Bahrain’s Bloody Stalemate
By Jess HillMay 3, 2012
In Bahrain, a long, bloody stalemate has divided the kingdom down dangerous fault lines. Clashes rage between protesters and police every night, sectarian hatred is rife, and pro-government civilian militias are reportedly arming themselves. Above it all, one question looms large – will this quest for democracy result in Bahrain being taken over by its neighbour, Saudi Arabia?
The first time I spoke to Farida Gulham, dozens of masked gunmen had just abducted her husband.
It was just after 3am in Bahrain on March 17th last year, a month into the uprising. Gulham's husband, 54-year-old Ebrahim Sharif, the leader of the secular Wa'ad party, was a vocal and influential member of the protest movement — a centrist trying to create dialogue between the opposition and the monarchy.
That night, gunmen — some in plainclothes, others in uniform — jumped the fence of their property, and at gunpoint, demanded Sharif come with them. The couple didn't panic — they had been anticipating his arrest for weeks. Sharif calmly handed his wife his telephone and his wallet, and allowed himself to be blindfolded and handcuffed. He was taken to prison, along with several other opposition leaders rounded up that night.
Two months later, after a continuous period in solitary confinement where he was kicked and slapped several times a day, Sharif was sentenced to five years in jail by a military court for conspiring to overthrow the monarchy. The verdict flew in the face of what Sharif had actually been campaigning for: a true constitutional monarchy, with a parliament empowered to reflect the will of the people, not just the king.
This Monday, it was announced that Sharif's conviction — along with that of 20 others, including the hunger-striking human rights activist, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja — will be appealed in a civilian court.
Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, adviser to the government's Information Affairs Authority, said, "We have full faith in the independent judiciary system in Bahrain and will wait to see these appeals take place. We are confident the outcome will be just."
But Gulham is not holding out for anything significant to change. In a statement, the government said these trials would not mean the activists would be freed, or even have their sentences reduced. "It's like they were warning us not to be optimistic," says Gulham.
Socially and politically, however, the damage has already been done. By locking up influential centrists like Sharif and Alkhawaja, politics in Bahrain has become bitterly polarised, between the youth clashing with riot police in the streets and the opposition still fighting for a political solution, and pro-regime Bahrainis who deem anyone who is opposed to the government to be a 'terrorist'. Unhindered by unifying, centrist voices like Sharif's, Bahrain's ruling family has been free to run a cynical, sectarian campaign through state-run media, locking the conflict into a narrow, hateful frame: a Shia rebellion against Sunni rule.
But that's not how the uprising started. Ebrahim Sharif, who took a leading role in the protests, is not a Shia — he's a Sunni. Before he was arrested last March, Sharif toldABC Radio that the opposition's demands were not sectarian, but democratic — a constitution written by the people, for example, rather than dictated by the royal family. The majority of protesters may have been Shia, but that stands to reason: the majority of Bahrainis are Shia.
However, the movement's democratic demands have been almost completely drowned out. "The government has imposed a sectarian pattern on the way they handle the situation," says Mansoor al-Jamri, editor of al-Wasat, an independent newspaper critical of the government. "That has coloured the way events are being witnessed by people."
The result? Bahrain's society is splitting down a deep and dangerous faultline.
A Sunni entrepreneur from Bahrain, Suhail Algosaibi, recently wrote a personal story about the kingdom's new, virulent strain of sectarian hatred on his blog. In it, his friend, a Sunni, asks his son which villain he most dislikes.
His son answered quickly and without hesitation "the Shias baba!"
My friend was shocked! "Why do you say this habibi?" he asked.
"Because they burn tires and block the roads!" he replied.
It took my friend a long time to try to explain that Shias were not villains. He also told his son that there was going to be a follow up conversation to this. This is a very dangerous phenomenon… but just imagine the hundreds (if not thousands) of similar situations that are happening all over our island.
Gulham says that this sectarian division is polarising political views, and is silencing Sunnis who support democratic reform. "There are many Sunnis who support the opposition, but they are afraid to talk." And it's not just reputations or jobs at stake, she says.
Last week, one parliamentarian, Osama al-Tamimi, a rare Sunni critic of the ruling family, made a bold speech against the government in parliament. "He said 'Why do we have all these problems, for 30 and 40 years? We are still talking about problems of housing, scarcity of land. If our prime minister cannot handle these problems, he has to step down,'" says Ghulam, quoting Tamimi.
"Two days after his speech, somebody took an automatic machine gun and sprayed 30 bullets on a gym that he owns in one of the Sunni areas. This was a message (from the regime) — any Sunni who speaks out like this again, we have people who can deal with it."
But the violence isn't just coming from the government and its allies. Some members of the opposition, formerly committed to peaceful resistance, are increasingly resorting to violent tactics of their own. This is driving a wedge between the political opposition, which believes democratic reform is the only solution, and the revolutionaries known as the 'February 14th Coalition', an anonymous network of protesters named for the date the uprising began, who say reform is not an option: the monarchy must be overthrown.
EVERY NIGHT, IN VILLAGES ACROSS BAHRAIN, 'February 14th' protesters engage in pitch battles with riot police, exchanging rocks and Molotov cocktails with tear gas, birdshot and stun grenades.
Mohammed is a 33-year-old banker who says he protests every day. He says occasionally the protests are organised online, but often they just occur organically. "The protests basically start with the youth going out to the streets, shouting, putting out signs, going to the roads. As soon as the police come in, the violence starts."
