The Middle East Channel

Bahrain’s triangle of conflict

The common media account of the crisis in Bahrain weaves a compelling narrative of a Shiite-majority people struggling to achieve their inalienable rights against a Sunni-dominant government. This "government versus the people" narrative implies that if only the government sheds its obstinacy or the people moderate their demands, then a political solution can be found ...

AFP/GettyImages
AFP/GettyImages

The common media account of the crisis in Bahrain weaves a compelling narrative of a Shiite-majority people struggling to achieve their inalienable rights against a Sunni-dominant government. This "government versus the people" narrative implies that if only the government sheds its obstinacy or the people moderate their demands, then a political solution can be found in Bahrain. Yet the reality is far more complex. In fact, there are three main camps in Bahraini politics — the government, the opposition, and the loyalist opposition — that do not fall neatly along sectarian lines.

This triangle of conflict grows more entrenched by the day as moderates fall victim to the ever increasing fragmentation and polarization of Bahraini society. Any political process that holds any hope of achieving real reconciliation must include all three camps. Yet, in every camp, the hardline voices least likely to participate in such a dialogue grow stronger every day. Leaders of all three camps must urgently take measures to set aside short-term self-interest and break this destructive cycle before it is too late.

The internal divisions within the Bahraini regime are well known. The anti-reform faction led by the prime minister, the royal court minister, and the head of the Bahrain Defense Force believes that any reform will create a slippery slope that leads to the end of al-Khalifa rule. The reform faction led by the crown prince instead views reform as necessary to ensure the regime bends but does not break under popular pressure. Since the crackdown on the uprisings in March 2011, the anti-reform camp has had the clear upper hand.

The struggles between the two factions predate the February 14 uprising of 2011. For the past decade, the crown prince’s reform faction gained influence as part of a broad reform project called the "Economic Vision 2030." This vision challenged the prime minister by establishing a series of reform-minded institutions under the crown prince’s aegis that effectively created a parallel cabinet rival to the prime minister’s official cabinet. The anti-reform faction regained the upper hand during the uprising, especially after the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) military intervention into Bahrain closed the door to negotiations between the crown prince and the opposition. Today, many of the crown prince’s key reform institutions have come under significant pressure. As one former government official lamented in an interview, the events of the past year have effectively "destroyed" the crown prince’s Economic Vision 2030.

The opposition is also split, in their case between idealists and pragmatists who disagree over how much reform is possible and how to achieve it. The idealist faction includes illegal groups like Haq, Wafa, and the February 14th youth who launched the uprising last year. They consider the government wholly illegitimate, refuse any negotiations with the government, and call for the establishment of a republic. The pragmatist faction does not disagree with the idealist faction in principle, but instead contends that such radical changes are simply impossible given the current political reality. This faction is led by the most powerful Shiite opposition party, Wefaq, as well as some other minor parties including the Sunni leftist group Waad. Even though Shiites form the majority of the opposition and constitute the most influential party within it, the opposition as a whole spans the sectarian divide. As the crisis continues, the idealist faction gains increasing influence and the pragmatist faction is forced to raise its demands in an attempt to maintain popular support in the street.

The divides within the opposition also have a long history. In 2001, 98 percent of Bahrainis voted for the National Action Charter which called for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. Yet when King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa unilaterally promulgated a constitution that reneged on several key provisions of the charter, the opposition decided to boycott the country’s first elections in decades. The main opposition party, Wefaq, decided to participate in the 2006 parliamentary elections, believing it could change the system from within. Individuals intent on maintaining their boycott against political participation left Wefaq to form the rival party Haq and later Wafa. Yet these newcomers could not match the strength of Wefaq, which performed impressively in both the 2006 and 2010 elections. Wefaq’s dominance has begun to erode this past year, as increasing anger on the street leads to wider acceptance of the idealist argument that the political system cannot be reformed from within. Today, Wefaq officials stand in awkward silence at their own rallies as protesters chant "Down with King Hamad."

The "government versus the people" narrative entirely misses the rise of a loyalist opposition of primarily formerly apolitical Sunnis alienated by the demands made by the mobilized opposition during the uprising. This new political force has spearheaded what Justin Gengler calls "Bahrain’s other revolution." During the uprising, many Bahrainis heard the opposition chants of "The people want…" in Pearl Roundabout and said to themselves, "That’s not what I want." As one former Sunni MP explained in an interview, "The opposition does not represent all of Bahrain, perhaps 50 percent maximum. It is not like the 99 percent at Occupy Wall Street." The media often categorizes these people as "pro-government," but if anything they are more "anti-opposition" in that they mobilized primarily to counter the Pearl Roundabout protests. Moreover, they have come to formulate their own demands for gradual reform as well. Neither fully loyalist nor fully opposition, the hybrid loyalist opposition constitutes an important voice in Bahraini society that must be included in any reconciliation process.

