News / Middle East

Analysis: Why Arab Springs Falter - Bahrain

A protester sprays an anti-government graffiti during clashes in the Manama neighborhood of al-Bilad al-Qadeem, April 26, 2012.
A protester sprays an anti-government graffiti during clashes in the Manama neighborhood of al-Bilad al-Qadeem, April 26, 2012.
Davin Hutchins
Is the Arab Spring over? It’s a question on the minds of many observers of Middle East politics. Back in 2011, in Bahrain, Syria and Egypt, television stations broadcast scenes of defiant democracy movements and socially mobilized youth taking to the streets, in most cases peacefully demanding the removal of old systems along with their entrenched leaders. The scenes a year later look markedly different.

In Egypt, television images are now filled with semi-regular chaos in the streets of Cairo. Clashes erupt spontaneously outside ministry buildings. Security has eroded. Despite promises from the currently ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to hand over power as soon as a new president is elected, the masses are not satisfied.

In Syria, an intractable conflict persists. Bashar al-Assad’s control over the Syrian Army is iron-clad. Armed resistance has been as ineffective as peaceful protests. The death toll, according to U.N. figures, has climbed above 9,000. Activists say it is likely to have surpassed 13,000. International consensus on how to the resolve the conflict is brittle at best and inept at worst.

In Bahrain, deep divisions keep Sunni and Shia at odds while King Hamad pledges reforms and devises ways to implement them without alienating his Sunni base, the Shia opposition or his own royal family.

In this special three-part series, we will attempt to take a look at whether in the cases of Bahrain, Syria and Egypt the answer to the question “Is the Arab Spring over?” is an unequivocal “yes,” a cautious “not yet” or a resounding “no.”

According to observers we interviewed, one thing should be kept in mind: the Arab Spring of 2011 is not the first ‘Arab Spring.’ Bahrain, Syria and Egypt have all experienced moments of political hope, violent revolution and seemingly inevitable change in their recent histories.

But in a part of the world were politics is often a zero-sum game and compromise a largely unfamiliar concept, something always seems to go amiss. Either the dominant side reneges on power-sharing and forges total dominance or the new ascendant faction overthrows the old and does the same.

Will history repeat itself or break the vicious cycle?

Bahrain's King Hamed bin Isa Al Khalifa (file photo)Bahrain's King Hamed bin Isa Al Khalifa (file photo)
Bahrain's King Hamed bin Isa Al Khalifa (file photo)
Bahrain's King Hamed bin Isa Al Khalifa (file photo)
Birth of a nation: Bahrain’s first missed opportunity?

When Bahrain’s ruling al-Khalifa family makes the case that it holds a historical claim to its island kingdom, there are centuries of continual rule to support it. The al-Khalifa family migrated from Kuwait to Bahrain back in the 1760s and gained control of the island by the 1820s with backing from the British Empire, which at the time sought to protect its interests from the Persian Empire.

Bahrain and Kuwait have a unique lineage: not only do both the al-Khalifa family and Kuwait’s al-Sabah family herald from the same tribe - the Annizah - but they also sought independence from the British around the same time after their petroleum industries were fully developed. In 1961, Kuwait achieved its independence from the British crown; Bahrain in 1971. Both sought a constitutional monarchy but here their histories diverge.

“Like Kuwait in 1962, Bahrain was a pioneer by having its first constitution in 1972,” said Claire Beaugrand, Senior Gulf Analyst for the International Crisis Group. “[Bahrain] had a brief democratic period from 1973 through 1975. Then it stopped.”

The political climate during the first few years of independence initially was deemed positive as liberals, socialists, Shia Islamists sought inclusion in the new era. It was during this period that Sheikh Issa ibn Salman al-Khalifa introduced a series of reforms, a new constitution in 1973 and even founded a 30-member National Assembly.

But unlike Kuwait’s rulers, who let their assembly eventually grow vocal enough to consistently challenge the emirate’s prime minister, Bahrain’s Sheikh Issa allowed the Bahraini National Assembly to serve only as a consultative body.

