On Friday June 6, thousands of Bahrainis gathered on the outskirts of the capital Manama in what was expected to be another huge protest against ongoing government repression. But as the marchers assembled, they began to split into two groups, each trying to pull confused latecomers over to their side.
There were in fact two marches that day. One, which headed west, was sanctioned by the government as an official protest organized by the al-Wefaq political party, while the other, which headed east towards Pearl Square, was illegal and arranged by the loosely organized, more radical February 14.
The former was made up predominantly of middle-aged men and women chanting for political reforms, while the latter were largely young men, many with their faces covered, confronting security forces and calling for the downfall of the ruling al-Khalifa family.
Alaa Shehabi, a rights leader in Bahrain, said the protest was a major moment for the Bahraini opposition. “It was the first time the February 14 Coalition, on the back of al-Wefaq protests, managed not just to mobilize but really to sabotage it and take it in the other direction.”
The opposition to the ruling al-Khalifa family in Bahrain has never been fully united: al-Wefaq has taken a more conciliatory tone and offered negotiations while February 14 has refused all dialogue on the basis that the regime has no legitimacy. Yet as the uprising which started last February has worn on, hostility between the two groups has intensified.
Jane Kinninmont, a Bahrain expert at Chatham House, says the failure of al-Wefaq to extract any meaningful concessions from the government is leading younger Bahrainis to radicalism.
The opposition to the ruling al-Khalifa family in Bahrain has never been fully united: al-Wefaq has taken a more conciliatory tone and offered negotiations while February 14 has refused all dialogue.“There are those that think maybe we can negotiate at least some compromise with the government and there is a whole other element that say: ‘we have woken up, we are not going to live under a monarchy any more,’” she says. “Their ranks have grown massively since the uprising started…(and) they are adopting an increasingly angry rhetoric towards groups like al-Wefaq.”
While February 14 would never publicly condemn al-Wefaq, behind the scenes they accuse them of many acts including collusion with America. In a movement where anti-US sentiment is understandably high – the regime continues to buy weapons from America – such a claim is tantamount to an accusation of treason.
One senior February 14 activist, who prefers to remains anonymous, sees the fact that no senior al-Wefaq figures are currently in jail – when leaders linked to February 14 such as Nabeel Rajab have been arrested many times – as a sign of US dominance over the movement.
“Their strategy has failed but they have no other choice. Last year the government attempted to close al-Wefaq and another society. The government abandoned its decision after a clear call from the White House. This makes it clear that if Wefaq changes its tone and becomes more confrontational it will be closed down and the figures will be sent to jail – so they have no other choice,” says the activist.
Fighting Violence With Violence?
If the momentum is with the more radicalized elements in the Bahraini uprising, there are questions over how their strategy may differ from al-Wefaq’s. It is clear that they continue to oppose any negotiations and the activist stresses that they will never seek the government’s permission to protest – instead organizing illegal marches.
As long as the images of men, women and children injured by security forces continue to pour onto the Internet, there is the danger more activists may resort to violence.
Kinnimont says there is some evidence that such a path is being pursued but stresses that it is still a very small minority. “There are increasing opposition documents being circulated on things like how to make a Molotov cocktail. There are discussion forums based in some of the Shia villages where some of the worst repression has been, and there are definitely young guys who are teaching each other how to make home-made explosives and things like that,” she says.
Ali Mushaima, an activist who has sought refuge in London after his father was jailed, is one of the leading exiled Bahrainis calling for direct action. Earlier this year he took to the roof of the Bahraini embassy in London in a form of direct protest that briefly put the forgotten uprising back on the news agenda. There have even been accusations that he is calling for the opposition inside Bahrain to militarize. Mushaima denies these claims but says he will “do anything to help my country” but opposes all negotiations.
“Everyday, everywhere you have people shouting Down with (King) Hamad, demanding to change the regime in every village and police attack people every day. Even if al-Wefaq sit with al-Khalifa the people will not listen to what they decide or are talking about,” he says.
“I will continue my protests. I don’t have any special plans but I am always thinking of what I can do to support my people and to show everybody the facts in Bahrain,” he adds.
Lack of support
There are increasing opposition documents being circulated on things like how to make a Molotov cocktail. While al-Wefaq’s strategy of trying to change US policy appears to have failed, it is far from clear that February 14 have a more coherent one. With Bahraini government policy unlikely to change, the alliance risks running short on potential allies. While every activist Al-Akhbar spoke to stressed their opposition to Iranian influence in the region, Kinnimont thinks they may be forced to turn to Tehran.
“By regionalizing the conflict it does then encourage people to think 'where can we get backing.' So people that may have no love for Iran, if they see the West doing nothing and they see their enemies have got massive backing (in Saudi) then they are going to look for something. This is massively worrying.”
The February 14 activist admits that the movement runs the risk of isolation, but believes the place they should look for change is not in the US, or Iran, but in Saudi Arabia. The autocratic regime has cracked down on opposition in its Eastern Province but the activist remained hopeful that change could rock the kingdom.
“We don’t think the United States will change its stance but Saudi Arabia is not a stable country and as long as the revolution remains alive in Bahrain you need to watch out in Saudi.”