Within one short month, twenty-three Bahrainis were charged with offenses related to “national security”; and twenty-one were arrested. Ten of these twenty-three are high-profile members of the opposition and all represent the Shia majority. Other opponents of the regime were arrested and the top Shia cleric in Bahrain, Ayatollah Hussein Mirza Najati, was stripped of his citizenship just last week. Reports now suggest the government wishes to pacify Shia sermons, stifle the Internet, and dissolve problematic human rights organizations. With parliamentary elections scheduled for October 23, the suddenness of the crackdown suggests regime insecurity prompted the arrests — not national security, an important distinction.
Although these tensions in Bahrain are not new, this recent episode is best explained as a consequence of state structure and Persian Gulf geography. Bahrain’s demographics matter too — the royal family is uniquely vulnerable as the only Sunni-minority monarchy ruling a Shia-majority population.
In terms of state structure, Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy managed by the Khalifa family. In 2002, a legislative assembly and independent judiciary were introduced. Both additions suffer from the oversight of the monarch, however, and Bahrain’s system is only a modest improvement over the more authoritarian “amirate” system. Indeed, this is the main critique leveled by the opposition.
The 2002 arrangement was a pragmatic concession to the majority Shia and showed that the regime could be flexible as well. Authoritarian longevity often depends on a regime’s ability to recognize and co-opt threats. For a time, Bahrain’s king curbed Shia grievances by giving them a venue, albeit with little power. In 2006, the Shia obtained 17 of 40 seats in Bahrain’s parliament and by 2010 they were positioned to gain more. This year it became clear to the monarchy that an oppositionist (i.e. Shia) assembly could create a self-reinforcing cycle of demand and democratization — a political perpetual motion machine. This structural tension between royal privilege and democratic pretensions made action inevitable. The regime intervened during August and earlier in September to prevent the loss of ground later.
Geography also played a role in the recent crackdown. Iran’s proximity is troubling for Bahrain’s monarchy and its history of agitation is familiar. After 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution resulted in Iran’s sponsorship of armed Shia movements around the Arab world, including Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. Many assume Bahrain would be an easy target for Iranian intrigue. It could even be democratized into becoming an Iranian agent. This prospect terrifies Bahrain’s leadership, even though it is difficult to assess just how much interest Iran has in Bahrain. What matters more for Bahrain and its citizens is that even an imaginary Iranian threat is a good enough excuse for the monarchy to clamp down.
It appears the Khalifa regime is assuming the “tortoise defense.” Today it is drawing into its shell – hoping that measured intimidation will keep it safe within while the US Fifth Fleet protects the Sunni monarchy from external threats. With a measure of authoritarianism the Khalifa regime seeks to outlast the current crisis and will most likely reopen the political scene when it feels safer. Because of demographics, it has no choice. Until then the regime will try and avoid the twin perils of state structure and geography.
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