Riot police line up to block protesters from making it to a main highway after hundreds of Bahrainis headed to the streets for a flash march in support of an opposition-called boycott of Saturday’s parliamentary and municipal elections in Diraz, Bahrain, on Nov. 21. (Hasan Jamali/AP)

In February 2011, Bahrain probably had the highest ratio of protesters as part of the citizen population of any of the Arab countries. In the preceding decade, its security establishment, while never totally absent from politics, had become less visible. In mid-March 2011, however, the security forces were able to instigate a broad clampdown against the mobilized public and ensure the survival of the regime within a matter of days. How can this be explained? And what are the enduring consequences of the resurgence of Bahrain’s security state?

The general phenomenon of popular challenge and regime crackdown in Bahrain is not new, of course. Bahrain has experienced mass movements for democratic reform throughout much of its modern history. In most cases, harsh repression and the awarding of extraordinary powers to the security forces effectively ended those cycles of protest. In 1956, the leaders of a cross-sectarian reform movement, the High Executive Committee, were arrested and exiled, and many others were imprisoned at home. In 1965, a broad-based workers’ uprising that paralyzed key parts of the economy was suppressed. Thereafter, the British government installed Ian Henderson, a colonial police officer who had participated in the suppression of the Mau-Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s, as head of security in Bahrain. He would oversee the creation of a special investigations unit to track domestic opponents. This unit was also key in protecting the regime after the ruler Sheikh Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa aborted the parliamentary experiment from 1973-75 and abolished parliament.

Until the late 1970s, the main opposition to the al-Khalifa had come from revolutionary Arab nationalists and communists, and to a certain extent both groups had a cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic base, ensuring that most groups of citizens would be subject to surveillance. But in the late 1970s and in the 1980s, when Shiite Islamists started to become the most powerful political opposition force on the island, security forces started to disproportionately target and police Shiite villages and urban quarters. This intensified during the intifada from 1994-99. But, intriguingly, this was the only period of major political mobilization on the island that was not stopped through a widespread security clampdown and the declaration of martial law. Instead, the accession of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to the throne led to a general amnesty for political prisoners and exiles, and limited political reforms. In the 2000s, the security services took on a reduced and less visible role. Torture, which was common practice before 1999, largely ceased to be used as a punitive measure against political detainees.

The regime’s answer to the 2011 uprising again brought to the fore the role of the security forces, and the security-minded members of the ruling family. In February 17, 2011, it seemed as if the security forces had retreated and left the Bahraini street to the protesters. Less than a month later, a state of emergency was declared, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) troops mainly from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates moved in, and security forces started the perhaps largest crackdown in the history of the island. While the Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa was trying to reach a negotiated agreement with the opposition, other members of the al-Khalifa family, and the security apparatuses, were preparing for the security-solution to the mass protests. As in 1956, 1965 and 1975, the crackdown landed many dissidents and those suspected of being political activists in jail, drove many into exile and radicalized a new generation of activists, some of whom started to advocate the use of violence as a revolutionary tool.

The intensity of this crackdown is explained in part by factional politics within the ruling family. The faction that has its power base in the various security institutions felt deeply threatened by the protest movement. The security minded-factions of al-Khalifa are centered on Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, as well as in a branch of al-Khalifa known as the Khawalids. The Khawalids stem from a different branch of the al-Khalifa family than the king and the crown prince – they are descendants of Khalid bin Ali al-Khalifa and feel disenfranchised in the succession to the throne. They were sidelined by the British but have regained increasing importance over the past decade, and they now hold key positions: Royal Court Minister Khalid bin Ahmad al-Khalifa; Commander of the Bahrain Defense Forces, Khalifa bin Ahmad al-Khalifa; and Minister of Justice Khalid bin Ali al-Khalifa are all Khawalids. Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman, who has been in his position since 1970, was a focal point of protesters, who were calling for his resignation. So while the king and his son, the crown prince, could have expected to survive in their positions and even potentially be strengthened through a political settlement, the prime minister and the Khawalids would have been weakened, and might have lost their positions. So the “security solution,” which they subsequently imposed on Bahrain, and which led to the dismissal and imprisonment of thousands of people, the deaths of dozens, and the exile of many others, was in some ways a result of elite fragmentation.