This camp is split between the newly established National Gathering of Unity (TGONU) that portrays itself as an umbrella group for all Bahrainis and Islamists parties and youth movements that, by definition, represent only a segment of the population. When the first loyalist opposition protests began last year, all people and groups gathered underneath the TGONU’s umbrella. Yet when the TGONU’s leadership decided to officially register the group as a party, the pre-existing Islamist parties became competitors with the TGONU by default. The Islamists had no choice but to leave the TGONU and strike out on their own. In addition to the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate Minbar and the Salafi Asala, a new Islamist movement called the Sahwa Youth have gained increasing influence within the loyalist opposition camp. Today, protests take on a more sectarian and confrontational tenor than before. The rise of Islamist influence has not only alienated the more liberal, secular elements of the loyalist opposition, but it has also made this camp’s participation in any potential dialogue more unlikely.

Three dynamics have caused the polarization and fragmentation that hinder reconciliation. First, a great chasm of mistrust divides the camps. Every time the government launches and oversells a superficial reform project, the opposition grows more distrustful of the government’s seriousness to ever enact real reforms. As Brian Dooley of Human Rights First contends, "the gap between rhetoric and reality is huge" when the government talks about reform. Yet every time the opposition demands reform, the government and loyalist opposition, believing reform has already happened, accuse the opposition of constantly moving the goal posts. This dynamic not only polarizes the camps, but it also weakens the moderates in each camp who are blamed by hardliners for their gullibility in giving other camps the benefit of the doubt each time they try to negotiate. Without a basic trust that the other side will hold up its end of any potential deal, there is little incentive to take the risk of entering negotiations. As a result, politics in Bahrain have moved from the negotiation table to the streets.

Second, the dynamics of street politics have created a dangerous environment of protest, crackdown, and counter-protest. The opposition must protest to keep pressure on the government, yet every street action further angers the loyalist opposition — especially when protests turn violent despite the leadership’s insistence on peaceful methods. The loyalist opposition desires security in the streets, but with the government’s inability to maintain that security, some groups have turned to their own, sometimes violent, street actions that undermine the very security they seek. The government could allow protests to continue and maintain its legitimacy with the opposition and international community, or it could crackdown further on the protests to maintain its legitimacy with the loyalist opposition. These dilemmas widen the schisms between the moderates and hardliners of every camp while simultaneously ensuring that the cycle of protest, crackdown, and counter-protest continues. Anger begets violence which begets yet more anger. As one human rights defender fretted in an interview, "I am worried moderates like myself will be sidelined if violence continues."

Third, the distrust and street dynamics create a ripe atmosphere for the spread of sectarianism. Bahrain has always suffered from socioeconomic and political divides between Shiite and Sunni, and the government has taken advantage by exacerbating these divides in a strategy of divide and rule. The government doubled down on this strategy during the February 14th uprising, unleashing what Kristin Smith Diwan calls an "onslaught of sectarianism" to stay in power. Yet the government also found a receptive audience for its sectarian narrative. Precisely because the disenfranchised Shiites would gain the most from reform in Bahrain, some Sunnis have come to view a democratic agenda as a Shiite agenda. The fate of the Sunnis in Iraq has only heightened the fears of Shiite intentions. Citing the Iraq example, a Minbar member of parliament (MP) warned in an interview, "This conflict is not about politics, human rights or anything else but religion. They want to kill us." Unfortunately, the opposition has failed to effectively assuage these fears. Now, there is the significant risk that the sectarianism that began as a government policy of divide and rule has spiraled out of control, with sectarian voices drowning out moderates. As a result, not only has Bahrain grown more vulnerable to the destabilizing effects of regional sectarian tensions, but what was once a political crisis might transform into a far more pernicious conflict of identities.

All of this leaves a fairly grim picture for Bahrain’s future. On any given day, there are plenty of perfectly safe and secure areas in Bahrain. Yet on that very same day, those very same areas may suddenly become inundated with tear gas and the cries of the injured. All the tinder is set, the sparks are flying, and eventually the country will catch fire. Today, the greatest potential spark is the fate of human rights activist Abdul Hadi al-Khawaja, on the brink of death from a hunger strike in prison demanding the release of all political prisoners. Yet even if al-Khawaja does not die, there will always be the next event, the next anniversary, the next protest, the next clash or the next death that could be the spark that lights the tinder.

To avoid that conflagration, everyone must work toward ameliorating the distrust, street, and sectarian dynamics that threaten to rip the very fabric of Bahraini society apart. Unfortunately, potential spoilers abound within each camp, especially among the hardline factions who view the crisis with vastly different lenses and even personally benefit from the continuation of the crisis. It is unclear whether these factions can be convinced to play a productive role on the path to reconciliation. What is clear, however, is that if current trends continue, it is only a matter of time before Bahrain suffers a major escalation.

Reza H. Akbari is a research assistant at the Middle East Institute and Jason Stern has a M.A. in Middle East Studies from George Washington University. This article is an adaptation of their master’s thesis on the potential for political reconciliation in Bahrain (PDF). They can be reached on Twitter under the handles @rezahakbari and @IbnLarry.

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