Justin Gengler, who recently completed his PhD dissertation on Bahrain, presented a keen analysis of the social and political dynamics driving the conflict in the country during a presentation at the Brookings Institute in Doha at the end of November. These dynamics shape and help explain what each actor or group is doing and what they are likely to do next. According to Justin, Bahrain is more than divided between a government and an opposition (as often interpreted). Rather, it is facing three mutually reinforcing conflicts, each of which is working to preclude resolution of the others and making the overall political crisis intractable.
Although Justin emphasizes the sectarian element, the picture he presents is much more complicated. The Sunni government is divided, the Shiite opposition is divided, and the Sunni population is divided. Each contain moderates and extremists. Action by extremists in one group empowers extremists in another, creating a vicious cycle with no obvious way out.
Let me allow him to express his views directly:
The first and arguably most important conflict precluding resolution of Bahrain’s political deadlock is disagreement among senior members of the ruling family. Unfortunately, this disagreement is not simply over the best way to handle the political problem posed by the uprising, but over the much more fundamental question of how to understand the problem itself—how to understand the problem of Shi‘a political mobilization in Bahrain. . . . Perhaps the biggest substantive impact of the February 14 uprising, then, in my opinion, was to deal a real blow to the basic premise of Bahrain’s entire post-1999 reform agenda overseen by the king and crown prince. Those in the ruling family who opposed it on principle or out of self-interest, including not only the prime minister but also other security-minded individuals such as the royal court and defense ministers, were in their minds vindicated in their belief that citizens—in particular, Shi‘a citizens—will never be satisfied with anything less than wholesale political revolution, and that accordingly the only way to achieve social and political stability is through strong, proactive security measures and the incitement of ordinary citizens against the opposition as an imagined Iranian fifth column.
The second conflict underlying Bahrain’s political stalemate is the division within the opposition itself—namely, between those who hold out hope for the formal, moderate opposition represented by al-Wifaq, and who remain open in principle to political dialogue, and those who continue to pursue more radical and more violent means of protest and who would reject any political compromise. . . . As it is now, with al-Wifaq wielding almost no command over Bahrain’s revolutionary youth, any promise by al-Wifaq to end violent protest activities in exchange for political concessions is entirely non-credible, giving the government no incentive to engage in dialogue in the first place. This is a classic commitment problem.
In short, not only does increasing violence give security-minded royals and citizens more fuel for their arguments in favor of an even harsher security crackdown against protest activities, but, even more importantly, al-Wifaq appears an ever more unreliable and inefficacious partner in political dialogue.
The third domestic conflict in Bahrain involves what are usually referred to simplistically as “Sunni loyalists” or “the Sunni counter-opposition.” . . . Many ordinary Sunnis in Bahrain . . . share most of the same basic political grievances of the opposition, including discontent with corruption and wasted resources; continued naturalization of foreigners for work in the police and military; and a lack of say in political decision-making. . . .The state is willing to do a lot of things to appease Sunnis, but allowing them a seat at the negotiating table alongside members of the opposition is definitely not one of them. . . . The state thus seems to have decided that if it cannot placate both sets of Sunnis—that is, those unhappy with the state’s security response to protesters, and those simply unhappy—then it will have to take steps to appease at least the former group of more security-minded citizens. This group, then, can be conveniently mobilized against the latter more reform-minded Sunnis, who may be branded “traitors” or fools duped by the opposition. . . .
The problem, of course, is that the state’s capitulation to this pressure reinforces the larger self-perpetuating cycle ongoing for the better part of two years in Bahrain. Additional arrests and more stringent security measures fuel further radicalization, desperation, and violence on the part of the youthful opposition, whose members see little hope for a promising future in Bahrain in terms of employment, education, and so on, much less an agreeable political settlement.
In conclusion, then, yes, Bahrain has successfully fended off substantive political change, and the incentives are in place for it to continue to do so. (And I’ve not even had time to mention the role of the United States or Saudi Arabia.) But at what cost?
This type of situation — the mutually reinforcing conflict loops — exemplifies to some degree what happens in all conflicts. There are moderates and extremists within each group. How the internal dynamics within each group play out and how they affect the dynamics in other groups determine how situations evolve.
I outlined Bahrain’s divisions and inequities in an earlier article.
For a complete summary of the event, see this Brookings link.