MANAMA, Bahrain — The movement opposing Bahrain’s autocratic monarchy is gaining strength in what has become the longest-running uprising of the Arab Spring. Demonstrators clashed with security forces Thursday as they marked the revolt’s second anniversary and shots were fired by security forces.
The opposition said 16-year-old Hussain Ali Ahmed Abrahim was killed by regime forces firing birdshot at close range in the village of Daih west of Manama, and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights reported the teenager was unarmed. His impending funeral was expected to draw further unrest.
Two years ago a diverse movement that included both Shia and Sunni Muslims united to oppose the dictatorial rule of the Sunni ruling family. The royals have successfully used divide-and-rule tactics and today the opposition is largely Shia.
Protests have taken place every day for the past few weeks. A group of six traditional opposition parties, headed by the Al Wefaq Islamic Society, continue to mobilize the largest numbers. But the Feb. 14 Youth Coalition has challenged those parties with more radical demands and militant tactics.
“The Feb. 14 Coalition is demanding that the king step down, the whole regime step down,” said Ali, a Feb. 14 Coalition activist who used only a first name, fearing possible arrest.
That’s a revolutionary demand in Bahrain, where the Sunni family of King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa has ruled since 1820. The same appointed prime minister has held power since 1972.
Despite two years of demonstrations, the opposition says the ruling family has failed to make significant reforms. Shia Muslims, who make up 70 percent of the population, face systematic discrimination in education, employment and housing.
Tens of thousands of Sunnis from Syria, Jordan, Yemen and Pakistan have been given expedited citizenship as well as access to good jobs and new homes by the regime as Shia languish, part of a strategy to change the country’s demographics while stoking sectarian antipathy.
Sunnis and Shia have had religious disputes for centuries with the Shia believing that the Prophet Muhammad’s successor was wrongfully chosen, among other doctrinal as well as ritual differences. Authoritarian rulers throughout the region have used the historical antipathies to maintain power and many of the region’s most deeply rooted conflicts arise from Sunni/Shia rancor.
Human rights groups say Bahrain’s government has jailed almost 1600 political prisoners and killed 80 people since the protests began. The prisoners and victims are mostly Shia.
Government intransigence has fueled the rise of the Feb. 14 Coalition, according to Karim Radhi, a leader in the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions.
“They are mostly young people,” said Radhi. “Those who are poor who have nothing to lose,” said Radhi. “The other parties concentrate on the middle class.”
Seeing a rise in militant activity, and as the Feb. 14 second anniversary approached, the government called for a political dialogue with the opposition. The traditional parties cautiously accepted the offer on Sunday, the same day talks were to begin. Both sides remain deeply suspicious of one another, however, and prospects for the dialogue’s success remain cloudy.
The government says any decisions made by dialogue participants are recommendations to the king, who will decide if they meet constitutional muster.
The two sides remain far apart on possible political reforms. The traditional opposition demands an elected parliament “based on one person one vote,” said Ali Salman, chair of Al Wefaq. The government should release political prisoners and stop attacking peaceful demonstrations, he added.
“Our key demand is for an elected government,” said Salman.
Al Wefaq and other traditional groups accept that final decisions remain with the king, but want an expansion of parliamentary power.
Sameera Rajab, minister of information, says the government opposes such an elected parliament. Bahrain will insist on keeping the kind of monarchy that exists in nearby Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, according to Rajab.
“Elected government means a change in regime,” she said. It’s not appropriate for Bahrain “to have an elected system like in Europe or America. We have our system in the Gulf.”
The Feb. 14 Coalition opposed the dialogue from the beginning.
“This regime has never been honest,” said activist Ali. “It always lies. They are choosing this timing to call for a dialogue, maybe to let the street cool down. They want to show the people outside, the UN or any others outside, we are trying our best to do some kind dialogue.”
The traditional opposition felt compelled to participate in the dialogue or risk being outmaneuvered by the government. “We don’t want to look like we’re not serious,” said Salman, quickly adding, “We’re very serious.”
Attitudes towards the dialogue are only one issue that divides opposition groups. Al Wefaq has consistently called for non-violent resistance. While agreeing with the non-violence as a general tactic, Feb. 14 activists have sometimes hurled Molotov cocktails at police.
“If one of the young people uses Molotovs to defend himself, is that violence?” Ali asked. “He’s defending himself.”
The authorities condemned the use of Molotovs, and other opposition groups criticized the young militants as well.
Union leader Radhi noted that using violent tactics “has become kind of a culture. They become angry and feel they can’t do anything. Those using Molotovs cannot express themselves in other ways.”
However, the use of Molotovs has decreased in recent months, said Radhi, in part because of its unpopularity as a tactic and in part because the government cracked down on sales of gasoline in cans.
The opposition movement also disagrees on how to react to US policy towards Bahrain. Successive American administrations supported Al Khalifa autocratic rule because it provided stability in a volatile region. The US Navy Fifth Fleet has its headquarters here.
Then in September 2011, objecting to Bahrain’s human rights violations, the Obama administration temporarily stopped a $53 million arms deal. But the arms sales went through in May 2012 as the administration claimed improvements on the human rights front.
Opposition leaders say the US sold the Bahrain military both tear gas and Humvees, which were used to suppress demonstrations.
Al Wefaq’s Salman criticized what he called lack of sufficient US pressure. But he said the opposition would maintain close ties with the US if it came to power.
“I appreciate what US is doing,” he said. “They need to do more. They need to support democracy in Bahrain.”
The Feb. 14 Coalition is far more critical of US policy. “The US has so many interests in the oil and money of Bahrain. So that’s why they are still on the side of the regime.”
He said the US could alienate a whole generation of young Bahrainis if it continues to support the monarchy. He urges the US to apply political pressure and economic sanctions, as it has done in Syria.
Despite the internal differences all the opposition groups agree on the need to oppose government repression and seek significant change in government policy.
If the government-opposition dialogue produces results, the traditional opposition will likely gain strength. But if the government fails to make significant reforms, Ali predicts young militants will take to the streets in larger numbers.
Freelance journalist Reese Erlich’s reports from Bahrain are part of a GlobalPost Special Report on the role of the Sunni/Shia rift in Middle Eastern geopolitics, in partnership with NPR.