Brace for the worst in Bahrain

The stage seems to be set for February and March to be the scene of a significant intensification of tensions in Bahrain. The period will mark the one-year anniversaries of the protest movement, the government crackdown, and the “Peninsula Shield” intervention by Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council forces. More importantly, recent developments have pushed almost entirely away from substantive moves toward national accommodation or reconciliation.

Since the failure of the “national dialogue” last summer, clashes between security forces and largely Shia protesters have regularly taken placed during emotional funerals following the deaths of individuals under suspicious circumstances.

The report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which found that security forces had engaged in the excessive use of force, appears to have done nothing to inhibit the use of tear gas and other suppressive measures. Indeed, this behavior seems to have intensified. At least eight protesters have been killed since the report was filed, mostly by tear gas inhalation, including reportedly a baby.

In their own defense, the authorities have pointed to changes in the leadership of the security services, the hiring of Western policing experts, and the investigation of a number of deaths in custody. They cite the impending trial of five security officers, none of them Bahraini, for the death of a blogger while being held by the police. And King Hamad has proposed some limited constitutional reforms that are supposed to enhance the power of the legislature.

None of this has impressed any major actors in the opposition. The main Shia opposition grouping, Al-Wefaq, has continued to boycott parliament and the by-elections intended to fill the seats opened by the mass resignation of its parliamentarians. There is still no vehicle for meaningful dialogue between the government and opposition forces. Hardliners on both sides appear to have been gaining ground over those interested in a meaningful compromise.

There are signs of a serious hardening of the position of important opposition voices and groups. Most significantly, on January 12, Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and a figure with both national and international credibility, gave a speech that seemed to break new ground for the mainstream opposition. He stated bluntly, “Our problem is with the king of Bahrain.” Addressing the king directly, he said, “If you cannot get rid of the heavy weights of your regime and the crimes that your regime has committed, then it is the appropriate time now for you to leave.”

It is not clear if he was calling for abdication or the end of the monarchy. However, the statement brings calls for what amount to regime change, which had previously been restricted to smaller and more radical opposition groups such as Al-Haq, much closer to the rhetoric of the mainstream Bahraini opposition. It may or may not prove to be a milestone, but it certainly represented a significant intensification of demands. It is worth noting that Rajab was beaten, detained and hospitalized following a January 6 protest.

There also appears to be more activity and influence by the shadowy, underground opposition groups calling themselves the “February 14 Youth Coalition,” whose rhetoric emphasizes a not-clearly defined “Right of Self-Determination.” The increased activity of the “February 14” groups demonstrates a growing impatience at the street and popular levels with mainstream organizations like Al-Wefaq that now are perceived as too conciliatory by some activists.

Some pro-government hardliners have also been escalating their rhetoric and pushing for stronger confrontation. When a civilian court overturned the death sentences handed down against two protesters by a military tribunal, extremist elements associated with the pro-government National Unity Gathering called for their lynching and created mock gallows in which they hanged photographs of the men.

Not enough has been done to defuse tensions, and an obvious step the government has so far unwisely avoided is a broad-based amnesty for the hundreds of people arrested and charged in connection with protests, and in many cases the simple exercise of free expression. In particular, the government cannot hope to open a meaningful dialogue with an opposition, 21 of whose leaders were jailed in a mass trial last year that did not distinguish between moderate and extreme figures. Their harsh sentences were upheld on September 28.

The release of important figures such as Abdulhadi Abdulla Hubail Alkhawaja, the former president and co-founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, and, above all, Ibrahim Sharif—the sole Sunni defendant in the mass trial, who is the leader of the social democratic reform group Al-Waad—would be an indispensible step away from confrontation. It is probably a sine qua non for real dialogue. Without such serious measures, the situation in Bahrain is set to deteriorate significantly in the coming months.