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Bahrain Analysis: Between Reform and Stagnation (Fakhro/Ulrichsen)

An opposition rally in Zinj in Bahrain on Thursday night

Elham Fakhro and Kristian Coates Ulrichsen write for Open Democracy:

Nearly two months have elapsed since the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) published a report into the unrest that shook this Persian Gulf archipelago last year. Its 513 pages laid bare the excessive use of force, systematic mistreatment, and culture of non-accountability, as the Bahraini government responded to a popular movement that challenged its grip on power. It also found no evidence of any Iranian involvement in the protests, thereby contradicting regime narratives that ascribed them to external intervention rather than domestic grievances. In response, King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, pledged to initiate reforms, and established a national commission to oversee their implementation. Yet the measures taken to date have left unaddressed many of the roots of Bahrain’s political and economic inequalities, and ongoing clashes between protesters and security forces have if anything, intensified.  The result has been the empowerment of radical voices across the political spectrum and the marginalisation of Bahrain’s political middle ground.  

This places the regime – and the country at large - at a crossroads as the first anniversary of the February 14 uprising approaches. BICI has neither provided the closure the ruling family hoped for, nor satisfied the expectations of the political and popular opposition. The continuing violence has hardened positions on all sides and reinforced the absence of trust and goodwill necessary to any political settlement. The emergence of radicalised splinter groups means it is no longer possible to speak of a ‘regime-opposition’ dichotomy. Elements of the opposition are growing more violent, while extremist groups calling on the regime to crush the opposition once and for all have intensified in recent weeks. Competing narratives have diverged sharply since BICI, illustrating the chasm that has opened up where the moderate middle used to be.

In this article, we assess the prospects for security sector reform, and examine the consequences of stagnation for Bahrain. We argue that the limited measures taken post-BICI have not yet been sufficient to restore confidence in the reform process. The country remains polarised between multiple camps and very different perspectives on the direction and pace of change. Moderate voices and advocates for reform are being outflanked by vocal extremists, both at grassroots and political levels. A dangerous stalemate has arisen as the failure to resolve the challenge to the regime’s exercise of legitimate political authority has emboldened the opposition and stretched all parties’ patience to breaking point. Unless a process of genuine reform, reconciliation, and re-coherence can begin to take root, the risk is that the solidifying contours of protest generate a frozen conflict that lasts for the foreseeable future. 

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