The Bahrain Stalemate

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.

Moreover, bitter acrimony has erupted, and four Wefaq members last week threatened to pull out on the grounds that the pro-government Salafist Member of Parliament Jassim Al Saeedi referred to the organization as "rawfidh" ("refusers" of traditional Sunni narratives about Islamic history, effectively the equivalent of "heretics"), a term regarded as highly derogatory by Shiites. During the course of the unrest, Shiite derogatory terms for Sunni Bahrainis, including the royal family, have also become well-known, generally some form of "visitors," "strangers," or "immigrants," suggesting their presence is alien and temporary and their rule illegitimate.

All of this is disturbingly reminiscent of sectarian tensions at the height of the civil conflict in Iraq, when Sunni and Shiite Iraqis referred to each other as Umayyads and Safavids, respectively. Of course, Bahrain has not seen anything close to Iraq's orgy of bloodletting, but the pattern is hard to ignore. Such terms not only draw clear sectarian distinctions, but they invoke bitter historical memories and age-old grievances, linking them to contemporary conflicts in an exceptionally dangerous way.

Over the weekend the situation deteriorated significantly, as Wefaq organized tens of thousands of protesters under the slogan "one person, one vote," which will yet again be perceived as a direct challenge to royal authority and an implicit claim to power by a thus-far marginalized sectarian majority. At least one female protester was reported killed by tear gas asphyxiation in the oil-production hub of Sitra. Between the insults, the frustration, and the unrest, Wefaq's board said it intends to pull out of the talks and ask its ruling Shura council for approval. The absence of the country's largest opposition party would probably be the final blow to any chances the dialogue could have of creating a new dynamic in Bahrain.

It's not clear whether or not Waad and other opposition parties will follow suit, as the opposition is divided on many issues. The royal family also has obvious competing factions, although the power of Saudi influence can hardly be overestimated. As an unnamed senior U.S. official was recently quoted by the Financial Times, Bahrain "is a divided country and a divided ruling family".

Virtually every piece of good news coming out of Bahrain these days is offset by the bad. For example, the government recently released a 20-year-old poet, Ayat al-Qurmezi, who had been sentenced in June to a year in prison for reciting an anti-royal poem at the now-demolished Pearl Roundabout, then the epicenter of protests. However, Qurmezi now says she was beaten, electrocuted, and threatened with rape during her incarceration. Human rights organizations have issued scathing reports about both the crackdown and ongoing abuses, mainly directed against the Shiite majority. For its part, the government continues to cast the blame squarely on Iranian meddling, although the evidence of this is scant at best.

But, at some point, the government and the opposition are simply going to have to make a deal. Neither has any better, feasible way out. And, given the monarchy's closing off of almost all oppositional political space in the country, the onus to actually and seriously begin this process, for the moment at least, lies squarely with the government.

Neither the Shiite majority nor the ruling family and its Sunni supporters are going to go away or give up. Indeed, given Bahrain's small size and population, as well as its economic and security dependence on its neighbors, in the long run, they need each other to survive. The real existential struggle in Bahrain is not an ongoing sectarian conflict, but rather to find a win-win mechanism for workable, sustainable coexistence. Otherwise, a disastrous lose-lose scenario will become more and more likely. It's difficult to say what, exactly, will happen in Bahrain if it continues down this path, but it's likely to be far worse for everyone involved than any negotiated settlement possibly could be.