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Six Months On: How Bahrain's Street Was Silenced

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Six months ago, Bahrain seemed to be swept along with the Arab Spring. Today, however, hopes for real change seem dim

It was perhaps an unorthodox romantic gesture, but it could still qualify as a Valentine: on February 14 this year, as the Arab Spring was surging, a group of pro-democracy demonstrators in Bahrain began what they thought would be a message of brotherly love for their country. Trust us, they said, give us our voice and together we can build a new era of respect and civil rights. That was exactly six months ago, but the message seems to have gotten lost in the post.

For the outside world, the drama reached its climax in mid-March, when the jittery Bahraini establishment decided the protests had to be met with extreme prejudice: it invited Saudi and other Gulf ally troops to help crush the demonstrations. They rumbled over the 25 km King Fahd Causeway that connects Bahrain with the Saudi mainland and brutally ended the protest in an operation that left around 30 people dead.

But the story is far from over. Bahrain is still tingling with tension, the air poisoned with suspicion, sectarianism more pointed than ever as the country slowly reverts to normal after its messy turn on the Arab Spring carousel. The establishment's efforts at reconciliation have been dismissed by the opposition as mere window dressing for its oppressive policies. The passions unleashed in the short burst of protest against the soft authoritarianism are still coursing through the tiny Gulf island of just 1.2 million.

A little history helps to understand why Bahrain - known as the most socially liberal state in the Gulf - is in such a state of stress. Bahrain's ruling Al Khalifa royal family, a Sunni house that has ruled the country since 1783, maintains a tight power grip, and guarantees most government, military, and business leaders are loyalists. But like in many Gulf states, Shia Muslims account for most of Bahrain's population. Although they represent two thirds of Bahrainis, they are absent from the upper reaches of business and politics. Officials point to a handful of Shias in minor ministerial positions, yet they are all but disbarred from the police and the army.

The sectarian element is sometimes overplayed: despite the wealth and power disparities, the Shia and Sunni communities mostly get on. The real dividing line is between the Sunni-led rulers - the sprawling royal family and its cronies - and the rest. And if the pro-democracy opposition seems dominated by the Shia, it is because they are the ones who are most disenfranchised from a system that persists in excluding them from public life. Whether the establishment likes it or not, the opposition represents most of Bahraini society.

The Al Khalifa clan has been able to keep its position in part thanks to its dubious propaganda policy aimed at smearing the opposition as dupes for Iran. It argues that the government's firm authority is the only line of defense against foreign takeover of the tiny Gulf state. The propaganda efforts ensure that much of this relatively prosperous, educated and cosmopolitan Gulf nation has acquiesced to the brutal military intervention.

The party line permeates the Bahrain leadership. Today, ministers, MPs, and government aides all trot out the same refrain about how the protests were hijacked by extremists. Although no substantial evidence of such a planned conspiracy has been presented, the mere spectre of foreign interference is enough to prod most of the Sunni community - about a third of the country's population - into accepting a dose of authoritarianism.

According to Fatima Al Balooshi, Bahrain's acting Health Minister, the protests were romanticized by a western media that saw Bahrain as just another dictatorship awaiting a democratic sweep. "The protests were hijacked by outside countries. We have evidence that it was Iran and Hezbollah," she told me. "It was a conspiracy to take over our country. They want to take over Bahrain. Bahrain has been used as a gateway for Islamists."

At the same time, Al Balooshi vehemently denies that there is any systematic discrimination against the Shia. "The media tries to portray us as sectarian, but there has never been any discrimination against the Shia. Half the members of Parliament are Shia," she insists.

Indeed, the Shia party Al Wefaq won 18 out the 40 seats in the 2010 elections to the toothless National Assembly, despite blatant gerrymandering against Shia voters. Yet key Al Wefaq leaders are in jail, those released talk of torture, and the party was only granted five delegates to last month's 300-strong 'national dialogue' that was billed by the government as an historic reconciliation and reform initiative. "How do you want people to trust you if you don't allow them to speak?" says Khalil Ebrahim al-Marzooq, a senior Al Wefaq member, who eventually pulled the party out of the national dialogue. "We are accused of being Iranian agents just because we want change."

The allegations of potential treachery are repeated widely: without stern discipline, officials contend, Bahrain would go the way of Iraq and Lebanon. "The opposition is being directed by outside sources. We saw the opposition wanted to match the Iranian system," says Abdul Latif Al Mahmood, chairman of the National Unity Assembly, the main Sunni party. "The opposition never takes any action unless authorized by Iran or Iraq." He says the entire Shia community has fallen under foreign tutelage. "Shias are sectarian. They do not have any loyalty to the country like the Sunnis," Al Mahmood says.

Is there any truth to the claims of Iranian or Hezbollah interference? There is the occasional Iranian bluster about Bahrain being its 14th province, and many Shias follow clerics in Iran and Iraq, yet no convincing proof of any conspiracy has emerged. Photos circulate of protesters with Hezbollah flags, Ayatollah Khomeini posters and banners with violent slogans, but they have been exposed by the opposition as doctored: some of the supposedly incriminating pictures are taken from demonstrations in Beirut, others are Photoshopped to show aggressive banner messages.

"Yes, there were some who called for regime change, but none of them called for an Islamic state," says Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, who was arrested and tortured during the uprising. "Many called for a republic, but not an Islamic republic. Demands for self determination were not what I would call radicalism."

Most outside observers say Iran's weak conventional military - and political and economic unrest at home - limit its ability to project influence. As the Bahrain government sees the hidden hand of Iran behind any political opposition, the proxy narrative is instructive more for what it reveals about the regime's insecurities than about Iran's capabilities or intentions. It also has echoes in Egypt, where ousted president Hosni Mubarak suggested the choice was between staying loyal to his regime or facing an Islamist takeover.

The risk, according to analysts, is that the accusations of foreign meddling and religious extremism not only obscure sources of discontent, but stoke the very sectarianism that the ruling elite insists it wants to avoid. "I haven't seen anything in the way of convincing proof of Iranian meddling or material support to Bahraini Shias," says Frederic Wehrey, a policy analyst at the Rand Corporation. "Whether justified or not, the climate of fear has had a toxic effect on domestic politics, particularly with regard to the integration of local Shia and political reform more broadly."

Bahrain's role as a key ally for the West means outside criticism is muted. Manama is the home of the US Fifth Fleet, and apart from some cautious criticism in March by Hillary Clinton, Washington has had little to say about Bahrain. And relations with Britain are still strong enough for Bahrain's Crown Prince to score an invite to the royal wedding in April (in the face of protests, he declined).

Meanwhile, key opposition figures are still languishing in prison, or facing harassment and intimidation from the authorities. Jail sentences have been handed down for crimes like calling for regime change and holding a rally without permission (although the Crown Prince himself accepted the protests at the time). Activists describe 'anti-Shia pogroms' in the weeks after the crackdown: demonstrators being fired from their jobs, Shia mosques destroyed, and doctors facing charges for treating protesters.

All this suggests Bahrain's establishment has no intention of relinquishing its grip on the country. That means maintaining its crude anti-Shia line and slowing political reform where it can. Yet it's a strategy that runs obvious risks: by blocking calls for change, Bahrain's rulers could well produce a class of opposition that is angrier than ever. If so, then they may well look back at the Valentine's Day protests and rue their lost chances.