Pearl Roundabout, where the popular Bahraini protests began on February 14 2011, is today a heavily guarded fortress. Such is the Bahraini leadership’s fear of the site’s potency as a symbol of the aspirations of the majority of the population, it is under a heavy police presence night and day. What the mainly Shia opposition dub “freedom square” in order to link it to Tahrir and popular movements across the Arab region, has successfully been kept in lock down since its central monument was destroyed by security forces nearly a year ago. Any hope of a negotiated settlement seems to be similarly closed off.
Mansour Al-Jamri, the long time Shia opposition activist and journalist, is deeply pessimistic. One year on, he reaches for an engineering metaphor to describe the political situation. It is like “stretched steel” he says. Heated up to a certain temperature it can regain its shape, but if it becomes too heat-distorted, it cannot resume its form. Al-Jamri was persuaded to return to Bahrain from the UK in the latter part of the 1990s in response to the early signs of a palace-led political reform process after several years of violent clashes. He now likens his people to the “Jews of nineteenth century Europe,” fearing that their oppression is a semi-permanent feature and that there is nothing the opposition can do to persuade or pressure the ruling Al-Khalifa to return to the reform path.
At the same time he and the party with which he was once close, Al-Wefaq, formerly the largest grouping in the elected lower house of the Bahraini parliament, are acutely aware of a popular anger and a daily desire of Shia youth to protest and face-off with security forces. In the words of a former Wefaq MP, Jawad Fairooz, “Outsiders should not think that we will lose the will to protest and challenge the situation.” The problem for Al-Wefaq is that, despite pulling out of the parliament and boycotting the farcical elections of December 2011, they have a credibility problem with a large portion of the young protest movement, ‘February 14’. The movement, which consciously models itself after direct action organisations that have challenged Arab regimes elsewhere, has on occasion publicly ridiculed Al-Wefaq speakers and has little or no truck with negotiated reform. Radicalised by the harshness of much of the state’s response to the events of the last year, the hooded youth who come out each night and block off roads in Shia areas are in a different political orbit to that of the ex MPs. Graffiti in Shia areas often offers the simple formula “Down down Al-Khalifa” in areas where the tombs of recent martyrs draped in the Bahraini flag are a common sight.
This does not mean there is not popular respect for some Bahraini figures associated with the reform process. Sheikh Isa Al-Qassim, the Shia cleric who provided religious legitimacy for Al-Wefaq’s reformist agenda, still has, say activists, the power to influence the street. Ali Salman, Al-Wefaq’s charismatic leader who wisely always stayed above the parliamentary fray, continues to command authority. His house sits in the middle of one of several impoverished Shia areas, Balad, some of its windows broken by police who reportedly deliberately fired tear gas canisters in that direction. However Al-Wefaq’s rivals, and former supporters, Al-Haq, are not heard of; their leaders imprisoned and their activists arrested or living in fear. Al-Haq’s radical cross-community leadership under Hassan Mushaima once gave them potency among Bahrainis wanting an opposition detached from either political machinations or, perceptibly, sectional interests. The cross-community and more moderate Al-Waad still functions, but has also come under considerable pressure, as have Sunni or Shia merchants who dared to show sympathy with last year’s popular rallies.
Ever since the initial explosion of popular disaffection with government-led gradualism, Al-Wefaq has sought to recover its position by holding fast to a concrete set of policies that, if implemented, would turn the country into a Westminster-style constitutional monarchy, and very far from what the former Al-Wefaq MP, Abdul-Jalil Khalil, calls “the mullah system” in Iran. He argues that these “logical demands” would allow Bahrain to move “from the street to the negotiating table.” Citing the support enjoyed by the Al-Khalifa from Saudi Arabia, whose troops remain in Bahrain one year on, Khalil is also keen to stress that his party has nothing against its large neighbour. “We are part of the GCC,” he says.
However, says Abdul-Jalil, Saudi Arabia needs to understand that being part of the solution to the political conflict in Bahrain will help ease its rising tensions with Saudi Shia. In oil-rich Eastern Province, Saudi Shia expressions of support for their Bahraini compatriots are common, compounding the alarm of both the Saudi and Bahraini leaderships who see the hand of Iran behind any such disaffection. Bahraini Shia analysts argue that such a Saudi policy reappraisal would be enlightened self-interest, but they are not holding their breath. Mansour Al-Jamri believes that blaming the Saudis for the success of Al-Khalifa hardliners in taking the initiative at the expense of the reform-orientated crown prince, Salman, and his father Hamed, the king, is “just an excuse.”
As a rough rule of thumb, the editor of Al-Wasat newspaper calculates that the head of the royal court, Sheikh Khaled Al-Ahmad and his brother Sheikh Khalifa, head of the armed forces, control 60% of what goes on in the country, aided by close relatives, while the hardline veteran premier Sheikh Khalifa, the king’s uncle, controls, Al-Jamri estimates, around 30%. Indicative of the grip the two brothers have on the country’s political direction, Abduljalil Al-Khalil focuses on the royal court minister Sheikh Khalid Ahmed, not to get a message to the King, but because it is with the minister (and his brother) that power is seen to largely reside. “Talks about talks” is how Al-Wefaq’s intermediary with the palace characterises where he and his party is now. “Messages get passed,” he says, “but there is nothing of substance that would indicate the (government’s) desire to return to dialogue.”
With hardline Al-Khalifa sheikhs in control, Shia opposition figures also note, with some frustration, a declining interest in diplomatic niceties with the UK. British diplomats have in the last two weeks been delayed entering the country, and the current and former ambassador have apparently not been treated well by those with whom power largely resides. The king’s image is getting smaller at Manama Airport in favour of that of the Prime Minister, and photos of Hamad’s annointed heir, the crown prince, are nowhere to be seen. This, and an imprisoned Pearl Roundabout, symbolise much about Bahrain today.