By Abd al-Jalil al-Marhun
The events in Bahrain, unfolding at an increasing pace, have in many respects forced themselves on both the local and the regional arenas and contexts. In addition, they have attracted unexpected and extensive international attention. What was the spark that ignited these events? How did they develop? What are the stances adopted towards them by the various political groups? And, where is Bahrain heading?
A stimulating Arab environment
Current events in Bahrain were not simply inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. They do, rather, appear to be inextricably connected to these uprisings at both the level of the arguments presented and the ideas that have driven the protests. Other similarities have included the methods of action employed by the movement.
Of course, Bahrain has distinctive characteristics that sets it apart. These are as a result of Bahrain being part of a region that is a site of intense competition between various world powers, its position as a lifeline to global oil resources, and the fact that it plays a significant role in the flow of international trade. These factors relate to the strategic aspect. As to the political dimension, the Persian Gulf region is usually considered, for the most part, as having a conservative political environment – one that is largely a stranger to revolts and radical courses of action. Exceptions to this are, of course, Iraq and Iran.
Despite this, the world has undergone a plethora of changes both in the security and intelligence fields. At the same time, it has witnessed a redefinition of the role and functions of the state, the principle of national sovereignty, and conceptions around borders. In addition, the concept of global civil society, or ‘globalization’, has emerged. This concept has begun to assume a shape far removed from engagement with local realities, but rather pursues a presumed objective of universal benefit for all of humankind.
Within the Arab context, it has become clear that the Tunisian revolt created a new climate in the Arab world. The most prominent expressions of this can be found in the emergence of defiant calls for change, the assumption of the reigns of control over the movement for transformation by the youth, the absence in such movements of reactionary ideological frameworks, and the the similarity in the demands and aspirations across the region. These demands and aspirations are essentially embodied in the call for states that are grounded in social justice.
In Bahrain specifically, the political dynamics are less complicated than one might initially assume. This can be reflected in how, at the start of its uprising, the popular 14 February Movement voiced slogans that had been expressly incorporated in the National Action Charter. This charter had received an overwhelming endorsement by 98.4 percent of Bahraini voters in 2001 during a referendum that was declared by the global community as impartial and transparent.
Events have unfolded with extreme intensity and rapidity at both the political and security levels. This has resulted in a rise in the threshold of demands of the 14 February Movement. The movement effectively ended up seizing control of the actions taking place on the streets of Bahrain, and was steering the sit-ins and marches that the country witnessed before the violent crackdown by the government.
The uprising in Bahrain was initiated by a march on the Pearl, or Lulu, Roundabout, in the capital Manama, on Monday, 14 February – the tenth anniversary of the popular vote in support of the National Action Charter. The march was the result of a call by the 14 February Youth Movement, who were then joined by groups from the political opposition, known collectively as ‘the seven organizations’. The next day saw an unprecedented turnout of tens of thousands of people who came participate in the funeral of the youths who had lost their lives during the demonstration on Monday.
Events soon escalated when the protesters insisted on retracing their steps to the Pearl Roundabout, and seized control of the roundabout. Security forces were subsequently given official instructions to withdraw from the scene, so as to avoid an expected escalation in tension. However, at the break of dawn on Thursday, 17 February, unexpected police and army action took the protesters, who were asleep, by surprise. Instructions had been issued to both the army and the police to enforce control. This resulted in a large number of casualties, as well as many people going missing, and their fate being unknown for many days.
At that point the situation in Bahrain entered what can be seen as a new stage. Among the consequences, and one of the immediate political challenges of this new stage, was the announcement by the parliamentary coalition of Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society that it was withdrawing from the National Assembly. The coalition included eighteen members of the Assembly, and thus represents the parliamentary opposition. The coalition tendered its formal withdrawal from the Assembly on 27 February, knowing full well the impact this would have on a parliament of only forty members.
