Escalation of Social Conflict during Popular Upheavals: Evidence from Bahrain

By Karolak, Magdalena | CEU Political Science Journal, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Escalation of Social Conflict during Popular Upheavals: Evidence from Bahrain


Karolak, Magdalena, CEU Political Science Journal


1. Introduction

2011 was marked by series of uprisings in the Middle East commonly known as the Arab Spring. The development of these events was unexpected by the local population and international observers alike (1). Social mobilization led, in some cases, to deposition of long-term dictators; in other cases, open conflict whose outcomes are yet to be resolved. The case of Bahrain stands out among other Arab countries affected by the Arab Spring. The Bahraini "Day of Rage" received relatively little attention from international media compared with other protests. Moreover, after the violent clampdown on the opposition, foreign correspondents were gradually expelled from the country and Bahrain disappeared from the headlines of international newspapers. The authorities tried to preserve the image of the "island of golden smiles", as once Bahrain was known, by cutting out the flow of unfavorable and disapproving information abroad. It is only recently that foreign journalists were allowed to come back and that Bahraini authorities invited an international commission to assess the events.

The side effect of the uprising is, however, hidden under the surface. Since February 2011 Bahraini society has been ripped apart by a bitter sectarian split that affected this country of roughly 1 million inhabitants. The upheaval led to a dangerous escalation of the social conflict that took the form of street violence, killing, vandalism and social ostracism. The polarization of society reached levels never seen before as the division between Sunnis and Shias divided neighborhoods, streets, businesses and mixed Sunni-Shia families who felt the split within their own households. (2) The questions that come to mind are why the sectarian split reached such alarming levels, why the violent clashes spilled out of control and finally, why Bahraini society remains divided. Solicited solutions did not bring results and despite containment at the end of 2011, the Bahraini "Day of Rage" continues.

The importance of this case study is twofold. To begin, it emphasizes development of socio-psychological barriers during conflict escalation which, in turn, lead to an increase of antagonism and set the conflict on a destructive course. (3) Secondly, it constitutes a significant point of debate in the analysis of the durability and evolution of Arabian Gulf states. (4) Bah rain, which underwent a transformation of its political system in 2002, was the only Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member deeply affected by the Arab Spring. The modern approach to building legitimacy that would go beyond the tribal and sectarian affiliations has not fully worked. In recent years, Islam's role in providing a common identity for Bahrainis diminished due to the growing sectarian split. In this context Vali Nasr's evaluation, stated by the title The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future, acquires a new dimension in the case of Bahrain and beyond.

The framework used for the overview of escalation of the conflict comes from the Hocker-Wilmot conflict assessment model. (5) After a brief literature review of the concept of social conflict and conflict assessment, the structure of the paper follows the steps of the Hocker-Wilmot framework. In order to understand the nature of the conflict, we shall explore its exogenous and endogenous causes and its triggering event. Furthermore, we concentrate on the conflict elements, namely, goals, attitudes and strategies. Ultimately, we present the attempted solutions. This research is ethnographic in nature. It is based on random observations among Bahraini citizens as well as on analysis of social media.

2. The concept of social conflict

Conflict is often defined as "an incompatibility of goals or values between two or more parties in a relationship, combined with attempts to control each other and antagonistic feelings toward each other." (6) Social scientists agree that conflict is an inherent part of human interaction. …

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