On 2 February there was a rare demonstration in Manama itself, which prompted clashes between police and around 500 Shia protesters led by prominent activist Nabeel Rajab. Other protests continued nationwide, including in the villages outside Manama, with many seeing unrest. Masked Shia youths also continued their attacks, injuring several policemen and destroying a police vehicle with a petrol bomb in this period.
The escalating violence of these gangs risks provoking a security force backlash and further inflaming the spiral of violence. Indeed, in this period there was rioting following the funeral of an individual whom Shia activists allege was killed by police, a pattern we have seen repeated in recent months.
Meanwhile, a split is emerging between al-Wefaq’s leader, Ali Salman, and Bahrain’s leading Shia cleric, Shaikh Issa Qassim. The former wants to begin a dialogue with the Government to seek moderate political reforms, while the latter refuses to accept anything less than sweeping changes, which the Government will not accede to. However, such is the strength of feeling amongst the Shia that Salman will join what are likely to be large-scale protests on 14 February, the anniversary of the start of the uprising.
Indeed, several thousand protesters are already assembled in the village of Moqsha, outside the capital, in preparation to march to the location of the former Pearl Roundabout, around which protests centred last year. A massive security force presence is likely in Manama in the run up to 14 February, including regular checkpoints, in an attempt to keep protesters from the city-centre. Nevertheless, since Shia frustrations remain acute, a large turnout is likely, and so there is a risk of widespread disorder. Indeed, a major cruise liner company, Aida Cruises, has cancelled its scheduled stops at Khalifa bin Salman Port in the run up to the anniversary, citing security concerns.
If there is large-scale violence on 14 February, or if unrest continues after the anniversary, then there is some risk that some Sunnis may begin arming themselves, in order to combat the Shia uprising. We understand that in this period a fourteen year old Sunni boy was kidnapped by a Shia group. His father and a group of associates entered a Shia village armed with assault rifles and took several people captive, threatening to kill them unless the boy was freed. The boy was returned, but the incident demonstrates the risk that growing sectarian tensions (both within Bahrain and across the region) could prompt inter-communal violence, and in turn a rapid deterioration in the security environment.
Finally, Bahrain has officially protested at provocative comments regarding the uprising by powerful Iraqi Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, underlining the country’s sensitivity to regional sectarian tensions (which is exacerbated by the violence in Syria). Indeed, it is even possible that Iran could increase its so far limited support for the Bahraini protesters in retaliation for any involvement by Sunni Arab countries in the uprising in Syria, its closest ally in the region. This risks a major escalation in violence, given the ongoing presence of Saudi troops, who are likely to respond fiercely if this were to occur.