Inspired by their peers in Tunisia and Egypt, young Bahrainis flooded the streets of their capital, Manama, on February 14, demanding greater political openness, constitutional reform, and in some cases, outright regime removal. Clashes with security forces soon followed, but within a week protesters had occupied Manama's Pearl Square, which sits at the heart of the capital and--like Tahrir Square in Egypt--became a focal point of protest.
In March, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa called on his Gulf neighbors to defend his island nation against an unnamed outside threat. In response, Saudi Arabia and other states dispatched troops and police, and in doing so, upped the ante significantly. Though unspecified, the concern was clear: Bahrain's Sunni rulers feared Iran's influence among the country's majority Shiite population.
But the Iranian threat is overblown. In fact, there is no evidence of any Iranian involvement in the protests whatsoever, and the regime's tactics seem to have backfired. As a new Crisis Group report says, "the intervention likely achieved precisely the opposite of what it intended." The Saudi interference all but extinguished hopes of quick political reform, turned peaceful protests into violent conflict and enflamed sectarian rhetoric in the entire region.
The Bahrainis' demands are longstanding, and over the past few decades, the regime has tried to accommodate some of their grievances. But now the main opposition groups say they won't talk to the regime until foreign troops leave Bahrain. King Hamad, on the other hand, is emboldened by their presence and unlikely to let them go easily.
A credible, third party should be called in to help restore basic trust on both sides, start a dialogue - with the goal of genuine reform toward a constitutional monarchy and convince Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States to withdraw their troops. The sequence of those events is still an open question, as is the most suitable outside mediator, but it remains Bahrain's best hope.
I spoke with Joost Hiltermann, Crisis Group's Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, about the latest developments in Bahrain, and what should happen to bring the standoff to an end. Listen to our conversation below, and be sure to check out Crisis Group's recent report The Bahrain Revolt, the third report on our ongoing series analyzing the wave of popular protests across North Africa and the Middle East.
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