Bahrain blasts underscore tensions over lack of political reform

While the past 21 months have seen ongoing protests, a series of bombs in Bahrain's capital that killed two workers Monday has raised concerns about escalating violence.

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Less than a week after Bahrain's government banned protests, five bombs detonated across the capital Monday, intensifying concern about an escalation in violence amid frustrations over the pace of political reform.

Protests have been an ongoing feature of life in Bahrain over the past 21 months. But the bombings, which killed two people and seriously injured a third, represented a rare attack on civilians, and spurred finger-pointing between activists and the Sunni government.

Protesters, who are predominately Shiite, have been calling for more jobs, political representation, educational opportunities, and better housing. While the nation is governed by Sunnis, the population is 70 percent Shiite, and “Shiite youth activists in Bahrain – many demanding the downfall of the monarchy – have grown more radical in the past year, and some have used homemade weapons, including bombs, to attack police,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

No one has claimed responsibility for yesterday’s violence in Manama. The interior minister said yesterday that the bombs were homemade, describing the coordinated blasts as terrorist attacks. "It's [bombings] been a pattern, but five in one day – we haven't seen that in 20 months," said the spokesman for the Information Affairs Authority, Fahad al Binali.

The state newspaper, Al-Ayam, described the attacks as “a desperate attempt” to destabilize the kingdom, and “stirring fright and panic in citizens and residents in order to adversely impact the wheel of development and productivity.”  The newspaper goes on to say that “evil minds” planted the bombs in order to instill fear and panic in the streets.

One victim reportedly kicked a bomb in front of a movie theater yesterday, setting it off, and both victims are reported to be “Asian street cleaners,” according to Reuters.

The New York Times reports that “[t]he government has frequently invoked terrorism when describing its opponents, or has cast them as accomplices in a foreign plot. It has cited the use of incendiary devices like Molotov cocktails by some protesters as a reason for the forceful response by the riot police.”

Opponents of the government, on the other hand, claim that the government coordinated the violence in an effort to justify its recent crackdown on protests, according to a separate Reuters article. Bahrain, when it temporarily banned all public demonstrations last week, threatened legal action against any group that backs rallies or protests, according to The Christian Science Monitor.

"This incident is strange – why would anyone target workers?" an opposition politician, Matar Matar, told Reuters. "I'm worried that police and military are losing control of their units or it is [preparation] before declaring martial law,” Mr. Matar of the Shiite party Wefaq said, suggesting the police or military might be responsible for the attack.

Analysts say the lack of political change could be creating an environment of extremism. "People are increasingly desperate and it's a race to make a big statement," Justin Gengler, a Bahrain researcher based in Doha, told The Wall Street Journal. "If the only way to draw international attention is to kill and blow something up, then that's the way it's going to go."

Human rights groups and some in the international community have spoken out against Bahrain’s move to clamp down on public protests. But Bahrain is an important US ally. It hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and the US has been reluctant to take a strong stance against its ally's actions in the past, according to a second Monitor article.

Bahrain is accused of using widespread torture and violence against protesters earlier during the uprisings, and received a set of guidelines from a team of international lawyers and human rights specialists that the government is meant to implement. According to the Journal, “[o]ver the past few months the government has widened its pursuit of leading members of the opposition, imprisoning and detaining several high-profile Shiite activists as it seeks to stamp out a rebellion that is hurting its international reputation and its economy.”

Just last week, a local human rights activist who monitored protests in Bahrain, Said Youseif al-Muhafdah, was arrested. Mr. Muhafdah was charged with gathering illegally and could be imprisoned for two years, his lawyer told The New York Times.

Aside from targeting protesters themselves, Bahrain’s leadership has blamed Iran for radicalizing its Shiite citizens as well, according to Lisa Beyer, a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board, though she notes that a government inquiry failed to find proof of that in the February 2011 unrest.

Of course, that doesn't rule out the possibility of subsequent Iranian mischief-making. Still, blaming outsiders lets the monarchy off too easily. Instead, Bahrain's rulers should seriously address the complaints of the Shiite community. Grievances include the job demotions of thousands of Shiites after the 2011 protests and gerrymandering that dilutes Shiite representation in the elected chamber of the National Assembly.

At a Nov. 7 meeting in Bahrain, foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council are expected to discuss how to cope with the tensions in Bahrain and Kuwait, where protests recently broke out. A GCC military force led by Saudi Arabia crushed the February 2011 unrest in Bahrain, leading to today's more radicalized rebellion. The convening foreign ministers would do well to consider how to open up their political systems to prevent further conflict rather than how to bottle it up.

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