Last weekend, Bahrain held special elections to fill 18 parliamentary seats left vacant after members of the Islamist al Wefaq party resigned last February amid anti-government protests. Despite the government’s attempts to fill the seats without incident, Bahrain’s opposition seized the opportunity to revive anti-government protests, which the government had forcefully quelled earlier this year. While critics claim that the government uses disproportionate force against protestors, there is also sufficient evidence that some of the protestors have violently attacked the police.
Despite Bahrain’s advanced economy and progressive political system, the country’s majority Shia population has long complained of discrimination in the allocation of public-sector jobs, services, and manipulation of electoral borders. Arguing that the government’s attempts at equal representation are nothing more than a sham, the Shia al Wefaq party boycotted last Saturday’s elections.
Al Wefaq’s refusal to participate in the electoral process is not new. In 2002, al Wefaq boycotted the parliamentary elections in opposition to the new constitution, arguing that it disallowed equal representation. Sunni–Shia tensions escalated again in 2006, when Shia groups accused the government of adjusting election districts to favor Sunni candidates.
With only 17 percent of registered voters participating in Saturday’s elections, al Wefaq’s boycott sought to prove a point: The current system of governance is illegitimate and should be replaced. Bahrain’s government has offered open dialogue, made reforms, and dropped cabinet ministers—even those held by the royal family. However, such efforts have been rejected by the opposition, which has hardened its demands for radical change.
Negotiations between the two sides are nearly impossible in this polarized political atmosphere poisoned by continued violence. Despite arguments over which side instigated the violence, both sides carry responsibility. The Bahraini government defends its aggressive response to protestors by arguing that external forces in Iran are inciting the violence.
Such concerns are not easily dismissed. Iran has presented a threat to Bahrain’s stability for decades. Many Bahrainis fear Iranian meddling will spark a revolution similar to that of Ayatollah Khomeini against the shah in 1979. Bahrainis also recall the 1981 attempted coup by the Iranian-backed Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain. Last August, the Evening Standard revealed that the Bahrain Freedom Movement, currently pushing for regime change, has strong ties to Tehran. The Obama Administration has also acknowledged Iran’s involvement.
Despite Iranian interference, Bahrain’s violations of individual rights cannot be ignored. Approximately 40 protestors have died since February, and many more have been wounded and detained. The Obama Administration is therefore put in a difficult position when balancing American interests with human rights in the region. Bahrain is a longtime strategic ally in the Persian Gulf, through which 40 percent of the world’s oil exports are transported. Bahrain also hosts the headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, a key force charged with maintaining the free flow of oil exports from the Gulf and containing and deterring Iran. It is therefore understandable that action must be taken to curb Iran’s influence in the opposition movement. However, this also must be balanced by respect for the rule of law and individual rights.
Bahrain’s experience is significantly different from other countries affected by the so-called Arab Spring. Bahrain’s constitutional monarchy is a far cry from the dictatorships that sparked revolts in Libya and Syria, or even the authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Tunisia. The Islamist factions within the Shia community have capitalized on the opportunity to spark sectarian violence in the name of democracy. This devalues and discredits the efforts of moderate elements within the opposition who are willing to work with the government and move toward genuine reform. Tensions between the Shia and Sunni communities are not new to Bahrain, and the ongoing unrest does not bode well for future engagement. The Bahraini government will need to continue its policy of open dialogue but also become more proactive in indentifying moderate partners who are willing to work with the government rather than reject it.