Sectarian friction mars Islamist success at Bahrain elections

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Abbas Fadl Murtada

Dhu al-Hijjah 11, 1427 2007-01-01

Occupied Arab World

by Abbas Fadl Murtada (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 35, No. 11, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1427)

It could have been an opportunity for Bahrain to set into motion a policy inspired by the Shari‘ah. But when prominent Sunni and Shi‘a Islamic groups won most of the seats in the second parliamentary elections in Bahrain in more than three decades, sectarian friction stoked the discord between the two communities. The election for the 40-member lower house ofBahrain’s Council of Representatives was marred by campaigning that brought tensions into the open.

Bahrainis voted on November 25 and December 2 in two rounds of parliamentary and municipal elections. Sunni and Shi‘a Islamists won 30 parliamentary seats, leaving nine of the remaining ten to independents with close links to Sunni Islamist groups; business analyst Abd al-Aziz Abul secured the tenth seat by an alliance with Jam‘iyyat al-Wifaq al-Watani al-Islami(the Islamic National Accordance Association, or Wifaq). Wifaq, the largest Shi‘a group in Bahrain, has taken 17 seats. The Sunni Jam‘iyyat al-Minbar al-Watani al-Islami (the Islamic National Platform Association, or Minbar), the political wing of the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen, has become the second largest bloc, with seven seats; its allies in Jam‘iyyat al-Asala (the Authenticity Association or Asala), Bahrain’s largest salafi group, have five seats. King Hamad bin ‘Issa al-Khalifah has moved to appoint 40 members of the upper house of the bicameral legislature, the Shura or Consultative Council.

The elections’ results expose the declining fortunes of Bahrain’s secularists, as shown by the dismal performance of the leftist Jam‘iyyat al-’Amal al-Watani al-Dimuqrati (National Democratic Action Society or ‘Waad’), Bahrain’s largest secularist group. Waad has failed to secure any parliamentary seat despite fielding heavyweight candidates such as its chairmanIbrahim Sharif, Abd al-Rahman al-Nu‘aymi, a prominent leftist throughout the Gulf region, and Sami al-Siyadi. Secularists in the municipal elections fared little better than their fellows in the race to parliament. Minbar and Asala have effectively deprived Wifaq, which threw its weight and energetic teams of campaigners behind Waad’s candidates, of the opportunity to get the simple majority it had hoped to secure in the lower house.

Bahraini women’s electoral difficulties mirrored the secularists’. Of the 18 female candidates who ran in the parliamentary elections only Latifa al-Qa’oud, a pro-government candidate, made it to the Council of Representatives, thus becoming the first woman in the Gulf Arab region to win in a general election. But her victory can hardly be described as a significant achievement: she was unchallenged in her constituency. The women’s dismal performance has driven some women activists to argue for a quota system to ensure that women have a voice in the elected chamber. Ten women, including a Jew and a Christian, have been appointed to the new Consultative Council, up from six in the previous council.

Despite repeated assertions by the authorities that voting went smoothly, there were complaints of irregularities from every side. Some complaints were directed at minor irregularities such as attempts to influence voters’ choices by distributing pictures of the candidates and holding boisterous gatherings near the polling centres. But there were also grumbles about serious irregularities such as fraudulent votes cast en masse in so-called general polling centres. There were heated controversies over these at-large centres, which are not attached to a particular electoral district, both in the run-up to and during the elections. Critics accused the government of using these centres to inject loyalist votes in the tightest races. There were reports of members of the security services, as well as some 8,000 “floating voters” (voters without addresses), being sent to vote for pro-government candidates at these centres. Human-rights activists say that there is “circumstantial evidence” that the defeat of at least three opposition candidates can be attributed to fraud at these ‘general’ centres. Preliminary results had shown these opposition candidates as likely to win until thousands of late votes at these centres defeated them. Suspicions of intentions of electoral fraud became rife before the elections when the government banned international monitors from observing the polling.

Sectarian friction and mudslinging clouded campaigning. Sectarian recriminations during the campaign were symptomatic of the fractious Islamist body politic. Some text messages denounced liberal candidates as “Godless communists” and accused their Shi‘a allies of having an “Iranian agenda” and of working “to make Sunnis in Bahrain just like Sunnis in Iraq.” Another text message sent randomly to mobile-phone users during the elections read: “Sunnis beware. The Shi’as are killing your brothers in Iraq. Think of what would happen to you here.”

Sectarianism has deep historical roots in Bahrain. Traditionally, Sunni Islamists have tended to be pro-government, whereas Shi’a Islamists have been at the forefront of the opposition. Cooperation between Sunni and Shi‘a Islamists has also been hindered by the rise of Bahraini salafism, with its viscerally anti-Shi‘a outlook and strong emphasis on loyalty to rulers, in the 1980s. Misperceptions have also compounded suspicions between the two communities. The rise of salafism contributed to misperceptions among Bahraini Shi‘as who confuse ordinary religiosity among Sunnis with salafism or Wahhabism. Government officials and some Sunni figures have chafed at the Bahraini Shi‘as’ support for the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Some have accused the Shi‘as of allegiance to Islamic Iran and of harbouring ambitions to dominate Bahrain, buoyed by the empowerment of Iraq’s Shi‘as. “Since the American involvement in Iraq, and the very obvious presence of Iranian fingerprints in Iraq as well, the Shia population here has created problems,” Mohamed Khaled, a member of Minbar, has recently been quoted by the Financial Times (November 24, 2006) as saying.

But encouraging sectarianism has also been a governmental strategy to divide the populace. Infamous tactics such as “divide and rule” and the Machiavellian notion that “the end justifies the means” have inspired official efforts to this end. Governmental policies favouring the Sunni minority have long promoted sectarian inequalities in income, land distribution and jobs, leading to intense feelings of resentment among the country’s Shi‘as, who comprise more than 60 percent of Bahrain’s 700,000 people. In September Salah al-Bandar, a Sudanese-born naturalised British citizen who worked as a strategic planning advisor for the Bahraini cabinet affairs minister and the government statistics department, made explosive revelations about a conspiracy to rig the elections and increase discrimination against the Shi‘as. Bandar, who was deported to Britain, produced a 214-page report, complete with copies of cheques, bank statements, receipts and correspondence. The report also included a copy of a 14-page strategic memo entitled “Scenarios to Improve the General Situation of the Sunni Sect in Bahrain”, allegedly drafted by one Nizar Muhammad Sa’id al-’Ani, an academic of Iraqi origin, which presented a ten-point plan to be implemented over a five-year period. ‘Ani’s recommendations included paying stipends to poor Shi‘as who convert to Sunnism, accelerating the naturalisation of foreign Sunnis to change the demographic makeup of the country, and spying on Shi‘aorganisations. The Bandar report also names individuals who have been paid to stir discord and antagonism by writing inflammatory articles and posting offensive comments on popular online forums.

Sectarianism also deflects attention from the lack of real political reform. When he came to power in 1999 after a decade of unrest, Hamad ended a 25-year state of emergency, released political prisoners, allowed thousands of political exiles to return, and promised changes that would turn Bahrain into a constitutional monarchy. But the euphoria dissipated when he broke his promises in 2001 and promulgated a constitution establishing a bicameral parliament, vesting power in an appointed legislative house that reduced the elected lower house to a talking shop. The king’s half-hearted measures gave rise to speculations that he had ridden the wave of reform mainly to ward off challenges from his powerful uncle, the prime minister, who had once advocated the accession of his own son to the throne. Even now, the ruling family and circles close to it are divided into the king’s faction and the prime minister’s.

When the first general elections were held in 2002, the government used blatant gerrymandering to dilute the voting power of the Shi‘a majority. This prompted the opposition to boycott the elections. The period from 2002 to 2006 was one of soul-searching for the groups that had decided to boycott the political process. The internal debates were resolved in favour of taking part in the elections in hope of having a voice in the corridors of power. This decision has created a rift within Wifaq: a group of high-profile members, led by former vice-presidentHassan Mushaymi’, broke away to form Harakat Haq (the Truth Movement), which boycotted the recent elections.

In accordance with established practice, Bahrain’s cabinet resigned after the elections and the king named a new cabinet. In the new line-up a Shi‘a Muslim, Jawad bin Salem al-Oraied, was named as a deputy prime minister for the first time in Bahrain’s history. A former cabinet minister, Oraied became one of three deputies to Shaykh Khalifah bin Salman al-Khalifah, who has been prime minister since 1971 and held analogous posts even before that. A junior portfolio was given to another Shi‘a: Nizar bin Sadeq al-Baharnah, a former member of Wifaq, was named as minister of state for foreign affairs. The new line-up, however, upholds the domination of the ruling al-Khalifah clan, assigning twelve cabinet posts out of 24, including major portfolios such as foreign affairs, defence, interior and finance, to members of the royal family.

Wifaq appeared unimpressed by the appointments of Oraied and Baharna. The group’s secretary-general, Shaykh Ali al-Salman, has described the appointment of Baharna as “merely a token.” Wifaq’s parliamentary bloc boycotted the inaugural ceremony and session of the newly-elected Council of Representatives on December 15, saying in a statement that its boycott was in protest over the makeup of the new cabinet as well as royal interference in the distribution of posts in the new Council. The statement directed Wifaq’s particular wrath at the appointment of Shaykh Ahmad bin Atiyatullah al-Khalifah, “the principal accused in the Bandar report scandal”, whose inclusion in the new line-up as minister of cabinet affairs is “considered by the majority of the Bahraini people – Shi’ahs and Sunnis – as a message of provocation,” the statement said.

The election could turn out to be the last opportunity for Bahrain to take a peaceful path to meaningful change. With the king, and his appointed upper chamber, retaining veto powers over the decisions of the elected chamber, little meaningful change can be expected to come out of the elected legislature. The growing polarisation of Bahrain’s political scene also precludes the possibility of fruitful parliamentary action to deal with sectarian inequality. But if change does not come about, then the risk of popular frustrations boiling on to the streets will be heightened. At least 38 people died in a wave of anti-government street protests in the 1990s, in what was known as the ‘Intifada’ (‘Uprising’), calling for the restoration of the elected parliament dissolved in 1975, three quarters of whose seats were freely elected. Another uprising will surely focus on issues clouded with sectarian sensitivities, such as anti-Shi‘adiscrimination and constitutional grievances. With the increasing sectarian passions throughout the region, another uprising would bring the country face to face with the hideous spectre of internal strife.

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