Claire Beaugrand: “In Bahrain, the protest shows no sign of stopping”
How did the Arab spring start in Bahrain? What are the demands of the opposition? To explain the current crisis, the conflict between the Shiite majority and Sunni minority in power is not the only element to take into account. We talk to Claire Beaugrand, a specialist on Gulf countries, about what is unique to Bahrain and what encouraged the violent protests to develop.
What sets Bahrain apart from other countries in the Gulf?
Claire Beaugrand: It’s the smallest of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, and also the poorest. The first oil discovery in the Peninsula was made in Bahrain, in 1932. From 1946, it was also the centre of political power in the Persian Gulf and the home of British colonial rule in the region following its departure from Bushehr in Iran. Today, the island’s oil reserves are practically exhausted, and the refinery processes oil from Saudi Arabia, a country with which Bahrain shares the revenue from the offshore Abu Safa field. Bahrain is therefore economically fragile. In Kuwait, for example, the constitution guarantees a job for its citizens, which Bahrain cannot possibly do.
Like Kuwait, it is more advanced politically than its neighbours. Following the adoption of a constitution in 1973, Bahrain experimented with a parliamentary system which ended in 1975, when the parliament was dissolved. The return to the 1973 constitution, which established a unicameral system, has been the basis of political claims since the early 2000s.
The new Constitution of 2002 provided for an appointed upper house. Many Bahrainis were disappointed by what they saw as a step backwards compared to the achievements of 1973. The division of powers between executive and legislature remains a major stumbling block in the current conflict.
To explain the current crisis, much is also made of the conflict between the Shiite majority and Sunni minority in power.
Claire Beaugrand: Indeed, the religious element is often emphasized in a somewhat simplistic way, but it is not the only element to consider. It combines with socio-economic inequalities which are seen as the result of discriminatory policies. The outlying Shiite villages have developed a strong resentment towards the authorities, because they feel discriminated against in terms of access to housing and employment, particularly in the public sector and government departments and sensitive or strategic institutions such as Foreign Affairs, the Interior and Defence.
Is this the case?
Claire Beaugrand: Although some people say that there are Shiites in the army and the police, we must recognize that it is rather the exception than the rule and it is certainly not the bulk of troops who come from Pakistan, Yemen and Syria. Shiites see this as evidence of suspicion directed against them, particularly since the Iranian revolution. That said, the army has always been trained by foreigners from Britain or Jordan.
What are the opposition’s demands?
Claire Beaugrand: The opposition is split between those who accept the monarchy and a minority that denies its legitimacy.
The main opposition party is the Wifaq, a Shiite Islamic party, which tends not to over-emphasize its religious identity, and is in alliance with leftist parties. The coalition wants constitutional reforms: in favour of unicameralism, it demands an elected prime minister, that is to say from the parliamentary majority, and one accountable to Parliament. Alongside this, there have emerged more radical movements from Shiite political Islam as it emerged in Iraq in the 1960s and during the Iranian revolution.
The split between moderates and radicals occurred in 2005-2006, when the reformist opposition Wifaq agreed to participate in the 2006 parliamentary elections, breaking the boycott strategy adopted until then and advocated by those opposed to any compromise, which they saw as collaboration with the regime. The radical opposition movements of Haq and Wafa adopted a strategy of civil disobedience, organizing demonstrations in villages which often turned to violent confrontation with police, leading to the familiar cycle of demonstration-arrest-demonstration. This was the breeding ground that gave rise to violent protest. During the protest movement of 2011, anti-monarchists were openly demanding something quite unthinkable in the Gulf: the fall of the royal family.
How did the Arab spring emerge in Bahrain?
Claire Beaugrand: It wasn’t the parliamentary opposition who called for the first demonstration. It was a Facebook page called “Youth of the Revolution of February 14” with a slogan calling for a radical regime change. What is amazing is that when the call of February 14 came, that radical fringe crystallized all the resentment of far more moderate people who formed the main body of Wifaq. Everyone got behind their agenda. The slogans were very heterogeneous, ranging from “Neither Shia nor Sunni, but Bahraini” to “The people want regime reform” or “The people want the regime to fall.” After the first deaths among the protesters, the regime sought to negotiate: the King instructed the Crown Prince, who is seen as a reformist in the royal family, to negotiate with the opposition, but the dialogue failed. And on March 14, 2011, the troops of the Peninsula Shield (the Gulf Cooperation Council) entered the country to protect its strategic installations and a state of emergency was declared.
Where is the protest today?
Claire Beaugrand: It continues and shows no signs of weakening, in either its peaceful or its violent form. Wifaq’s calls to demonstrate always mobilize crowds of more than 10,000 people. In Shiite villages, gangs of youths clash with police every day, throwing Molotov cocktails which are met with tear gas in return.
People are still very traumatized by the repression of February-March 2011 – which was the subject of an investigation by the independent commission led by Professor Bassiouni, which criticised the excessive use of force and the recourse to torture and which established the number of victims at 35 – and by the sectarian violence that followed.
At present, the feeling is that the situation cannot continue and must return to normal: the street violence continues between the young revolutionaries and the police, which recently resulted in the loss of human lives. The opposition continues to highlight cases of torture, the political atmosphere is tense and the government, furious at the international attention being paid to the deepening crisis, is growing impatient faced with the pronouncements of activists who have remained completely impervious to its implementation of the recommendations of the Commission Bassiouni.
Everyone agrees that there is no alternative to negotiation. However, since the beginning of 2012, the dialogue that both sides proclaimed and expressed hope for has not taken place, with each side blaming the other for this failure.
Interview by Nora Bensaâdoune
Claire Beaugrand is a political analyst for the Gulf states at the International Crisis Group. She graduated with a PhD from the London School of Economics in 2011.
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