Bahrain’s suppression of the major opposition party, Al Wefaq, and revocation of the nationality of a leading Shi‘a religious figure appears to mark the end, at least for now, of a reform process begun in 2001. There is a theoretical, but small, chance that the crackdown will succeed and an equally small chance of widespread violence. The most likely outcome is a continuation of the economy-destroying unrest, along with further criticism from Bahrain’s allies.
Why Bahrain is acting in this way has mystified most observers. Western media reporting on Bahrain has been superficial. It tends to portray the situation in black-and-white terms: people versus government or democracy versus repression. In fact, the politics are more complicated than this because of a deep communal split on the island. The Shi‘a are a majority of the population, but there is a large Sunni community that, with the exception of a radical fringe, strongly supports the monarchy and even more strongly opposes Shi‘a domination. Both Sunni and Shi‘a in have their own internal divisions. The Sunni community also includes a radical, anti-monarchical fringe that has sent fighters to join the Islamic State. Although it has been largely overlooked in the Western press, the Bahraini authorities do continue to crack down on Sunni extremists as well as Shi‘a. On June 23, 24 Sunnis received sentences for ties to the Islamic state and attacks on Shi‘a. Thirteen were stripped of their citizenship.1
Bahrain’s political culture has been marked by zero-sum politics. There is no system of checks and balances or protection of minority rights. The sense that losers can become winners, so essential for democratic stability, is absent. In these circumstances, “one person, one vote” democracy may equate to one community permanently ruling another. While the royal family dominates now, the Shi‘a call to establish a unicameral Parliament is often seen as code for a Shi‘a takeover. This would not necessarily represent an ideal democratic outcome. Whether parties like Al Wefaq are inherently democratic, sectarian, or theological is heavily debated on the island. As one Sunni political leader said to me last year, “I would prefer democracy but I would take dictatorship over theocratic rule.”
When then Amir (now King) Hamed bin Issa came to power in 1999, he made well-received promises of reform, including the establishment of a new constitution and a Parliament. However, the National Action Charter of 2001 gave the majority Shi‘a population less political power than they had expected. The gerrymandered Parliament assured that they would have no majority and the addition of an appointed upper house further curtailed their power. On the other hand, prisoners were released, exiles came home, and the upper house saw the appointment of women, technocrats, and a Jewish representative—none of whom would have been elected given sectarian politics.
There are several Shi‘a political groups on the island, but the major one is the Al Wefaq party headed by Shaikh Ali Salman. The party boycotted the first parliamentary election but participated in the second and subsequent elections. Condensing history, the pace of political reforms has slowed since 2001, but before 2011 the gradual opening of political power still seemed possible.
Inspired by the Arab Spring, large-scale demonstrations broke out in 2011. Many called for increased political reform, and some of the demonstrators even called for the overthrow of the monarchy. Bahrain’s Crown Prince briefly attempted to negotiate, but Al Wefaq rejected the offer and insisted on concessions as a precondition. In retrospect, many Shi‘a leaders believed this was a mistake and a missed opportunity: Afterward, the demonstrations were suppressed. Saudi and Emirati troops were brought in to back up the monarchy (however, the imported forces were not used to confront the demonstrators directly). An outside human rights investigation was conducted at the invitation of the monarchy. It documented many but not all claims of repression. The King declared a series of reforms but many of them do not seem to have happened.
A new parliamentary election was held in 2014. Britain and the United States as well as the monarchy urged Al Wefaq to participate in the election. Both the government and Al Wefaq used slightly coercive methods to affect the turnout. In the government’s case, this involved stamping the ID cards of those who voted, leading to fear that lack of such stamps would cause problems later obtaining other services such as passports.
When they could not obtain guaranteed concessions in advance, Al Wefaq decided to boycott the election. The party used massive rallies and a variety of social pressures within the Shi‘a neighborhoods to prevent people from voting. (There was also limited violence to prevent Shi‘a from voting but it was not clear if this violence came from Al Wefaq or other Shi‘a political groups.) Many Shi‘a did stay home, but turnout was still quite strong, making the boycott less than a success. However forceful the arguments of Al Wefaq leaders, the results of the election and the indifferent success of the boycott left the party weaker than it had been before.
The monarchy’s clampdown on Al Wefaq increased after the election. Several party leaders, including Ali Salman, were arrested. The regime seemed to have come to the conclusion that no deal was possible. Indeed, they could be right. Al Wefaq leaders did not respond when I asked them in October 2015 whether they could sustain a deal if other Shi‘a factions opposed it and took to the streets. Without assurance that a deal would be respected, compromise makes no sense.