On Thursday, 17 February, Bahrain witnessed marches and demonstrations in a number of areas. These resulted in many more casualties. It seemed as if the country was plunging headlong into the unknown, and on that day the first news of what was taking place began to emerge on television channels throughout the world. Within this context, a call was made for a general march to take place on Saturday, 19 February. Political organisations, however, announced their intention to postpone the march until the following Tuesday at the conclusion of the mourning ceremonies being held for the victims of protest actions in the various villages and towns across Bahrain. This position, however, differed from the approach of the 14 February Movement, which insisted that the march should proceed on the scheduled day. The 14 February Movement position won the day, and the march set forth from three directions, all converging on Pearl Roundabout with the aim of regaining control over it.
Clashes broke out between protesters and security forces where barriers had been set up in the square. For part of the day, the security forces managed to control the barriers, until they were instructed to withdraw from the area. This was accompanied by an instruction for the army to withdraw from the entire capital, and the termination of the state of emergency that had lasted for three days. In the end, the protesters returned to Pearl Roundabout, which had been converted into the headquarters of the 14 February Movement.
Between Saturday evening and midday on Tuesday, 22 February, a turning point occurred in Bahraini political life. This was as a result of a march that had been described as the largest ever in Bahraini history. Reports by international news agencies and television channels estimated the number of protesters as 400 000. From a general point of view, we are confronting an unfamiliar and unprecedented scenario, one that neither Bahrain nor the region has witnessed since, at least, World War Two. It is a scenario characterised by the dominance of a popular impulse that was not externally engineered. Despite its focus on new means of communication, which has an international flavour, Bahrain drew inspiration from the experiences in other Arab societies.
The 14 February Movement consists of youth who generally do not belong to any political organisation, or who, at the very least, did not organise themselves around existing political associations. Rather, they coordinated their activities mainly through internet social networking sites – primarily through Facebook. Further, a large number of these youth attend secondary schools or universities. The contacts and networks at these schools and universities have played as important a role as networking via the Internet.
It is clear that these young protesters are not affiliated to one specific religious group, and include both Sunnis and Shi’as. This not only represents an element of strength in their movement, but also in relation to the bodies that might look to engage them in political dialogue. There has been talk about these youth electing a leadership, with a proportional quota of Shia and Sunni, as well as an allotted number of women. It appears that this idea was inspired by the experience of the Supreme Executive Council that was established during the famous uprising of March 1956. However, according to some sources, the 14 February Movement distanced itself from this idea for fear of falling into the trap of sectarian quotas that the Lebanese and Iraqis have employed. What might be established as a substitute is the creation of a leadership voted for through non-sectarian elections.
Every option has its pros and cons. However, the idea of looking at the youth as simply Bahrainis seems preferable to creating additional identity markers. After the expected establishment of a leadership of the youth it will be easier for the political stakeholders to become familiar with the vision held by the youth, including their widely circulating views and perspectives on the political context.
It has been ascertained from dialogues that have taken place for the purposes of preparing this report that some groups that are not part of the organised political opposition, including the main voices within the Islamic Sunni camp, are prepared to sit with the youth leadership to acquire first-hand knowledge of their vision, and their national demands. There is another issue that political observers of the current situation in Bahrain may have failed to notice. According to internal sources, the youth of the 14 February Movement mutually exchange and share their knowledge and skills with the youth behind the Tunisian revolution, and the Egyptian and Libyan revolts.
Escalation of political demands
An examination of the foremost political demand of the 14 February Movement reveals that when the first march took place in the current series of protests, its principal slogan was the call for a constitutional monarchy, as expressly demanded by the National Action Charter. This ‘ceiling’ of political demands is not new to the Bahraini political milieu, nor was it forbidden to speak about such demands. The only area of disagreement amongst the groups engaged in these discussions was around the timing of this transition, and possibly around the methods and mechanisms used in this process.
A redefinition of the political demands occurred on the evening of 14 February as a result of the first casualties from the protests in the village of Al Dih, west of the capital Manama. At that point the political demand was immediately raised to include the slogan calling for an overthrow of the regime. These demands were then crystallised as a result of the aftermath of the events that took place in Pearl Roundabout during the early hours of Thursday, 17 February. It was then that the country entered a new political era.
