Originally written February 2012 in Manama
Bahrain remains a point of conflict and confrontation between more than just the government and the various opposition movements. The situation in Bahrain is more complex, as the country is one example of the uniqueness of the various nations in the Middle East in terms of culture, history, and daily life. The Sunni-Shia ideological divide is not as wide in Bahrain as it is in neighboring Saudi Arabia, though the economic and opportunity divide continues. Bahrainis, on both sides of the Democracy debate, are nationalists at heart. Tribal and sectarian divides do not supersede their love of country and their island. Unlike the uprisings in Libya and Syria, the only flag waved at any anti- or pro-government demonstration I’ve seen here is that of the Red and White flag of Bahrain.
The people are very mistrustful of foreign forces interfering in the administration of their country, including the UN, as evidenced by recent demonstrations in front of the UN offices in Manama. They see the presence of the US Fifth Fleet as a bulwark against Iranian mingling, however. Both sides of the coin view Iran with great mistrust, even Shia opposition, and take great pains to distance themselves from the Iranians. Many neighborhoods I saw, both pro- and anti-government, were filled with anti-Iranian graffiti. My ability to read Arabic is imperfect, but the words “DOWN IRAN” were on walls everywhere. While the world was rightfully shocked at the use of GCC troops sent to put down the uprising over the King Fahd Causeway, so too were many Bahrainis, even the monarchists. The opposition is frustrated with the regime’s use of foreigners used as police and security troops. These people are seen as outsiders by both sides, though many pro-government citizens are appalled at the attacks on police officers.
Then there’s the makeup of the opposition itself. This is a heavily fragmented group. Many people I speak to on both sides could not find a common, cohesive list of demands and concessions they wanted from the government. Some called for a constitutional monarchy, others called for direct democracy, the more radical members called for the Khalifas to be beheaded in the streets. The rallies themselves are disjointed, as different anti-government ideologies use different tactics and strategies and the fragmentation is obvious at their rallies and in the streets of Manama. The pro-government and moderate Bahrainis also cannot articulate just what the demonstrators are seeking. I encountered this many times. On a small island with a population of only 1.2 million people, having a consistent point of view and set of demands is of vital importance. Al-Wefaq, the largest opposition movement, is rapidly losing support as the uprising continues. This is problematic, as Wefaq is not only the largest, but the most moderate, and was even 40% of the elected Council of Representatives until last year. This shows a trend toward radicalization which will increase the violence and further fragment the population in Bahrain, keeping the fighting at a violent stalemate. The violence is not limited to the government, however. One of the most shocking aspects of the unrest in Bahrain. The violence turns moderate and undecided Bahrainis away from the pro-democracy movements as some pro-democracy groups are known to attack bystanders and policemen who are merely protecting the cordon areas around affected neighborhoods. Finally, while there are many anti-government rallies, there are also many pro-government rallies, where large numbers come to show their support (and this support is surprisingly not coerced) for their government and their king.
King Hamad is no angel, but he’s also not using the Asad Family playbook. After the death of the Emir in the early years of the new century, his government liberalized and subsidized many aspects of daily Bahraini life:, food, gas, housing, school, etc. Bahrainis pay no taxes and many (ahem, Sunni) enjoy a high standard of living, beneficially consistent with one of Schlumberger’s standards of legitimacy in the Middle East, unfortunately using the others, religion and ideology, to reinforce inequalities. In a break from the traditional heavy-handed rule of his forebears, however, the King hired the world’s foremost human rights advocate to investigate what happened during the Pearl Roundabout uprising and report recommendations to him. And he did so, publicly condemning the regime for all their actions. This report, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, prompted the King to take actions and make reforms. He has made some. Admittedly, he’s made the easy ones. There are other, more institutional changes the King has ordered to be implemented, but has not begun to actually implement. Economic inequalities do still exist, in extreme forms. The BICI report is a good start, but there is a lot of work toward self-determination in Bahrain that needs to be done.