Still, Bahrain could not have gone down the securitization route without the strong support of external backers, which for decades have strengthened the security apparatus and provided political cover for rights abuses and authoritarian rule. Despite their large numbers, the protesters could not withstand the crackdown by the security forces militarily. Even though the regime claims the contrary, the vast majority if not all protesters were unarmed. The geography of the small island with no natural hideouts does not lend itself to armed struggle. In addition, the sheer number of the security forces would have been overwhelming (and thousands more have been recruited since 2011). Because they are largely made up of foreigners or naturalized officers, who feel little sympathy with the uprising, there was little danger that they would defect or resist orders. In addition, the arrival of GCC military units and most likely Jordanian Special Forces tinted the military balance even further in the regime’s favor. Finally, the regime increased the sectarian rhetoric and reinforced sectarian divisions that managed to split the island’s population more or less according to sectarian lines. This ensured that while the majority of the population felt alienated by the crackdown, a significant number of (mainly Sunni) citizens supported or at least tacitly accepted it.

Crucially, the international condemnation of the crackdown also remained limited. Political cover by GCC and other Arab and Sunni allies (such as Jordan and Pakistan), as well as important business partners of the GCC in the West, and in particular the old colonial power Britain, ensured that sanctions or any other severe consequences in the international arena did not materialize. Bahrain was also helped by the sheer number of world-historical events unfolding in a short span of time, and attention quickly shifted elsewhere in March 2011, particularly to Libya, where the uprising against Moammar Gaddafi gained pace. Indeed, in her memoir, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledges that the UAE had threatened to pull out of the coalition against Gaddafi if the United States had taken a harsher stance toward the Bahraini regime.

The security forces have since 2011 also been used to further entrench preexisting divisions between urban and recently urbanized and rural areas, and between broadly pro-uprising and pro-regime areas. The heavy policing of pro-uprising neighborhoods and villages, the checkpoints at the entrances to these areas, and the at times total lockdown of such areas for days or weeks and the extensive use of tear gas as a form of collective punishment have become key features of life on the island. These practices are the result of transformations in Bahrain’s urban geography over the past decades, which have seen the massive reclamation of land from the sea and a radical transformation of the built-up areas fueled by, and fueling, real estate speculation. These developments had negative byproducts for villages that were formerly by the sea and for the quality of life in many other areas (groundwater levels, pollution, etc.). In essence, this “spatial-demographic revolution,” as it has been termed, has been a key driver of the uprising, and the security forces have since 2011 been used to strengthen the spatial divisions that Bahrain’s urban planning attempted to achieve in the first place.

Since mid-March 2011 then, the protests have been confined to the villages and outlying suburbs of Manama, while the urban centers of Manama and Muharraq, and the business district, have been policed so heavily that protesters refrain from going there, except for brief flash-mob-like protests that are quickly dispersed. The occupation of Pearl Roundabout, which was a briefly successful attempt to reclaim public space in a country dominated by private and commercial property developers, ended with the destruction of the Pearl Monument and the creation of a (heavily guarded) traffic intersection. So the crackdown and the ensuing heavy policing have further entrenched divisions on the island, and driven the protests out into the periphery. There, however, they continue on a daily basis and with no political solution in sight seem likely to continue for the foreseeable future. A dialogue process that included parts of the opposition has stalled, arguably because the ruling family was not prepared to make significant concessions. Elections for municipal councils and the lower house of the bicameral parliament were boycotted by the opposition, and as a consequence highlighted the political polarization of the island.

The securitization of Bahrain seems difficult to reverse, particularly because it has shifted the power in intra-ruling family struggles more toward the security-minded branches of the family. Shiites are being marginalized even more in key state institutions, while naturalization of Sunnis is ongoing. So the Shiites, who had been one of the constituencies that King Hamad and the crown prince had wooed in the past decade, are becoming less and less important as potential bases of support in intra-regime power struggles. In essence, the security sector has learned to live, and indeed thrive, off the constant demonstrations and the on-going uprising. And so the impetus for a political solution to the grievances that fueled the uprising in the first place is becoming less and less strong, particularly while international pressure on the regime is limited.

Toby Matthiesen is a research fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. He is the author of “The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism,” which outlines the history of political movements among the Shiites of Saudi Arabia and their relationship with the Saudi state. It will be published by Cambridge University Press in January. This essay is part of a Project on Middle East Studies and London School of Economics and Political Science collection on “The Arab Thermidor: The Resurgence of the Security State.”