THE BLOG
01/23/2015 04:43 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2015

The Beginning of the End for Bahrain's Tolerated Opposition

MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images

The trial of Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of Bahrain's main opposition group Al Wefaq, opens on Wednesday, January 28, and marks a massive step away from hopes of an inclusive political settlement in the turbulent country. Bahrain, a U.S. military ally, has failed to implement long-promised reforms. The last few years have seen a steady polarization of the country as a dangerous sectarianism has taken root, threatening the remaining social cohesion of the tiny kingdom.

Bahrain is governed by a ruling family--the king's uncle has been the unelected prime minister for over 40 years. Leading opposition figures were jailed with long sentences following the widespread 2011 popular uprising, but the main group--Al Wefaq--was allowed to exist and its leadership largely spared prison. It was harassed in the courts and vilified in the state press, yes, but its senior leadership had not been subjected to long-term detention. Until now.

Sheikh Ali Salman was arrested in December and charged with a series of speech-related offenses that could result in a very long jail term. Putting peaceful critics in jail is pretty standard for the Bahrain regime, but Salman's jailing is a new departure--sending the message that the previously tolerated opposition voices are now to be silenced.

This means no hope for the inclusive political settlement Bahrain needs, no prospect of power sharing, and the likelihood of many more bleak years of unrest and discontent, particularly from Al Wefaq's Shia base.

This is bad for democracy, bad for the United States, and bad for Bahrain. Last month, influential international credit rating agencies Standard & Poor and Fitch revised Bahrain's rating from stable to negative, citing a failure to end political unrest.

"Talks between the government and opposition aimed at reaching a political compromise ahead of the November elections came to nothing and the opposition boycotted the elections... There are no plans for further talks and the political stalemate continues," said Fitch, noting that it "does not expect a comprehensive political solution to be achieved in the near term."

In October 2014 the World Bank noted that Bahrain's "financial sector has lagged as international finance corporations shift their activities away from Bahrain, in favor of Dubai, Doha, and Riyadh." In addition, "the ongoing political stasis continues to hurt Bahrain. Without a political solution, which would facilitate steps to cut expenditure and broaden the private sector, government debt as a percentage of GDP is forecast to increase to 60 percent in 2018, which would be extremely high by GCC standards."

Targeting Ali Salman makes the sort of political solution Fitch refers to unlikely to the point of inconceivable. The Bahraini government has now sliced away so much of what it formerly recognized as tolerable opposition that there's virtually nothing left--making street politics and violent dissent all the more likely.

If the authorities decide your criticism of them on social media amounts to an insult, you'll get a prison sentence--as was the case with human rights defender Nabeel Rajab on January 20. Tear up a picture of the king? Get sentenced to jail, as Zainab al Khawaja was in December. Peacefully call for change as Ali Salman did? Find yourself on trial for incitement to non-compliance with the law and other trumped-up charges.

The U.S. government has rightly warned that targeting a senior leader of the opposition like Salman "will only inflame tensions," but doesn't seem to be doing much to spell out what consequences there will be for its military ally should he be sent to jail. Washington hasn't even called for the dismissal of the case against him.

The Bahraini government could be forgiven for thinking that such a tepid response from the U.S. government means they are free to move against al Wefaq without censure. This looks like the beginning of the end of Bahrain's tolerated opposition movement.