The island kingdom is descending into violence, and nobody has a plan to restore order.
- By Michael Stephens<p> Michael Stephens is a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute based in Qatar. Follow him on Twitter @MStephensGulf. </p>
Violence is once again rearing its ugly head in Bahrain. The coordinated detonation of five home-made explosive devices in the capital of Manama on Nov. 5, resulting in the death of two people and the maiming of another, was not some crude attempt to celebrate Guy Fawkes night, but an escalation of bloodshed that threatens to tip the island kingdom into chaos.
The attack appears to be an amateurish attempt to cause terror and mayhem, achieving no result other than killing innocent expatriate labourers. The quality of the explosive devices was poor, suggesting that the attacks were the work of unsophisticated actors working with little institutional support.
Four individuals were arrested for the bombing just one day after it occurred, with Bahrain officials warning darkly that the attacks "bear the hallmark" of Hezbollah. The link to the Lebanese militant organization is crude: Poorly constructed pipe bombs are not Hezbollah’s style — one need only look at the July attack on the Bulgarian city of Burgas to see the group’s devastating efficiency in killing innocents. So while it is possible that the individuals responsible may hold some affinity for the group, it is highly unlikely a Hezbollah cell is to blame for this act.
Government officials and some of their more hard-line supporters have at times stretched the truth in describing actions by anti-government factions as terrorism, and very rarely has the opposition’s strategy of civil disobedience strayed into violence. But let’s be clear: the Nov. 5 bombings were acts of terrorism, committed by terrorists. The government would be justified in prosecuting the offenders to the fullest extent of the law.
The important question to ask is why terrorist actions are now increasing to what appears to be a sustained level. The fact is, this latest attack is the result of a political reconciliation process that is going nowhere and is radicalizing the Bahraini population in the process. The Interior Ministry’s Oct. 30 decision to ban all protests and the Nov. 7 decision to strip 31 activists of citizenship are just the latest in a series of measures taken in the kingdom that appear oppressive, and serve only to further harden the political battle lines in this deeply divided country.
There is, fortunately, a silver lining amidst this grim news. Some of the reforms proposed by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which the monarchy commissioned to investigate the abuses committed during last year’s uprising, have been implemented: Security reforms have been comprehensive, and some police units’ performance has improved significantly — instances of police brutality have dropped significantly in recent months. Furthermore police units still acting irresponsibly will have to face an independent ombudsman who will judge their actions without political or ministry interference. Additionally, five Shia mosques that were inexplicably razed to the ground last year are also in the process of being rebuilt, with two more scheduled for reconstruction, though there are still 32 lying in rubble.
However, the key for Bahrain to emerge from its current crisis is to solve its economic problems — namely, the lack of jobs and sources of social empowerment for Bahraini citizens, many of whom happen to be Shia. Jobs may not solve the island kingdom’s political problems overnight, but they would help build conditions whereby many of Bahrain’s poorer citizens can gain some respect and dignity.
Many observers see Bahrain exclusively through a sectarian prism: The political outcome, they believe, revolves around how Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia acts. But the truth is that neither of these regional powerhouses wishes to see Bahrain remain in its current state of disorder. The vast majority of Bahrain’s issues are local, and their impact is felt on people’s everyday lives. The country is more than a pawn on a global chessboard: The grand schemes of Iran’s supreme leader or Saudi Arabia’s custodian of the two holy mosques are not the decisive factors in this conflict.
This fact makes the need for comprehensive economic reform and the revitalization of the domestic political reconciliation process all the more crucial. The recent attacks could throw a wrench in the process: Those on the pro-government side may see entering negotiations with al-Wefaq, the country’s largest opposition body, as a reward for terrorism. Such a reaction, however, would be a mistake. Wefaq does not encourage — nor is it responsible — for terrorist acts in Bahrain, and responded to the attacks by signing a declaration that explicitly "condemns violence, in all its forms, sources, and parties." The party, however, has been reluctant to admit that this recent terrorist act came from the Shia community.
It may suit some in the Royal Court to demonize Wefaq and its spiritual leader Sheikh Isa Qassim — and the party’s rather ambiguous condemnation of the most recent attack affords them ammunition to do so. But in the long run, loyalist hard-liners’ continued intransigence and efforts to undermine the party are foolish. A weakened Wefaq will exercise even less control over disparate elements in the Shia community. Hard line groups — such as the al-Haq movement or the leaderless but loosely associated February 14th movement — already pay little heed to Wefaq’s calls for restraint, and the problem does not need to be made any worse.
The real way to solve the country’s longstanding issues centers on a comprehensive deal between Wefaq and the government, led by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad. Both actors have been considered moderate representatives in their respective camps — and both have made mistakes, with Wefaq’s refusal to accept the crown prince’s terms in March 2011 being perhaps the greatest mistake of all.
The current direction of events in Bahrain does not suggest a bright future for the country. Also worrying is the absence of any significant international press coverage. Those with a violent political agenda know full well that mayhem will once again return Bahrain to the attention of the outside world — a fact that usually benefits the opposition, due to the overwhelming perception in Western media that the government bears most of the blame for the country’s problems. The holy month of Muharram and the Shia commemoration of Ashura, often flashpoints for political grievances, loom in the near future. It is likely that we will see more terrorism and violence during this period — and where Bahrain goes after that is anybody’s guess.