The Middle East Channel

Dark clouds over Bahrain

Dark clouds over Bahrain

The killing of a 14-year-old boy by police on the island of Sitra on Aug. 31 has reignited simmering tensions in Bahrain. Ali Jawad Ahmad died while attending an Eid al-Fitr demonstration, one of numerous flashpoints in the daily confrontations between anti-government protesters and the security services. His death triggered widespread protests that rapidly spread to most Shiite villages on the Bahraini archipelago. Some 10,000 people attended his funeral and repeated calls for the overthrow of the ruling Al-Khalifa family.

Groups of demonstrators also returned to central Manama where they attempted to reclaim the site of Pearl Roundabout — now a traffic junction after it was bulldozed by the regime in March. Riot police beat them back with tear gas, but the symbolism of the attempted return to the heart of the pro-democracy movement that threatened to topple the Al-Khalifa in March was clear.

 

Ali’s death and the reactions to it underline once more how Bahraini society remains polarised as never before. Following the lifting of martial law on June 1, King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa convened a National Dialogue and created an ostensibly independent investigation into the springtime unrest. Through these initiatives, the government hoped to begin a process of reconciliation and reach a consensual settlement with the opposition. However, their flawed implementation widened the chasm between the Al-Khalifa and their opponents by casting serious doubt on the credibility of the commitment to political reform. The impasse undercuts goodwill and moderate opinion on both sides while entrenching hard-line attitudes and mutual distrust.

Bahrain’s National Dialogue convened on July 2 and ran until July 30. It began under a cloud following the June 22 decision of the National Safety Court to sentence 13 prominent opposition figures to varying terms of imprisonment. They included the head and the founder of the Islamist Haq Movement (Abdeljalil Singace and Hassan Mushaima, who both received life sentences), the president of the liberal Wa’ad Society (Ibrahim Sharif, sentenced to five years), as well as prominent Shiite clerics and human rights activists. The majority were committed to non-violent protest and many had participated in the political opening that followed the ending of the previous bout of internal unrest in 1999. Their imprisonment, following a military trial, illustrated the gloved-fist nature of the regime’s approach, jailing some of its opponents while simultaneously reaching out to others.

The National Dialogue suffered a credibility gap from the beginning. Despite winning up to 45 percent of the vote in the Oct. 2010 national election, the Shiite opposition group Al-Wefaq was only granted five out of 300 delegates (1.67 percent). This was consistent with the overall composition of the dialogue, in which delegates representing all Bahraini opposition societies only constituted 11.67 percent of the total. The remaining participants were drawn from all walks of life and overwhelmingly favored keeping the regime in its current shape. Core opposition demands for redrawing electoral boundaries for greater proportional representation and creating an elected government were simply not on the agenda; nor was any discussion permitted of the nature or extent of the ruling family’s power. This led prominent Al-Wefaq MP Dr Jassim Hussain Ali to comment that the process resembled "more of a social event than a political dialogue."

Al-Wefaq withdrew from the National Dialogue halfway through, on July 18, with critics calling into question its own judgement to participate. The dialogue continued, and concluded with a series of recommendations, including one that the Prime Minister (rather than the King) would appoint the government. As the long-serving Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa (in office since 1971) represents one of the key obstacles to reform, this recommendation hardly constituted a political concession. Nor did the dialogue come to an agreement over the electoral boundaries, another major opposition grievance. Far from drawing a line under the unrest, the flawed process reinforced existing divisions and demonstrated very clearly that critical issues of political contention are simply not up for debate.

The National Dialogue partially overlapped with the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). King Hamad established the BICI on June 29 to "enquire into the incidents" in February and March and their consequences. Its chair was Egyptian Professor Cherif Bassiouni, who earlier led the U.N. Security Council commission that investigated war crimes in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The BICI also included a UN Human Rights Committee member (Sir Nigel Rodley) and a former International Criminal Court judge (Philippe Kirsch) among their number. Observers hoped that this strong line-up would allay suspicions as to the commission’s impartiality, as it had been appointed by the Royal Court, rather than a truly impartial entity such as the United Nations.

Similar to the National Dialogue, the BICI quickly ran into difficulty. This stemmed from a series of interviews given by Chairman Bassiouni that appeared to prejudge its outcome and exonerate officials of any responsibility for human rights violations. After stating to Bahraini newspaper Al-Ayam that he had found no proof of systematic abuses or torture, Bassiouni went further by telling Reuters that he doubted there was ever a policy of excessive use of force. Rather, he attributed incidents of abuse to "people at the lower level acting, and there not being an effective chain of communication". These comments drew a furious reaction from Bahraini human rights groups and opposition figures, who pointed to statements made by senior members of the Al-Khalifa praising and (in some cases) egging on the security forces.

As tempers flared and skepticism mounted, hundreds of people attempted to force their way into the BICI office in Manama on Aug. 15. Staff working at the commission were allegedly threatened and abused, and the office was closed to "walk-in" visits. The BICI now appears isolated and few observers expect much from its report, which is to be submitted on Oct. 30. The events of Aug. 15 further polarized an already volatile situation as pro-government supporters argued that they demonstrated the true face of a violent opposition unwilling to accept outcomes it did not agree with. It seems increasingly likely that whatever recommendations the BICI makes, they will merely become another tool in the war of words between regime supporters and opponents.

All the while the prospects for any meaningful process of reflection — or even reconciliation — dim with each new incident. Moreover, political power at the heart of the regime appears to be coalescing around a group of hard-liners associated with the Prime Minister. These include the Interior Minister (Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah) and the influential Bin Ahmed brothers Khalid (Minister of the Royal Court) and Khalifa (head of the Bahrain Defense Force, itself much strengthened following an emergency recruiting drive in Pakistan). The sidelining of reformers around the King and his son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad, quickened in late-August as the Prime Minister announced an anti-corruption drive and called for a strategy to increase foreign business investment in Bahrain. Both issues encroach directly onto the Economic Development Board, chaired by the Crown Prince, which since 2006 had led the way in attracting foreign direct investment and rooting out corruption.

The continuing tensions and low-level violence (albeit much reduced in visibility) are now prompting foreign companies to reassess their engagement in Bahrain. In August alone, Volvo announced it was canceling its 2012 Golf Champions Tournament, Credit Agricole disclosed it was relocating to Dubai, and the International Institute of Strategic Studies confirmed it would suspend its flagship Manama Security Dialogue, held every December since 2004. These decisions are significant, as the majority of regional and international businesses did not abandon Bahrain in March. Most adopted a "wait and see" approach that now seems to be wearing thin. Thus, the continuing absence of a comprehensive political settlement may end up inflicting greater damage than the initial shock of the uprising itself. They signal to foreign partners that governmental claims of a return to normality are shallow and based on a fragile and transient veneer of calm.

Every day brings new evidence of Bahrain’s self-inflicted wounds, notwithstanding efforts by the government and its PR agents to shape an alternative narrative. Ali Jawad Ahmad’s death was one reminder of the unresolved but still lethal confrontation between an enraged opposition and an implacable regime. Another is the announcement on Sept. 2 that Bahraini doctors facing trial in a military court for their involvement in the pro-democracy demonstrations have gone on hunger strike. But Bahrainis are running out of options should the processes of national dialogue and reconciliation fail to deliver tangible results acceptable both to regime and opposition. Were this to occur, the danger is that the squeezing of the middle ground validates and strengthens extremist voices, and that the battle-lines will be drawn for a new clash between diametrically opposed camps.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science.