How hardliners ruined chance of compromise in Bahrain

By demanding a list of tough preconditions for talks with the Bahraini government, Shiite protesters let hardliners among them take control of the popular movement and eventually lost their way, seeing their movement turn from euphoria to stalemate

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MANAMA // From euphoria to stalemate: this is the epitaph of Bahrain's recent experience in what some are calling the "Arab spring" of revolutionary movements.

What started out slowly in mid-February drawing a few hundred protesters gradually swelled beyond expectations into what looked like a semi-permanent presence of thousands of protesters who could, at a moment's notice, be galvanised for marches anywhere in the capital, Manama.

Its base camp at the Pearl Roundabout had a stage, big TV screens, and tents for those who stayed overnight and for the 30-plus political factions and parties spreading their views among the crowds.

It was an exhilarating experience for many Bahrainis, angry about corruption and what they said was the government's resistance to political reform.

"We saw it as something incredible," said one woman who became a regular visitor to Pearl Roundabout. "This gave us hope. We felt like, as Barack Obama, said, 'Yes, we can'."

Today, the protest movement is in tatters, many of its leaders and activists imprisoned and its followers, most of them Shiite, subject to harsh emergency laws. Where Tunisia and Egypt saw change, Bahrain saw more of the same.

The clampdown continued yesterday, as Bahraini authorities banned Al Wasat, the country's main opposition newspaper, and blocked its website.

The state-run Bahrain News Agency accused the paper of "unethical" coverage of the unrest.

Several days of interviews with Bahraini Sunni and Shiite political figures, human rights activists and journalists underscore that the tense impasse is due to mistakes on all sides, but principally, in most analyses, to the ascendancy of hardliners in both the government and the protest movement.

"So many things" went wrong, said the Bahraini novelist Fareed Ramadan, a Sunni. "So many mistakes have been made by the government. So many mistakes have been made by the Sunni leadership and so many mistakes have been made in Pearl Square" by some protest leaders.

In the beginning, the protests in mid-February were not remarkable. A few hundred young people turned out in response to a call by unidentified political activists on Facebook.

There was no visible leadership, although one of the first activists to show up was Abdul Wahab Hussein, head of Al Wafaa, a militant party that wants the royal family overthrown. This, however, never became the protest movement's majority opinion, which was for a constitutional monarchy. Although most protesters were Shiite, from the majority of Bahrain's population, Sunnis also joined them.

"What I liked was to have this space of freedom," said one young Sunni who works as a driver. "It was the first time that people said 'No,' and our royal family is not used to hearing this and they got freaked out."

The government raided Pearl Roundabout on February 17, forcibly dispersing the protesters and leaving four dead. Two days later, it reversed itself and evacuated police from the site, allowing protesters to regroup there.

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa went on television and apologised for the deaths and offered a dialogue. His son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, reached out to a coalition of moderate Shiite opposition parties headed by Al Wefaq, the largest group.

But mindful of past, unmet promises to reform and perhaps increasingly confident as more Bahrainis joined the protests, the opposition set stiff conditions for dialogue.

According to A Nabi Salman, deputy secretary general of the small opposition Democratic and Progressive Al Minbar Society, those conditions included the release of more than 90 political prisoners, an investigation into protesters' deaths, which by now numbered seven; an end to anti-Shiite incitement in the state-run press, and the resignation of the prime minster, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, seen as a hardliner.

They also wanted an elected constituent assembly to draft a new constitution.

At the same time, radical Shiite opposition parties were pursuing a more militant agenda, and stirring up crowds in Pearl Roundabout to reject a dialogue.

On March 8 Hassan Mushaimaa, head of Al Haq, announced that he and Mr Hussein's party had opted for "bringing down the existing regime in Bahrain and establishing a democratic republican system," Reuters reported.

This was a turning point because the government has long maintained that Al Haq has ties to Iran and though he did not say an "Islamic" republic, that is what Sunnis in Bahrain believed he meant, according to a Bahraini university professor who declined to be named.

Though Mr Mushaimaa called for a republic only once, said novelist Ramadan, "it was the once which killed us".

More provocations from hard-line protesters followed, including a march om March 11 to Riffa, where members of the royal family live, and the erection of barricades on March 13 on a motorway cutting access to Manama's financial district. A Bahraini journalist, who said he feared being identified, claimed the barricade action was organised by Mr Hussein.

"We have a big problem with radical Shias," said the journalist, who is Shiite. "They give a bad image about Shias to the regime. They are always shouting."

Another mistake was taking the protests to Salmaniya Hospital, where the car park became a tent-filled annexe to Pearl Roundabout.

Some of the predominantly Shiite medical staff of the hospital were outspoken in criticising the government.

The crown prince was still trying, meanwhile, to get talks started. But he would not accept the opposition demands for an elected constituent assembly and the immediate departure of the prime minister, his uncle.

He did propose that the prime minister, who has been in his post 40 years, would step down in three months, A Nabi Salman says.

But the opposition were slow to react, concerned that their radical Shiite brethren would make things difficult if they entered a dialogue without significant government concessions.

"We wanted to go as a unified opposition" but were "delayed by" Mr Mushaimaa and other radicals, said A Nabi Salman.

Meanwhile, the state-run television and press, which are controlled by royal family hardliners, were not helping the crown prince either. These media outlets gave almost no support to dialogue and instead consistently featured Sunni extremists speaking demeaningly of Shiites, accusing them of being loyal to Iran and suggesting they leave the country.

Government officials also raised the spectre of Iranian interference, accusing Iran of backing the protest movement. Sunni leaders such as Abdel Latif Mahmoud organised meetings at which they stoked Sunni fears about a Shiite takeover of the island.

"I attended one meeting," said the Shiite female protester who by now was growing increasingly nervous. "I heard how they filled people with this idea of how the Shia are just for Iran and made them afraid."

And a new phenomenon began to appear in Bahrain: roaming gangs in civilian clothes, armed with guns or long sticks. They were often masked and sometimes clad in military boots, which many Bahrainis took as proof that they were members of government security forces.

Amid almost daily protest marches around Manama, these gangs set up their own checkpoints and began attacking Shiites. In one incident at the university they pounced on a group of female students standing outside their classrooms.

In the days just before the government began its clampdown on March 16, the crown prince and opposition were still trying to reach an accommodation. But others in the government were pushing ahead with other plans.

On Monday March 14, around 1,200 Saudi troops entered Bahrain followed by 500 police officers from the UAE under a Gulf Cooperation Council mandate. On Tuesday, a state of emergency was called. The next day Bahraini security forces began, as it was put in an official statement, "the cleansing" of Pearl Roundabout.

A severe clampdown on all who openly supported the protest movement continues.

Last week, Bahraini officials reiterated their allegations that outsiders were fomenting the unrest, accusing Hizbollah of training Shiite activists in Bahrain, allegations the Lebanese movement angrily denied.

The flurry of claims and counter-claims led Sheikh Ali Salem, Bahrain's Shiite opposition leader, to urge Iran "not to meddle in Bahraini internal affairs".

Among demonstrators, there is a refusal to believe it is all over.

"We don't want to feel that everything is finished," said the woman who once was a happy protester.

But, she added, "they have killed every hope inside me. I am Bahraini and I just want real change as a human being. I deserve to have a better Bahrain."