Bahrain’s Sectarian Challenge

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Ian Siperco

Head of Practice, Middle East and North Africa, Riskline Political and Security Risk Analysis

Eight years and two general elections since reinventing itself as a constitutional monarchy, Bahrain’s ruling house of Khalifa has reversed progress on a once promising democratic reform agenda.

A crackdown on activists intended to silence the opposition in the build-up to this week’s parliamentary elections has instead galvanized even the most apathetic among the kingdom’s majority Shia constituency. Hundreds have been detained, many plausibly tortured and 23 indicted on charges of inciting violence, spreading false and tendentious information and plotting “to change the political regime through illegal means.”

Most of the suspects are members of the Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy, a largely Shia Muslim group that split from the largest Shia party currently in parliament (al-Wefaq) over differences in their approach to political engagement. Whereas al-Haq continues to oppose participation in parliamentary elections conducted in accordance with an “illegal” and “unilaterally imposed” 2002 Constitution, al-Wefaq currently holds 16 of 40 seats in the country’s elected lower house (plus a supportive independent) and came away with 62 percent of the 2006 popular vote. Largely alienated from the official political scene, Haq supporters instead rely on the power of public protest to get their message across, staging small riots almost nightly in the Shia neighborhoods ringing Manama. These began to intensify with the August 13 arrest of Haq party representative Abdul-Jalil al-Singace.

While Prime Minister Khalifa and Crown Prince Salman have sought to downplay perceptions of the government’s mishandling of the crisis, others in the ruling elite have attempted to justify the repressive measures as a response to the threat of Iranian fifth columnists. But Gulf Arab Shiites are generally thought to favor Iraqi cleric Ali al-Sistani or recently deceased Lebanese Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah over Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei as a “source of emulation,” or marja. While a small number of protesters may be operating directly on behalf of Iranian interests, the scale of the unrest in Bahrain suggests that it is the government’s domestic policies that are at the root of Shia animosity.

Making up more than 80 percent of the labor force, Bahrain’s heterodox Shia Muslim majority of between 60 and 70 percent has long complained of discrimination at the hands of the orthodox ruling Sunni minority, who control access to state jobs, housing and influential posts in the security forces.

Though never officially corroborated, allegations of manipulated demographics and state-subsidized Sunni conversions contained in a 2006 Gulf Centre for Democratic Development report (the Bandargate scandal), are at least indirectly supported by the existence of controversial government programs that extend citizenship to thousands of Sunnis from Yemen, Syria, Jordan and Pakistan, many of whom find employment in the country’s security services. This policy has enraged unemployed Shia, who make up only 2-5 percent of the security services and are forced to wait 10-15 years longer for government housing than foreign-born Sunnis in the security service.

Authorities also typically employ a range of tactics to guarantee the success of pro-government — mostly Sunni — candidates in lower-house elections. In the build-up to this week’s polls, al-Wefaq representatives have charged the government with providing funds to favored candidates, naturalizing foreign supporters to enable them to cast ballots, and providing voting instructions to the security services. While issuing strong denials, authorities have made these charges difficult to disprove by prohibiting the participation of international observers and suspending the board of the Bahrain Human Rights Society (a local non-governmental organization that had pledged to monitor each polling station).

Acknowledging the potential for manipulation and a likely boycott by many coreligionists, al-Wefaq has nevertheless decided once again to contest the election in a bid for a parliamentary majority. Though it’s still unclear how Shiites will respond at the polls, the significance of even this success would be mitigated by gerrymandered electoral districts and marginalized representation in a parliamentary system where every bill needs to be approved by an upper house (Shura Council) appointed by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. Of the council’s current 25 members, only three are Shia.

With little hope that the monarchy will reform its policies or that cosmetic changes will placate a growing number of vocal Shia activists, the shortcomings of the kingdom’s limited experiment with democracy have been laid bare. Whatever the outcome in this week’s parliamentary elections, Bahrain’s Shia voters have every reason to question the results.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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