The smallest island state in the Persian Gulf, Bahrain is made up of 33 islands, the largest of which is Bahrain island. Its neighbour on one side is Saudi Arabia, and on the other Qatar, though it does not share borders with either. A small country, Bahrain has a total population of only 1.2 million people. Bahrain was a British protectorate for over a hundred years, until a longdrawn out disagreement over authority between Britain and Iran culminated in a UN-conducted opinion poll that led to the establishment of a sovereign nation in the country in 1971.
Bahrain has long had an overwhelmingly Shia majority ruled by a Sunni minority, an important feature in understanding the failed uprisings of 2011.
There have been longstanding complaints of systematic disenfranchisement of the Shia majority. The ruling classes have been accused of bringing in Sunni individuals from other countries such as Pakistan and Jordan, and making them naturalised citizens to increase the Sunni population.
Also importantly, Bahrain is a key strategic ally of the United States in the Middle East, and a fleet of the US Navy is quartered there. Bahrain also receives over 80 per cent of its income from oil and gas, and depends on Iran for a transit route for its pipelines.
Who Rules Bahrain?
Bahrain was a monarchy until 2001, when it transitioned into a constitutional monarchy, in a move widely seen as positive, especially in its implications for equal representation, womens’ and human rights. Elections were held in 2002, and again in 2006, to a 40 member parliament.
The results marked an improvement over the past, as there were 12 Shia parliamentary members elected to the house in the first round of elections.
Parties remain divided along religious and ideological lines. The latest elections, held in 2010, were controversial, but resulted in a Shia plurality.
Despite the transition, however, Bahrain remains heavily controlled by the ruling classes. A similar move to institute a constitutional democracy in the 1970s was stamped out by supposed fears of sectarian violence. The unelected Prime Minister, Khalifa Ibn Salman Al Khalifa, has been power in Bahrain since 1971, and King Hamad retains significant control over the government and the ruling elite.
What Happened in 2011?
As you will remember, revolution was the keyword in the year just gone by. In Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, as well as in several African countries and the United States, 2011 saw individuals and grassroots movements take to the streets calling for major political reforms. Although the demands and agendas in each case were markedly different, what united them all was the method and the idea behind them, which was that citizens can have a direct impact on national politics through mass engagement.
In Bahrain, too, protesters mobilised largescale demonstrations on February 14, the tenth anniversary of the National Charter Act which marked the transition of the country to a constitutional monarchy.
Like the Egyptians at Tahrir Square, they chose to rally around Pearl Roundabout, a landmark in the capital Manama.
Bahrain has previously seen protests by the Shia majority against disproportionate control of public affairs by the Sunni minority in the past, including in the 1980s and again in the mid-1990s.
Popular resistance in Bahrain was immediately met with state violence. On the night of February 17, police stormed Pearl Roundabout and launched a campaign of violence, resulting in several casualties, and untold injuries. The Al Wefaq National Islamic Assembly, a Shia political party that had won a plurality in the 2010 elections, immediately withdrew from the National Assembly.
Troops withdrew from Pearl Roundabout on February 19, and on February 22 a ‘Martyrs March’, to commemorate those who had been killed in the violence, gathered a huge number of participants. According to some estimates, 2,00,000 people or 20 per cent of the total population participated.
Why did the Uprisings Fail?
In one word: intimidation. The sustained campaign of violence against protesters has been very effective in stamping out organised popular resistance, although protests continue in Bahrain to this day. The ruling classes have organised protests in favour of the government, but have also, according to media sources, recruited Sunni irregulars to harass and intimidate Shia protesters. On March 14, Bahrain asked for military assistance from the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sent additional security forces to help combat the uprisings.
Although the death toll in Bahrain has been lower than in some other Arab countries, notably Syria and Yemen, the intimidation of protesters has been sustained, cohesive and unrelenting. Hundreds of protesters have simply vanished in unlawful detainments, human rights activists have been harassed and arrested, and independent newspapers have been shut down. Journalists have been prevented from writing about the uprisings, and doctors have, according to some sources, been prevented from treating the injured.
There is also a widespread impression that the protests in Bahrain were largely driven by sectarian interests.
While it is true that a majority of the protesters are Shia, and that the systemic oppression of the Shia majority is a primary concern in the protests, this cannot be said to be the only issue by far. There were also allegations that Iran was feeding the protests, and fanning the flames, something that was bound to be a source of major concern in the West, given the current chilly (to say the least) political climate towards Iran in the so-called West.
The government’s response to the concerns of the protesters has been lukewarm and perfunctory. A forum for dialogue called by the government has been ineffective, and a committee formed by the Emir to investigate the violence against the protesters has been criticised for not going far enough. Its report, which was released in November, did however point to a wide-ranging series of assaults by security forces, the destruction of Shiite places of worship, arrests, detainments, torture and intimidation. It also found no proof of Iranian involvement.
The regime’s tepid response to the findings of the report has had another worrying consequence: the continuing radicalisation of the factions involved in protests. The middle ground for negotiation and discussion seems to be vanishing as support coalesces around hardline groups, who turn to increasing violence themselves. The protests are not winding down, and neither is the official response. The fear is that both the regime and (splintered) opposition may find themselves at the end of a road with no turning back.