By Afro-Middle East Centre
Despite the chronic under-reporting on popular protests in Bahrain, the uprising in the small Gulf state that left over thirty dead and hundreds arrested in a brutal government crackdown offers a potent reading of the regional and global dynamics and interests at play. Mainstream coverage of the uprising has mostly portrayed the Bahraini uprising as an extension, or a natural continuum, of the 'Arab Spring' that has swept across the region. Even though the Bahraini protests might have found inspiration in the tidal wave of calls for democratisation elsewhere in the region, and reflect similar demands for greater freedoms and rights, such a homogeneous framing ignores the particularities of the Bahraini context, and the country's geopolitical and strategic significance. Additionally, it negates a long tradition of pro-democracy campaigns by not contextualising this uprising as an extension of extensive civic and popular protests dating back to the 1990s.
From demanding civil rights to calling for regime change
Inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, 14 February was marked by Bahraini pro-democracy activists as a 'Day of Rage'. The date was significant as it was the tenth anniversary of a popular referendum that saw ninety-eight percent of voters support the adoption of a National Action Charter that would promise significant reforms. In fact, the process leading to the adoption of the charter was initiated by the current king, Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa, as part of an attempt to defuse tensions that had arisen from the popular uprisings of the 1990s. The charter was an important political contract that held the promise of significant democratic reforms around, amongst other issues, the instatement of a constitutional monarchy, political and religious rights, human rights and issues pertaining to the judicial and legislative framing of the state. Indeed, much of impetus behind the current uprising was driven by the frustration of unfulfilled political promises reflected in the charter.
To understand the dynamics and complexities of the Bahraini uprising, it is necessary to locate it within the country's Sunni-Shi'a sectarian division. This schism is a source of deep-rooted political and social discord and tension – a division that is often manipulated. Significantly, the protesters that converged on Lulu (Pearl) Roundabout on 14 February were a united front of Shi'a (the majority) and Sunnis activists calling for general political reforms, especially:
an end to wide-spread corruption;
greater political participation, particularly amongst the Shi'a who, despite comprising seventy percent of the population of just over half a million, face endemic structural and institutional discrimination;
an end to government's attempts to alter the country's demographics through the mass naturalisation of Sunni foreigners; and
the instatement of a constitutional monarchy (as provided for in the National Action Charter).
These calls were not only rejected by the regime, but demonstrations were met with a climate of brutal intimidation and vicious repression that resulted in:
thousands losing their jobs;
mass expulsions from universities;
martial law being declared;
special military courts being set up to try those suspected of involvement in protest actions. These included medical personnel who treated injured protesters, sports personalities, bloggers, journalists and students, with life-sentences and long term prison sentences meted out by these courts to leading opposition figures; and
the deployment of foreign troops from the Peninsula Shield Force, the military structure of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), to assist the Bahraini monarchy in quashing the uprising.
There were widespread reports of gross human rights violations against anyone suspected of involvement in the protests. The death in detention of Karim Fakhrawi, a journalist and co-founder of an independent newspaper, became emblematic of the government's brutal crackdown. Further, about thirty Shi'a mosques were demolished – purportedly with Saudi backing – in what may be interpreted as a tacit warning to the Shi'a majority that any dissidence will not be tolerated, and any attempt to alter the status quo in favour of the majority will be crushed.
The authorities' response to the protests was particularly alarming considering that the protesters had not initially called for the overthrow of the Khalifa monarchy, but for the instatement of a constitutional monarchy. However, three days after the protests began, on 17 February, when the army opened fire on unarmed protesters camping at Lulu Roundabout, killing seven, the protesters' call segued to that of ousting the monarchy that has ruled over Bahrain for over 200 years.
Clearly, those opposing the government are not a single voice, and a distinction should be drawn between the call of the protesters on the street and most of the main, formal opposition parties. The protesters are often disenfranchised youth without any officially recognised leadership and issuing radical calls, while the political parties, despite their own marginalisation, suppression, and support for the protests, have expressed deep concern around a call for an end to the Khalifa monarchy. In fact, disagreements between opposition groups on a common approach around how – or whether – to work with the regime has, arguably, weakened their collective position.
