February 18, 2011 | Stratfor
Bahraini Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa said Feb. 18 in a speech on state television that the government will engage in a comprehensive dialogue with all opposition forces, but before that happens, calm must return to the streets. Describing the current unrest as dangerous, Sheikh Salman emphasized that his country, unlike others in the region, is not a police state. Sheikh Salman’s statement comes amid largely Shiite unrest in the Persian Gulf island kingdom, and a day after security forces broke up an opposition sit-in at Pearl Square in the country’s capital.
Given that Manama’s political system does allow for some degree of democracy and civil liberties, Sheikh Salman’s statement about the need for dialogue is not surprising. The ruling al-Khalifa monarchy has long used a mix of force and negotiations to deal with opposition forces. Even now the regime is trying to use the fact that most of the demonstrators are not calling for the toppling of the monarchy in order to defuse the unrest before it gets out of hand.
Protesters clashed with police Feb. 18 following funerals for protesters who had been killed by security forces, and anger toward the government appears to be growing. Just how and when political movements — especially the main Shiite group, the Islamist Al Wefaq party, which holds 18 seats in Bahrain’s 40-seat legislature (and whose 18 lawmakers have walked out of parliament) — can exploit this remains to be seen. From the opposition’s perspective, the nascent unrest needs to continue and mature into a broader national movement.
The protests thus far have remained limited in terms of size (in the thousands), and there does not appear to be much organization and coherence to the protest movement compared to Egypt’s and Tunisia’s. That said, the latest wave of unrest is inspired by the agitation in Tunisia and Egypt, and any faint sign of concessions on the part of the state could further embolden opposition forces. However, the use of force alone could make matters worse, which means the government cannot avoid extending the olive branch. The force used by riot police and the military on Feb. 17 has not deterred protesters. Their willingness to stay in the streets and confront security forces in Pearl Square and elsewhere is a strong sign that the protests are not over. The unrest could force the al-Khalifas’ hand, especially if talks do not produce the desired outcome.
Most worrying for the al-Khalifas is the possibility that Iran could exploit the situation by aiding pro-Iranian elements among the country’s Shiite majority. This is why the Bahraini rulers want to get people off the streets and their principals to the negotiating table as soon as possible. However, the protesters are not necessarily linked to the main opposition political groups, so the government’s strategy could run into problems.