Furthermore, Issa’s government introduced a State Security Law that would allow the Kingdom’s Interior Ministry to detain for up to three years anyone deemed a political threat. The newly-formed assembly’s reaction to the proposed law was vociferous; Shia, Sunni and socialists alike condemned it unequivocally. In response, Sheikh Issa dissolved the assembly, and it was not reinstated until 2002. The Security Law was enacted despite all opposition and remained in force until 2001, putting a chill on dissent.

Some deemed it a missed opportunity. I was thought that at a moment when the al-Khalifas could define the essence and functions of their new parliamentary institution, they instead opted to ban it altogether.

“I think what happened in the 1970s, you had two different political views on what is government,” said Beaugrand. “On one side you have this tribal government where the Khalifas believe that government is their legitimate right that they have earned historically."

"But on the other side, the opposition at that time, which is mainly a leftist opposition, was trying to actually modify the government and have it subject to public vote. The national security law managed to alienate both the leftists and the religious parties. So there was a mistake in the sense that the state security law alienated two forces. Since then, it has been impossible for Bahrain to get a uniquely democratic experience,” he added.

The 1990s: Bahrain’s first Arab Spring

Disbanding the assembly altogether may have seemed like a solution at the time, but in reality, it left many political forces voiceless. Many believe it sowed the seeds for unrest in the 1990s, considered Bahrain’s “prequel to the Arab Spring.”

Without an assembly or any other forum for political participation, Bahrain’s majority Shia were left without a tool to address their grievances: disproportionate unemployment, societal discrimination and a lack of representation in government jobs. Many Shia self-organized, under the guidance of local clerics, to circulate a petition in 1994 to reinstate the National Assembly (many Sunni also supported calls for reform). Sheikh Issa leveraged the security law to imprison many of the petition’s supporters.

Anti-government protesters shout slogans while holding Bahraini flags during a protest outside Bahrain's leading opposition party Al Wefaq's headquarters in Manama, May 9, 2012.Anti-government protesters shout slogans while holding Bahraini flags during a protest outside Bahrain's leading opposition party Al Wefaq's headquarters in Manama, May 9, 2012.
Anti-government protesters shout slogans while holding Bahraini flags during a protest outside Bahrain's leading opposition party Al Wefaq's headquarters in Manama, May 9, 2012.
Anti-government protesters shout slogans while holding Bahraini flags during a protest outside Bahrain's leading opposition party Al Wefaq's headquarters in Manama, May 9, 2012.
Meanwhile, more radical elements drew inspiration from the Islamic Republic of Iran in the 1980s; one plot uncovered in 1996 suggested an organization called Bahraini Hezbollah received funding from Iran to attack South Asians in Sitra, a suburb of Bahrain’s capital,  to foment unrest. Low-level skirmishes continued throughout the 1990s, largely in poor Shia-dominated neighborhoods. Today, when Sunni al-Khalifa supporters say the current uprising is stoked by Iran, they point to events of the 1990s as their case in point.

When the swelling of political opposition hit a crescendo in the late 1990s, power in Bahrain changed hands. In 1999, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa succeeded his father, Sheikh Issa ibn Salman al-Khalifa, first as Sheikh and, in 2002, as King. He promised change.

Hamad: Hamstrung reformer

Hamad ushered in a wave of liberalization within a short period. He released hundreds of imprisoned regime opponents arrested during the 1990s uprisings. He granted women the right to vote in municipal elections. He repealed the controversial State Security Law. He allowed exiled Shia religious leaders to re-enter the country.

And probably most important, he created a National Action Charter - a framework for a new constitution which, when put to a referendum in 2001, received 98.4 percent approval from Bahrainis. Expectations were high. But later that year, Hamad and his team largely ignored the NAC and drafted the constitution they wanted, leaving key power-sharing issues unaddressed.

Ronald E. Neumann was U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain during the early years of Hamad’s reign, witnessing the success of some of his reforms and the failure of others. Among those reforms was the reinstatement by Hamad in 2002 of the National Assembly which to Neumann actually embodied both success and failure - success because it signaled the restoration of a representative body, failure - because the body was in fact impotent.

