As the first anniversary of the February 14 uprising approaches, the regime and the country at large find themselves at a crossroads in which there is dangerously little space for a strong middle ground.
Nearly two months have elapsed since the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) published a report into the unrest that shook this Persian Gulf archipelago last year. Its 513 pages laid bare the excessive use of force, systematic mistreatment, and culture of non-accountability, as the Bahraini government responded to a popular movement that challenged its grip on power. It also found no evidence of any Iranian involvement in the protests, thereby contradicting regime narratives that ascribed them to external intervention rather than domestic grievances. In response, King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, pledged to initiate reforms, and established a national commission to oversee their implementation. Yet the measures taken to date have left unaddressed many of the roots of Bahrain’s political and economic inequalities, and ongoing clashes between protesters and security forces have if anything, intensified. The result has been the empowerment of radical voices across the political spectrum and the marginalisation of Bahrain’s political middle ground.
This places the regime – and the country at large - at a crossroads as the first anniversary of the February 14 uprising approaches. BICI has neither provided the closure the ruling family hoped for, nor satisfied the expectations of the political and popular opposition. The continuing violence has hardened positions on all sides and reinforced the absence of trust and goodwill necessary to any political settlement. The emergence of radicalised splinter groups means it is no longer possible to speak of a ‘regime-opposition’ dichotomy. Elements of the opposition are growing more violent, while extremist groups calling on the regime to crush the opposition once and for all have intensified in recent weeks. Competing narratives have diverged sharply since BICI, illustrating the chasm that has opened up where the moderate middle used to be.
In this article, we assess the prospects for security sector reform, and examine the consequences of stagnation for Bahrain. We argue that the limited measures taken post-BICI have not yet been sufficient to restore confidence in the reform process. The country remains polarised between multiple camps and very different perspectives on the direction and pace of change. Moderate voices and advocates for reform are being outflanked by vocal extremists, both at grassroots and political levels. A dangerous stalemate has arisen as the failure to resolve the challenge to the regime’s exercise of legitimate political authority has emboldened the opposition and stretched all parties’ patience to breaking point. Unless a process of genuine reform, reconciliation, and re-coherence can begin to take root, the risk is that the solidifying contours of protest generate a frozen conflict that lasts for the foreseeable future.
Prospects for reform
The BICI report painted a detailed picture of abuses of power by the Bahraini security forces and elements of the regime. Advocates of reform inside Bahrain as well as its international partners hoped that the report would provide the catalyst for a sustained and genuine process of high-level accountability as well as meaningful reform. A statement released by the White House on 23 November urged “the Government of Bahrain to hold accountable those responsible for human rights violations and put in place institutional changes to ensure that such abuses do not happen again.” As stated above, the King responded by creating a commission under Ali Saleh al-Saleh, Chairman of the Consultative Council (the upper chamber of Bahrain’s bicameral legislature). Internal resistance and obfuscation quickly mounted to the extent that al-Saleh tendered his resignation on New Year’s Eve, only to be pressed by the King into changing his mind
Measures that have been taken since November include revoking the arrest powers of the National Security Apparatus after the BICI report (p.298) detailed its “systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment, which in many cases amounted to torture,” legislative amendments that expand the definition of torture and lift time-limits for the prosecution of cases, the overturning by a civilian court of death sentences for two protestors convicted by a military tribunal of murdering two policemen, pledges to rebuild Shiite houses of worship destroyed by the regime during the crackdown, and the announced construction of more than 3000 social housing units. They also included the reinstatement of workers dismissed on grounds of political expression and the dismissal of charges against 343 individuals accused of the same charges.
While these gestures have opened up new pathways of redress for victims of abuse, and are likely to play a role in reversing some of the damage wrought during the country’s state of national emergency at individual levels, they also highlight one of the major shortcomings dampening expectations of (and prospects for) deeper reform. This is that the changes rectify specific (or high-profile) instances of abuse, rather than make deep reforms to structures of political and economic power. Thus, recruiting John Yates and John Timoney to re-train Bahrain’s security services may play well in London and Washington, but leaves unresolved the structural exclusion of large numbers of Bahraini citizens from an organisation many perceive as exclusionary and deeply-partial. These measures also do little in the way of empowering moderates among the opposition or in government, whose leadership is vital to building the support for any political reforms and who are also vital partners for any dialogue on future reforms. For example, tentative moves to re-engage the political opposition lack real meaning while many of its leaders (including Ibrahim Sharif, leader of the secular-liberal National Democratic Action Society) remain imprisoned and the headquarters of the largest political opposition group, Al-Wefaq, were attacked by security forces using teargas and rubber bullets after it sought to organize an unlicensed protest on 23 December – exactly a month after BICI.
