Civilsociety aims to create a space for public discourse and activity, independent of the conflicts between political factions. This is why February 2011 was so damaging for civilsociety in Bahrain – as the nation was deeply affected by the political and sectarian polarization.
In the early days of the unrest, civil society figures were very active and visible in social media, calling for calm, supporting political reform and urging the sides to avoid violence.
However, in mid-March 2011 the sectarian mood soured, particularly after a number of nasty sectarian incidents, including violence at Bahrain University and attempts by opposition militants to mobilize rallies against predominantly loyalist areas.
Moderate figures found themselves under attack from both sides, especially in social media. As the protests increasingly became dominated by divisive sectarian figures, the Sunni middle classes completely distanced themselves from the protest movement, and so more moderate calls for reform were completely overshadowed by calls for violent revolution.
So mid-March 2011 marks the moment when mainstream civil society for a period almost disappeared from the public sphere – either intimidated into silence by radicals on both sides; or as previously moderate figures themselves took sides in the tense political atmosphere.
Even during 2012 and 2013, initiatives for reconciliation and civil dialogue often provoked a hostile reaction. There was still a lot of anger on both sides over the events of 2011 and many people simply weren’t yet ready to hear talk of building bridges and enhancing national unity.
Over this period, many civil society groupings either became inactive, or themselves became politicized. Several initiatives briefly appeared, but failed to have a lot of impact, because the public mood was not yet ready.
However, there were some organizations and charities which continued doing important work throughout this period, for example; supporting the disabled, assisting low income families, helping pensioners and assisting those with diseases like sickle cell disorder. Such organizations continued as normal by shunning politics and avoiding engaging in issues with social or sectarian implications.
During the past few years, The Bahrain Foundation for Reconciliation and Civil Discourse was openly speaking up for reconciliation and exerting efforts to overcome sectarian tensions.
As tensions dissipated slightly throughout 2014 and 2015, we see the emergence and return to prominence of a small number of civil society organizations. Groups like the Youth Pioneers Society have become more active and visible and there have been increasing numbers of opportunities for moderate and non-politicized voices to gain a hearing.
This is very important as such civil society groupings are the only entities positioned to operate independently and promote national unity and reconciliation, while speaking up for political reforms and urging a move away from militancy and extremist positions.
However, civil society groups in Bahrain are in need of support. Many of these groups still do not have a lot of public prominence; they do not enjoy generously-sized budgets and they rarely have high-profile patronage from well-known figures.
Given the relatively weak position of these organizations, it is also important that they work closely together and support each other, even if they don’t totally share each other’s aims.
Civil society groups need to maintain their independence; but they also need support in order to play a strong role in helping Bahrain overcome its divisions and in facilitating dialogue and consensus.
The Government also has a role to play in supporting civil society. Deportments like the Ministry of Social Development, the National Institute for Human Rights, the Bahrain Institute for Political Development and the Independent Ombudsman’s Office, all need to play a part in promoting reform, enhancing a culture of human rights and creating an environment in which civil society in Bahrain can flourish.
Bahrain is in great need of an active civil society in order to promote national unity, raise political awareness and support the reform process. We hope that the political climate over the coming years will be more amenable to a greater civil society role.