Author: Kenneth Katzman, Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs
The uprising that began in Bahrain on February 14, 2011, at the outbreak of the uprisings that swept several Middle Eastern leaders from power, has not come close to toppling the regime but has defied resolution. The crisis has demonstrated that the grievances of the Shiite majority over the distribution of power and economic opportunities were not satisfied by reform efforts instituted since 1999. The bulk of the Shiite majority in Bahrain says it demands a constitutional monarchy in which an elected parliament produces the government, but many in the Sunni minority government of the Al Khalifa family believe the Shiites want outright rule. In March 2011, Bahrain’s government rejected U.S. advice by inviting direct security assistance from other Gulf Cooperation Council countries, declaring a state of emergency, forcefully suppressing demonstrations, and arresting dissident leaders and pro-opposition health care workers. Although the state of emergency ended on June 1, 2011, a “national dialogue” held in July 2011 reached consensus on only a few modest political reforms. Hopes for resolution were raised by a pivotal report by a government-appointed “Independent Commission of Inquiry” (BICI) on the unrest, released November 23, 2011, which was critical of the government’s actions against the unrest. The government asserts it implemented most of the 26 BICI recommendations, but outside human rights groups assessed that overall implementation was modest and incomplete. Adding to the deadlock, neighboring Saudi Arabia continued to back hardline Al Khalifa officials that oppose compromise, and experts feared that the unrest could evolve into violent insurgency. That concern increased as some hardline oppositionists began using or making bombs and other weaponry as of late 2012. In January 2013, the perception within the government and the opposition that the political system could split apart entirely caused both sides to accept a restart of the earlier political dialogue; it convened on February 10, 2013. The two sides remain far apart, but the new dialogue could produce some additional modest reforms and potentially represent incremental progress toward a solution to the crisis.