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The US could call for an end to what some have called a policy of “sectarian balancing,” meaning the gerrymandering of electoral districts to ensure a Sunni majority and the rapid naturalization of foreign-born Sunnis to counter Shiite voting-power. From the Shiite point of view, this policy entails the staffing of security forces with non-Bahraini Sunnis from the tribal areas of Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.
The outcome has been the creation of what one oppositionist termed “a corps of janissaries” – mercenary shock troops that are disconnected from and – given their reportedly anti-Shiite outlook – antagonistic toward the citizens they police. Their excessive use of force on sleeping demonstrators and mourners in Pearl Square is a tragic and unsurprising result of this staffing policy.
The Bahraini government should take immediate steps to give quasi-democratic institutions, such as the parliament, real authority. The US can exert pressure for the Bahraini parliament to use its teeth, rather than serve as what one oppositionist called, “a powerless debating society.” As the structure stands now, the parliament cannot actually enact any legislation; its proposals must be vetted and approved by an appointed upper house or consultative council stacked with royal supporters.
To change this, the parliament should be able to hold ministers accountable, exert oversight over the Bahraini budget, and introduce and enact legislation that can rectify the island’s most pressing problems of unemployment, housing shortages, and equitable representation in government ministries.
It is important to note that viable change in Bahrain does not necessarily mean the ouster of the Al Khalifa – at least not yet. Nor does the model for change come from theocratic Iran, as regime supporters frequently allege. Rather, many oppositionists – Shiite and Sunni alike – look to Bahrain’s own past for models of constitutionalism and a functioning parliament.
Democracy activists point to Bahrain’s 1973 constitution and fully functioning parliament that ushered in the country’s “golden age” of pluralistic politics. But that parliament was disbanded in 1975 after its power grew too strong. And in 2002, Mr. Hamad unilaterally abrogated the 1973 constitution, signaling the monarchy’s growing entrenchment. That was followed by an era of hollow promises that ultimately led to the ongoing demonstrations in Pearl Square.
The only route out of the current impasse may be a fully functioning and pluralistic parliament like the one that enabled Bahrain’s golden days. Now, after the post-massacre mourning, the opposition’s slogans are growing more strident and unconditional, and Bahrainis as a whole are becoming more polarized – making fears of a “winner-take-all” outcome a self-fulfilling one. The monarchy – and the US – need to act quickly.
Frederic Wehrey is a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation and a doctoral candidate in international relations at Oxford University who has conducted fieldwork in Bahrain. He is the co-author of the RAND monograph “More Freedom, Less Terror? Liberalization and Political Violence in the Arab World.”