Perhaps most damaging to efforts to build a strong middle ground is that, the culture of impunity within the security services identified in the BICI report has yet to result in any high-level accountability. A trial recently began of five police officers – none of them Bahrainis - charged with involvement in the death in custody of a blogger on 9 April 2011, which they attributed at the time to “complications from sickle cell anaemia.” Yet it stretches credibility to suggest that the scale and ferocity of the crackdown – involving the deaths of more than fifty people and the arrest of over 1500 others since last February – may solely be ascribed to the actions of (ostensibly-renegade) junior personnel. To comply with BICI, accountability cannot be narrowly limited to those who actively carried out abuses. It must include those who ordered and orchestrated the crackdown, and follow the chain of command upward, as events did not unfold in a total vacuum.
Ongoing security crackdown
In the meantime, civilian deaths continue, their impact magnified by the instantaneous use of Twitter and social networking websites to spread often-graphic images. One protestor died on the morning of the release of the BICI report, and demonstrations the next day were put down by the security services. Eight further deaths have since been reported, including a six-day old baby who died on 11 December from inhaling teargas. Footage has also emerged of an incident in the village of Dar Kulaib on 6 January, in which a young pro-government supporter lobbed a Molotov cocktail toward a group of protestors in full view of the police, who merely chased him away without apprehending him. The incident demonstrated the double-standards that continue to penetrate the policing of demonstrations and treatment of protestors.
Instances of brutality have raised troubling questions about post-BICI trends. Six weeks after the appointment of Yates and Timoney to advise on re-training the security services, little appears to have changed; if anything, the use of teargas has intensified. While it may be premature to expect an immediate transition in community policing, the ongoing cases of documented violence suggest that the security agencies do not appear to have changed their tactics or their approach. At the very minimum, given the BICI report’s documentation of systematic mistreatment, this ought to have been the first priority for an immediate shift in organisational behaviour. Security experts involved in the retraining of police argue that they no longer use direct force against those on the street, and instead rely on tear gas to disperse crowds. The difficulty is that tear gas is often indiscriminate, affecting protesters as much as civilians in nearby areas.
Prospects for building a national consensus around reform are further dampened by evidence of growing radicalisation of extremist pro-government groups. The overturning of the death sentences for the protestors convicted of killing the policeman prompted furious calls for vigilante ‘justice.’ Angry supporters of the regime gathered for a ‘Friday of escalation’ after prayers on 13 January to call for their hanging, and set up a mock gallows from which they hung photographs of the individuals against whom the death sentences were overturned. They represented a splinter offshoot of the pro-government National Unity Gathering, which they accused of being too lenient toward the protesting opposition, and were labelled ‘peaceful protestors’ by the Ministry of Interior. Reports have also surfaced of armed civilian groups mobilising intermittently, one of them purportedly led by Adel Fleifel. He is a former colonel notorious for his implication in acts of torture during the 1990s uprising in Bahrain, but shielded from prosecution by the King’s 2002 blanket amnesty that applied to members of the opposition as well as members of the security services.
The worrying potential for extremism is not solely the preserve of radical pro-government groups. The opposition also appears to be fragmenting, although there always has been a divide between the ‘political opposition’ societies and the shadowy ‘February 14’ youth movement. Little is known about ‘February 14’; a recent article described them as “a confederation of loosely organised networks…faceless, secretive, and anonymous,” consisting of “thousands of supporters [who] have abandoned the failed leadership of the country’s better established, but listless, political opposition.” It appears they are the vanguard of the protestors who confront the security services on a daily basis. While the title of ‘February 14’ is used to describe the broad coalition of youth engaging in confrontations with security forces, it is unclear that those who subscribe to its ideology are necessarily organised through coordinated networks. Instead, a great deal of their effectiveness comes from sporadic, uncoordinated and unpredictable nature of their tactics against security forces. Their capacity to mobilise and coordinate larger demonstrations, however, seems to be increasing.
Though the new movements initially professed a commitment to non-violence, recently videos have emerged that suggest that elements of the opposition are resorting to more violent strategies as a means of challenging security agencies. Complaints have mounted about masked youths pouring oil onto highways, burning tyres, blockading roads within residential areas, and luring security forces into villages before attacking them. A recent video calling for a day of violent escalation on 24 January provides further evidence that these strategies may be increasing. They pose tough questions for the security forces, which must prevent acts of violence while ensuring that the repercussions of their actions do not target civilians, which hitherto has not been the case.