“They have a limited amount of power on the budget and on affirming laws. They don’t have a lot of power in terms of drafting laws. And they have virtually no power on the composition of the government,” said Neumann. “That remains in the hands of the King. On the other hand, they are elected representatives and vocal. In that sense [Bahrain] would be considered ahead of what exists constitutionally in Qatar, Saudi Arabia or the UAE. But they are behind the parliament in Kuwait which has the ability to bring down governments.”

Neumann suggests that there were several important powers that Hamad was not ready to bestow on the assembly: to challenge agendas, cabinet personnel or the prime minister himself. The current prime minister of Bahrain is Sheikh Khalifa ibn Salman Al Khalifa, a powerful family member who has held the position since his appointment by Sheikh Issa in 1971.

Powers such as the above and others is what many in the Bahraini opposition would like to see introduced. Al-Wefaq, for instance, Bahrain’s dominant Shia party, is seeking a directly elected prime minister and unicameral legislature with real legislative power. But experts say this type of all-or-nothing demand may be keeping them on the sidelines.

“Al-Wefaq’s demand for that kind of system is unrealistic,” said Neumann. “It would be realistic for them to have a great deal of more power, and one of the sad things about Bahrain right now is that fringe elements on both sides seem to dominate a stagnant debate without any progress.”

King Hamad’s stance toward reform ostensibly advanced earlier this month when he approved changes to the constitution. With the amendments, the assembly will now have the power to question and remove ministers, issue a no-confidence vote against the prime minister and reject government bills.

“I have great respect [for] and I like King Hamad,” said Neumann.” I think it is enormously important that the King show that he is in control and he will carry out the reforms that he himself has declared to be enforced. The King is being hammered himself by an increasingly radical Sunni bloc on his right that wants no reforms at all. Also, I think there would have to be discussions [with al-Wefaq] out of the public eye. Al-Wefaq has to show that they can make a deal… They both need to restore confidence in their ability to make a deal.”

Perhaps, experts say, King Hamad sees the wisdom in ceding just enough power in this window of change to stave off another Arab Spring. But the bigger question remains: Will his reforms be enforced, will al-Wefaq accept a bargain and will this all be enough to forge a climate of cautious trust?

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Comment Sorting
by: Michael from: usa
May 22, 2012 9:46 AM
Sheik Issa had silenced dissent with law. If Sheikh Issa's past State Security Law was true law it would silence dissent. Yet the law does not in itself silence dissent. But it did. So the leadership is like a man with money in two banks

by: Michael from: usa
May 21, 2012 10:06 AM
The Arab world seems to be moving against the tide in a way where civics and administration would perhaps replace the influence of mysticism and spatial equity (movements rooted in external mosque or church networks). Excellent analysis VOA

by: Gab to Sam Harris
May 18, 2012 10:24 AM
We were once part of the British Empire as well. The Arab world used to be the second wealthiest region in the world at the end of WWII. Europe was devastated when most of those countries gained independence. Eastern Europe was under communism. Latin America, Africa, India and China were starving to death. Within the last 50 years China and India had become world powers, Latin America is growing rapidly, Eastern Europe had become capitalist and democratic, and even Africa was getting rid of dictators, whereas the Arab world, with vast oil and gas wealth, was stuck with the same dictators, the same poverty and the same illiteracy. Why? Be specific!

by: Walter Brown from: United States
May 18, 2012 8:42 AM
In this case, unrest and instability stem from the ungovernable nature of the populace rather than from the form of governance. If everyone behaved like sane rational polite people there would be no need for governance, the worse the population behaves the more governance is needed to keep society from collapsing.

If the underlying structure for forming social values is one of intolerance, inequality and insanity no amount of governance will control it. How well would a democratic government in a prison with a population of violent criminals function? Not very well...
The type of government is a secondary issue, the primary and dominant problem is the failed system of cultural values that derives from the predominant Arab religion...

by: Sam Harris from: Alabama
May 17, 2012 2:37 PM
It is amasing how whenever there is a historic political spasm in the world, the word "British" is right there with it.

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