Nine days ago, the courageous Bahraini activist Alaa Shehabi wrote for Foreign Policy about the then sixty-four day hunger strike by Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja. His death, she warned, "could mark a significant breaking point for the regime's efforts to rehabilitate its tarnished reputation -- and could accelerate the disturbing trend toward militant radicalization in the opposition." As of today, Khawaja remains thankfully alive. But Bahrain's ill-conceived Formula One race event has nevertheless already turned a harsh international spotlight onto the regime's ongoing repression. And Shehabi, an academic with dual Bahrain-British citizenship whose husband was only recently released after nine months in prison, has been arrested.
Shehabi's detention might seem a minor footnote given the ongoing protests, the numbers of other activists and journalists arrested and pressured, Khawaja's hunger strike, and the Formula One controversy. She hopefully will soon be released. But her detention while assisting journalists seems particularly symbolic at a time when Bahrain's regime has sought to burnish its international reputation and suppress critical media coverage without engaging in serious reforms at home.
This week's Formula One-driven media scrutiny has ripped away Bahrain's carefully constructed external facade. It has exposed the failure of Bahrain's regime to take advantage of the breathing space it bought through last year's crackdown or the lifeline thrown to it by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Iniquiry. That failure to engage in serious reform will likely further radicalize its opponents and undermine hopes for its future political stability.
Bahrain's fierce, stifling repression of a peaceful reform movement in mid-March 2011 represented an important watershed in the regional Arab uprising. Huge numbers of Bahrainis had joined in street protests in the preceding month, defining themselves as part of the broader Arab uprising and demanding constitutional reforms and political freedoms. Bahrain's protest movement began as a reformist and not revolutionary one, and the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry found no evidence that the protests were inspired or supported by Iran.
The government's mid-March decision to forcefully clear the streets and bulldoze Pearl Roundabout, with Saudi and GCC support and accompanied by a ferociously sectarian campaign of repression, had region-wide impact. The crackdown torpedoed a political compromise between regime reformists and opposition moderates which had seemed tantalizingly close. Regionally, it blunted the seemingly irresistible momentum of regional change. The regime's use of a sectarian narrative to disrupt a broad-based reform movement triggered sectarian polarization in Bahrain and across the region. And the Obama administration's grudging acquiescence to the Saudi-driven fait accompli, at almost the exact same time as it began a military intervention in Libya and violence began to spiral in Syria, opened a gaping wound in American credibility.
A ferocious battle over how to understand the events in Bahrain has unfolded in the months since the crackdown, as anyone who has attempted to report on or discuss it can attest. Supporters of the regime have argued that they did what they must against a dangerously radical, sectarian Shi'a movement backed by Iran, and fiercely contest reports of regime abuses. The opposition certainly made mistakes of its own, both during the protests leading up to the crackdown and after. But fortunately the facts of Bahrain's protest movement and the subsequent crackdown have been thoroughly documented by Bahrain's Independent Commission of Inquiry [pdf].
The BICI report established authoritatively that the Bahraini regime committed massive violations of human rights during its attempts to crush the protest movement. Hundreds of detainees reported systematic mistreatment and torture, including extremely tight handcuffing, forced standing, severe beatings, electric shocks, burning with cigarettes, beating of the soles of the feet, verbal abuse, sleep deprivation, threats of rape, sexual abuse including the insertion of items into the anus and grabbing of genitals, hanging, exposure to extreme temperatures, forced nudity and humiliation through acts such as being forced to lick boots of guards, abuse with dogs, mock executions, and being forced to eat feces (BICI report, pp.287-89). Detainees were often held for weeks or months without access to the outside world or to lawyers. This, concluded the BICI, represented "a systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment, which in many cases amounted to torture, with respect to a large number of detainees in their custody" (Para 1238, p.298). And then there was the demolition of Shi'a mosques, widespread dismissals from public and private sector jobs and from universities, sectarian agitation in the media, and so much more. No political mistakes made by the opposition could possibly justify these acts.
The presentation of the BICI report to the King and his senior officials could have been an opportunity for the regime to come to terms with its past mistakes and begin serious efforts at turning a new political page. Some parts of the regime, reportedly including the Crown Prince, seem to have genuinely hoped to do so. But the moment was lost. Despite some surface changes, the regime has continued to ferociously repress protests while failing to push for meaningful accountability or serious political change. Amnesty International recently concluded that the regime had failed to fully meet the recommendations of the BICI report and that "nearly five months after the report's publication, real change has not materialized." More deeply, "the culture of impunity within the security services identified in the BICI report has yet to result in any meaningful form of accountability."
When I met Shehabi in Washington in February, she warned of the growing radicalization of the protest movement in the face of this ongoing sectarian campaign and continued repression. Bahraini protestors have indeed become more radical in the face of such abuses and political stalemate. It has become harder and harder for opposition leaders to hold out for reform and compromise as resentments grew and positions hardened. Protests have taken on a harder edge, and reports of violence have become more frequent. The regime's heavy-handed, sectarian crackdown on opposition has radicalized the opposition and pro-regime communities alike, while discrediting reformists on both sides. If it is not already too late to reverse this dangerous dynamic then that threshold grows near. If it continues on this path, Bahrain is likely one of the top three regional regimes most likely to face existential challenge in the short to mid-term future.
I hope that the international backlash this week and the mounting signs of the unsustainability of their domestic strategy pushes Bahrain's leaders to rethink their approach. They should immediately begin serious efforts at real accountability for abuses, an end to incitement, the release and reinstatement of the victims of political repression, and a genuine political opening. Their actions and words offer little reason to expect that they will, unfortunately, or that they even recognize the approaching abyss. And this would be truly an epic fail for Bahrain and for the entire region.
UPDATE: Shehabi was released late yesterday after 7 hours, to my great relief. Her release changes nothing about Bahrain's underlying problems, unfortunately.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.