Briefing No.


Afro-Middle East Centre

AMEC insights

Bahrain: Democracy on the wrong side of global interests
October 2011
by Afro-Middle East Centre
Despite the chronic under-reporting on popular protests in Bahrain, the uprising in the small Gulf state that left over thirty dead and hundreds arrested in a brutal government crackdown offers a potent reading of the regional and global dynamics and interests at play. Mainstream coverage of the uprising has mostly portrayed the Bahraini uprising as an extension, or a natural continuum, of the ‘Arab Spring’ that has swept across the region. Even though the Bahraini protests might have found inspiration in the tidal wave of calls for democratisation elsewhere in the region, and reflect similar demands for greater freedoms and rights, such a homogeneous framing ignores the particularities of the Bahraini context, and the country’s geopolitical and strategic significance. Additionally, it negates a long tradition of pro-democracy campaigns by not contextualising this uprising as an extension of extensive civic and popular protests dating back to the 1990s. From demanding civil rights to calling for regime change Inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, 14 February was marked by Bahraini pro-democracy activists as a ‘Day of Rage’. The date was significant as it was the tenth anniversary of a popular referendum that saw ninety-eight percent of voters support
AMEC insights is a series of publicly-accessible publications, providing trenchant analyses of topical issues related to the Middle East and the Muslim World. We welcome comments and suggestions for future issues. If you want us to add you to our mailing list to receive AMEC insights, please email:

the adoption of a National Action Charter that would promise significant reforms. In fact, the process leading to the adoption of the charter was initiated by the current king, Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa, as part of an attempt to defuse tensions that had arisen from the popular uprisings of the 1990s. The charter was an important political contract that held the promise of significant democratic reforms around, amongst other issues, the instatement of a constitutional monarchy, political and religious rights, human rights and issues pertaining to the judicial and legislative framing

the protesters that converged on Lulu (Pearl) Roundabout on 14 February were a united front of Shi’a (the majority) and Sunnis activists calling for general political reforms. the protesters’ call segued to that of ousting the monarchy that has ruled over Bahrain for over 200 years. The death in detention of Karim Fakhrawi. sports personalities. it is necessary to locate it within the country’s Sunni-Shi’a sectarian division. about thirty Shi’a mosques were demolished – purportedly with Saudi backing – in what may be interpreted as a tacit warning to the Shi’a majority that any dissidence will not be tolerated. killing seven. • • an end to government’s attempts to alter the country’s demographics through the mass naturalisation of Sunni foreigners. and the instatement of a constitutional monarchy (as provided for in the National Action Charter). mass expulsions from universities. particularly amongst the Shi’a who. with life-sentences and long term prison sentences meted out by these courts to leading opposition figures.of the state. to assist the Bahraini monarchy in quashing the uprising. face endemic structural and institutional discrimination. especially: • • an end to wide-spread corruption. martial law being declared. on 17 February. However. and • the deployment of foreign troops from the Peninsula Shield Force. three days after the protests began. special military courts being set up to try those suspected of involvement in protest actions. and any attempt to alter the status quo in favour of the majority will be crushed. Significantly. This schism is a source of deep-rooted political and social discord and tension – a division that is often manipulated. The authorities’ response to the protests was particularly alarming considering that the protesters had not initially called for the overthrow of the Khalifa monarchy. but demonstrations were met with a climate of brutal intimidation and vicious repression that resulted in: • • • • thousands losing their jobs. the military structure of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). These calls were not only rejected by the regime. Further. a journalist and co-founder of an independent newspaper. greater political participation. 2 . became emblematic of the government’s brutal crackdown. Indeed. but for the instatement of a constitutional monarchy. journalists and students. To understand the dynamics and complexities of the Bahraini uprising. bloggers. There were widespread reports of gross human rights violations against anyone suspected of involvement in the protests. These included medical personnel who treated injured protesters. when the army opened fire on unarmed protesters camping at Lulu Roundabout. despite comprising seventy percent of the population of just over half a million. much of impetus behind the current uprising was driven by the frustration of unfulfilled political promises reflected in the charter.