Over the past year, demonstrations have continued in the smaller villages, but the overall level of violence has dropped (though there have still been some fatal incidents). Controversy flared again in June 2016. On June 14 the government closed the offices of Al Wefaq, and on June 20 human rights leader Nabeel Rajab was arrested for “spreading false news.” At the same time, the government revoked the citizenship of the leading Shi‘a cleric on the island, Shaikh Isa Qasim. Ali Salman’s prison term was extended from four years to nine. The confirmation of Al Wefaq’s dissolution by a Bahraini court took place on July 17, 2016.
Many on the island are as mystified as foreign observers about the reasons for these harsh measures. There was no new provocation from Al Wefaq; the government had not asked for some new decision that the opposition party had rejected, nor had there been any particular new pressure from the outside. Although Secretary of State Kerry had met with five opposition leaders (only two of whom were from Al Wefaq) in June, the meetings were low-key and need not have been interpreted as a form of provocation.
Several things may have come together to produce this decision. First, the economy of Bahrain is suffering because of the continued unrest and the regime may have come to believe that the only way out was to totally crush the opposition. This approach has worked on previous occasions and it is possible those who remember these periods may think the strategy will work again.
Second, the regional situation may have provided support for the Bahraini position. The increasingly strident anti-Iranian position of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain’s strongest backer, may have given the impression that this was the time to move strongly against the opposition. The Bahraini fear of Iran is long-standing. Iran claimed Bahrain as a possession until 1971 and from time to time Iranian statements reassert the claim. Iran was probably behind the shipment of weapons to the island after the Iranian Revolution, and the Bahrainis are convinced, apparently with some evidence, that Iran is also a source of more recent shipments of weapons this year.
Many outside observers (including myself) find the monarchy’s fears of Iran exaggerated, but they are not merely a pretense, as some allege. As late as 2003, when I was U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain, Shi‘a religious processions carried Iranian flags and pictures of Iranian leaders—actions calling into question the loyalty of the Bahraini demonstrators. In any event, whether exaggerated or not, Bahraini fears of Iranian interference are long-standing and deeply felt. Iran has revived them recently with statements that seem to call for violent revolution in Bahrain. One such was the statement of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ expeditionary Quds force, who said “violating the sanctity of Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim is crossing a red line that will trigger a raging fire in Bahrain and all across the region, and will leave the [Bahraini] people no choice but armed resistance.” While there is reason to believe Iranian internal politics played as much of a role in this statement as anything happening in Bahrain, the incendiary language has stoked the Bahraini regime’s worst fears.
It is very unlikely that the United States can do anything about the repression in Bahrain, and it is perhaps debatable whether it should. Some observers call on the United States to move its naval base in Bahrain as a way of pressuring the government to reform. The location of the naval base, however, is truly important for maintaining freedom of navigation, the free flow of oil, and support for the U.S. Navy inside the Persian Gulf. Moving the base isn’t possible—it would cost billions of dollars, which Congress is unlikely to provide. Nor would the gambit work even if it were. The other Arab Gulf states have banded together in solidarity with Bahrain, and there is no reason to believe that any of them would provide an alternative location in order to help the United States pressure the Bahraini government.
One could legitimately ask whether the United States should mortgage so many security interests in order to press a friendly if autocratic government to alter its internal policies. Even if the answer is “yes,” one would still have to ask whether such pressure would likely bring about the desired change. Since the Bahraini government believes that its survival is at stake, it is doubtful that even extreme U.S. pressure and criticism would accomplish much. The regime’s real dependence is on Saudi Arabia. And nothing suggests that the Saudis intend to use strong pressure in the interest of greater rights for the Bahraini Shi‘a.
Secretary Kerry has been critical of recent Bahraini actions, saying “the government’s recent steps to suppress nonviolent opposition only undermine Bahrain’s cohesion and security, as well as the region’s stability. They also contradict the government’s stated commitments to protecting human rights and achieving reconciliation with all of Bahrain’s communities.” Given its long-standing policy on human rights, the U.S. government could not say less, but is unlikely that this statement will have any effect. As might have been predicted, the Bahraini government pushed back against the U.S. statement, saying: “Such statements and positions are unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Bahrain, and in the decisions of the Bahraini judicial process, which provides all necessary standards of justice, fairness, transparency, and independence.” The UN Secretary General and several European governments have deplored the regime’s actions as well.
The U.S. Administration has been holding up a Bahraini request to purchase F-16 fighter aircraft. The White House delay is linked to other aircraft sales to Kuwait and Qatar. For now, it is not an instrument of political pressure on Bahrain, but it could become so. However, it would be unlikely to have any useful impact: The Bahraini view is that they have stood with the United States through two wars in Iraq, along with the reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers to defend them against Iran, and so we should be more understanding of our allies.
