Tension is peaking in Bahrain, where some opposition groups have called for huge protests that could turn violent, writes Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute.
For more than two years, members of Bahrain’s majority Shiite population have been protesting against the Sunni king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, resulting in mass demonstrations as well as near-nightly skirmishes between Shiite youths and government security forces in villages outside the capital.
A planned day of protest on August 14 is clearly intended to mimic the Tamarod (rebellion) demonstrations in Cairo, which forced the collapse of Muhammad Morsi’s government and the introduction of military-led rule. Yet while Egypt’s uprising was a mass, peaceful movement, Bahrain’s has apparently been organized by Shiite militant groups that chose August 14 because it is the anniversary of British forces leaving the island in 1971. These groups are not involved in the near-deadlocked dialogue between the government and the main Shiite opposition faction, al-Wefaq, whose eighteen representatives resigned from the forty-seat national assembly in February 2011 following a Saudi-backed government clampdown.
On August 1, Tamarod posted an open letter asking the US embassy to provide protection for the planned rally, saying it poses “ethical responsibilities” for Washington, AFP reports:
“We hope that you may convey our deep concern to the US State Department and the US Congress to exert a real political pressure on Bahraini regime to avoid any fatal crackdown and bloodshed,” the letter said.
The group said the goal of the demonstration was a “real democracy in Bahrain not less than that found in Western countries such as the USA and the United Kingdom.”
“Al-Wefaq has been put in an embarrassing position by the call for protests tomorrow,” says Henderson:
Although its declared stance is that Bahrainis have a right to engage in peaceful rallies, it has deliberately not asked its supporters to take part so as to appease the king’s son, Crown Prince Salman, who is seen as favoring government concessions. But hardliners in the royal family seem to believe that al-Wefaq is effectively endorsing the Tamarod by not condemning the planned protests.
Bahrain’s Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa said that the government would “forcefully confront” the protests, the Project for Middle East Democracy reports, and warned that those behind the planned demonstrations would be punished:
Jeffrey Bachman and Matar Ebrahim Matar argue in The Guardian that “it is time for the United States to publicly acknowledge that the Bahraini regime has failed to implement the Bahrain independent commission’s agreed-upon recommendations and has perpetrated egregious violations of human rights, possibly constituting crimes against humanity.”
The August 14 day of protest reflects the increasing challenges to Washington’s close alliance with Bahrain, says Henderson:
King Hamad appears to be in a quandary, valuing the U.S. links but irritated by Ambassador Thomas Krajeski’s efforts to encourage dialogue. Krajeski has often been criticized in the state-controlled media and was no doubt the principal target of the government’s warning about foreign interference. In light of these challenges, Washington should seek Saudi assistance with facilitating a political breakthrough in Bahrain.
“Despite its own antipathy to political demonstrations and Shiite rights, Riyadh has been frustrated by the lack of progress next door, believing the impasse could make the island vulnerable to Iranian mischief,” he writes:
Saudi diplomatic intervention should therefore be encouraged — alongside a warning that any repeat of its 2011 military intervention will be condemned. But if tomorrow’s demonstrations are large and/or violent, that opportunity may well have been missed.
This extract is taken from a longer article. RTWT
POMED is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.