Unsurprisingly. The military intervention was an unequivocal move to protect the regional interests of the countries supplying troops. when the Khalifa family requested armed support from the GCC. those opposing the government are not a single voice. and support for the protests. Saudi Arabia. but manoeuvred the direction it has taken. Bahrain was the only monarchy – in the current climate of uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East – to face a serious challenge to the regime. 3. and its positioning in terms of geopolitical interests. In fact. to split and polarise opposition voices along sectarian lines. weakened their collective position. suppression. Protecting the monarchy: A military occupation? In attempting to understand the trajectory of the Bahraini uprising.) This implied and unfounded reference to Iran is in itself a clear indication of how regional and global dynamics and interests have not only hovered over the uprising. Bahrain: The regional chessboard The shadow of Iran’s influence Even though the initial protest actions took place across sectarian lines. disagreements between opposition groups on a common approach around how – or whether – to work with the regime has. Although Morocco and Jordan recently witnessed some popular protests. as well as Iran and movements such as Hizbullah that had expressed support for the aspirations of the protesters. have expressed deep concern around a call for an end to the Khalifa monarchy. 3 . 2. slammed the Peninsula Shield Force as an occupation force. while the political parties. Bahraini protesters. despite their own marginalisation. Kuwait and the UAE were swift to send troops to help quell the uprising. and a distinction should be drawn between the call of the protesters on the street and most of the main. and 4. to garner the support of the US and Saudi Arabia – which have increasingly expressed fears about Iran’s long-armed regional influence. This accusation by the regime attempted to achieve four objectives: 1. Bahrain’s neighbouring monarchies became deeply concerned about similar popular discontent spreading to challenge their rule. formal opposition parties. arguably.Clearly. The protesters are often disenfranchised youth without any officially recognised leadership and issuing radical calls. and which see Bahrain as an important and strategic buffer to combat this threat. to instil fear that Bahrain was threatened by a similar revolution to the 1979 Iranian Revolution that saw the instatement of a Shi’a Islamist government. it is imperative to examine regional and international responses and what these suggest about Bahrain’s strategic role. As a result. it appears that the Bahraini authorities purposefully sought to deepen the sectarian rift by claiming that Shi’a protesters were being supported by ‘a terrorist organisation abroad working for a foreign country.’ (This was one of the charges facing twenty-one opposition members when they appeared in court. to raise the bogey of a foreign threat to Bahrain’s stability.

It not only fears that popular discontent will spread. the coast of east Africa. The subdued US response to the deployment of GCC troops in Bahrain suggests that the US was unwilling to further compromise its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Thus US officials began talking about supporting a position dubbed ‘regime alteration’. interests trumped over US rhetoric of democratisation.The US and ‘regime alteration’ The Bahraini uprising again emphasised the US’ unpreparedness and ad hoc response to the uprisings in the region. relocation of the Fifth Fleet will have to be considered – a position it would prefer to avoid. Saudi Arabia viewed with gravity and concern the US’ expedient abandonment of a former ally. Additionally. This repositioning of US-Saudi relations – long-time strategic allies – will inevitably impact on and shape the region in the longer term. Bahrain hosts the US’ Fifth Fleet that patrols the Persian Gulf. Simply put. This position. As such. However. the Red and Arabian Seas. remain in power. downgrades the will of the people in favour of ensuring that long-time allies. Significantly. supports attempts to remove Gaddafi from power in Libya. However. The US is cognisant that in the event of regime change. In what could be perceived as a region hostile to the US. and challenge its monarchy. The US’ response has also undoubtedly been influenced by Saudi Arabia’s – another critical US ally – role in the uprising. not least of the opportune geostrategic location of Bahrain. but offered military support to suppress Bahrain’s uprising. it has long regarded and maintained the Bahraini regime as an important ally. Its response also underscored a double standard employed in US foreign policy. in essence. Saudi Arabia: The vanguard of counter-revolution The uprisings in the region have destabilised Saudi Arabia’s attempts to maintain a particular regional balance of power. the US sees Bahrain playing a critical role in containing Iran – just across the Gulf – and its regional ambitions. Saudi Arabia knows that a successful popular insurrection in Bahrain will see its own Shi’a population – particularly in the eastern province where people have family ties to the Shi’as in Bahrain – 4 . and a greater tilt in the region towards Iran. this response needs to be understood in relation to how Saudi Arabia viewed the US’ position on the ousting of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. The US. the Saudis not only came out in opposition to the wave of popular protests. The situation in Bahrain – whose regime has long been propped up by the Saudis – has been of particular concern to Saudi Arabia. supports sanctions against Syria. democratisation in the Bahraini context does not serve a US agenda. as a NATO member. but that a regime change in Bahrain that allows space for greater Shi’a political participation will also open up the possibility of extended Shi’a influence in the region. its position on Bahrain makes it clear that it regards Bahraini aspirations for democracy and meaningful reform – just like those of other people in the region – as subordinate to US interests. The consequential strained relations that have emerged has resulted in the Saudis distrust of any US involvement – including the US’ position on ‘regime alteration’ in Bahrain which the Saudis opposed. who are encouraged to institute placatory reforms. This position has cast them as the ‘vanguard of the counter-revolutionaries’. Thus. and (belatedly) praised the democratic aspirations of Tunisians and Egyptians for the ousting of their dictators (autocrats that the US had supported prior to their removal).

