This month, the Bahraini monarchy stopped permitting political protests as it continues to respond to unauthorized rallies with brutal force. The act of rejecting permits to protest — and thus closing off this peaceful channel of dissent — threatens to drive Bahrainis away from the moderate camp. Closing political space to legally protest is creating a volatile environment, where both police and demonstrators are increasingly resorting to violent means. Without a reversal of this policy, the Prime Minister and his hardline allies within the government will get just what they want — an excuse to crack down on a violent opposition that has no peaceful outlet to express its political grievances.
In the first six months of this year, opposition parties in Bahrain documented at least 20 requests for peaceful protests that were rejected. According to the government, 88 peaceful protests were also allowed during the same period. Throughout this time, formal political opposition parties played by the government’s rules, applying 72 hours in advance to the Ministry of Interior for permits to protest and accepting de facto bans on any demonstration inside the capital of Manama. But in the last month, Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior has rejected all opposition applications for planned protests pending further study, citing the need to end street violence and prevent the disruption of traffic. Before the end of July, frustrated opposition parties defied the ban, holding widespread demonstrations across the country and declaring a march in Manama. These unauthorized rallies were met with the same type of excessive force the island has witnessed for the past 18 months: protests across the country were attacked with a flood of tear gas, birdshot, beatings, and raids. According to the largest opposition party, al-Wefaq, the number of rallies denied permits has now reached 30 in July alone.
One lesson to be learned from the Arab Spring is that repressing peaceful protests by force does not make people go home — it angers and emboldens them. Young activists, beaten down and humiliated, return more determined and potentially more radicalized. When pressed on the excessive use of force by riot police, Bahraini officials regularly point to the increased use of Molotov cocktails and protesters attacking police with iron rods, and warn of foiled terrorist attacks and bomb plots.
For the past year, the U.S. government has implored al-Wefaq and other opposition leaders to keep the streets calm to ensure space for political dialogue with regime moderates. Opposition leaders have repeatedly issued public calls to maintain a nonviolent approach. But, as the government’s progress toward reform has stalled, the moderate opposition’s ability to ensure that protesters remain patient appears to be eroding. Former al-Wefaq member of parliament (MP) Matar Matar has described the new policy as the government "encouraging the people to disobedience." The February 14th Youth Movement, an anonymous youth group that organizes unauthorized and often confrontational political protests via Facebook, was able to gather 5,000 people in a recent rally — the movement’s largest in months.
As the government of Bahrain moves to eliminate any space for peaceful political protest, the opposition is tasked with an impossible order: in the face of excessive force by police, maintain an environment of total nonviolence while awaiting reforms from the government. For a frustrated population accustomed to weekly protests and violent crackdowns in the absence of meaningful political reform, this approach has little appeal.
As dialogue has reached a year-long standstill, people on the streets have grown increasingly frustrated with the Bahraini government’s political runaround. Meanwhile, the U.S. government seems to have lost its voice extolling the universal principle of peaceful assembly in Bahrain. Ever-present in public statements are condemnations of violence by protesters and excessive force by police, but these have been too rarely accompanied by support for the basic freedom to protest in the first place.
In response to the recent moves by the Bahraini government to curtail its citizens’ right to assembly, the U.S. government has registered no public objection, despite expressed U.S. support for the right of assembly before this policy was implemented.
With frustrations in Bahrain mounting, the United States needs to publicly convey to our Gulf ally that peaceful assembly is a universal right and that policies that prohibit it represent a red line in the bilateral relationship. U.S. silence in this regard will be perceived as continued support for government actions which are marginalizing moderates and undermining peaceful voices for reform. Sidelining such moderates would fulfill the hard-liners’ image of violent protesters bent on the overthrow of the regime and justify a vicious crackdown. The United States must clearly and unequivocally take a stand in support of the universal right to peaceful assembly, or else be seen as complicit in the bloodshed that would follow.
Cole Bockenfeld is director of advocacy at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED).