Bahrain protests: Unravelling the sectarian politics

Manama–Bahrain’s protests are causing an integral shift in its political landscape, as happened in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

Its shift, however, is built along sectarian lines. The two groups that emerged during the protests that erupted on 14 February are divided by a thin line.

While addressing generic human and civil rights, Bahrain’s protests brought attention to the gigantic elephant in the room, the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia in the country.

“Sectarianism is a subject we were not able to talk about before, but are now forced to,” said Shura Council member and journalist Samira Rajab.

The Shura Council is the consultative council whose members are appointed by the Sunni king and it is the upper house of the National Assembly, Bahrain’s legislative body. The opposition say that the 2001 National Action Charter made it purely consultative, leaving legislation to the elected People’s Assembly. But in 2002, they say, the government changed the constitution, giving the Shura Council the legislative power to counter the vote of the elected MPs.

Oppositional Shia groups such as Wifaq and Haq–on the ground for a long time–created the National Coalition to bring protesters' demands to the government. They have been joined by the liberal opposition group Wa’d and the Democratic progressive Tribune who have their roots in 1970s liberal activism.

“Our main demand is the creation of a constitutional monarchy,” said Khalil Marzouk, a former Wifaq MP who resigned from parliament due to its "ineffectiveness."

The National Coalition refuses to accept the king’s invitation to an open dialogue. “If we start talking without parameters, then it’s pointless. We were involved in proposed changes in 1973, and then in 2001. How can we go in without guarantees after those experiences?” Marzouk said. 

The 1973 constitution that followed Bahrain’s 1971 independence or “end of special relations with Great Britain” is considered by many Bahrainis–especially the opposition–as having offered the greatest degree of personal and political freedom of all initiatives since independence. According to academic AbdelHady Khalaf, the 1973 parliament represented all the political trends in the country at the time, but it only lasted two years. A failure to pass the State Security Decree in 1974, which was meant to safeguard against a communist uprising, led the emir of Bahrain to abrogate the main feature of the constitution, thus doing away with the entire process of building a modern political state.

The National Action Charter was ratified in 2001 after a referendum. Although Bahrainis overwhelmingly voted for changes that were meant to create a constitutional monarchy, with the elected parliament the only law-making body, the 2002 amendments gave the Shura Council an equal vote, neutralizing opposition voices in the government.  

According to Marzouk, the National Coalition's political demands are truly national. He says that the demography at Pearl roundabout–where protesters have congregated since 14 February–includes more Shias because they make up the majority of the population and are subjected to a greater extent to the iniquities of the current regime. But Wa’d’s inclusion in the coalition means that it is not exclusively Shia.

For years Sunnis were considered to be protected by the king, but on Monday, in an unprecedented display, many independent Sunni groups called for a large-scale rally for “national unity” at Manama's Fateh mosque. 

Official estimates say 300,000 people attended, while organizers put the figure at around 150,000.

“For 30 years, everyone just assumed that we were under the cloak of the ruling family. It’s for everyone to know that we have demands also,” said Issa Sarrayya, a member of the leadership committee of the National Unity Bloc, which officially formed on Sunday to try to consolidate the demands of and generally represent Sunni groups.

Leading members admit it formed in reaction to the organized Shia opposition, especially at Pearl roundabout. “And you may hate something when it can benefit you,” said Sarrayya, quoting the Quran. “It ended up being the reason we finally got together to organize ourselves.”

“The Shia presence has an organized social entity, now we have one as well,” said Abdullatif Almahmoud, a leading member.

The National Unity bloc includes Sunnis from all walks of life: Muslim Brotherhood factions, Salafis, liberals and independent intellectuals are represented.

At a townhall meeting on Thursday many expressed concern about the current situation in Bahrain, and their hope for what the nascent National Unity bloc can do for them.

Many wondered if the government is playing a role in it, as members of Wifaq claim.

When it comes to inciting sectarian conflict, each side points its finger at the other. “The authorities found themselves in a tight situation when the military withdrew (from their positions in front of the protesters on the square). They created another group (the National Unity Bloc) and spread rumors of sectarian strife to convince everyone that the revolution did it,” Marzouk said.

According to AlMahmoud there is distrust between certain Sunni groups and “the other party,” because of Sunni preconception that Shias are loyal to their Imam before their country. “This is why the government restricts their participation the military,” he said.

Marzouk says this cannot be true because Shia groups have been active in Bahraini politics almost every time the chance presented itself since the island voted for Al-Khalifa as ruler in 1971. “If we wanted to be a part of Iran or were allied to them we wouldn’t have agreed to the rule in 1971, and we wouldn’t have participated in the referendum for the National Action Charter in 2001,” he said.

The long-term danger of enduring sectarianism is something everyone can agree on. Rajab, of the Shura Council, believes that no matter how legitimate some of the protesters' demands are, sectarian tension is currently the most dangerous factor. “This is something that can execute our society,” she said.

Geopolitics plays a critical role in exacerbating the country’s sectarian divide. A small island in the Arabian Gulf–also know as the Persian Gulf, a geopolitical factor in itself–Bahrain lies between the two most extreme hubs of the Muslim world, Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.

The ruling Al-Khalifa family migrated to Bahrain from the Arabian Peninsula at the end of the 18th century to eventually rule the mostly Shia indigenous population of merchants and pearl divers. The two centuries that followed saw a floods of migration from both Arabia and Iran.

Through a series of alliances foreign–mostly British, local and regional, the Al-Khalifa family was able to consolidate a series of tribal alliances to undisputed rule when oil was discovered on the island in the early 1920s.

One of the main complaints of the Shia opposition today is the widespread practice of naturalizing Sunni migrants coming to work in the country, which they say is meant to tip the scales demographically in favor of Sunnis. 

Many see the continual stalling of key democratic constitutional changes as the result of the ruling party's fear on that the Shia majority will pledge an allegiance to Iran. Worse, many influential sources in the government, who spoke anonymously, confessed to a fear that Iran is behind Bahrain’s uprising.

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s pledge on 20 February to help Bahrain “with all its capabilities” reinvigorated Shiite fears that the there is a conspiracy to keep them marginalized. 

The exiled opposition leader Hassan Mushaima, due to arrive to Bahrain two days ago but reportedly held up in Lebanon, added fuel to the flames by saying “if Saudi enters Bahrain militarily then Iran and others maybe willing to come to the help of the Bahraini people.” 

Mushaima is the general secretary of Haq, one of the most prominent hardline Shia opposition groups in Bahrain. He has been arrested several times in the past 20 years, most recently charged with inciting hatred for the regime and attempting to overthrow it in 2009. The Bahraini government pardoned him along with all released political prisoners, and promised not to apprehend him upon his arrival.

Apart from Bahrain's location in the middle of the Saudi-Iran axis, it is also home to the US’s fifth fleet. US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen visited Bahrain on 23 February to reaffirm the US-Bahraini relationship as protests entered the 12th day. 

Considering the criticism the US received for not supporting Egypt's democratic movement against now ousted president Hosni Mubarak–another major US ally in the region–it is unclear how it will play its cards. 

Some think the US will act as guarantors of the Bahraini monarchy, others that they will sit back and assess the situation as it unfolds. “The US most importantly wants stability in the region to guarantee its presence here,” Rajab said.

Events in this island of no more than 1 million people have implications well beyond its size, and no one seems sure how they will ultimately unfold. However, many here believe that the longer the situation drags on, the more certainly it will have to face many of these implications head-on.

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