The 14 February weekend is the big opportunity for the opposition to demonstrate its relevance, coinciding with the anniversary of the 2011 unrest.
With the leader of the opposition, Ali Salman, in detention there were indications that the opposition was determined to produce a show of strength. During the days prior to 14 February opposition activists were out warning businesses to stay closed and for everybody to adhere to a general strike.
In the event, for most Bahrainis 14 February was a normal day. Malls were crowded; traffic flowed normally and in the evening restaurants were full of couples celebrating Valentine’s Day.
The extreme localized nature of the unrest gives a lie to the opposition’s claim that it represents a majority of Bahrainis. We all know the localities to avoid when disturbances are likely: Saar village, Sanabis, Bilad al-Qadeem, a handful of villages in Sitra, Aali etc. These tiny areas of unrest have allowed themselves to be left behind from the rest of Bahrain. While most Bahrainis have long since put the events of 2011 behind them; the youths in these hotspots barricade themselves in behind piles of rubbish and force the long-suffering inhabitants of these villages to endure rioting, tear gas and vandalism. Meanwhile, local businesses remain shut.
In these areas, intermittent riots continued throughout the weekend, but the number of protesters involved in these activities was very small. On the Budaiya Highway – with numerous pro-opposition villages along both sides – traffic flowed normally throughout the weekend and shops stayed open; with shop owners showing remarkable courage in ignoring boycott threats.
An Amnesty International statement released over the weekend failed to identify any significant activity, but called for the authorities to “rein in” the security forces over this period. However, Amnesty made the mistake of talking about “small demonstrations”. What they meant by this expression was rioting: Where gangs of youths turn up armed with rocks and firebombs ready to attack the police.
Those of us who drove around Bahrain this weekend saw nothing that resembled an attempt to stage a peaceful demonstration. Youths came ready for violence and it was them who instated attacks against police and sought to block roads, vandalize property and enforce their general strike on all local citizens. By refusing to adopt terminology that reflects the reality on the ground, Amnesty continues to pedal an incorrect and misleading impression of events in Bahrain.
The opposition will be disappointed that they were almost entirely ignored by the world’s media this year, except for a few insubstantial reports by news agencies which confirmed that the weekend was uneventful.
So why were there not tens of thousands of Bahrainis out on the streets protesting the detention of Secretary-General of Al-Wefaq Islamic Society, Ali Salman?
Firstly, the opposition movement has become highly fragmented. At the time of the November 2014 elections there were clear differences between opposition societies and within these societies over how to pursue the boycott, whether to enter the elections and whether to continue with the National Dialogue process in the context of the Five-Point Plan proposal.
Ali Salman’s decision to boycott the elections and put his movement on a course of four more years outside Parliament alienated many supporters who were frustrated at the thought of the political impasse going on indefinitely. Most people, even diehard opposition supporters, have simply had enough of violence, firebombs, tear gas, vandalism and terrorist attacks.
Secondly, many of the rioters out on the streets are associated with militant groups, not directly connected to Al-Wefaq; like the 14 February Coalition, Haqq movement, Al-Ashtar Brigades etc. Their agenda and objectives tend to be even more radical than Al-Wefaq. So the fate of Al-Wefaq’s leadership is largely irrelevant to them – even if they are beholden to religious leaders like Ayatollah Isa Qassim.
Ali Salman, as the leader of a political society that has chosen to withdraw from the political process, has succeeded in making himself irrelevant. He cannot directly identify himself with the radical 14 February youths; but he has alienated himself from those who want to capitalize on the gains of the Dialogue to negotiate an honorable and civilized end to four years of unrest.
Many of the most dynamic and progressive new MPs – like Deputy Head of Parliament Ali al-Aradi, Rua al-Haiki, Jalal Kadhim, Jameela al-Sammak, Ghazi Al Rahma and Nasser al-Qaseer – are from constituencies where historical support for Al-Wefaq has been strongest. The same goes for recently-elected municipal councilors.
These representatives are showing that by working through Parliament and participating in local government; they can achieve far more for local people in providing housing, jobs and better living standards; than boycotts, demonstrations and riots.
On 14 February, the opposition had its chance to prove its relevance and failed. Bahrain went about its business as normal. All Al-Wefaq has succeeded in doing is demonstrating its growing irrelevance and strategic bankruptcy.
Will its leaders take a lesson from this experience to rethink its objectives, or will it start preparing for 14 February next year?