2011.

[24] Personal interview, Bahraini novelist Fareed Ramadan, Manama, Bahrain, March 25, 2011. Also see Laurence Louër, “The Limits of Iranian Influence Among Gulf Shi`a,” CTC Sentinel 2:5 (2009).

[25] “Iran Wants Saudi Troops Out of Bahrain,” Associated Press, April 5, 2011.

[26] “Iran MPs Condemn Saudi ‘Crimes’ in Bahrain,” Agence France-Presse, April 6, 2011.

[27] “Iran Wants Saudi Troops Out of Bahrain.”

[28] “Iraq: Bahrain Tensions Could Ignite Sectarian War,” Agence France-Presse, March 26, 2011.

[29] Personal interview, Shaykh Ali Salman, Manama, Bahrain, March 25, 2011.

[30] BDF Chief of Staff Shaykh Daij bin Salman al-Khalifa, interview with Muqbil al-Saeri, Asharq al-Awsat, April 6, 2011.

[31] Personal correspondence, Christopher M. Davidson, April 7, 2011.

[32] Personal interview, Shaykh Ali Salman, Manama, Bahrain, March 25, 2011.

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