Bahrain: Another opportunity squandered?

The report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which was
published on November 23, and the Cabinet Statement of November 21
acknowledging many of its more embarrassing findings represented the
most significant opportunity for progress in Bahrain in many months.

But it appears that neither the government nor opposition groups are
moving quickly or decisively to take advantage of it and instead are
continuing with the confrontation that has been simmering since the
uprising was crushed last spring. I described this confrontation in
detail in a briefing paper on “The Bahrain Uprising: Towards
Confrontation or Accommodation?” published on the same day as the
commission report.

Particularly disturbing was the use of force against Shia protesters
on November 24, the day after the report was published, which was part
of a now-familiar pattern of controversial deaths and violent clashes
and funerals. It suggested that the modus operandi of security forces
had not been affected by the commission’s findings.

While the cabinet says that at least 20 security officers will face
prosecution for their role in the crackdown, there have been no
high-level resignations and no dramatic reorganization in the security

On November 28, the king did decree that security forces would now
have to refer cases “requiring arrests” to the Interior Ministry. And
there have been some changes in the top security personnel in Bahrain.
Major-General Adel bin Khalifa bin Hamad Al Fadhel has been appointed
acting National Security Agency chief. He replaced Shaikh Khalifa bin
Abdulla bin Mohammed Al Khalifa who has hardly been demoted, and will
now serve as “Supreme Defense Council secretary-general and advisor to
HM the King for national security affairs with the rank of minister.”

None of this is likely to reassure anyone that a major transformation
is underway.

The primary government response has been the creation of a National
Committee to examine the commission’s recommendations and report back
to the king by February. This sets up a potentially endless cycle of
commissions referring to committees that in turn refer to working
groups and so forth, with a large amount of process and little

Opposition groups pointed out that the commission had suggested any
follow-up committee should be jointly appointed, not created by royal
decree. Indeed, the charge of unilateralism was among the most serious
complaints leveled by the opposition against the commission from the

Reportedly the largest opposition group, Al Wefaq, has had at least
two members invited to join the new committee but has refused to
participate. This mirrors its stance of boycotting parliamentary
balloting in September and refusing to participate in the legislature
under the current circumstances.

One can readily understand the opposition’s skepticism about the
government’s intentions and this entire process. However, the
commission report was hardly the whitewash that many opposition
figures had predicted. To the contrary, it was surprisingly blunt
about the excessive use of force and other abuses on the part of
security services, even though it did not go as far as many would have
wanted with regard to the systematic nature of abuses.

Without being in the least naïve, it’s important to recognize that for
all its failings, Bahrain’s government has gone further than any other
Arab regime currently facing a popular uprising in what in effect
amounts to self-criticism: sponsoring and welcoming a report that is
frankly critical of the crackdown.

As they have several times since the protest movement began early in
the year, moderates in both the government and the opposition appeared
to be allowing themselves to be outflanked by more hard-line elements.

Rather than taking advantage of whatever opportunity might have been
presented by the commission report, opposition figures can continue to
insist that no real reforms are on the table, and government
supporters can continue to claim the opposition are simply subversives
and continue on the path of confrontation rather than accommodation.

Nothing in the aftermath of the commission report suggests either side
is seriously adapting its approach and both are behaving much as they
did before it was published. Most troublingly, there is still no
working mechanism or venue for meaningful dialogue between the

But this pattern cannot continue, since it is inherently unstable and
volatile. The simmering tensions and barely-contained violence of
recent months could boil over at any moment, to the benefit of neither
the government nor the mainstream opposition. The opposition would no
doubt correctly note that the government holds most of the cards, but
they too have agency, responsibilities and a major role in determining
the future of their country.

Neither the government and the Sunni minority on the one hand, nor the
opposition and the Shia majority on the other, can hope for any kind
of decisive “victory” over the other in the long run, even in a
political war of attrition. At some point if Bahrainis of all stripes
are to face a reasonable future, they are going to have to achieve a
political accommodation, undoubtedly involving much greater forms of
constitutionalism and wider social and political enfranchisement than
currently exists.

This means serious-minded, reasonable forces on both sides will have
to move quickly and decisively to take advantage of any opportunity
for significant progress. Unfortunately, precisely such a potential
opportunity has just presented itself and appears to have been
squandered in favor of business as usual.