Bahrain: The regional chessboard
The shadow of Iran's influence
Even though the initial protest actions took place across sectarian lines, it appears that the Bahraini authorities purposefully sought to deepen the sectarian rift by claiming that Shi'a protesters were being supported by 'a terrorist organisation abroad working for a foreign country.' (This was one of the charges facing twenty-one opposition members when they appeared in court.) This implied and unfounded reference to Iran is in itself a clear indication of how regional and global dynamics and interests have not only hovered over the uprising, but manoeuvred the direction it has taken.
This accusation by the regime attempted to achieve four objectives:
to split and polarise opposition voices along sectarian lines,
to raise the bogey of a foreign threat to Bahrain's stability,
to instil fear that Bahrain was threatened by a similar revolution to the 1979 Iranian Revolution that saw the instatement of a Shi'a Islamist government, and
to garner the support of the US and Saudi Arabia – which have increasingly expressed fears about Iran's long-armed regional influence, and which see Bahrain as an important and strategic buffer to combat this threat.
Protecting the monarchy: A military occupation?
In attempting to understand the trajectory of the Bahraini uprising, it is imperative to examine regional and international responses and what these suggest about Bahrain's strategic role, and its positioning in terms of geopolitical interests.
Although Morocco and Jordan recently witnessed some popular protests, Bahrain was the only monarchy – in the current climate of uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East – to face a serious challenge to the regime. As a result, Bahrain's neighbouring monarchies became deeply concerned about similar popular discontent spreading to challenge their rule. Unsurprisingly, when the Khalifa family requested armed support from the GCC, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE were swift to send troops to help quell the uprising. The military intervention was an unequivocal move to protect the regional interests of the countries supplying troops. Bahraini protesters, as well as Iran and movements such as Hizbullah that had expressed support for the aspirations of the protesters, slammed the Peninsula Shield Force as an occupation force.
The US and 'regime alteration'
The Bahraini uprising again emphasised the US' unpreparedness and ad hoc response to the uprisings in the region. Its response also underscored a double standard employed in US foreign policy. The US, as a NATO member, supports attempts to remove Gaddafi from power in Libya, supports sanctions against Syria, and (belatedly) praised the democratic aspirations of Tunisians and Egyptians for the ousting of their dictators (autocrats that the US had supported prior to their removal). However, its position on Bahrain makes it clear that it regards Bahraini aspirations for democracy and meaningful reform – just like those of other people in the region – as subordinate to US interests.
In what could be perceived as a region hostile to the US, it has long regarded and maintained the Bahraini regime as an important ally. Significantly, Bahrain hosts the US' Fifth Fleet that patrols the Persian Gulf, the coast of east Africa, the Red and Arabian Seas. The US is cognisant that in the event of regime change, relocation of the Fifth Fleet will have to be considered – a position it would prefer to avoid, not least of the opportune geostrategic location of Bahrain. Additionally, the US sees Bahrain playing a critical role in containing Iran – just across the Gulf – and its regional ambitions. Simply put, democratisation in the Bahraini context does not serve a US agenda.
As such, interests trumped over US rhetoric of democratisation. Thus US officials began talking about supporting a position dubbed 'regime alteration'. This position, in essence, downgrades the will of the people in favour of ensuring that long-time allies, who are encouraged to institute placatory reforms, remain in power. The US' response has also undoubtedly been influenced by Saudi Arabia's – another critical US ally – role in the uprising. However, this response needs to be understood in relation to how Saudi Arabia viewed the US' position on the ousting of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. Saudi Arabia viewed with gravity and concern the US' expedient abandonment of a former ally. The consequential strained relations that have emerged has resulted in the Saudis distrust of any US involvement – including the US' position on 'regime alteration' in Bahrain which the Saudis opposed. The subdued US response to the deployment of GCC troops in Bahrain suggests that the US was unwilling to further compromise its relationship with Saudi Arabia. This repositioning of US-Saudi relations – long-time strategic allies – will inevitably impact on and shape the region in the longer term.
Saudi Arabia: The vanguard of counter-revolution
The uprisings in the region have destabilised Saudi Arabia's attempts to maintain a particular regional balance of power. Thus, the Saudis not only came out in opposition to the wave of popular protests, but offered military support to suppress Bahrain's uprising. This position has cast them as the 'vanguard of the counter-revolutionaries'.