Consequences of stagnation
The February 14 movement has succeeded in mobilising large numbers around a notably harder, even revolutionary, call for a change of (rather than reform within) the system. This illustrates the trajectory of the protests since they began a year ago; from calling for political reforms, such as the replacement of the Prime Minister, demands have escalated in the absence of a politically negotiated solution.
Advocates of a negotiated settlement, such as Al-Wefaq, have been criticised for their failure to grasp past opportunities for such a settlement, such as an offer of dialogue by the Crown Prince, Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, at the height of the initial protests last spring. Al-Wefaq’s insistence on the government’s resignation as a pre-condition ultimately caused the collapse of the negotiations; the BICI report noted that had the initiative been accepted, it may have paved the way for significant constitutional and political reform. Al-Wefaq has also been unable to show meaningful results from its decisions to engage with the regime, such as its decision to join the National Dialogue last July before withdrawing half-way through. In November, they declined to join the commission established by the King to implement the BICI recommendations, on the grounds that they felt inadequately represented within it.
In the emotive run-up to the anniversary of February 14, the danger for both the regime and the ‘established opposition’ is that the rug is pulled out from under them by more radical groups on all sides of the political spectrum. The danger of radicalisation has become evident in a hard-hitting speech made by human rights campaigner Nabeel Rajab on 13 January, in which he indicated that patience with the political process was nearing its end, and called for an escalation of confrontation, suggesting to the King that “if you do not think you can reform your system it may be time for you to leave.” 
For its part, the government has hardly helped itself by its pursuit of largely-symbolic gestures even as the security crackdown shows no sign of ending. Continuous announcements of impending reforms have yet to translate into significant action to redress the abuses of power and responsibility identified by BICI. To be credible, they must be buttressed by specific and far-reaching measures to end the abuse of power and privilege, call perpetrators of injustices at all levels to account, and regain the moderate middle ground for a consensual political settlement.
Elements of moderation do remain and might be able to constitute bridgeheads for grassroots initiatives to knit back together Bahrain’s torn society. One such group of community leaders from across the spectrum is meeting later in January to see if they can revive elements of the dialogue principles placed on the table last March by the Crown Prince. These included a parliament with full authority, in addition to discussions on naturalisation, combating corruption, and fairer voting districts. However, the Crown Prince – previously the spearhead of Bahrain’ reforming elite – has been sidelined by internal struggles for influence within the ruling family. Nor is it clear whether he can regain moral authority among the more radical elements of the February 14 movement who increasingly question the Al-Khalifa’s role in governing Bahrain, or from hard-line pro-government groups who see the government as being too soft on the opposition. Indeed, prospects for reform depend a great deal on the ability of the country’s leadership to overcome these doubting voices. And while individuals’ actions are undoubtedly important, the focus should properly be on the movements that underpin them and can provide the basis for a new political settlement.
Given that Saudi Arabia’s ruling Al-Saud will simply not allow a fellow ruling family in the Gulf to fall, and given the bases of support that the regime continues to enjoy in areas such as Muharraq and Riffa, realpolitik suggests that a political solution will have to emerge from within the existing system. American and British support for the Al-Khalifa as a longstanding regional ally is another powerful factor insulating the ruling family from the participatory pressures of the Arab uprisings. Put bluntly, pressures for revolutionary change in Bahrain will not be allowed to succeed, short of an (unlikely) game-changing development either in Saudi Arabia or in the current US posture in the Gulf. Thus, the escalating tensions with Iran could not have come at a better time for hardliners in the government, as the Americans are not going to abandon an ally (and host of the US Fifth Fleet) at this moment in time.
Yet Bahrain finds itself poised at a profound juncture over the next month. It can either move toward deep and lasting changes to the balance of power between state and society, or the regime will have to rely on the use of force against an increasingly determined opposition. The challenge for the government is overcoming memories of the previous cycle of repression (during the 1994-99 uprising) followed by partial promises of reform (2001-10). The longer the old elite remains untouched by high-level calls to account for the abuses of power over the past year, the harder it will be to convince sceptics of the government’s good faith. Calls to violence by opposition and regime hardliners alike make any solution more difficult, without a decisive power-shift towards moderate elements. For these reasons, the anniversary of Bahrain’s February 14 uprising is fraught with dangers as it could as easily signal the next phase of the confrontation as it could the resolution of the present one.