ECIA Policy Paper – April 2011
In Bahrain, as in its near-contemporaries in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, protesters have demonstrated since February 14th against the ongoing social, economic and political marginalisation large sectors of Bahraini society have been subjected to. The extent of the dissatisfaction cannot be underestimated, with demonstrations often exceeding 11-15% of the 600,000-strong citizen population. Against an increasingly polarised backdrop, protesters notably for the most part stuck to an explicitly anti-sectarian and politically moderate messages, attempting to follow the Egypt and Tunisia’s largely non-violent example. However, instead of addressing the roots of socio-economic and political disenfranchisement in Bahraini society, the government has sought to bypass them by changing its demographic balance and creating a class of naturalised (Sunni) citizens. This solution aggravates internal tensions and internationalises Bahrain’s domestic politics, making it possible for regional actors (particularly Iran) to exploit the local context. Despite the destabilizing effect of escalation against protesters, Bahrain’s hawkish administration, its Saudi allies, and its US counterparts continue back repression. Amongst the various implications of the ‘Bahraini gambit’ in the Arab Spring is a loss – for the US and the EU – of precious political capital both in the eyes of the pro-democracy protesters, and in those of regional autocracies.