“It’s a heavy lift, changing the culture,” he said. “If there’s no political solution here, it’s all for naught.”
The possibility of a solution seems remote. Opposition groups and human rights activists say that the reforms leave the state’s undemocratic core intact, and that they fail to address central grievances like corruption and the institutionalized discrimination against the Shiite majority.
Nabi Saleh, an island suburb of the capital, graphically illustrates their complaints. A Shiite village in the center is surrounded by seafront homes or compounds that residents say belong to government loyalists, members of the royal family or expatriates. Two slivers of beach are available for the public.
During the day, police officers sit at the entrance to town, tear gas launchers on their laps, waiting for the inevitable nightly skirmishes with young people in the village.
A few months ago, when one of the village’s few Sunni residents put his house up for sale — fed up with the nightly smell of tear gas — his neighbors begged him to reconsider, and he did.
“This government wants us to separate,” said the man, a business owner who requested anonymity, fearing retribution by the authorities.
He added, speaking of the royal family, “When their chairs shake, they take action.”
Men like Ali, 22, a resident of the island, are shaking their chairs. Several months back, during an antigovernment protest, he lost an eye to a concussion grenade fired by the police. After he was fitted with a glass eye, he quickly returned to the streets. He said he had no intention of stopping now.
“Until they fall,” he said.
Opposition activists say the government often casts them as a fifth column, backed by Iran and bent on toppling the Khalifa dynasty, which conquered Bahrain in the 18th century.
At a rally at a Manama mosque last month, a mostly Sunni crowd gathered in support of a proposed union with Saudi Arabia. The monarchy has said such a union would strike a blow to Iranian interference, though Iranian officials frequently proclaim their solidarity with the protesters.
People stubbed out cigarettes on a portrait of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader. Sheik Abdul Latif Mahmoud, the leader of a Sunni political group, warned darkly of a plot to “redivide” the region.
“Those who created the crisis wanted us to separate from each other on a sectarian basis,” Mahmoud said.
Bahrain’s mainstream Shiite political opposition has taken a gradualist approach to reform, calling for a constitutional monarchy.
“Saying we want to bring the regime down makes Sunnis live in fear,” said Hadi Hasan al-Mosawi of the Wefaq party, the largest Shiite opposition group. “We don’t want to threaten people.”
Opposition activists say Wefaq is losing support from members frustrated with its inability to bring change and independent activists frustrated with its religious focus and limited view of reform.
“When a huge number loses patience, what will happen?” al-Mosawi asked.
The march on the US naval base, the headquarters of the Fifth Fleet, never reached its destination. When the protesters got to the road leading to the base, riot officers surrounded them, firing tear gas.