In the festive early days of Bahrain’s protest movement, youthful protester Yousif joined thousands of people in the Pearl roundabout calling for the ruling family to implement democratic reforms.
Those heady days in February now seem a world away. In the days since, at least 29 people have died and more than 500 have been arrested in a government crackdown that has extended beyond protesters to the majority Shiite population. Yousef doesn’t even drive now, for fear of encountering checkpoints where he might be beaten or detained.
“At the beginning, we were asking for a constitutional monarchy. But after all these people have died, we want the regime gone,” says Yousif.
Yousif’s sentiment illustrates the complicated reality toward reaching a political solution in Bahrain – something that opposition politicians, outside observers, and Western diplomats all agree is needed. Instead of creating a roadmap for such a solution, the government’s ever-widening crackdown is erasing hope of a negotiated end to the crisis. In the process, the government is pushing some Bahrainis into the arms of more hardline groups, undermining the ability of mainstream opposition groups to lead future negotiations.
The government’s strategy of crackdowns cannot be a long-term solution, says a Western observer in Bahrain who asked not to be identified to avoid repercussions from the government.
“Ultimately countries that start on this path have to end in reform. The only question is whether it’s five years, 10 years, or 15 years, and what the body count is,” says the observer. “The only options right now are substantial reform or a severe crackdown in which they kill a lot of people and pin them in their villages. And that’s not sustainable. I don’t care if you’re talking about 20 years, at some point that ends.”
Saudi Arabia throws a wrench in negotiations
At the moment, Bahrain’s government is only extending the crackdown. After shutting down the secular leftist Waad, whose members were both Shiite and Sunni, last week Bahrain’s government announced it intends to also ban the strongest opposition group, the moderate Shiite Al Wefaq bloc.
The government later backtracked from this statement, saying it would reserve judgment until an investigation was completed. But the group’s members say they fear the government still intends to ban the group with the most widespread support, the one that would lead a coalition to the table for dialogue if that became a possibility.
The government’s actions indicate it has no intention negotiating in the near future. It is widely assumed that is in part because of Saudi influence. In the weeks leading up to the entry of Saudi troops into Bahrain under the aegis of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Bahrain’s king and crown prince offered to sit down to dialogue with the opposition. The opposition was on the verge of agreeing to a deal for talks with Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa when Saudi troops rolled into the tiny island kingdom, says Khalil Marzouk, deputy leader of Al Wefaq.
Hardline members of the royal family, with backing from Saudi Arabia, are seen as having sidelined the crown prince, who still has credibility with the opposition. “Saudi has blocked the way forward,” agrees the Western observer.
Dialogue from the ruling family?
While there’s been no mention of dialogue from the ruling family since then, in a recent speech the crown prince emphasized reform. But it’s not clear what Bahrain’s rulers could offer that would be of any satisfaction to the opposition. The majority Shiite population in Bahrain has long complained of electoral gerrymandering that puts opposition candidates at a disadvantage, and also discrimination that shuts them out of jobs in the public sector, police, and security forces.
None of those complaints would seem to be negotiable because each has helped the government maintain its power in the current crisis, says Justin Gengler of the University of Michigan. A military and police force mostly devoid of Shiites and largely made up of naturalized foreigners, for example, has less qualms about targeting Shiites for beatings, arrest, and humiliation than one that included Bahraini Shiites would.
And with a partially elected parliament and regular elections, there’s not much room for political reform that wouldn’t erode the ruling family’s power, either. The mainstream opposition’s key demand has been an elected assembly to write a new constitution.
“Bahrain’s gone as far as it can go with cosmetic reform,” says Mr. Gengler, whose research has focused on Bahrain. “There’s really little else to be done. They’re sort of at the edge, where if they do anything else it’s going to start looking like real democracy.”
The consequences of crackdown
As the government avoids any hint of compromise and continues its campaign of arrest and intimidation, it may be pushing Bahrainis into the arms of groups like the Haq Movement. Unlike Al Wefaq, Haq explicitly calls for the downfall of Bahrain’s ruling family. Many blame Haq, along with two other groups that formed a coalition calling for a republic in Bahrain, with inviting the crackdown and ruining the chances for a political solution.
It’s nearly impossible to say how big a part of society they represent. But dozens of people affected by the crackdown – youths who were shot by police while protesting, professionals who lost their jobs for participating in protests, and those whose family members disappeared at checkpoints or in midnight raids by security forces on their homes – echo Yousif: The events of the past month have made them give up hope of any solution that doesn’t include the ouster of the ruling family.
If increasing numbers of Bahrainis are turning to groups like Al Haq, it undermines the ability of a coalition led by Al Wefaq to eventually go to the table to negotiate. Mr. Marzouk of Al Wefaq tacitly acknowledges this.
“We are representatives of the people, and we get our credibility from that. If we go alone to the dialogue while the people are suffering, we will no longer have that credibility,” he says. “We have to prepare the ground for it. Stop these atrocities on the ground, pull out the foreign troops.”