The Bahrain Stalemate

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Neither the monarchy nor the opposition appears able to overcome the other. When will they stop fighting and start settling?

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Former opposition parliament members Khalil Marzooq and Jawad Fairoz at Al Wefaq political society headquarters / AP

That Bahrain's monarchy appears to be squandering the opportunity presented by its "national dialogue" between the government and the opposition should be the source of deep concern both regionally and in the United States. Bahrain's strategic and political significance is totally disproportionate to its small geographical and demographic size, since it is the home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, a flashpoint in the Gulf region between Arab Sunnis and Shiites, and the subject of long-standing Iranian ambitions.

Since protests erupted on the island after similar movements toppled the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, the diverse but largely Shiite opposition movement has struggled against the minority Sunni-dominated government and royal family. Following a violent crackdown against protesters and a military intervention by Saudi and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forces, the government has cast all opposition, of whatever variety, as part of an Iranian-inspired conspiracy to overthrow the monarchy.

The government's response to protests -- numerous killings, widespread arrests, mass firings, and the jailing of dozens of opposition leaders who have virtually nothing in common other than their demand for reform -- has effectively divided the society into two irreconcilable halves. But, in this contest, neither side can possibly hope to "win" over the other. Bahrainis in both camps face a simple choice: make a deal or face a deeply uncertain and probably very unpleasant future.

The Shiite majority cannot be indefinitely marginalized and excluded from power -- as it historically has been -- without tensions continuing to intensify and potentially spiraling out of control with ever increasing levels of violence. On the other side, it's clear most Bahraini Shiites understand that their chances of successfully overthrowing the monarchy are extremely slim. In any event, they know they don't have a viable future outside of the GCC framework. The prospects of leaving the Arab fold altogether to join forces with Iran are politically implausible and, to all appearances, unappealing to the vast majority of Bahrainis.

The crackdown produced a lull in protests, but also a political stalemate. The government asserted its practical authority, but its legitimacy has been left in tatters, and its relations with the restive and suppressed sectarian majority at an all-time low. Thus far, the government appears to have no strategy beyond repression, which is, of course, a recipe for disaster.

The Democracy ReportThe national dialogue, which King Hamad al-Khalifa first called for on May 31, was the first opportunity since the uprising began for the parties to begin to find a way out of this dangerous impasse. Several prominent opposition parties agreed to take part, including the largest Shiite group al-Wefaq and the nonsectarian social democrats in al-Waad. Their inclusion presented a serious opportunity to begin to craft a new consensus in the country.

Since proposing the so-called dialogue, however, the government has handed leaders of both of those opposition parties, along with other opposition figures, indefensibly stiff prison sentences in a mass trial that lumped together political figures of all stripes. Al-Waad leader and moderate Sunni reformist Ebrahim Sharif, who had scrupulously avoided calling for anything resembling the overthrow of the monarchy, was given five years. His sentence demonstrated both the totality and indiscriminate nature of the crackdown. The presence of Sharif, a moderate Sunni reformist, in the protests severely undermined the "Shiite/Iranian plot" narrative the government has relied upon, and he paid a heavy price for confusing people by not fitting any stereotype.

The national dialogue is rapidly falling apart, just as it enters its second round. Almost all opposition participants have complained the discussions are too broad, vague, and generalized to be politically meaningful. Results will be forwarded to the King for possible royal decrees. Or not.

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Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, a weekly columnist with The National and NOW Media, and a frequent commentator on Middle Eastern affairs in the American and Arab media.

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