Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Triangle of Conflict in Bahrain

My research partner Reza Akbari and I have finally finished our thesis on "The Triangle of Conflict: How Bahrain's Internal Divisions Inhibit Reconciliation." After months of research, two trips to Bahrain and over 50 interviews conducted, we are excited to share with you our results. You can read the entire thesis here, but let me give you a brief summary of our analysis.

In the thesis, we explore the potential for political reconciliation in Bahrain in which people can learn to live non-violently with each other despite their differences. To achieve that reconciliation, moderates from across the political spectrum must gain enough influence to be able to come to the center as part of a political process. Any political settlement will obviously not solve all of Bahrain's deep-seated problems, but it would set Bahrain on a path towards reconciliation.

In the first part of the paper, we ask who are the actors that must participate in any potential dialogue working towards reconciliation. The US media tends to oversimplify the situation in Bahrain by weaving a narrative about a Shia people demanding their rights from a Sunni government. In fact, there are three main camps in Bahraini politics - the government, the opposition, and the loyalist opposition - that do not fall neatly along sectarian lines.These three camps form what we call the “triangle of conflict” in which political struggles occur both on a systemic level between the three camps and at a group level between the factions that form those camps.

In each camp, the moderates are losing influence to the hardliners as the crisis continues, making political reconciliation ever more unlikely. While everyone in the government cares first and foremost about the survival of the Al Khalifa monarchy, they disagree over how to best achieve their regime security. The anti-reform faction led by the Prime Minister, the Royal Court Minister, and the head of the Bahrain Defense Force believes that any reform will create a slippery slope that leads to the end of Al Khalifa rule. The reform faction led by the Crown Prince instead views reform as necessary to ensure the regime bends but does not break under popular pressure. In the paper, we explore the struggles between the factions before, during and after the February 14th uprising. For here, suffice it to say that the anti-reform faction gained the ascendancy with the collapse of negotiations and intervention of the Gulf Cooperation Council during last year's uprising.

Just as everyone within the government seeks regime security, everyone in the opposition seeks major reform. Yet they disagree over how much reform is practically possible and how to achieve it. The idealist faction includes illegal groups like Haq, Wafa, and the February 14th youth who launched the uprising last year. They consider the government wholly illegitimate, refuse any negotiations with the government, and call for the establishment of a republic. The pragmatist faction does not disagree with the idealist faction in principle, but instead contend that such radical changes are simply impossible given the current situation. This faction is led by the most powerful Shia opposition party, Wefaq, as well as some other minor parties including the Sunni leftist group Wa'ad. Again, much more detail about the history of the struggle between these factions is available in the paper.  But for now, it's important to note that as with the reform faction in the government, the pragmatist faction suffered a major blow with the collapse of negotiations and GCC intervention. While the idealist faction has not gained ascendancy like the anti-reform government faction, they are accumulating strength as the crisis continues.

Finally, the rise of the loyalist opposition presents the biggest challenge to the government vs people media narrative. During the uprising, many Bahrainis heard the opposition chants of "The people want..." in Pearl Roundabout and said to themselves, "That's not what I want." These Bahrainis - predominantly formerly apolitical Sunnis - took to the streets themselves to have their voices heard as well. The media often dismisses these people as "pro-government," but if anything they are more "anti-opposition" in that they mobilized primarily to counter the Pearl Roundabout protests. Moreover, they have come to formulate their own demands for gradual reform as well. As such, we call them the "loyalist opposition." This camp is split between the newly established National Gathering of Unity that portrays itself as an umbrella group for all Bahrainis and Islamists parties and youth movements who, by definition, represent only a segment of the population. As the crisis has dragged on, the Islamists have gained increasing influence over the loyalist opposition (again more details in the paper).

In the two charts below, we show the completed triangle of conflict and a breakdown of each actor's goals and strategies to achieve them. The red is the government, the blue is the opposition, and the green is the loyalist opposition.

In short, each camp must participate in any political process that holds the hope of achieving real reconciliation. Yet, in every camp, the hardline voices least likely to participate in such a dialogue grow stronger every day. In the second part of the paper, we identify three dynamics that are contributing to the polarization and fragmentation of Bahrain's political landscape.

First, the distrust dynamic describes how the contested history of reform in Bahrain increases suspicions of the intentions of other camps. Every time the government launches and oversells a superficial reform project, the opposition grows ever more distrustful of the government's seriousness to ever enact real reforms. Yet every time the opposition demands reform, the government and loyalist opposition, believing reform has already happened, accuse the opposition of constantly moving the goal posts.This dynamic not only polarizes the camps, but it also weakens the moderates in each camp who are blamed by hardliners for their gullibility in giving other camps the benefit of the doubt each time they try to negotiate. Without a basic trust that the other side will hold up their end of any potential deal, there is little incentive to take the risk of entering negotiations. As a result, politics in Bahrain have moved from the negotiation table to the streets.

