For a moment the King may have been tempted to believe that the worst is over. While Bahraini government officials continue to blame a Western media bias for exaggerating the instability of their island, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa's opponents have made fewer international headlines since February 14th's commemorative protests. Days beforehand, the King simultaneously advocated a national dialogue, accused Bahrain's opposition of sabotaging previous negotiations, and brushed off the resistance network as non-existent.
Bahrain's pro-democracy movement remains split over objectives - reform or regime change - but King Hamad's false choice is forcing all actors to let their speak louder than his words and tactics.
To amplify his claim that the opposition is either divided, violent or imaginary, the monarchy employed a blanket theme to the effect that the uprising was a one-year anomaly. Soon everything would return to normal. Aiming to prove otherwise, Shia cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim urged all protesters on the island to stage a massive demonstration on Friday and force the King to respect their numbers. Qassim is routinely criticized by government officials and Sunnis as a provocative firebrand and corrupter of the youth.
"The march will either prove your are only an isolated minority making demands, or that the demands are widely popular," he told his followers in Diraz, a Shiite village located 20 miles west of Manama.
Tens of thousands answered Qassim's call and joined his march along the Budaiya highway, which connects Diraz to the capital and runs near the Gulf Cooperation Council Roundabout (formerly known as Pearl Roundabout before the monument was demolished last March). A Reuters cameraman estimated the crowd above 100,000, saying "It is the biggest demonstration in the past year." Nabil Rajab, the head of Bahrain's Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and a leading popular activist, similarly told the AFP, "It is one of the largest protests in recent years."
He later told Al Jazeera that Friday's protest was "the biggest in our history."
Despite the tensions felt by both sides, today's demonstration ended on peaceful terms in comparison to February 14th's gas-infused melee. Told to remain peaceful in order to counter perceptions of violent radicalism (meaning Iranian proxies), only a small percentage of protesters broke off from the main group and hinted at a run towards Pearl. These groups were immediately thwarted by "thousands of security forces" who had blocked most of the entrances into the area. Separate clashes were reported inside and outside of Manama, but most of the protesters dispersed without incident.
This outcome, however, doesn't suggest that Bahrain's opposition feels any less aggrieved by King Hamad. Protesters denounced his "dictatorship" as they chanted their ubiquitous "Down with Hamad," a slogan that he attributes to poor manners. Rajah explained, "The message is that people are not happy with the government. We have clear demands: an elected government, a parliament with power, an end to sectarian discrimination, a clear redistribution of wealth and power and all demands guaranteed by the international convention on human rights."
Conversely, the government tried to steal Qassim's thunder by bottling his lightning, going so far as to praise his rally and a competing demonstration as "a model of correct democratic behavior." Qassim's march is "a prime example of how freedm of expression is guaranteed" by Bahrain's constitution, according to a spokesman for the Information Affairs Authority. The monarchy is attempting to subvert Qassim's march by taking credit for it, a strategy crafted from the ashes of the King's unsuccessful "National Dialogue." Nabeel bin Yacoub Al-Hamer, adviser to the king for media, told CNN Arabic that, "The situation is towards dialogue to all components of the Bahraini community and everyone has the desire to end this crisis experienced by Bahrain."
February 14th would unfold amid reports that Al Wefaq, Bahrain's main political opposition, had met with royal officials in an attempt to restart a dialogue, but the last month yielded no tangible progress. Even government Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Mubarak al-Khalifa now concedes, “The protests could be a message of pressure ahead of talks, so the Shia opposition has made their point. However, the call for dialogue has always been made available.” Al Wefaq's Jalil Khalil agreed with al-Khalifa's first statement and rejected the second.
“The people, full of anger about the rights violations, are united in their demands for an elected government."
Instead of restoring normality to Bahrain, King Hamad's mixture of pseudo reforms and suppressive crowd control has divided the island beyond its initial rupture in 2011. To the detriment of his personal interests, what began as a reform movement quickly snowballed into a national uprising against his absolute rule. Bahrain's protesters aren't going to cave; they too accuse the international community of a negative bias and are determined to carry on in spite of their isolation. Only a complete overhaul of parliament and deep judicial/security reforms can begin to satisfy the Shia opposition by increasing their political representation in government.
King Hamad must accept this reality if he genuinely wishes to resolve Bahrain's accumulated pressure - or maybe he's grown fond of the chants?