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One year on, Bahrain remains riven by conflict

As Bahrain's ongoing uprising enters second year, popular demands for political reform remain unmet as national economy grinds to halt

Reuters , Wednesday 15 Feb 2012
A Bahraini anti-government protester throws stones toward riot police in a cloud of tear gas (Photo:AP)
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Protests began in Bahrain as a spontaneous movement embracing people from both the majority Shiite community as well as Sunnis, cutting across religious and class divides, with demands for broad political, social and economic reform.

But protests, inspired by uprisings in fellow Arab countries, descended into sectarian violence as backroom talks on democratic reforms that would have transformed Bahrain into the first real democracy in the Gulf went nowhere and hardliners in government and the opposition seized the initiative.

One year on, the dividing lines have hardly changed – after having been moulded in the ferment of four weeks of revolutionary tumult on a level Bahrain had not known before. The government hopes the protest movement, between opposition party rallies and youths clashing with police, will lose steam and international attention will fade.

But the fervour on the ground suggests that activists are set on keeping the country in a state of semi-crisis for however long it takes before meaningful dialogue begins. "With 14 February there was a political awakening. Everyone in Bahrain became politicised, but since March they have been very entrenched in their positions," said Omar Al-Shehabi, director of the Gulf Centre for Development Policies in Kuwait.

"But it's very turbulent, and with such a politicisation there are bound to be big shifts in the coming years."

The government has refused to budge on opposition demands to give the elected chamber of parliament the power to form cabinets or remove the prime minister of 41 years, a pillar of the ruling elite seen as resistant to swift change.

It offered the leading Shiite party Wefaq only token seats in a national dialogue and did not contact it directly to join a committee formed to look into improving human rights after an international commission set up under international pressure revealed systematic torture meted out under martial law.

Wefaq, which has commanded nearly half the electorate in past parliamentary votes, saw the offers as insults intended to belittle or even delegitimise it. "The opposition are fighting a gigantic state with so much money, but people won't give up and are ready to sacrifice," said Farida Ismail, a senior figure in the secular Waad party. "We want to say 'be a fair ruling family' – enough with corruption, enough with dictatorship."

As a sign of the sectarian wounds that remain, graffiti has been daubed on a wall outside Waad headquarters in a Sunni district of Manama saying: "Down with Iran."

The accusation that the opposition are beholden to Iran as protector of Shiites has been a feature of Bahraini politics for many years but has risen to new heights since the uprising raised the spectre of Shiite empowerment.

Sunnis who gathered at a Sunni mosque in Manama last Saturday talked of their fear that free elections to form governments would mean clerical rule by default since many opposition leaders are Shiite clerics and they would seek advice from clerics in other places where Shiite Islam is strong.

"We don't want a copy of Iran or Iraq here," said Nader Mohammed, a banker. "They are manipulated by a single religious individual. Elected government is fair enough, but taking orders is not accepted."

Wefaq sees such talk as Shiaphobia and has tried to assuage the concerns. Its leader, Sheikh Ali Salman, asked followers at a rally last week to avoid sectarian and party flags and only carry the national one during this period of protests.

But religion remains a deep source of inspiration for ordinary Shiites, who feel shut out of their country's political and economic life, which is dominated by the ruling Al-Khalifa dynasty and allied Sunni and Shiite families.

The ritual of opposition rallies is steeped in the Islamic traditions of Bahrain's Shiite communities, from praying to the Prophet Mohammed as well as his family, to selling trinkets bearing the name of Shiite Imams such as Ali and Hussein.

Divergent views on policing are one stark example of the failure of government and opposition to see eye-to-eye. After live fire killed protesters last February, helping ignite the revolutionary movement further, the interior ministry has stuck to tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades.

It has also hired US and British police chiefs to help reform its conduct after the revelations of torture and deaths in custody of Shiite detainees last year.

One of them, former Miami police chief John Timoney, told Reuters this week the ministry was serious about reform and would hire Shiites in a new recruitment and training drive, but he said youth violence in villages was posing obstacles.

Yet opposition parties and youths say police are brutalising their communities with massive use of teargas and beatings that now take place outside police stations to avoid detection. Since the end of martial law in June, the death toll in Bahrain's unrest has risen from 35 to over 60, activists say.

Timoney even argued that teargas use was down. "Police are responding to the assaults they find themselves in," he said. "There has been a huge increase in the use of Molotov cocktails." The former Miami police chief, who used heavy tactics to quell anti-globalisation protests in 2003, also denied a political motive for the nightly clashes between youths and police.

The violence is taking a toll on Bahrain's economy. Economic conditions have improved considerably since the first quarter of 2011, when gross domestic product shrank 1.3 per cent because of street violence that temporarily closed businesses and prompted the evacuation of foreigners. GDP grew 2.2 per cent quarter-on-quarter between July and September.

The Bahrain Air Show last month, the first big international event since the unrest, was marred by protesters who burned enough tyres to fill the skies visibly with smoke over a large area. It is not clear if Bahrain will still manage to host the Formula One motor racing championship in April.

Once a buzzing tourism and banking hub, Manama is not the party town it used to be. The number of weekend visitors from Saudi Arabia is visibly down and many hotels and bars are empty.

Ahmed Abdullah, who attended the loyalist rally on Saturday, said his property business was ruined. "I own a building with four flats – they've been empty for 12 months," he said, citing areas where many people were flocking to escape the stones, tear gas and traffic snarls of frontline neighbourhoods.

One bright light on the horizon is increased talk of initiatives to bring the two sides together, plus the return to Bahrain of Cherif Bassiouni, whose rights report in November presented a schema of what went wrong last year and parameters for fixing it that most parties grudgingly accept.

A group of young people organised the first Bahrain Debate this month, where opposing voices engaged in calm discussion. "We're highly supportive of any effort to bring the temperature down," a Western diplomat said.

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