This article was originally published in MERIP on April 13, 2012.
Manama, Bahrain — The talk of Bahrain at present is talk — the possible renewal of dialogue between the government and the opposition — but the reality is that street protests, after simmering in outlying villages for months, have begun to heat up in the capital of Manama.
Opposition activists staged a large rally in the first week of April in support of jailed human rights activist ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja, whose nine-week hunger strike has turned him into a symbol of resistance to the government in the eyes of many Bahrainis. Khawaja was arrested a year previous as part of the crackdown on the popular uprising that began on February 14, 2011 and became centered in Pearl Roundabout on Manama’s outskirts. He was moved to a military hospital on April 6 because of his rapidly deteriorating health. The February 14 Youth Coalition has also organized almost daily protests aimed at the Formula One auto race scheduled for April 22. The government is eager to hold the race to show that Bahrain’s unrest is in the past; the opposition wants it canceled. On April 13, Formula One said the event would proceed as planned.
Violence is escalating on both sides, though the great bulk has come from the state: Security forces are firing more and more tear gas at protesters and in villages sympathetic to the opposition, with two thirds of gas-related deaths occurring since November. Some youth activists, meanwhile, are abandoning peaceful tactics in favor of throwing Molotov cocktails at the police (who have repeatedly been caught on video throwing their own petrol bombs back). On April 9 there were reports of homemade bombs going off or exploding accidentally in the village of al-‘Ikr, causing several injuries among riot police.
In November, there was a moment of optimism after the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) released its report upon the widespread abuses of the preceding eight months. Despite some flaws, the report was generally a clear-eyed assessment of torture and arbitrary detention by the state, as well as sectarianism and other issues. Activists said at the time that if King Hamad bin ‘Isa Al Khalifa responded with grand gestures, perhaps a general amnesty for political prisoners and a serious offer of dialogue with the opposition, the report could be the starting point for compromise. But that hope was quickly extinguished; the BICI report, like past attempts at reconciliation, seems to have only deepened Bahrain’s stalemate and strengthened the opposition’s determination to press its case in the streets.
Opposition “societies” (officially, political parties are outlawed in Bahrain) now insist on using the report’s recommendations as a reference point for any dialogue. The government’s inability (or unwillingness) to implement those recommendations is thus yet another obstacle to another round of talks. “The opposition societies are not convinced that the government wants to have a new dialogue,” said Ahmad Ibrahim, a senior member of Wa‘ad, the secular leftist opposition grouping. “If they do, we have a few starting principles...including the BICI recommendations.” On the other end of the political spectrum are hardline Sunni groups angry about even the government’s limited steps to put the BICI’s suggestions into practice. In January, the court of cassation overturned the death sentences against two opposition activists who had been convicted by a military tribunal of killing two policemen. The decision sparked a furious protest; demonstrators hung photographs of the spared men from a mock gallows.
Presiding over the impasse — and very much a part of it — are a government and royal family riven by internal feuds, between an erstwhile reformist crown prince, a conservative prime minister and a king viewed by more and more Bahrainis as impotent and aloof.
The report of the National Commission in late March was, if nothing else, an impressive public relations exercise.
The commission, appointed by the king, was created shortly after the BICI report was released. That report contained more than 25 recommendations; the commission was asked to measure the government’s progress toward carrying them out. It was chaired by ‘Ali Salih al-Salih, head of the Shura Council, the appointed upper house of parliament, and opposition forces were skeptical of its integrity. “It will say whatever the regime wants,” said Jawad Fairouz, a former member of Parliament from Wifaq, a Shi‘i Islamist grouping.
And so on March 20 journalists were bussed to the splendid Sakhir Palace, where al-Salih delivered an upbeat speech praising the government’s reforms. The king did the same, lauding the “hard work and seriousness in implementing the recommendations” of the BICI. Speeches over, the audience — hundreds of dignitaries from the government, the military and religious institutions — strolled across the hall for a lavish luncheon with heaping plates of lamb and rice spread across dozens of tables. “Every day we are getting better,” said Khalid bin ‘Ali Al Khalifa, the justice minister, in an interview after the ceremony. “We have other countries around us where they adopted some kind of...sectarianism. The Bahrainis know about all of these dangers, and are smart enough to get along with each other.”
Bahrain literally means “the two seas”; it is an appropriate name, activists sometimes quip, for a country that seems divided between two views of itself.
The government, backed by an army of public relations firms, aggressively pushes its version of events to journalists and business delegations. The uprising is often described in the past tense — “the events of last year” — a months-long aberration in a long history of social comity and stability. The BICI report’s recommendations are “90 percent implemented,” officials say. “It’s been hard. We’ve had to swallow a lot of pride, we had to move on, admit to mistakes and make it right,” said ‘Abd al-‘Aziz bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, a government spokesman. “[But] the more progress we make, the more saboteurs we find out there to try to derail any positive progress we’re making.”
