On April 4, the Saudi cabinet issued a statement claiming that “peace and stability” had returned to Bahrain “as a result of the wisdom of its leadership in dealing with its internal matters and because of its people giving priority to national interests.” Nearly three weeks earlier, the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) had sent some 1,200 troops across the 16-mile causeway linking the two countries. Their official mission was to secure key government facilities from the thousands of protesters who had taken to the streets since Feb. 17. Unofficially, they were there to send a chilling, unequivocal message: Game over.
Since then, the government of Bahrain has instituted a total crackdown, beating teenagers in the streets, clamping down on press freedoms, and hauling online activists in for questioning. The daily demonstrations, overwhelmingly by Shiite protesters demanding equal political and civil rights, have indeed stopped. Yet, far from ensuring “peace and stability” in Bahrain, by apparently eliminating all other political options, the ruling Al Khalifa family has established the conditions for a potential outbreak of urban terrorism by Shiite extremists. Long-standing Gulf Sunni fears of a sectarian rebellion in Bahrain and the possibility of major Iranian interference in the island nation have informed an extreme overreaction that is developing all the signs of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. This can’t end well.
It’s virtually impossible to overstate the totality of the closure of political space in Bahrain. It didn’t have to be this way. Initially, protests were not entirely sectarian and seemed amenable to reforms toward a constitutional monarchy. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa attempted to initiate a productive dialogue, but the opposition was not forthcoming and hard-liners within the regime centered on his uncle, Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, clearly won out. The more the regime responded to peaceful political demands with violence, the more both government and opposition extremists gained the upper hand.
Shortly after the GCC troops intervened, Shiite opposition figures from the mainstream al-Wefaq organization were arrested, along with more extreme sectarians such as Hassan Mushaima of its rival, al-Haq. (Mushaima has been categorical about the need for a full-blown revolution, saying, “The dictator fell in Tunisia, the dictator fell in Egypt, and the dictator should fall here.”) On March 8, al-Haq and two other groups crossed a red line by announcing the formation of a “Coalition for a Bahraini Republic” — a move that was understood, correctly or not, by Sunnis throughout the region as a commitment not only to the removal of the royal family but also the establishment of an Iranian-style Shiite “Islamic Republic.” Between such provocative opposition statements and the GCC intervention, the crisis in Bahrain became irrevocably polarized along sectarian lines, with Sunnis and Shiites throughout the region taking sides with the government or the opposition based on religious identity.
The political crackdown is so complete it has extended to the nonsectarian and social democratic reformist organization al-Waad, whose moderate leader Ibrahim Sharif was also rounded up. In recent days, al-Waad has joined other groups in warning against Iranian interference in Bahrain, but the government’s response has been to arrest another of its leaders, Abdulhamid Al Murad, and shut down its website and its two main offices.
Without question, however, the crackdown has largely focused on the Shiite opposition and community in general. The government and its allies have framed the protest movement as an Iranian plot, though to date there is scant evidence to demonstrate this. Opposition newspapers have been shut, though Al Wasat was reopened “under new management” after its main editors resigned, and journalists from that paper and others have been hounded and questioned by the authorities. Opposition leaders, both moderate and extreme, are in prison. Medical services have been targeted, injured patients rounded up in hospitals and often denied medical care, and doctors arrested. The Pearl Monument — the focal point of the protests and the main landmark of the capital Manama — has been demolished. A draconian emergency law was put in place that bans all protests, allows for arbitrary arrests, and imposes martial law for at least three months. At least 400 people have been arrested and at least 25 killed during the protests, as well as four deaths in custody that bear all the hallmarks of torture according to Human Rights Watch and other NGOs. A wide-scale crackdownon various economic sectors, including public employees and professional organizations, is under way, including mass firings, especially of Shiites. The big picture is extremely clear: There is no room for dissent of any kind in Bahrain anymore, above all if it comes from the Shiite majority.
Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC may be genuinely deluding themselves that “peace and stability” have actually been restored by this violent despotism and the fact that until now only one side — the government and its allies — has been using arms. But historical experience suggests that in any society this extent of repression, especially when directed against a disenfranchised majority with legitimate and historical grievances, is simply untenable, as evinced by examples as disparate as South Africa, Northern Ireland, and the Basque Country. If there is no space for nonsectarian reformists like al-Waad, moderate sectarian Shiite groups like al-Wefaq, or more militant but nonviolent ones like al-Haq, and no tolerance for dissent of any kind, how long can it be before a group of extremists, no matter how small, decides that “fire must be met with fire” and turns to violent resistance? (The crown prince continues to call for dialogue, but the basis for it seems completely absent. In the same breath he calls for reforms but vows “no leniency with anyone who seeks to split our society into two halves.” The government’s most recent move is to seek to legally dissolve al-Wefaq and another Shiite group, Islamic Action. So prospects for meaningful reform and dialogue therefore seem remote at best.)
A campaign of violence by opposition extremists might seek and receive support from Iran or other regional Shiite powers such as the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. But it would not require it. Iran and Hezbollah might, for their own reasons, strongly urge any Bahraini Shiites considering such action to restrain themselves. But would all of them heed such a call? Modern urban terrorism only requires a tiny handful of people with rudimentary knowledge, armed with a combination of readily available household items and both deep ruthlessness and extreme recklessness, to begin the process.
Such a movement need not initially be particularly ambitious in its destructive acts to have a powerful impact. A handful of people with crude devices acting around the same time in strategic locations is capable of stoking extreme panic. The goal of a modest opening salvo of urban terrorism is typically to provoke an overreaction on the part of the authorities, and in this case that seems virtually guaranteed. The calculus would then be that the overreaction would seem to justify these violent acts in the eyes of many people who otherwise might have been disapproving, allowing the movement to gain strength and develop over time to the point that it becomes a real threat to national security and political stability. The Bahraini government and its allies have already succeeded in turning what should have been a manageable political situation into an unmanageable one. How likely is it that they would react in a more rational and prudent manner to a violent security threat, however limited and symbolic?
The total crackdown in Bahrain has plainly opened the door for just such a scenario. If this situation continues for an extended period of time, it is probably more a matter of when rather than if some group eventually walks through that door. Largely because of their own actions, all the worst fears of Bahrain’s royal family and the Sunnis of both the island and the rest of the Gulf are perfectly positioned to begin to come true, and the opportunity to avoid this is dwindling by the day.