Relentless messaging in official media has convinced many Sunni supporters of the monarchy that opposition calls for democracy are an Iranian plot to impose a Shiite theocracy on Bahrain. Some demand that the king reject any compromise. Additionally, there are growing whispers about Sunni jihadi groups taking advantage of these fears to gain a foothold on the island. Meanwhile, in opposition strongholds, protesters who are beaten and gassed only come back more angry and determined to confront the police. In this climate, the toughest boys, the ones who fight back, become the heroes. Opposition leaders who preach nonviolence risk being marginalized.
At the Interior Ministry, police officials showed us videos of protesters throwing Molotov cocktails at police. In the opening sequences, the gas bombs are thrown from a distance; as the weeks go by the protesters get closer, until they are right in the officers' faces before dousing them with flames. The officials wanted us to see what their police go through, and they succeeded. Inadvertently, they also showed us that their repressive tactics are failing. Protesters are not retreating -- they are losing their fear.
Much of Bahrain's police force consists of Sunni foreigners, recruited from countries like Syria, Pakistan, and Yemen. Sent to subdue Shiite neighborhoods that are alien territory, they seem bewildered by the youth who come at them every night. Some may also be transposing their homegrown prejudices onto Bahrain's struggle. A Bahraini college student told me that after being arrested at a protest, a Syrian policeman, obviously from that country's Sunni majority, beat him while shouting, "Do you like Bashar al-Assad? He is killing my family."
If King Hamad hopes to break this vicious cycle of violence, he will have to assert the authority he is so eager to preserve and make a bold gesture soon, even at the risk of angering his hard-line family and supporters. The best way to do this would be to release Bahrain's remaining imprisoned opposition leaders, including Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a hero to the young Shiite protesters who has been on hunger strike for more than 80 days. If freed and given a stake in the political process, these leaders might have the moral authority to calm opposition supporters and restore their faith in peaceful struggle.
The hard-liners in the ruling family don't want to release these men because some called for replacing the monarchy rather than reforming it. But there may be another factor: Although most of the remaining high-profile prisoners are more uncompromising than the leaders of al-Wefaq, Bahrain's main legal Shiite opposition party, some are also arguably more secular. One, Ibrahim Sharif, is the Sunni leader of a secular-left party; another, Abduljalil al-Singace, is a human rights activist and political leader who studied under U.S. President Barack Obama's ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, at Stanford University.
Government hard-liners want the world to believe that the conflict in Bahrain is strictly sectarian, with all Sunnis on one side and all Shiites -- manipulated by Iran -- on the other. This helps them generate support from their base and from other Sunni monarchies, while making Western governments wary of the protest movement. It allows them to make the argument one government minister used on me: "The king wants an elected government, but first we need a nonsectarian opposition."
Meanwhile, they keep some of the strongest secular-minded leaders in jail.
Some critics of the Obama administration accuse it of siding with Bahrain's ruling family and being silent about its repression. The truth is more complex. Last year, State Department officials made an all-out effort to broker a compromise between the government and al-Wefaq, a deal that ultimately fell apart. When the king decreed emergency rule, the United States helped convince him not to ban the opposition party and, later, to appoint the Bassiouni Commission and release many detainees. But few Bahrainis in the opposition give the United States any credit for its actions because it has exerted pressure quietly, always leavened with public pledges of fealty to the U.S.-Bahraini partnership. The contrast with America's condemnation of abuses in Syria and Libya is, to them, obvious and painful. As one of Bahrain's most popular opposition figures, Nabeel Rajab, has said, "The Western governments have supported the other revolutions and are tough against dictators. We want one policy. We don't want to be treated differently."