Three Years of Protest: Bahrain Today

Inspired by democratic protests among their Arab neighbors, the people of Kingdom of Bahrain rose up against the governing al-Khalifa family, who have ruled the tiny Gulf country for over 200 years. In February 2011, the Shi’a majority went to the streets, publicly denouncing perceived oppression by privileged Sunni minority. Enlisting Saudi military support, the Bahraini government shattered the vocal opposition and stabilized their hold on the country’s government. This Saudi intervention was especially significant in terms of interstate sovereign relations, as, “[The intervention] marks the first time Arab nations have intervened in another country’s affairs amid sweeping unrest in the region.” Despite the coordinated repression, three years later, while they have been submerged into relative quiescence, the protests continue.

The prevalent undercurrent of resentment boils just beneath the surface, and manifests itself in regular, albeit scattered, protests by Bahraini Shi’a youth. As reported by Reuters in the village of predominantly Shi’a village of Saar, “Every day there is a problem in our area. The youngsters go out and burn tires on the roads and the police attack them with teargas.”

In commemoration of the crushed protests of February 2011, tens of thousands Bahrainis took to the streets in peaceful protests in commemoration of the mass protests a few years earlier. The protests remain a raw wound—46 people were killed and thousands were arrested and assigned jail time. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), commissioned by the King of Bahrain, found hundreds of cases of torture and thousands of additional cases where civilian workers were fired from jobs for participating in the political protests.

Partially in response to international pressure, the Bahraini royal family has undertaken negotiations with the Shi’ite opposition. Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, perceived internationally as a relative moderate, has sat down with opposition leaders for multiple rounds of negotiations that have thus far proven unsuccessful. The primary demands of the Bahraini opposition include the release and amnesty of an alleged 3,000 political prisoners currently held by the government and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy bound by a democratically elected parliament. These proposed changes would fundamentally transform the small kingdom, where the Khalifa monarchy currently wields absolute power. Moreover, due to the demographic reality, which places the ruling Sunni class as a religious minority, a parliament elected in free elections would likely be greatly at odds with the interests of the established government. Finally, while many have argued that Crown Prince Sheikh Salman is genuinely interested in a mutually acceptable arrangement, the Crown Prince must deal with more conservative family factions that reject concessions and have used the ongoing Shiite unrest as evidence that the opposition bargains in bad faith.

With this in mind, it is not surprising that the Khalifa family has not shown interest in making far reaching concessions. To the contrary, as time has passed, Bahrain has implemented even stricter laws governing protest and dissent.  In July of 2013, Bahrain’s government outlawed indefinitely protests, demonstrations, or even unregistered public gatherings in the capital of Manama. This follows a string of temporary bans on demonstrations, where the Kingdom entered into a “State of Emergency.” In February 2014, the King went a step further in making public insults to the king punishable by a seven-year jail sentence and a fine totaling up to 10,000 dinars. Finally, political protesters may stand to lose their very citizenship; some activists have now had to seek refugee status abroad after being stripped of their national citizenship and effective become “stateless.”

While most of the protests have been peaceful, the recent trend towards escalated use of violence does give the al-Khalifa rulers a justification for the stricter measures. For example, in early March, police crowd control during a riot in Shiite-dominated Daih turned deadly with a bomb explosion that killed three policemen. While the Shiite-led opposition quickly condemned the violence and reasserted their commitment to peaceful protest, such acts of extremist violence undercut the legitimacy of the opposition forces and hurt the opposition’s bargaining power at the negotiating table. After all, if an agreement with the Shiite negotiators will not end Bahrain’s current domestic discontent, then the Bahraini government has all the more reason to avoid reaching any agreement involving government concessions.

Great power regional interests also align with the al-Khalifa government retaining its hold on power. Specifically, two major powers have overriding interests to see stability and an end to the protests in Bahrain. The first, somewhat surprising, is none other than the United States of America. At first glance, it might seem that the democratic United States government, with its firm commitment to liberal values, might not have much in common with an absolute monarchy. In the somewhat comparable cases of Qaddaffi’s Libya and Mubarak’s Egypt, the U.S. was willing to concede to honor the aspirations of the majority population for self-governance. In Bahrain, the United States has not even brought the legitimacy of the monarchic government into question, but rather fills its diplomatic correspondence with cautious statements about possible human rights’ violations and a firm commitment for a negotiated agreement.

So what does Bahrain have that Egypt and Libya do not? A major American military base. Bahrain hosts the United States’ 5th Naval Fleet. With American interests so heavily tied to Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Pakistan, it has been critical for the United States to have a stable base of operations in the Persian Gulf through which they can promote their interests in the region. Even Israel, a strong U.S. ally, does not offer the American military any permanent infrastructure that could be converted into a regional forward base. In Bahrain, the U.S. maintains an 80-acre base and hosts over 7,000 American personnel. Moreover, there is no indication that the United States are planning on leaving any time soon. To the contrary, the U.S. is currently investing in a $580 million project expanding and upgrading the base.

The second major power group is those of the Sunni Gulf states, reflected by their involvement in the Gulf Cooperation Council. Comprised of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, GCC members are terrified of growing Shiite influence in the region. The Sunni countries fear that within their Shiite populations, religious affiliation takes precedence over nationalistic ideals. As the Iranian government has sought to frame itself as an Islamic Republic and the voice of the Shiite Muslim world, the Sunnis suspect that the protesters are, in truth, fifth columnists in support of the Ayatollah-driven regime in Iran. Protester chants such as “Down with Hamad” [referring to the king] and “Only to Allah we kneel,” only serve to reinforce the Sunni paranoia that the Shiite population taking to the streets are motivated by religious ideology rather than genuine liberal aspirations. Regardless of protester intent, it is clear that Iran does publicly support the Shiite protesters against the Bahrain monarchy, as reflected in Iran’s decision to cut diplomatic ties with Bahrain over the “unacceptable” 2011 crackdown.

This anti-Iran sentiment also seems to parallel an anti-radicalization sentiment. The Kingdom of Bahrain has also banned their citizens from traveling to Syria and joining what has become largely a sectarian civil war. While Bahrain does have an interest in seeing Assad’s regime fall, it cannot risk the possibility of Sunni extremist militants gaining valuable military training and then using that expertise to cause unrest in the tiny kingdom. As the Bahrain foreign ministry said, “Interior Ministry urges parents to follow up and direct their children to avoid getting dragged in violence and extremism to safeguard the nation and its unity.”

Moreover, Bahrain has does not want to single itself out for Iranian punishment. By forbidding Bahraini fighters in Syria, Bahrain loses little in terms of the overall war effort towards overthrowing Assad (the Bahrain fighters would have an insignificant impact) but also demonstrates considerable restraint in the greater Shiite-Sunni conflict waging throughout the Middle East, something that Bahrain can potentially use as leverage.

Moving forward, anti-government violence continues through bombings and random acts of terror. However, the outlook for change looks bleak: the al-Khalifa government holds all of the negotiating cards, has a multitude of extremely powerful political actors, and the Shi’a opposition has not become sufficiently desperate to forcibly restructure the political paradigm. Unfortunately, for the near future, small-scale political protests may recede into a stable background landscape of one of the few absolute monarchies of the 21st century.

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About Brian Mund

UPenn '13; YLS '18. My research focuses on sovereignty, the United Nations and the legitimacy of secession.
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