Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Bahrain’s Protests Deadlock (2011-2013)

Bahraini police force in action
Bahraini police force in action during the February protest in Manama / Photo HH.


The report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), released in November 2011, extensively documented major human rights violations, arrests, and torture of opposition leaders during the crackdown on peaceful demonstrations in February and March 2011. It urged the Bahraini government to endorse far-reaching reforms and hold accountable those who were responsible for committing human rights violations.

King Hamad promised to implement the report’s recommendations and set up a National Commission in November 2011 to monitor implementation of the recommendations. In March 2012, the National Commission reported that implementation of BICI’s recommendations were ‘far-reaching and touched all aspects of Bahraini life’. Yet, critical issues of concern have still not been adequately addressed.

In May 2012, the King ratified some amendments to the Constitution that his government framed as reforms, yet the main Shiite opposition group al-Wefaq (Reconciliation) rejected them as cosmetic gestures that withheld all power in the hands of the royal family. In the meantime, the authorities continued to oppress demonstrations and detain opposition leaders, solely for speaking out against the Bahraini government.

On 4 September 2012, the High Criminal Court of Appeal in Bahrain upheld the sentences against thirteen opposition activists, ranging from five years to life imprisonment. In previous hearings, the activists spoke out, describing their alleged torture and other ill-treatment in detention. In addition, nine medics have been sentenced to jail terms for their alleged role in the protests in 2011. They have been sentenced on charges of setting up terrorist groups to topple the regime and change the Constitution. However, human-rights groups have said they were prosecuted simply for treating wounded protesters and for taking part in the demonstrations.

According to Amnesty International, in a statement issued on 20 September 2012, the Bahraini authorities have not taken significant enough steps to hold accountable those who were responsible for committing human-rights violations, despite the sentencing of three security officers for abuses and charges against several others for alleged mistreatment of prisoners.

So far the outcome of investigations into allegations of torture and killings has not been made public, and the number of officers suspected of abuses who are on trial has remained very low. Youth activists who have continued to protest in the Shiite suburbs of Manama have been met with ongoing repression by the Bahraini authorities.

The report ‘Freedom Has a Price’ by Amnesty International confirms that two years after the start of the uprising, prisoners of conscience remained behind bars and rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly continued to be suppressed. Despite some positive steps, like the opening of two Ombudsmen offices to investigate human rights abuses by Ministry of Interior and National Security Agency personnel and a code of conduct for police officers, true justice remains elusive for victims of human rights abuses.

Although a Special Investigation Unit within the Public Prosecutor’s Office was set up in 2012 to investigate human rights abuses, the Unit dismissed 45 of 92 cases due to a lack of evidence of a criminal act. It failed to publish information on how the investigations were carried out.

Despite the regime’s stated commitment to reform and dialogue, the human rights situation in Bahrain deteriorated. On 7 November 2012, the government revoked the citizenship of 31 dissidents, accusing them of harming state security. After activists announced an Egyptian-inspired Tamarrod-campaign, planning mass protests on 14 August 2013 (the day Great Britain withdrew from Bahrain in 1971), authorities launched a new crackdown.

A series of royal decrees were passed, sanctioning new repressive measures and tougher punishments under the 2006 anti-terror legislation. Protests in Manama were formally banned, and the revocation of citizenship for a range of offenses was introduced. As soon as the new measures were implemented, authorities renewed house raids and arrests.

In addition, the government launched an ‘anti-terror campaign’, calling for citizens to report any websites or accounts inciting hatred or terrorism. Even more worrying, there was a formal move towards the military rule, with the Supreme Defence Council, entirely made up of Al Khalifa members, overseeing all state security measures and the National Guard. Meanwhile, night-time protests continued in Shia villages. According to the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, authorities sustained their use of excessive force against peaceful protesters.


The BICI report was intended to reach a consensus on the causes and events of the uprising and recommend reforms. Optimists within the opposition, the government and Bahrain’s Western allies hoped it could be a chance for the regime to meet popular demands and engage in talks with the opposition.

Yet, the political dialogue between the opposition and the government has reached a deadlock. While a ‘National Dialogue’ between the opposition and the government was initiated in 2011, it was halted the same year after al-Wefaq withdrew from the talks, followed by other liberal opposition societies. The reasons included the low representation of opposition societies in the talks and the government’s unwillingness to hold fair and transparent elections. Moderates on both sides had agreed to pursue the only viable solution to the crisis – a constitutional monarchy in which government ministers are chosen by an elected Parliament instead of appointed by the King.

Both sides however have been losing ground to more radical rivals who have been undermining chances for reform and dialogue. In an atmosphere of continued repression and failed reforms, moderate groups like al-Wefaq and Waad (Promise) have been under pressure from youth activists who have led protests and have denounced any dealings with the government. Unrecognized groups like Haq (Truth) and Wafa (Loyalty) are among them.

The government’s pro-reform camp – led by the Crown Prince who had been granted some room to negotiate – has been under pressure from regime hardliners, among whom the Prime Minister, and the Sunni elite, who feared a fair representation of Shiites in politics. Since late 2011, an even more conservative faction of the Al Khalifa, the al-Khawalid branch, has gained ground at the expense of the more reform-minded Crown Prince.

