Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Bahrain Faced a Stalemate in 2015

Protests and clashes continue on Bahraini streets, while the government keeps on curbing the opposition.
Bahraini anti-government protesters march in support of Shiite opposition leader Sheik Ali Salman in Bilad Al Qadeem, Manama, Bahrain, 6 January 2015.Photo Hasan Jamali

After nearly five years of protests in Bahrain, tension still rules the country in December 2015. Time and names are the only variables in the tiny island nation. Protests, arrests, victims, demands, and lack of trust between the mainly Sunni government and mainly Shiite opposition seem unchanging. In fact, the political events of the past year make prospects for a political resolution increasingly dim.

Bahrain’s prison has a notorious reputation and remains a major flashpoint in the ongoing unrest. In July 2014 about 600 prisoners went on strike at the Dry Dock Prison in protest against their deteriorating situation. The prisoners held at the Dry Dock Prison have reportedly been subjected to severe torture and other abuses. The reports and leaked videos confirmed that prison guards and security forces used tear gas and stun grenades inside closed cells, resulting in at least 40 injuries. That was the worse unrest in Bahraini prisons until March 2015, when prisoners protested after authorities denied contact with their families for up to 13 days. The protest became serious unrest,when detainees were tortured, beaten, and subjected to suffocation by tear gas used in closed cells.

In October 2014 the Bahraini government insisted on preparing for parliamentary elections to be held on 22 November. The opposition stated that any elections without a peaceful transfer to a constitutional monarchy would be unfair. In addition, it feared vote rigging. The opposition announced an election boycott, which resulted in a completely pro-regime parliament, on the basis of which a new government was formed. The election was endorsed by the United States and the United Kingdom. This international praise for the government’s achievement encouraged the Bahraini authorities to continue their crackdown on the opposition. The November election was the first full parliamentary vote since opposition MPs resigned in February 2011, after the beginning of the uprising in Bahrain.

Bahrain started another year of political instability in 2015, with massive protests after the arrest of Sheikh Ali Salman, the secretary general of the al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, the main opposition group, on 28 December. The government extended his detention without legal justification. Authorities then sentenced Jamil Kazem, the president of the al-Wefaq Shura Council, to six months in prison for a post on his personal Twitter account, in which he accused the government of bribing some candidates to take part in the legislative elections in November. Meanwhile, there were almost daily arrests and raids following protests. Sheikh Salman was convicted of inciting disobedience and hatred and insulting an official body and was sentenced to four years in prison, but the court acquitted him of the more serious charge of seeking to overthrow the regime, for which he could have been jailed for life.

Salman’s arrest drew condemnation from the international community, including the US and the UK, as human-rights groups considered him a prisoner of conscience who had been prosecuted in an unfair trial. Amnesty International considered that Salman’s conviction violated the international Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Bahrain has ratified.

In the meantime, the government escalated tensions by revoking the citizenship of more than 70 exiled activists. Those were added to the 31 human-rights and pro-democracy activists that were stripped of their Bahraini citizenship in 2011 because they were “damaging the security of the state.” The government claimed that the new measures had been implemented to “preserve security and stability and fight the danger of terrorist threats.” Amendments to the nationality law allow the state to revoke citizenship for those guilty of terrorism, but only the king has the authority to revoke citizenship. The Ministry of Interior’s list of those whose citizenships were to be revoked included human-rights activists, journalists, doctors, and religious scholars, along with with 20 Sunni extremists that had gone to fight for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The fourth anniversary of the February uprising was marked by protests. Hundreds of people took to the streets of the capital, Manama, calling for the reforms they had been demanding for the past four years: a constitutional monarchy, the formation of a constituent assembly to write a new constitution for the country that meets the aspirations and hopes of all factions of Bahrain, formation of an elected legislature through fair elections, and the release of all political detainees, especially Sheikh Ali Salman. Protests were met with tear gas and rubber bullets, followed by raids of homes.

A significant decision by the government of Bahrain made in March 2015 was to take part in the war in Yemen by joining the Saudi-led coalition against Yemen’s Shiite Houthi rebels. Bahrain criminalized criticism of war in Yemen. Two politicians were arrested after their party, the National Democratic Assembly (al-Wahdawi), criticized the war as unconstitutional. Article 36 of Bahrain’s constitution requires parliamentary approval for defensive wars, which was not sought.

Again, the island exploded in anger when the prominent human-rights activist Nabeel Rajab was arrested on 2 April for decrying an outbreak of violence in the Dry Dock Prison. Rajab’s arrest drew international condemnation, and the king ordered his release for health reasons, after he had served three months of his six-month sentence.

Another major political event was the release of Ibrahim Sharif, the former head of the Waed secular group. Sharif, a Sunni, was released on 19 June, after spending four years in jail over his involvement in 2011 anti- government protests, but was arrested again, just three weeks after his release, for criticizing the government during a ceremony for one of the victims of the unrest.

On 1 November 2015, the UK foreign secretary came to Bahrain, accompanied by navy personnel, to inaugurate formally the construction of a new Royal Navy facility in Bahrain. The facility is to become the first permanent British military base in the Middle East, designed to fight extremists in the region, the “great challenge of our time,” as Hammond called it. The real challenge was for the Bahraini opposition, which saw Britain seeking to recover its old legacy in Bahrain; it was considered as a major strategic shift, which let down human-rights campaigners.

During the final months of 2015, the situation in Bahrain was controlled with vigilance. There are few signs of a dialogue between government and opposition. Between the government’s accusation that the opposition pulled itself out of any dialogue and the opposition’s certainty that the government would fail to implement any reforms, the country’s future remains murky.