The 14 February Movement held firmly to this new slogan, and rejected any compromise. It took the view that any concessions should be viewed as an approach that could not represent the movement regardless of how much it might approximate the demands embedded through the new slogan. When the leader of an established political organisation spoke about a constitutional monarchy in Pearl Roundabout, the youth participating in the sit-in confiscated the microphone from the speaker, forcing him to end his address and leave the area. Similarly, on another occasion, when the head of a different political organisation spoke on the same issue, the youth waited for him to conclude his speech so that they could chant their slogans that represented their opposing position.
As a result, the country’s official political opposition found itself facing two opposing voices of demands: one coming from the 14 February Movement that maintained effective control over popular action on the streets of Bahrain; the other emerging from the stakeholders that make up the organised political opposition and represent other constituencies, as well as hold extensive political experience.
In light of these rapid developments, four political and charitable organisations were established outside the ranks of the official opposition. Headed by Sheikh Abd al-Latif al-Mahmud, the new ‘National Unity Bloc’ represented a new framework. This coalition, representing significant stakeholders that make up the Sunni political movement operating at grass-roots level, as well as notable and independent personalities, strove to adopt most of the demands of the groups of the political opposition, with minor differences in detail and interpretation. Thus, only a fine line separates the groups of the political opposition and the new coalition.
The Islamic movements involved in the National Unity Bloc hold the opinion that the door is open for crystallising the political demands that are presently being tabled, and for developing them further in such a way that the differences between the various political sides can be lessened. That way, they feel, a point may be reached where joint demands might be crystallised in a common document. These political movements are also open to engaging with the 14 February Movement youth. Dr Salah Ali, a member of the Consultative Assembly, and a leading figure in the National Islamic Society (SBU) or Minbar (a group representing the views of the Muslim Brotherhood) is of the opinion that there should be no obstacles or barriers to dialogue between Bahrainis, regardless of their different political positions and visions.
Future possibilities and horizons
The matters that are under debate in Bahrain are deep-rooted, interwoven, complex and multi-faceted. It is impossible to underplay the sensitive nature of thecurrent circumstances, or detract from the historical significance of what is happening. If we pause to consider the concept behind a constitutional monarchy, as called for in the National Action Charter, the first issue that a political observer would face is the absence of a local interpretation of the extent to which this would be interpreted and implemented within the Bahraini context. Would it mean that Bahrain would transform into a state along the lines of Sweden, Denmark, Spain and the United Kingdom, or would it follow the Moroccan model?
Regardless of this, the Crown Prince of Bahrain, Emir Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, made an official call for dialogue that a number of political organisations and independent personalities acceded to. They did, however, set conditions and prerequisites for their involvement in such a dialogue. Foremost among these is the disbanding of the existing government, and the demand for the presence of a mediating party that is capable of guaranteeing that any agreement reached will be implemented.
On 27 February, the head of state, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, issued a decree dismissing four ministers from their posts. They were the Minister of Cabinet Affairs, Ahmad bin Atiyyallah Al Khalifa; the Minister of Health, Faisal Al Hamer; the Minister of Housing, Ebrahim bin Khalifa Al Khalifah, and the Minister of Electricity and Water, Fahmi Al Jowder. This step was preceded by the release of a number of political prisoners, most of whom had been arrested during the summer of 2010.
A number of countries in the Gulf have echoed calls urging the Bahraini opposition to accept an offer of political dialogue. In this regard, a series of official statements have been issued by Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It is the first time in the history of the Gulf that a state has proceeded along these lines. It cannot be disputed that this step in itself speaks of telling signs around the possibility of transformation.
If it so happens that certain developments occur at a local political level that result in the opposition embarking on a policy of dialogue, then the groups comprising the official political opposition will only represent themselves, and not the 14 February Movement. However, it can be argued that the eventual success of the opposition in scoring political gains and the potential for them to have an impact on existing political structures, is dependent on a united front and voice. This is especially the case in light of the current brutal repression of protests, and the presence of foreign military troops – from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – in Bahrain. In this respect the political horizon in Bahrain does not appear to be closing, and what is required is to hold onto the the original motivator behind the protests: hope for change.
* This article is published in terms of an agreement between the Afro-Middle East Centre and the AlJazeera Centre for Studies. It was originally published in Arabic by AlJazeera Centre, and then translated into English by AMEC