Furthermore, the fall of Mubarak and general chaos following the Arab Spring have convinced many in the ruling family that “reform” is the first step down the road to overthrow. U.S. calls for unspecified “reforms” give the impression that the United States has no limits to what it may ask and therefore Bahrain has no reassurance that meeting those calls even halfway would stave off disaster. Indeed, it is reasonable to wonder whether a too-rapid movement to electoral democracy, in a state that lacks any agreement among the parties on checks and balances between the contending communities in order to assure rights on all sides, might lead not to democracy but to a chaotic, failed state. That this question is used as an excuse for repression does not make it less essential to answer.
The complete shutdown of Al Wefaq as a political party appears to mark the end of any opportunity for compromise. There had been an intermittent effort at dialogue and the discussion of compromises, a process that was halting at best, but it now appears to be truly over. The removal of Shaikh Isa Qassim’s citizenship seems to underline the government’s message that it is going to opt only for repression. The government has done itself no favors by accusing Shaikh Isa of “creating an extremist sectarian environment” and said he had “encouraged sectarianism and violence.” One could argue, although it is a stretch, that Shaikh Isa’s demand for “one person, one vote” democracy is equivalent to seeking Shi‘a domination of the island, but virtually no observer of Bahrain will find any credibility in linking Shaikh Isa to violence. Indeed, his record both public and private is one of counseling nonviolence. Even the government may realize it has erred, as there is some talk that the official basis for the revocation of his citizenship may be changed to money laundering.
If any aspect of the Bahraini crackdown is likely to provoke a particularly violent reaction it is the move against Shaikh Isa, who is deeply revered by the Shi‘a community in Bahrain and more widely in Shi‘a communities in the Persian Gulf. If the Bahrainis proceed to expel Shaikh Isa they will simply make the matter worse and receive no credit from anyone.
It is not clear how broadly the recent decisions were discussed within the royal family. Moderate voices within the family appear to have been silenced for now, although exactly why is not clear. Equally unclear is what the government or family believes will happen as a result of the decision. It is possible that repression might work; the regime did succeed in putting down somewhat similar problems through limited repression in the past. However, in the current interconnected electronic world, and with Bahraini actions playing into the hands of Iranian hardliners, it is unlikely that the protests are going away.
In the past, some in the regime appeared to believe that more housing and economic opportunities for the Shi‘a could peel away political support from their leaders. However, very few of the economic plans have been realized. Family patronage and corruption may have been part of the problem. However, the biggest problem is that Bahrain does not have the economic resources to buy its way out of its problems.
Equally unlikely, although possible, is a major upsurge in violence. Bahrain simply is too small and too desert-like to provide a suitable location for an insurgency, particularly given that the government can call on outside forces from Saudi Arabia for help if needed. While low-level violence will probably continue in the villages, the government has such a monopoly on force that any real expansion of violence is unlikely. The odd terrorist incident is as possible as it is anywhere else in the world, but is unlikely to alter the basic situation.
If the situation is unlikely to get extremely worse, it is equally unlikely that the government’s actions will have any positive impact. Suppressing Al Wefaq is likely to push at least some of its supporters into closer ties with more radical factions. While Al Wefaq had somewhat weak leadership, it was in general a voice for nonviolence and restraint, unlike the more radical groups within the Shi‘a community. Removing Al Wefaq’s voice from political discourse in Bahrain serves no useful purpose.
Thus the most likely short-term scenario is a continuation of the current unsatisfactory situation. Shi‘a radicals will continue to foment demonstrations in villages. Occasional violence will break out although the government will largely suppress it. The ongoing protests will continue to be a drag on the Bahraini economy. Hardliners in both the Sunni and Shi‘a communities will be strengthened, and Britain and the United States will continue their periodic criticism while maintaining close security relationships with Bahrain. It is a sad situation for a country that was once the Gulf leader for political liberalization and the peaceful coexistence of the communities.
In the longer term, the probable failure of the repression strategy to provide a solution to Bahrain’s problems will continue to engender debate within the divided ruling family about how to proceed. At some point, this may lead to a new effort at a political solution. At the same time, the divided Shi‘a opposition needs to begin serious consideration of what kind of long-term compromise would be acceptable, maintained over time, and likely to improve the community’s welfare. Pressure, whether from outside or from internal circumstances, may lead the government to recalculate, but its efforts are unlikely to go anywhere if there is no Shi‘a counterpart for compromise. Right now, the lack of such an evident counterpart continues to strengthen the hardliners who argue that there is no realistic alternative to repression. Of course, if Bahrain does expel Shaikh Isa Qassim, there may be an upsurge in mass protests.
When Napoleon’s police chief was told of the kidnapping and execution of a prominent prince, he made the famous reply that the action was worse than a crime, it was a blunder. Considering the Bahraini government’s most recent actions, the phrase may still be a useful one.
1Simon Henderson, “High Noon in Bahrain: Will Tehran Blink First?”, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, June 27, 2016.