from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Bahrain: No Mood for Compromise

May 5, 2011

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Medical personnel are the latest targets of a continuing crackdown in Bahrain.

According to a recent posting by the Project on Middle East Democracy, "The Bahrain News Agency reports that the Military Public Prosecution is questioning 47 medical and paramedical employees for their involvement in ’the recent deplorable unrest which gripped the Kingdom of Bahrain.’” The personnel under investigation include 24 doctors and 23 nurses and paramedics. The report continues "Medical personnel were criticized throughout the unrest for treating those involved in the opposition and...medical treatment  was described as akin to supporting the opposition."

But the crackdown is not limited to doctors and nurses. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights reports that “In recent developments, Bahraini authorities arrested two former members of Parliament from Al Wefaq political party: Matar Matar and Jawad Fairouz. MP Jawad Fairuz is known for highlighting government corruption and unfair distribution of lands as he attempted to bring the case to parliament. Matar Matar has been documenting violations and cases of disappearances and arrests through the Al Wefaq office.” Al Wefaq has been a moderate Shia voice, not involved in violent or extremist activities. The day before his arrest, Matar told al-Jazeera that the organization was committed to secular democracy in Bahrain.

What these two reports show is that the elite of the Shia community is being targeted—the best educated, the middle class, and in the case of the two members of parliament the politically active. The path back toward compromise is made that much more difficult with every passing day. The sectarian divide is widening, for the Government of Bahrain is making the issue Shia versus Sunni rather than constitutional change.

Similar reports come from NGOs in Bahrain. Shia workers are subject to mass firings; the press is being muzzled; detainees are being tried in military courts that deny due process, and four men were sentenced to death last week in military trials. As one report (not available on line) put it, “two and a half months since protests began in Bahrain, a government crackdown on opposition and dissent has left over 30 dead, more than 500 hundred people in detention and thousands either fired or suspended without pay. The government has launched a coordinated public relations and propaganda campaign aimed at justifying its treatment of the political opposition and Shi’a communities. The language used by government supporters often serves to deepen the sectarian divide in the kingdom and, in some cases, seems to seek to dehumanize the Shi’a majority.”

NGOs in Bahrain report that the opposition still wants a negotiated settlement: In one email, I was told that “Despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in front of them, opposition societies continue to say that they are open to dialogue and desire reform through a negotiated process. They retain confidence in the trustworthiness of the Crown Prince as a potential interlocutor, though they have little faith he holds any power right now. Consistent in their demands, the opposition has remained committed to democratic reform under the structure of a constitutional monarchy and rejects the claims that its ultimate goal is the dismantling of the regime. Instead, leaders have called for a constituent assembly – inclusive of all sectors of Bahraini society – to debate and identify solutions to Bahrain’s current challenges.”

But the opposition has not found a willing partner in the government: a member of Al Wefaq said “the authorities are just not in the mood” and government supporters have privately said that the government should wait to pursue any dialogue until security and safety is restored. The problem, of course, is that "security and safety" as defined by the government may mean a worse and longer crackdown on all opposition and on the leadership of the Shia community.

The picture remains, then, very grim and the government seems unwilling now to follow any path to reconciliation. Perhaps the government, or at least a part of it, is counting on crushing the Shia and teaching them a lesson. Sadly for Bahrain, the only lesson such conduct can teach is that there will be no justice and no democracy until the royal family is gone. That outcome is more likely each day that serious negotiations about constitutional reform are delayed and repression of the Shia community continues.