Out on the streets of the capital, though, the government’s sunny assessment butts heads with reality. Two protesters died from tear gas inhalation in the three days before the National Commission report was released, according to rights groups. Activists continue to report cases of torture. Suspected dissidents are still dragged from their homes in the middle of the night, without warrants. “The king is still lying,” said a protester at a Wifaq rally, who gave his name as Sa‘id, later that week. “He comes out and gives his speech, and the next day, we find people dead. They’re still being killed with this tear gas from the United States.” The Bahraini government purchases its tear gas canisters from Combined Systems, a company based in Jamestown, Pennsylvania.
Just outside of downtown Manama, in the Sanabis neighborhood, there is a hostel operated by the Bahrain Youth Hostels Society. The organization’s website describes it as a “friendly, comfortable and modern facility,” within walking distance of malls and other attractions. Lately, though, the place has taken on a far more sinister ambience. Workers have built high concrete walls around the lodgings, topped with watchtowers. Police patrols routinely drive past the building.
The Interior Ministry acknowledges that the hostel has been transformed into a riot police base, though they insist that nothing inappropriate happens inside. Several well-connected human rights activists, though, describe it as a sort of “black site,” a facility where the security forces can torture detainees with impunity.
Of the more than two dozen recommendations in the BICI report, only a handful have been implemented: Some of the worst abuses of 2011 were committed by the National Security Agency, which was founded as a domestic intelligence agency but in 2008 was given the power to make arrests. Detainees accused the agency’s officers of forcing them to sign confessions, threatening them with sexual assault and stealing items from their houses. So the king issued a decree in December stripping the agency of its arrest powers.
In the spring of 2011, 427 students at the University of Bahrain alone were expelled for participating in demonstrations. Pursuant to the BICI findings, the government has reinstated these and other students (though there were reports in March of girls suspended from a school in Muharraq for “chanting political slogans”) and restored the scholarships that had been taken away from others.
But most of the government’s actions are not so clearly in keeping with BICI advice or conflict with it — the Sanabis hostel being one prominent example.
The BICI report recommends “audiovisual recording of all official interviews with detained persons” as a way to prevent torture and forced confessions. The government was eager to tout its progress on this item, so in March it took journalists on a guided tour of a police station in Houra, a neighborhood in Manama. Ghazi al-‘Isan, head of police operations in the capital governorate, showed off new interrogation rooms with padded gray walls and closed-circuit cameras. “There are cameras all over the police station, so from the moment someone enters the police station, they are on camera,” he said. “We have 33 stations in total [across the country], and they will be fixed... by October.” Al-‘Isan acknowledged, though, that the cameras are only installed at regular police stations. The riot police, the ones who usually respond to protests, operate from their own bases — like the one in Sanabis — and the Interior Ministry has no plans to install cameras there.
Tariq al-Hasan, the police chief, denied that riot police detained prisoners. “Any arrests will be handed over to police,” he said at a March press conference. But activists tell a different story. “They’ll beat you for a few hours at the special forces base, then drop you off at the regular police station,” said one youth activist, who (like many) asked not to be identified.
The BICI report also urges “public order training” for the security forces, an effort to curb the rampant beatings by riot police during the initial uprising. On March 20, the government boasted of a new “manual setting out the duties of police officers,” as well as a program of “sensitivity training” being designed by former Miami police chief John Timoney, hired by the Interior Ministry in December.
Yet police have greatly increased their use of tear gas in recent months: Of the 25 people killed by tear gas inhalation during the unrest, 18 of them died after the BICI report was released. Many villages are now blanketed with the choking white clouds several nights a week, and officers routinely shoot the American-made blue canisters into private homes. “[It’s] because they want to create a problem between the protesters and the people who are not protesting,” said one activist in Abu Sayba, a village west of Manama. “They want to drive a wedge [between them].” One Bahraini woman lists her location on her Twitter page as the “kingdom of tear gas.”
The long-term public health impact of this constant gassing is unclear; there is little scientific research on the subject, in part because few police forces use tear gas as routinely as Bahrain’s. A 1989 study cited by the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights, however, shows that tear gas fired into confined spaces like houses can inflict severe damage upon the human body, up to heart failure and death. Protesters also say the government has started using a new chemical, CR gas, which is significantly more potent than the CS gas that is typically deployed to disperse crowds. “I’m used to it now,” said Shuqqi ‘Abd al-Nabi, from Ma‘amir, near Sitra, who believes his daughter was blinded by excessive tear gas. “The suffocation is on a nightly basis. In the morning, new air comes in. But what about the future, the consequences of being tear-gassed daily?”
