Both the recent parliamentary elections and a high-profile trial of 23 Shia activists shine a harsh light on the political landscape in Bahrain, exposing the deep sectarian fault lines that run through it.
By Philip McCrum
On 28 October, the trial of 23 Shia activists opened in Bahrain. The defendants faced an array of charges, ranging from planning to overthrow the Al Khalifa monarchy to spreading “false and malicious propaganda”. According to the government, those arrested are part of a “sophisticated terrorist network with international support”.
The defendants are the hard core of over 200 activists detained by the government in a security crackdown in August this year. The move was intended to put an end to low-level street violence perpetrated by disaffected Shia youth and to pre-empt any attempt by radical Shia activists to disrupt the country’s parliamentary elections, which took place on 23 October, five days before the trial opened.
Both the election and the trial, as well as the preceding events, shine a harsh light on the political landscape in Bahrain, exposing the deep fault lines that run through it.
In fact, the political tensions in evidence in the run up to the election are nothing new in Bahrain. The parliamentary process has been fraught ever since its re-introduction in 2002. A year earlier, 98.4 percent of Bahrainis voted resoundingly in favour of King Hamad’s National Charter, which returned the country to constitutional rule. Under the Charter, a new constitution was to be promulgated providing for a bicameral parliament, with the lower, elected chamber holding legislative power and the upper, royally appointed chamber, acting in an advisory capacity. However, when the constitution was finally introduced in February 2002, it conferred equal legislative power to both chambers.
The majority Shia community in Bahrain saw this as an attempt by the minority Sunni regime to impose their control over parliament and deny the Shia-who make up around 70 precent of the population-the political benefits that their demographic superiority would ordinarily confer. As a result of this constitutional volte face, the primary Shia representative body, Al Wefaq, announced that it would boycott the October 2002 elections.
However, the boycott led to political stasis and in 2006, Al Wefaq reversed its decision and contested the Kingdom’s second parliamentary poll in October of that year. However, it was a decision which split political support within the Shia community. The more radical elements among them broke away from Al Wefaq in order to maintain their boycott. The main group within this faction is Al Haq, led by Hassan Mushaima, one of two activists on trial in absentia. During the August crackdown, he was in London receiving treatment for cancer.
This schism within the Shia lies at the heart of events in recent months. King Hamad has always striven to ensure that political opposition is conducted from within the formal political arena. It was hoped that Al Wefaq’s official participation in 2006 would herald a new inclusive era of Bahraini politics in which the more radical and activist elements of the predominantly Shia opposition, such as Al Haq, would be sidelined.
However, despite gaining 17 out of 40 seats in the 2006 elections, and in the process becoming the largest single political bloc in parliament, Al Wefaq failed to make any substantive political gains in the course of the four-year parliamentary session and in the run-up to this year’s poll, it was widely believed that the Shia were increasingly losing faith in the political process.
No doubt, over the course of the last parliament, a number of political developments served to sharpen the perception amongst the Shia that the government’s overriding agenda was to embed its own authority and to marginalize the Shia.
The first such development was the release of demographic data in 2008, which showed a 41 percent increase in the country’s population over the previous year, including a 15 percent increase in the number of nationals (against an historical average of around 2 percent). The data lent credence to the long-held belief within the Shia community that the government has naturalized thousands of foreign Sunni Muslims, mostly from Jordan, Yemen and Iraq and Pakistan, in order to alter the demographic make-up of the country, in favour of the minority Sunni community.
Sunni naturalization is made all the more galling for the Shia by the fact that many of the ‘foreign’ Sunni Bahrainis are employed in the security forces and deployed against the Shia on the streets. Indeed, the Shia constitute less than 3 percent of employees in the army or in the police force, a statistic the Shia believe to be widely replicated across the civil service. They argue that by denying them public sector jobs, Sunnis are able to maintain their control over the institutions of state. Statistics corroborating this perception are not available, but unemployment among the Shia is much higher than among Sunnis.
