The Duck of Minerva

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Note to Bahrain: Release Prisoners and Provide More Social Services

February 22, 2013

Thanks to a very awesome grad student of mine, I just realized that last week marked the second anniversary of the start of the Bahrain uprising.  Fueled by protests in Tunisia and Egypt, citizens of this small and very beautiful island state took to the streets to demand political changes.  For two years, the protests have not completely dissipated but haven’t escalated to the point of civil war either. What explains this continued state of violent limbo?

Like Dan’s recent post, I don’t have a definitive answer to this question. However, the question does allow me to pimp promote a couple of interesting ideas from the recent literature.  For one of these ideas, the regime is definitely taking action that would reduce the likelihood of civil war.  On the other, the regime appears to be behaving in ways that escalates violence.  Although this is just conjecture, the combination of these factors might explain the violent limbo.

First, on the side of what Bahrain is doing right to avoid war, the regime has continued to try to buy off the opposition. Much of this has been in the form of lumps sum payments, a strategy which other Middle East states used at the start of the Arab Spring.

In the longer run, however, Bahrain has been lessening its risk of civil war for quite some time through the use of welfare spending.  As Zeynep Taydas and Dursun Peksen’s recent JPR paper shows, welfare spending helps a regime maintain its legitimacy and garner support from would-be insurgents.  It reduces grievances.  Taydas and Peksen’s paper is novel in showing that, even when you account for regime type and wealth, social spending serves to insulate a regime from potential domestic threats.   Their paper was recently awarded JPR’s Article of the Year.   So, as long as Bahrain doesn’t cut its social spending, grievances, although present, may not be heightened to the extent to cause full-on civil war.

Second, and more on the side of “what the regime is doing wrong,” the state continues to hold political prisoners.  As a blogger from the Bahraini Center for Human Rights recently wrote, “Who can honestly believe that the government is sincerely open to dialogue when not a single prisoner has been freed?” I have a recent project (email me for the forthcoming academic paper) with David Cingranelli and Sam Bell where we argue that the holding of political prisoners in particular is an action that helps fuel domestic political violence.  Unlike torture, where a regime can blame the agents, it’s difficult for a government to deny its role in political imprisonment.  Because of this, political prisoners serve as a “micro-mobilizing” focal point for continued violence against the state.  Combine this with the role of the internet as a way to coordinate responses and transmit mobilizing messages and it seems that this low level political violence may be here to stay.

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Amanda Murdie is Professor & Dean Rusk Scholar of International Relations in the Department of International Affairs in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. She is the author of Help or Harm: The Human Security Effects of International NGOs (Stanford, 2014). Her main research interests include non-state actors, and human rights and human security.

When not blogging, Amanda enjoys hanging out with her two pre-teen daughters (as long as she can keep them away from their cell phones) and her fabulous significant other.