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Streets Protests Escalate in Bahrain, the Kingdom of Tear Gas

Violence is escalating on both sides, although the great bulk, in the form of relentless tear gas, has come from Bahrain's security forces.

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If another parley comes to fruition, it will be the third declared push for dialogue and reconciliation in Bahrain since the uprising began. The first came in March 2011, when the crown prince presented his “seven principles” to the opposition. He offered them, among other concessions, a stronger elected lower house of parliament, fairer boundaries for electoral districts and an effort to curb official corruption. The narrative most commonly advanced by the government and its supporters is that the opposition, swept up in the regime-toppling fervor of the Arab uprisings, rejected this offer in the hope of overthrowing the entire monarchy. “They were telling their followers that they would bring the downfall of the regime, calling for the overthrow of the government, for firing the prime minister,” said al-Mahmoud.

But supporters of the crown prince, once viewed as the leading reformist within the royal family, put forth a different story. The proposal would have satisfied many of the opposition’s demands for political reform, after all, and many opposition leaders still hope to use it as a reference point in future negotiations. A prominent Sunni businessman with ties to the crown prince said that the deal was vetoed chiefly because of opposition from Saudi Arabia. “Our society may be ready, our government may be ready...but our neighbors are not ready,” he said. “And if your neighbors are not ready and they don’t like the deal you worked out, they can make it fail.”

Indeed, on March 13, 2011, just days after the crown prince made his proposal public, troops from the Gulf Cooperation Council’s “Peninsula Shield” force rolled across the causeway that separates the small island kingdom from Saudi Arabia. The army cleared protesters from Pearl Roundabout and demolished the iconic statue at its center; Bahrain plunged into political paralysis.

Sources suggested that the crown prince made the deal public to “get it on the record” before he was eclipsed by the prime minister, who emerged (with Saudi backing) as the most powerful voice within the government. Riyadh’s leverage, the businessman said, came from Abu Safah, the offshore oil field that sits between the two countries. A treaty gives Saudi Arabia the right to exploit the field in exchange for half of the oil produced. Abu Safah pumps about 300,000 barrels per day, according to the National Oil and Gas Authority; Bahrain’s half makes up roughly 80 percent of the country’s total oil production. “But they [the Saudis] don’t need it. They can bring it to zero, so we get 50 percent of zero,” he said. “They have enough fields to pump oil from.”

The “national dialogue” in July met with a similar fate: It was announced by the crown prince, but within weeks he was pushed aside, replaced by parliamentary speaker Khalifa al-Dhahrani, a hardline figure with no executive power.

“Silent Majority”

All of these failed initiatives have eroded public confidence in the government’s ability to resolve the crisis -- not just among the opposition, but in all sectors of Bahraini society, even the hardline Sunni groups that are ostensibly the government’s closest allies.

These groups have risen in stature over the last few months. The oldest is the National Unity Assembly, established in March 2011, an officially ecumenical body that quickly became the leading political vehicle for pro-government Sunnis. Its leader, Sheikh al-Mahmoud, is unapologetically sectarian: He believes the protests are an “Iranian project” and accuses Shi‘i demonstrators of causing trouble to seek revenge for the seventh-century slaying of Husayn, the prophet Muhammad’s grandson revered by Shi‘a as the third imam.

The government and its supporters have taken to calling groups like al-Mahmoud’s the “silent majority.” “In the past this silent majority had no representation,” said ‘Isam al-Fakhro, the chairman of Bahrain’s chamber of commerce. “Now they do, and it should be listened to.... We don’t want anyone to put conditions [on a dialogue].” But increasingly Sunni Islamists take a harder line than al-Mahmoud, who is at least open to the idea of dialogue. His gathering has been upstaged somewhat in recent months by the Fatih Awakening, a splinter group which holds mass rallies demanding an even harsher crackdown on protesters. A sign outside the headquarters of Asala, the salafi party, mockingly depicts a donkey announcing, “I’m going to dialogue!”

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