Housing is another highly emotive issue that lies at the heart of the sectarian rift. The poorer Shia communities in particular suffer from severe housing shortages and believe that land ownership rights are heavily skewed in favour of Sunnis and the ruling regime, as highlighted by a parliamentary report released earlier this year, which alleged large-scale misappropriation of state land. Further fuelling their grievance is the widespread belief among Shia that newly naturalized Sunnis are leapfrogging them on state housing lists.
This cluster of grievances has been gradually bubbling up to the surface over the past few years and lies at the root of the protests and disturbances of recent months.
But these events cannot be looked at in isolation and there is a wider regional thread woven into the narrative. There is a deep-rooted belief within the ruling regime that if violent opposition is not contained swiftly and forcefully, then it may spread out of control, even to other states around the region.
This concern is shared by Bahrain’s key stakeholders-Saudi Arabia and the US. Washington is certainly mindful that any serious unrest in Bahrain could threaten the security of the US Fifth Fleet, based on the island. As for Saudi Arabia, it is permanently paranoid about the spread of Shi’ism throughout the region, all the more so now that the Shia are ascendant in Iraq and Iran is trying to flex its nuclear muscles. The Saudi authorities would be deeply alarmed if the Shia took control in Bahrain, which they would see as giving Iran a toehold on this side of the Persian Gulf.
More immediately, Saudi Arabia’s own Shia community is easily agitated and the Al Saud ruling family want to avoid importing Bahrain’s sectarian travails at all costs. To a certain extent, Bahrain acts as a regional bellwether; if the situation there spirals out of control, it may do so elsewhere. Therefore, the Al Saud have likely encouraged, if not actively supported, the Al Khalifa to deal with the problem swiftly and convincingly.
The Al Khalifa are themselves very wary of Iran. The two countries have an awkward relationship. Until the arrival of the Al Khalifa in 1783, Bahrain lived under the suzerainty of the Iranian Safavid dynasty. Just prior to Britain ceding independence to Bahrain in 1970 (it had been a British protectorate since 1861), Iran publicly staked a claim to Bahrain, based on its historical ties. The British rebuffed Iranian overtures and Bahrain became an independent state in 1971. These claims have never been far from the surface however; in 2007, the conservative Iranian press reported that as Iran’s 14th province, Bahrain was an inseparable part of the Islamic Republic.
The government has often questioned the Shia’s allegiances with respect to Iran, casting them as an Iranian fifth column within the kingdom. There is no doubt that, spiritually-and, to a certain extent, ethnically-Iran projects a strong influence among the Bahraini Shia, but in fact many Bahraini Shia look first to Najaf in Iraq, rather than Qom in Iran.
It is these sensitivities, however, that prompt the government to claim that the 23 Shia defendants are part of an international terrorist network. Such language is also designed to garner support from the likes of the US, by showing solidarity with its ‘war on terror’. However, Washington’s support is muted, chiefly owing to widely publicised claims by the detainees that they had been tortured following their arrest. As soon as the trial opened, defence lawyers demanded its suspension, pending medical examinations. The request was upheld and the hearing postponed to mid-November.
The trial has already overshadowed the election. And it will grab the headlines in the coming weeks, ensuring that sectarian tensions cast a pall over the new parliament. Ten years after instigating reforms designed to appease the Shia, the trial shows that the ruling Sunni regime has made little headway, failing to implement sufficiently progressive or inclusive policies. And while the trial may well temporarily remove the government’s chief antagonists from the political scene, it is unlikely to diminish the spirit of activism and dissent among the Shia.
Nevertheless, there is still hope for the parliamentary process. Al Wefaq, by increasing its representation by one, to 18 seats, has shown that it is still able to mobilize its grassroots support. Vitally, it has managed to persuade its constituency that formal political participation remains worthwhile, ensuring that the struggle for change and reform is still alive. Meanwhile, the shift in support away from the Sunni Islamist blocs towards more liberal independents shows that there is dynamism yet in Bahrain’s political experiment.
Philip McCrum is former Middle East editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit and currently an independent analyst and commentator on Middle East affairs. Publisher: International Relations and Security Network (ISN)