And, though most university students were allowed back in class, six have been sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment and major fines by a military court in connection with on-campus clashes on March 13, 2011. The BICI report documented that at least two of these students signed “confessions” under torture. One was given electric shocks to his hands, feet, nipples and penis, dunked in a toilet and beaten on the soles of his feet. Another was also beaten and electrocuted while interrogators yelled sectarian slurs.
Most significant, many activists say, is the complete lack of accountability for the perpetrators of these abuses. The Justice Ministry says that more than 50 policemen are being investigated, but only eight have been brought to trial. “They’re investigating the police but not the officers, the leadership,” said ‘Abd al-Nabi al-‘Ikri, a human rights activist. The implication is that thousands of Bahrainis have yet to receive justice for abuses committed against themselves and their family members. “So many people died and were tortured last year, and…no one in a position of authority has been tried,” said Said Boumedouha, a researcher with Amnesty International. “Really, there are a lot of questions about accountability.”
The day before the National Commission report was released, a group of opposition politicians held a press conference at Wa‘ad headquarters in Manama. They were responding to media reports that another round of dialogue with the government could be imminent. Leaders of the main opposition parties met in January with the royal court minister, Khalid bin Ahmad Al Khalifa, to discuss the possibility.
The politicians at Wa‘ad had to walk a fine line. If they rejected dialogue, the government could paint them as obstructionist; if they embraced it too eagerly, the more radical elements in the opposition would rebel. So they followed a familiar script, speaking enthusiastically about the idea of negotiations, but suggesting that the other side was not serious. “There is no solution for the crisis now except dialogue. But we’re tired of the events from last July,” said Muhammad al-Gassab, a Wa‘ad member. “That was supposed to be a dialogue, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t serious.”
All sides have laid down preconditions that make a return to dialogue unlikely, at least not a dialogue viewed by all parties as “serious.” The government wants the opposition to embrace the 2002 constitution, which created an extremely weak elected lower house of Parliament — one of the opposition’s chief political grievances. Pro-government groups want a seat at the table, which the opposition is unlikely to accept, as well as a complete end to violence, which parties like Wifaq simply cannot achieve. “Most of the political factions in Bahrain do not agree that it should be a dialogue between only Wifaq and the government,” said Sheikh ‘Abd al-Latif al-Mahmoud, the leader of the pro-government National Unity Assembly.
And the opposition, among its other demands, wants the government to release its political prisoners, particularly the group of 14 political leaders and activists arrested in April 2011. Half of them are serving life sentences, including Ibrahim Sharif, the leader of Wa‘ad, and Khawaja, the hunger-striking human rights activist. The BICI report urged the government to review sentences from the military tribunals, which groups like Amnesty International say failed to meet basic standards of due process. But appeals filed on behalf of “the 14” in civilian courts have yet to be heard. Many opposition activists, though, say political leaders like Sharif are the only ones qualified to represent them in a dialogue. “If we want it to have a positive reflection on the streets, they should be consulted, they should be released,” said Wifaq’s Fairouz.
If another parley comes to fruition, it will be the third declared push for dialogue and reconciliation in Bahrain since the uprising began. The first came in March 2011, when the crown prince presented his “seven principles” to the opposition. He offered them, among other concessions, a stronger elected lower house of parliament, fairer boundaries for electoral districts and an effort to curb official corruption. The narrative most commonly advanced by the government and its supporters is that the opposition, swept up in the regime-toppling fervor of the Arab uprisings, rejected this offer in the hope of overthrowing the entire monarchy. “They were telling their followers that they would bring the downfall of the regime, calling for the overthrow of the government, for firing the prime minister,” said al-Mahmoud.
But supporters of the crown prince, once viewed as the leading reformist within the royal family, put forth a different story. The proposal would have satisfied many of the opposition’s demands for political reform, after all, and many opposition leaders still hope to use it as a reference point in future negotiations. A prominent Sunni businessman with ties to the crown prince said that the deal was vetoed chiefly because of opposition from Saudi Arabia. “Our society may be ready, our government may be ready...but our neighbors are not ready,” he said. “And if your neighbors are not ready and they don’t like the deal you worked out, they can make it fail.”
Indeed, on March 13, 2011, just days after the crown prince made his proposal public, troops from the Gulf Cooperation Council’s “Peninsula Shield” force rolled across the causeway that separates the small island kingdom from Saudi Arabia. The army cleared protesters from Pearl Roundabout and demolished the iconic statue at its center; Bahrain plunged into political paralysis.
Sources suggested that the crown prince made the deal public to “get it on the record” before he was eclipsed by the prime minister, who emerged (with Saudi backing) as the most powerful voice within the government. Riyadh’s leverage, the businessman said, came from Abu Safah, the offshore oil field that sits between the two countries. A treaty gives Saudi Arabia the right to exploit the field in exchange for half of the oil produced. Abu Safah pumps about 300,000 barrels per day, according to the National Oil and Gas Authority; Bahrain’s half makes up roughly 80 percent of the country’s total oil production. “But they [the Saudis] don’t need it. They can bring it to zero, so we get 50 percent of zero,” he said. “They have enough fields to pump oil from.”