The situation in Bahrain – whose regime has long been propped up by the Saudis – has been of particular concern to Saudi Arabia. It not only fears that popular discontent will spread, and challenge its monarchy, but that a regime change in Bahrain that allows space for greater Shi'a political participation will also open up the possibility of extended Shi'a influence in the region, and a greater tilt in the region towards Iran. Saudi Arabia knows that a successful popular insurrection in Bahrain will see its own Shi'a population – particularly in the eastern province where people have family ties to the Shi'as in Bahrain – become restive. Further, the Saudi (and US) fear is that such a occurrence could extend Iranian influence into the heart of Saudi Arabia.
Considering that Saudi Arabia plays a central role in Bahraini politics, its influence has dictated the Bahraini regime's response to the uprising. In fact, with Saudi Arabia's unequivocal military and financial support for the Bahraini regime, it is unlikely that any reforms instituted by the regime would not receive the prior approval of its Saudi benefactors.
National dialogue – tokenism or a way forward?
With the uprising dragging out, a military response looking increasingly untenable, the economy suffering substantially from months of protest, and the situation having reached something of a political impasse, the Bahraini government sought to stabilise the country. It ended the three month-long state of emergency, and called for reconciliation talks in the form of a national dialogue – a position that undoubtedly had been pushed by the US and, especially, Saudi Arabia. Additionally, our sources indicate that there was vigorous behind-the-scenes negotiations between Iran and the Bahraini monarchy which resulted in an agreement on how the regime should proceed. Iran offered to bring the Shi'a opposition groups into a dialogue process, in exchange for a withdrawal of foreign troops. Iran additionally wanted guarantees that Bahrain would ask the Americans to relocate the Fifth Fleet. That, however, has not gone Iran's way.
However, the dialogue process was fraught from the outset. It is hard to imagine that in a climate where brutal repression has been the response to even sympathisers of the uprising, genuine dialogue that holds the possibility for reform could easily take place. Indeed, the national dialogue seems to be reflective of the political marginalisation – especially as experienced by Shi'a – that characterises Bahraini politics. Not only was the dialogue designed by the government, but Bahrain's main political party, the mainly Shi'a Al-Wefaq – which recently pulled out of the talks – was substantially under-represented. In fact, in an indication of the government's lack of commitment to genuine dialogue and meaningful reform, opposition parties were represented by only forty-five of the three hundred seats. Further, ostensibly due to a lack of official political representation, the voice of the protesters on the street was not represented in the dialogue.
However, in what can be read as a further attempt to appease protesters and the opposition, the government further sanctioned an independent international investigation – the Bassiouni Inquiry – to probe the conduct of security forces during the uprising. Reflecting on the position adopted by the Bahraini government during the uprising, both the inquiry and the dialogue – and the attendant concessions such as the dismantling of special security courts and the release of some prisoners, are most likely an attempt to assuage the opposition and calm the protesters, as opposed to genuine commitment in offering significant reforms.
Dialogue – and national confidence – has further been undermined in Bahrain by the continued imprisonment of opposition leaders. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that with the largest political movement having pulled out of the talks the dialogue will be a space to institute the sort of reforms that protesters had initially demanded.
Bahrain continues to bear the scars of a brutal crackdown, and the schism between Shi'as and Sunnis has been deliberately exacerbated over the past few months. Considering the role that the Saudis played in ensuring that the protests were unable to be a catalyst for regime change – or even for meaningful reforms, it seems unlikely that any significant changes will be instituted that do not meet Saudi consent and fit in with Saudi interests.
It is difficult to maintain confidence in a possible positive outcome. In many respects the current uprising seems to be following a similar trajectory to the 1990s uprising that came to an end after the referendum for the National Action Charter in 2001. It is ironic that the anniversary of the charter that sparked this determined uprising is seeing it conclude in a similar manner – with seemingly empty promises for reform. Indeed, as the uprising has attested, aspirations for greater freedoms and democratisation are successful so long as they do not clash with the interests of foreign powers.