At the height of Bahrain's riots and protests in 2011 and 2012, some, including certain figures in the U.S. government, argued that Bahrain's royal family had to give way to the protesters' demands or be swept away by the tides of history. They were wrong. The protests were suppressed; the parties that voiced their demands were banned and their leaders jailed. Bahrain is recovering economically. Repression, it was observed, worked.
Yet Bahrain's story is more complicated than that. The simple narrative in the Western press of a democratic revolt crushed by a ruling minority is simplistic. Bahrain's leaders do have a view of where they are going. It is a long-term strategy which faces some internal contradictions and, ultimately, may be insufficient to the need. But make no mistake: there is a strategy.
A three-day trip in February 2019 was certainly insufficient to pretend a complete understanding of a small yet very complicated country. But meetings with senior government officials, royal family members, old friends and some figures who were close to the opposition gave a broad enough, if still partial and admittedly impressionistic, picture. While some parts of this picture may be wrong or need correction, it is nonetheless worth recording--if for no other reason than that so little is now being written about Bahrain, and most of that from the single standpoint of human rights concerns.
The crushing of the opposition in Bahrain has been harsh. Prison terms are long. The stripping of citizenship (one contact claimed that there were some 800 cases, although the king restored nationality to 551 in April) leaves the victim free but hopeless; without a legal identity to open a bank account or a credit card, unable to send children to school or to work, or, if still residing inside Bahrain, to attain a passport and leave. In some cases, the standards of evidence are open to question. Things such as this have been reported before, leaving readers with a certain impression of Bahrain. What these stories leave out though is the broader context necessary for understanding the country--something that does not automatically change judgments but often makes them more difficult.
I, among others, have written elsewhere about the complexity of the struggle that broke out in 2011, and of various efforts undertaken to resolve it over several years through negotiations, dialogue and, in part, an election held last year.
There were many reasons for why productive dialogue was not achieved. The ruling government offered less than what demonstrators wanted, but the opposition was fundamentally unable to make compromises at key points, repeatedly overplayed its hand and made decisions that left it weaker. Suspicions were mutual, but power was in the hands of the government, and it ended up convinced that compromise was impossible. They could be right.
Before the leaders of the now-banned Al Wefaq--formerly the country's largest and foremost Shia political party--were imprisoned, I asked some of them, more than once, a basic question: if they were able to make a deal, and others in their community refused it and took to the street, would they be able to stick with the deal, and therefore the government, against their former allies? They could never answer. And if they could not tell me that they could keep a deal, how could they possibly persuade a suspicious government that compromise would lead them anywhere except to a weakened government faced with further demands in a repetitive, downward cycle?
Compounding the problem was the matter of Iranian influence. Concerns about Tehran's scheming were ever-present even when I served in Bahrain from 2001 to 2004. It may have been exaggerated, but the presence of some posters of Iranian ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in some religious processions in Bahrain did nothing to remove it. The most influential Bahraini Shia religious leader, Isa Qassim, looked to the Iranian city of Qom for inspiration. When he was finally released from house arrest for medical treatment in London in 2018, his subsequent trip to Iran and his April 3 statement denouncing Bahrain for hosting an Israeli delegation at an investment...