Justin Gengler writes on his blog Religion and Politics in Bahrain:
In the...days remaining until February 14, one can expect a healthy dose of anniversary analyses claiming to explain what has occurred in the previous year, what it means, and what to expect going forward. In fact, the Associated Press got a jump on its competitors last week when it launched the preemptive strike of Bahrain uprising coverage in this article by Brian Murphy and Reem Khalifah carried in several newspapers: "Bahrain's year of unrest fed by sectarian rifts and region's rivalries." Many more can we expect on, say, the night of February 13. (Of course, since the Bahraini government has denied entry to journalists seeking to cover the anniversary, who knows what sort of coverage we will actually get?)
I will not attempt to compete with this media cacophony here. Neither will I review in detail the last week's events, although admittedly there are some interesting story lines. These include the obvious plan among some (see recent announcements by Nabeel Rajab and al-Wafa') to reoccupy the Pearl Roundabout --- hence the postage stamp-like banner above "All of Us Are Returning" --- and the similar one below); several cases of attacks on foreigners, including a British man who had several of his fingers lopped off with a sword when he evidently got lost in the village of Karranah late one night; and the ambiguous return of one M. Cherif Bassiouni, who is back in black in order to assess how far Bahrain has implemented the BICI [Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry]'s recommendations. (By my count, that makes at least three different committees --- the others having been appointed by the King and Prime Minister, respectively --- looking into Bahrain's post-BICI reforms.)
Still other items include an (I think facetious) article in the Bahrain Mirror with the headline, "The Al Khalifa Decide to Surrender Bahrain to Saudi Arabia: Announcement of Bahrain's Union with Saudi Arabia." Of course, even if sarcastic, the headline is perhaps not too far off the mark in any case. The political risk analysis firm Executive Analysis concluded in one of its assessments near the end of last year that Bahrain "has now effectively become a Saudi protectorate."
And finally, it took ten months or so, but the editorial board of a major U.S. newspaper has finally pointed out the patent contradiction in the U.S.'s position on Syria in light of its position on Bahrain. The Washington Post notes the irony of its demonization of the Russian and Chinese vetoes of the recent U.N. Security Council resolution out of concern for their political-military interests in Syria, given the U.S.'s own reluctance to apply any meaningful pressure on Bahrain out of concern for its... political and military interests in that country. For the record, I pointed this out immediately following President Obama's first statement on Syria's crackdown in April 2011, in the form of a "Middle East Politics Quiz."
In any case, the purpose of this post is offer something different than either the standard "Bahrain one year later" analysis; or a "week in review" piece that I sometimes have a tendency to write here. Rather, I think it's useful today to distinguish between the things that the past year in Bahrain has taught us about the country and the region, and the things that the uprising perhaps highlighted but that ultimately we knew already. This is all the more useful because I suspect a majority of the articles ready to be deployed in the next six days of pre-anniversary Bahrain coverage will tend to focus disproportionately on the latter category. Since this post is likely to be a long one, I will deal only with the first half here.
What We Have NOT Learned about Bahrain in the Past Year
#1. That Bahrain's Shi'a are unhappy
This first point is perhaps too obvious to include in the list. Still, casual reporting of Bahrain's uprising tends to give the impression that the events of February 14 and the year-long aftermath sprang out of nowhere; that Bahrain's Shi'a had finally "had enough" and used the window afforded by the Arab Spring to make their displeasure known, to spectacular effect.
There is no need to devote much time to debunking this storyline, deliberate or not, as any serious study of Bahraini politics would point to a long history of political conflict, whether between Shi'a and state, Sunna and state, or Sunna and Shi'a. Indeed, sectarian unrest in the otherwise-obscure "principality" of Bahrain made such headlines in 1955 as to occasion an article by Qubain in the Middle East Journal meant to "examine the nature of these tensions and to evaluate their seriousness for the future." In the contemporary period, Shi'a-state tension in Bahrain can be dated to the ascension of King Hamad in 1999, when the latter's failure to deliver on promised political reforms gave birth to an organized campaign led by newly-repatriated opposition figures that would eventually coalescence to form al-Wifaq. The political development (or non-development) of the subsequent decade has been treated at length by both Bahraini (e.g., 'Abd al-Hadi Khalaf) and Western scholars, including in Ch. 3 of my dissertation.
What was surprising about the scenes of February and March, then, was not that such an opposition would mobilize, but that it was able to mobilize on such an unprecedented scale.
#2. That Bahrain's opposition is fragmented
Neither is it news that Bahrain's Shi'a-led opposition is now in February 2012 clearly divided between a formal opposition in al-Wifaq that continues to hold out hope for a negotiated political bargain, and a youth-dominated street movement that prefers to (attempt to) inflict political and economic damage on the regime rather than to engage with it. Fragmentation has been the natural state of Bahrain's opposition in the "contemporary" period referenced above. Disagreement about whether to participate in Bahrain's 2006 parliamentary elections precipitated the split between the al-Wifaq of today and the offshoot al-Haqq Movement (and later al-Wafa'), which eschewed any formal political involvement as tantamount to co-optation. For this, the leaders of these "hard-line" movements are now serving life sentences following the post-February crackdown.
More recently, even the ill-fated dialogue offered by the crown prince in March was never to involve a monolithic "opposition" but instead some half-dozen societies representing diverse political views, a diversity that indeed served to hasten the collapse of the talks after several groups opted out in order to form an uncompromising "Coalition for a Republic."
#3. That the state would resort to violence in response to demands for reform
According to the authoritative database compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, between 2000 and 2009 Bahrain ranked number 11 on the list of top military spenders as a proportion of GDP. And given that (despite what the government would have one believe) Bahrain faces no immediate external threat--especially so long as Bahrain remains only a stone's throw from Saudi Arabia and the Fifth Fleet remains based in al-Juffair--a majority of this expenditure is aimed at the domestic front, through the funding of disproportionately large and well-equipped police and intelligence services.
Now, if one thought the BICI's documentation of torture in Bahrain were disturbing, one ought to read about the Bahrain of the 1990s, when the country again faced a Shi'a uprising. Then, however, security services enjoyed an even less restrictive carte blanche via more nebulous "state security" laws, and British-born intelligence adviser Ian Henderson was busy cementing his reputation as the "Butcher of Bahrain," a title he earned over the course of 32 years at the head of Bahrain's secret police. So, even if 2011 proved a more deadly year than those of the 1990s uprising, the cause is not a change in the Bahraini government's position on the use of violence in dealing with political opponents.