Second, the street dynamic explains how the closing off of politics due to the distrust dynamic have created a dangerous environment of protest, crackdown, and counter-protest. Each camp faces a dilemma over street action. The opposition must protest to keep pressure on the government, yet every street action further angers the loyalist opposition - especially when protests turn violent. The loyalist opposition desires security in the streets, but with the government's inability to maintain that security, some groups have turned to their own, sometimes violent, street actions that undermine the very security they seek. The government could allow protests to continue and maintain its legitimacy with the opposition and international community, or it could crack down further on the protests to maintain its legitimacy with the loyalist opposition. These dilemmas widen the schisms between the moderates and hardliners of every camp while simultaneously ensuring that the cycle of protest, crackdown, and counterprotest continues. Anger begets violence which begets yet more anger.

Finally, the distrust and street dynamics create a ripe atmosphere for the spread of sectarianism. Importantly, Bahrain has always suffered from socioeconomic and political divides between Shia and Sunni, and the government has taken advantage by exacerbating these divides in a strategy of divide and rule. The government doubled down on this strategy during the February 14th uprising, unleashing what Kristin Diwan calls an "onslaught of sectarianism" to stay in power. Yet the government also found a receptive audience for their sectarian narrative. Precisely because the disenfranchised Shia would gain the most from reform in Bahrain, some Sunnis have come to view a democratic agenda as a Shia agenda. The fate of the Sunnis in Iraq have only heightened the fears of Shia intentions. Unfortunately, the opposition have failed to effectively assuage these fears. Now, there is the significant risk that the sectarianism that began as a government policy of divide and rule has spiraled out of control, with sectarian voices drowning out the moderates. As a result, not only has Bahrain grown more vulnerable to the destabilizing effects of regional sectarian tensions, but what was once a political crisis might transform into a far more pernicious conflict of identities.

All of this leaves a fairly grim picture for Bahrain's future. On any given day, there are plenty of areas in Bahrain perfectly safe and secure. Yet on that very same day, those very same areas may suddenly become inundated with tear gas and the cries of the injured. All the tinder is set, the sparks are flying, and eventually the country will catch fire. Today, the greatest potential spark is the fate of human rights activist Abdul Hadi al-Khawaja, on the brink of death from a hunger strike in prison demanding the release of all political prisoners. Yet even if al-Khawaja does not die, there will always be the next event, the next anniversary, the next protest, the next clash or the next death that could be the spark that lights the tinder. If current trends continue, the question is when and not if Bahrain suffers a major escalation.

To avoid that escalation, everyone must work towards ameliorating the distrust, street and sectarian dynamics that threaten to rip the very fabric of Bahraini society apart. While the narrative of a people demanding rights from the government is morally and rhetorically powerful, it cannot help derive effective policy beyond aspirational prescriptions that “the government should do X and the opposition should do Y.” By accounting for all the relevant actors and dynamics at play, the triangle of conflict will help us move beyond making such aspirational prescriptions to understanding what can realistically be done to further the cause of reconciliation. We discuss some steps that could be taken in the paper, and I will expand upon those in future blogs and articles.


Abdulhadikhalaf said...

Has  the king himsel any role in Bahrain politics? Or do you assume his role is too marginal to be taken seriously?


MDaaysi said...

The portrayal of Al-Wefaq as being a moderate party that is somewhat detested by the "idealists" -as suggested in the summary- is perhaps only half the truth. Recent events with regards to Sh Isa Qassim (an integral leader to the Islamic party) would suggest that Sh Isa has a greater influence on the masses -those of the opposition of course- than his counterparts. Also, the role of the King seems to be disregarded (although for obvious reasons I suspect).

All in all I am rather excited to read the thesis.

Jason Stern said...

Thanks for your comments. We talk about both Sh Qassim and the King more in the paper, and it sounds like we're in agreement.

Jason Stern said...

We do talk about the King more in the paper (especially in the conclusion). We believe the King needs to take a bigger role. He may not want to publicly go against his uncle the Prime Minister and he may feel constrained by Saudi Arabia, but ultimately the country is in crisis and it needs his leadership to undergo the necessary reforms to reach reconciliation.

munshi said...

I did enjoy reading the summary and i look forward to read the full text soon.
One question that is being claimed by liberals in the region, with the lack of proper liberal schools of thought, proper education (political and critical),  id the rise of popular theocracy true examples of democracy and can break the cycle and reconcile the different sects in this conflict.

Jason Stern said...

Thanks Munshi.Several Bahrainis we talked to said that democracy is not just about laws but also a culture which Bahrain has yet to develop. They therefore say Bahrain isn't ready for major reform. I think this argument misses that the best way to develop a democratic culture is through the actual practice of democracy. With that said, a lot of people too often confuse liberalism with democratic governance. An instant democracy in Bahrain and elsewhere will not produce immediate liberal results. But I have faith in the long run it will.

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