the national dialogue seems to be reflective of the political marginalisation – especially as experienced by Shi’a – that characterises Bahraini politics. both the inquiry and the dialogue – and the attendant concessions such as the dismantling of special security courts and the release of some prisoners. especially. Further. in what can be read as a further attempt to appease protesters and the opposition. however. Conclusion Dialogue – and national confidence – has further been undermined in Bahrain by the continued imprisonment of opposition leaders. It is hard to imagine that in a climate where brutal repression has been the response to even sympathisers of the uprising. In fact. in exchange for a withdrawal of foreign troops. In fact. Further. However. ostensibly due to a lack of official political representation. Saudi Arabia. it seems unlikely that with the largest political 5 .become restive. Reflecting on the position adopted by the Bahraini government during the uprising. opposition parties were represented by only forty-five of the three hundred seats. with Saudi Arabia’s unequivocal military and financial support for the Bahraini regime. the mainly Shi’a Al-Wefaq – which recently pulled out of the talks – was substantially underrepresented. the Bahraini government sought to stabilise the country. in an indication of the government’s lack of commitment to genuine dialogue and meaningful reform. National dialogue – tokenism or a way forward? With the uprising dragging out. a military response looking increasingly untenable. are most likely an attempt to assuage the opposition and calm the protesters. Additionally. It ended the three month-long state of emergency. However. Considering that Saudi Arabia plays a central role in Bahraini politics. genuine dialogue that holds the possibility for reform could easily take place. Not only was the dialogue designed by the government. has not gone Iran’s way. Iran additionally wanted guarantees that Bahrain would ask the Americans to relocate the Fifth Fleet. as opposed to genuine commitment in offering significant reforms. Iran offered to bring the Shi’a opposition groups into a dialogue process. our sources indicate that there was vigorous behind-the-scenes negotiations between Iran and the Bahraini monarchy which resulted in an agreement on how the regime should proceed. and called for reconciliation talks in the form of a national dialogue – a position that undoubtedly had been pushed by the US and. the government further sanctioned an independent international investigation – the Bassiouni Inquiry – to probe the conduct of security forces during the uprising. the dialogue process was fraught from the outset. the Saudi (and US) fear is that such a occurrence could extend Iranian influence into the heart of Saudi Arabia. Indeed. the economy suffering substantially from months of protest. and the situation having reached something of a political impasse. but Bahrain’s main political party. Furthermore. the voice of the protesters on the street was not represented in the dialogue. it is unlikely that any reforms instituted by the regime would not receive the prior approval of its Saudi benefactors. its influence has dictated the Bahraini regime’s response to the uprising. That.

it seems unlikely that any significant changes will be instituted that do not meet Saudi consent and fit in with Saudi interests. Johannesburg. and the schism between Shi’as and Sunnis has been deliberately exacerbated over the past few Bahrain continues to bear the scars of a brutal http://www. In many respects the current uprising seems to be following a similar trajectory to the 1990s uprising that came to an end after the referendum for the National Action Charter in 2001. 2029. aspirations for greater freedoms and democratisation are successful so long as they do not clash with the interests of foreign powers. South Africa Tel: +27 11 782-6754 Fax: +27 86 566 2632 Email: info@amec. 6 . Considering the role that the Saudis played in ensuring that the protests were unable to be a catalyst for regime change – or even for meaningful reforms. It is difficult to maintain confidence in a possible positive outcome. It is ironic that the anniversary of the charter that sparked this determined uprising is seeing it conclude in a similar manner – with seemingly empty promises for reform.amec. Afro-Middle East Centre PO Box 85011. as the uprising has attested.movement having pulled out of the talks the dialogue will be a space to institute the sort of reforms that protesters had initially demanded.