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How Bahrain's crackdown is pushing both sides to extremes

By cracking down on dissent and refusing to negotiate with the opposition, Bahrain's ruling monarchy has pushed some protesters into the arms of more hardline groups.

By Correspondent / April 19, 2011

Pakistani Shiite Muslims rally in favor of people of Bahrain in Karachi, Pakistan on Sunday, April 17.

Fareed Khan/AP

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Manama, Bahrain

In the festive early days of Bahrain’s protest movement, youthful protester Yousif joined thousands of people in the Pearl roundabout calling for the ruling family to implement democratic reforms.

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Those heady days in February now seem a world away. In the days since, at least 29 people have died and more than 500 have been arrested in a government crackdown that has extended beyond protesters to the majority Shiite population. Yousef doesn’t even drive now, for fear of encountering checkpoints where he might be beaten or detained.

“At the beginning, we were asking for a constitutional monarchy. But after all these people have died, we want the regime gone,” says Yousif.

Bahrain protests: Five key facts

Yousif’s sentiment illustrates the complicated reality toward reaching a political solution in Bahrain – something that opposition politicians, outside observers, and Western diplomats all agree is needed. Instead of creating a roadmap for such a solution, the government's ever-widening crackdown is erasing hope of a negotiated end to the crisis. In the process, the government is pushing some Bahrainis into the arms of more hardline groups, undermining the ability of mainstream opposition groups to lead future negotiations.

The government’s strategy of crackdowns cannot be a long-term solution, says a Western observer in Bahrain who asked not to be identified to avoid repercussions from the government.

“Ultimately countries that start on this path have to end in reform. The only question is whether it's five years, 10 years, or 15 years, and what the body count is,” says the observer. “The only options right now are substantial reform or a severe crackdown in which they kill a lot of people and pin them in their villages. And that's not sustainable. I don't care if you're talking about 20 years, at some point that ends.”

Bahrain protests: Five key facts

Saudi Arabia throws a wrench in negotiations

At the moment, Bahrain’s government is only extending the crackdown. After shutting down the secular leftist Waad, whose members were both Shiite and Sunni, last week Bahrain’s government announced it intends to also ban the strongest opposition group, the moderate Shiite Al Wefaq bloc.

The government later backtracked from this statement, saying it would reserve judgment until an investigation was completed. But the group’s members say they fear the government still intends to ban the group with the most widespread support, the one that would lead a coalition to the table for dialogue if that became a possibility.

The government’s actions indicate it has no intention negotiating in the near future. It is widely assumed that is in part because of Saudi influence. In the weeks leading up to the entry of Saudi troops into Bahrain under the aegis of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Bahrain’s king and crown prince offered to sit down to dialogue with the opposition. The opposition was on the verge of agreeing to a deal for talks with Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa when Saudi troops rolled into the tiny island kingdom, says Khalil Marzouk, deputy leader of Al Wefaq.

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