Protests are restricted to the villages outside the capital, which are virtually blanketed in tear gas several times a week; its use is so excessive that, according to rights groups, at least 25 Bahrainis have been killed by tear gas inhalation.
John Timoney, the former US police chief brought in with Britain's former Metropolitan police chief John Yates to reform Bahrain's police force, says the increased use of tear gas is in direct relation to the increase in violence from protesters. "There's a complaint that there's excessive tear gas," Timoney says.
"What I've observed is a huge increase in the number of Molotov cocktails being thrown at police officers, night after night," says Timoney.
"Timoney and Yates have adopted the government's approach, constantly denying there is anything happening on the streets," says Ghulam. "The scale of what is happening in the villages is so high — people are bombarded every night." But that doesn't negate the fact that some young demonstrators are escalating these confrontations.
"We've been discussing this," says Ghulam, who is an active member of the Wa'ad Party her husband once led. "We understand that protesters need to answer in self-defense. If you were here, you would cry when you see what is happening to them every night. The police have been arresting and beating people in the dark; they beat youngsters very severely and leave them in dark buildings, just to threaten them."
"But we think there are limits to fighting back, because we will lose international support, and then we will lose our case. Our case is very strong when it is peaceful. And we have been conveying this message that they should not try to escalate by responding with homemade bombs."
"I don't like the protests in the villages at night, but that's the only way they can get their voice out," says Mohammed. "I hate violence, wherever it is, but I don't blame the youth for what's happening in Bahrain, because what they're doing is meeting violence by violence. They've reached a stage of saturation."
But can this violence achieve anything? "Achieve anything? We're not going to achieve anything, either way. Whether it's violent or non-violent, the government is not willing to change."
But Ghulam is concerned these violent confrontations will beget violence from another source: pro-government, civilian militias.
A recent report co-written by Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the London School of Economics, and Elham Fakhro, a research associate with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, noted the "growing radicalisation of extremist pro-government groups".
In March this year, the main Shiite opposition party Al-Wefaq, attributed the shooting death of a 22-year-old demonstrator to a pro-regime militia member, who was allegedly seen shooting out of an unmarked vehicle into a crowd of demonstrators. Bahrain's Information Affairs Authority says it is investigating the death as a murder.
"We don't want more of these acts of violence from any side," says Ghulam. "Dialogue is the only way to get out of this — but every time we attempt dialogue with the government, it is all just a big show," she says.
Indeed, five months after the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), ordered by the king, laid out a roadmap for institutional reform in the kingdom, Bahrain's government has been widely criticised for shirking all but its most piecemeal recommendations. "The government does not have the political will, because they are supported by the Saudi government, and they are very comfortable," says Ghulam.
Saudi influence has been keenly felt in Bahrain since last March, when Saudi Arabian troops crossed the causeway into Bahrain. They were responding to a request for help from Bahrain's ruling family, but also protecting their own interests: Shiite unrest in Bahrain was already inspiring demonstrations in Saudi Arabia's neighbouring Eastern Province, home to the vast majority of the country's Shia population — and most of its oil fields and facilities. (This writer reported on the unrest in eastern Saudi Arabia for The Global Mail earlier this year.)
Photo by @Bahrainycitizen
Photo by @Bahrainycitizen
Photo by @Bahrainycitizen
Most Saudi troops left the country in June last year, but the kingdom has maintained a close watch on Bahrain ever since. "Bahrain is run basically by decisions from Saudi Arabia, and everybody knows that," says Ghulam.
Despite the BICI's findings to the contrary, the royal families of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia maintain that the Shiite rulers of Iran are orchestrating the protests in Bahrain. This perceived threat, and the fear that revolutionary foment will spread across the border, is said to be motivating recent moves towards a union of oil-exporting Gulf Arab monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia. On the weekend, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said that Gulf Arab states were pushing ahead with the union, which would comprise joint foreign and defence policies.
Saudi Arabia already underwrites Bahrain's security, and in a 40-year-old deal, Bahrain gets 50 per cent of the income derived from Saudi Arabia's Abu Safah oil field. That's no small amount — in 2010, that oil income accounted for almost 67 per cent of the country's budget revenue.
But how that union would work between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain specifically is the subject of rampant speculation. Gulham is sanguine about the prospect. "This is a unity between royal families, not between peoples," she says.
It's unsurprising that a member of the opposition would be opposed to an official union between the two kingdoms. But Mansoor al-Jamri, the editor of al-Wasat, says many in the kingdom will welcome it. "There are people who would love to have it, because they think it will provide protection for the status quo."
All the while, the United States, which has its Fifth Fleet stationed in Bahrain, watches on. Joe Stork from Human Rights Watch, on a recent appearance on the independent American current affairs program Democracy Now, said, "As one Saudi diplomat here in Washington put it, he said, 'It's our Cuba. Don't even think about meddling.'"
Bahrain, positioned between Saudi Arabia and Iran, is a critical element in the United States' long-term strategy to contain Iran. Anyone waiting for the Obama Administration to raise a strong, critical voice on the government's actions will be waiting in vain.
Ghulam says she's not optimistic about the future of the opposition movement in Bahrain. "The government says, 'The opposition is not willing to sit with us'. But it's the other way around. It's just a game. Really, we don't know what will happen. It's a dark passage."