Bahrain Protests: A Point of No Return for Ruling Family—and Obama


Feb 23, 2011

After security forces assaulted demonstrators in Bahrain's Pearl Square last week, 100,000 protesters rose up with even stronger demands yesterday. As the situation escalates, Obama must do more than denounce violence. The US must urge Bahrain to empower its crippled parliament.

The Bahraini security forces' assault on peaceful demonstrators and the unprecedented protests in Pearl Square laid bare any doubts that Bahrain's ruling Al Khalifa family now faces the gravest test of its legitimacy in more than a decade and quite possibly in its reign.

In many ways, current developments signal a point of no return. The principal Shiite political bloc has disengaged from parliament, creating broad new constituencies for militancy. The regime has shifted its tactics from violent suppression to conciliatory gestures like the release of political prisoners and attempts at dialogue. But popular fury and cynicism against the ruling family has reached unparalleled levels, sharpening divisions between Sunnis and Shiites.

The window for reconciliation and dialogue is rapidly closing as the country slides back to the dark shadows of the mid-1990s, when an intifada shook the tiny kingdom for five years. It left scores dead and inflicted lasting damage on the economy.

The current crisis also tests America's moral standing in a rapidly changing Middle East. While the Obama administration has made immediate demands on the royal family to halt the violence and preserve remaining channels for reform, there is more to be done.

A new approach might pursue three objectives. 1) Condemn the crackdown and the regime's mischaracterization of the opposition (which President Obama has done). 2) Urge that King Hamad launch an investigation into the conduct of the security forces and end the recruitment of non-Bahrainis. 3) And most important, take immediate steps to re-empower the Bahraini parliament and alleviate the material grievances that have galvanized the opposition.

Stop distrust sown between Sunnis and Shiites

First and foremost, the US could forcefully and publicly refute the Bahraini government's timeworn argument that pro-democracy protests are a bid for supremacy by the Shiite majority, orchestrated by Iran. The regime has long played up fears of a Shiite "winner take all" strategy as one backed by Iran to sow distrust between Shiite activists and their liberal Sunni allies.

This tactic has obscured the underlying problem in Bahrain. It is not sectarianism or Iranian influence, but rather the rule of the few over the wishes of the many. True, the Sunni-Shiite split is a major societal division on the island. But many in Bahrain argue that this would not be so if the country had a more just and representative form of government and equitable distribution of resources.

End use of mercenary shock troops

The US could call for an end to what some have called a policy of "sectarian balancing," meaning the gerrymandering of electoral districts to ensure a Sunni majority and the rapid naturalization of foreign-born Sunnis to counter Shiite voting-power. From the Shiite point of view, this policy entails the staffing of security forces with non-Bahraini Sunnis from the tribal areas of Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.

The outcome has been the creation of what one oppositionist termed "a corps of janissaries"—mercenary shock troops that are disconnected from and—given their reportedly anti-Shiite outlook—antagonistic toward the citizens they police. Their excessive use of force on sleeping demonstrators and mourners in Pearl Square is a tragic and unsurprising result of this staffing policy.

Empower democratic institutions

The Bahraini government should take immediate steps to give quasi-democratic institutions, such as the parliament, real authority. The US can exert pressure for the Bahraini parliament to use its teeth, rather than serve as what one oppositionist called, "a powerless debating society." As the structure stands now, the parliament cannot actually enact any legislation; its proposals must be vetted and approved by an appointed upper house or consultative council stacked with royal supporters.

To change this, the parliament should be able to hold ministers accountable, exert oversight over the Bahraini budget, and introduce and enact legislation that can rectify the island's most pressing problems of unemployment, housing shortages, and equitable representation in government ministries.

Look to Bahrain's own democratic history

It is important to note that viable change in Bahrain does not necessarily mean the ouster of the Al Khalifa—at least not yet. Nor does the model for change come from theocratic Iran, as regime supporters frequently allege. Rather, many oppositionists—Shiite and Sunni alike—look to Bahrain's own past for models of constitutionalism and a functioning parliament.

Democracy activists point to Bahrain's 1973 constitution and fully functioning parliament that ushered in the country's "golden age" of pluralistic politics. But that parliament was disbanded in 1975 after its power grew too strong. And in 2002, Mr. Hamad unilaterally abrogated the 1973 constitution, signaling the monarchy's growing entrenchment. That was followed by an era of hollow promises that ultimately led to the ongoing demonstrations in Pearl Square.

The only route out of the current impasse may be a fully functioning and pluralistic parliament like the one that enabled Bahrain's golden days. Now, after the post-massacre mourning, the opposition's slogans are growing more strident and unconditional, and Bahrainis as a whole are becoming more polarized—making fears of a "winner-take-all" outcome a self-fulfilling one. The monarchy—and the US—need to act quickly.

Frederic Wehrey is a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation and a doctoral candidate in international relations at Oxford University who has conducted fieldwork in Bahrain. He is the co-author of the RAND monograph "More Freedom, Less Terror? Liberalization and Political Violence in the Arab World."

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