Led by royal court minister Khalid bin Ahmad Al Khalifa and commander of the Bahrain Defence Forces Khalifa bin Ahmad Al Khalifa, this camp has advocated an uncompromising line towards dissent, delegitimizing the institutional opposition (among which al-Wefaq) and seeing the crisis through a security lens. The Crown Prince has seen his influence steadily decline, and so has the King.

As the pragmatic currents within the major camps – Shia and Sunni (Islamist) opposition, and Al Khalifa – have been under pressure from a newer, more confrontational cadre, meaningful dialogue has been problematic and has blocked successive efforts to resolve the impasse. Dialogue has furthermore failed because parties could not agree on the scope and terms of negotiation and who would have a seat at the table. The Bahraini regime has rejected the idea of outside mediation, seeing it as harmful meddling in Bahrain’s internal affairs.

Yet opposition figures have argued that help from outside would be beneficial. In January 2013, King Hamad announced a new round of dialogue. Al-Wefaq criticized the new round, as the government would merely be a moderator of the dialogue and not a participant. As the government is the only one able to implement cross-sectarian demands for social and political reforms, al-Wefaq demanded representation from the royal family. The government’s refusal to take part in talks reflects its implication that the conflict is between Sunnis and Shias and not a cross-sectarian call for reforms. However, grievances like housing shortages, corruption, a lack of accountability, and a weak Parliament are shared by both Sunni and Shia activists.

As of September 2013, the second round of dialogue, in which representatives from loyalist national societies, Parliament, opposition parties, and ministers took part, did not move beyond the mechanism of dialogue. While opposition figures demanded that all proposals be put before a popular referendum, the government insisted that any agreements follow established procedures, including enactment by the National Assembly (the limited powers of which have to be taken into consideration here).

Signs of moderation appeared in January 2013, when al-Wefaq leader Ali Salman offered an interim compromise aimed at the formation of a national unity government in which the opposition would gain half of the seats in the cabinet. However, with the arrest on 17 September of Khalil al-Marzooq, deputy of al-Wefaq, all opposition societies announced they would suspend talks immediately. They had lost all confidence in the government’s commitment to dialogue and reform.

The arrest of al-Marzooq reflects the authorities’ attempts to portray all critics as terrorists, which runs counter to its supposed commitment to reform through a process of dialogue. Marzooq was accused of being affiliated with the ‘terrorist organization known as February 14’ and of inciting and advocating terrorism.

On 29 September, a Bahraini court sentenced fifty Shia activists to up to fifteen years in jail on similar charges. Allegations that confessions were extracted under torture have not been investigated and were not considered by the court. Amnesty International said the trial proceedings fell far short of international standards. Increasing instances of violence and bombings, the responsibility of which have occasionally been claimed by more extreme opposition forces, have suggested the increased influence of violent elements. It has also added to the government’s delegitimization of the opposition.

From the start the regime has emphasized the sectarian nature of the conflict, presenting calls for more democracy as a power play by Iran. This helps the government to secure support from Sunni Gulf monarchies, who fear Iranian meddling in the internal affairs of their countries. This support has come from Saudi Arabia, the main force inside the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which has announced the transformation of the GCC to a more integrated Gulf Union, with closer economic, political and military coordination, a shared foreign and defence policy and a new decision-making body based in Riyadh.

However, other Sunni monarchies like Oman and the United Arab Emirates are concerned about the perceived dominance of Saudi Arabia in the union. The conservative al-Khawalid branch of Al Khalifa supported the union, but King Hamad and the Crown Prince were more muted towards the idea: a union with Saudi Arabia would deter any chances for dialogue and reform. But the interest of Saudi Arabia – countering internal dissent by cooperating with other Sunni monarchies like Al Khalifa – contrasts with the call for basic rights of the Shiite majority in Bahrain.

The United States has been criticised for being silent on the conflict in Bahrain – in sharp contrast to its strong position in the case of Libya and Syria. As the home of the US Navy Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is vital to US interests in the Gulf. Nevertheless, US officials made efforts to broker an agreement between the opposition and the government and have pushed for the establishment of BICI. In September 2011 Washington froze a USD 53 million arms deal with Bahrain.

However, although weapons that might be used against protesters were excluded, it resumed arms deliveries in May 2012. Opposition activists saw this as the end to (the already weak) US pressure to reform. As of September 2013, the US government had not imposed any sanctions on Bahrain or Bahraini officials for human rights abuses. According to a report by US Congress, part of US aid and sales has been put on hold. Of the requested 25 million USD in military aid for 2012, only 10 million USD was provided.

Indeed, while the UN Human Rights Council passed a declaration in July 2012 calling on King Hamad to implement the BICI report’s recommendations and release political prisoners, the US, UK and seven other EU countries did not endorse the declaration. On 9 September 2013, a joint statement of 47 countries, including the United States, expressed serious concern about the human rights situation in Bahrain and called upon the government to implement the recommendations of the BICI report.

Despite an atmosphere of radicalization, the absence of hope for reform and continuing protests and repression, the regime has tried to salvage Bahrain’s international reputation. In a bid to show the world that Bahrain was back to normal, in April 2012 Formula 1 Grand Prix on Bahrain’s International Circuit went on amid continuing protests, as did the 2013 Formula 1 Grand Prix held in April. This climate of sustaining military/security interests amid continuing repression of popular demands for reform has encouraged hardliners/conservatives in the Bahraini regime while placing moderate forces like al-Wefaq on the defensive and provoking a further radicalization of the protest movement.