The “national dialogue” in July met with a similar fate: It was announced by the crown prince, but within weeks he was pushed aside, replaced by parliamentary speaker Khalifa al-Dhahrani, a hardline figure with no executive power.
All of these failed initiatives have eroded public confidence in the government’s ability to resolve the crisis — not just among the opposition, but in all sectors of Bahraini society, even the hardline Sunni groups that are ostensibly the government’s closest allies.
These groups have risen in stature over the last few months. The oldest is the National Unity Assembly, established in March 2011, an officially ecumenical body that quickly became the leading political vehicle for pro-government Sunnis. Its leader, Sheikh al-Mahmoud, is unapologetically sectarian: He believes the protests are an “Iranian project” and accuses Shi‘i demonstrators of causing trouble to seek revenge for the seventh-century slaying of Husayn, the prophet Muhammad’s grandson revered by Shi‘a as the third imam.
The government and its supporters have taken to calling groups like al-Mahmoud’s the “silent majority.” “In the past this silent majority had no representation,” said ‘Isam al-Fakhro, the chairman of Bahrain’s chamber of commerce. “Now they do, and it should be listened to.... We don’t want anyone to put conditions [on a dialogue].” But increasingly Sunni Islamists take a harder line than al-Mahmoud, who is at least open to the idea of dialogue. His gathering has been upstaged somewhat in recent months by the Fatih Awakening, a splinter group which holds mass rallies demanding an even harsher crackdown on protesters. A sign outside the headquarters of Asala, the salafi party, mockingly depicts a donkey announcing, “I’m going to dialogue!”
These groups seem to be aligning themselves with another emerging faction inside the government and the security forces, one that lays the country’s disturbances at the doorstep of the West. Khalifa bin Ahmad Al Khalifa, commander of the Bahraini army, has given several striking interviews in 2012 to al-Ayyam, a pro-government newspaper. He blamed the unrest in Bahrain on a conspiracy hatched in the United States, accusing US-backed NGOs of plotting a coup. “There are foreign quarters whose agenda is not to allow the Arab Gulf states to be stable,” he said. “There are organizations and political parties abroad that support such a trend, and contribute funds in order to destroy and change the regimes.”
Several pro-government columnists have made similar arguments against a new round of dialogue, ascribing the effort to restart talks to foreign pressure. They may not be entirely wrong: A senior Western diplomat in Bahrain said that the United States is quietly encouraging the government to resume contacts with the opposition. US officials have said little about Bahrain in public, though, until al-Khawaja’s hunger strike compelled them to utter a few words on his account. On April 10, the White House issued a bland statement of “continued concern” for the human rights activist’s health, and called on “all parties to reject violence.” While one might expect this Solomonic stance from the naval superpower whose Fifth Fleet docks in Bahrain, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a comparable statement on April 12 “condemning” the homemade bomb in al-‘Ikr while evincing “concern” about the repeated “excessive force” of the police. The foreign pressure seems diffident, at least in public, but the army commander’s faction resents it greatly nonetheless. It is not clear how powerful this royal faction is, or how it relates to the prime minister, who takes a hard line against protesters but has shied away from criticizing Bahrain’s Western patrons.
All of this political volatility makes for very muddled policymaking. The “medics trial,” wherein 20 doctors and nurses were convicted in a military court of committing crimes against the state because they treated injured protesters, is a case in point. The 20 doctors and nurses are now being retried in a civilian court, partly because of strong international pressure. The public prosecutor announced in March that he would only present evidence against five of them. “It’s because he doesn’t have any evidence on the other 15,” said Rula al-Saffar, one of the medics. But days later, the justice minister seemed to reverse that decision, telling reporters that all 20 would remain on trial.
Many in Bahrain attributed the confusion to a dispute within the royal family. “The government can’t decide what to do with them,” one activist speculated. “The reform-minded people want them released, because this case is an embarrassment. But the hardliners won’t let that happen.”
Factional splits mean the government is unlikely to pursue more far-reaching reforms or serious negotiations led by a reformist. Indeed, the prime minister did not even attend the March 20 ceremony for the National Commission report; his conspicuous absence was viewed by the opposition as a snub to them, and to reformists in the government. The prime minister did meet the next day with a group of military and religious officials, whom sympathetic newspapers dubbed the “loyal citizens.”
“I think there will be an escalation soon,” said a youth activist who works in the banking sector. “If the opposition tries for dialogue and the government does not participate, who can blame them for calling for the downfall of the regime?”