Sectarian tensions simmer in Bahrain


Simmering Bahraini sectarian tensions erupted into violence again on Friday with security forces battling stone-throwing Shia protesters in several areas of the Gulf island kingdom.



The unrest was caused by the arrest of opposition activists and emphasizes the difficulties facing the Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy in establishing the credibility of recent reforms in an atmosphere embittered by ongoing allegations of sectarian discrimination and the Shia-Sunni struggle in Iraq.


Troubled history



Bahrain is the only Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member state with a Shia majority – estimated at between 60-75 percent of the population.



The Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty was established in Bahrain in 1811 following the family’s second invasion of the island. Sectarian tensions with their Shia subjects have flared sporadically, becoming a constant irritant since independence from the UK in 1971.



In 1981, an Iranian-based radical Shia movement styling itself as The Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain launched a coup attempt, intending to install a theocratic Shia regime.



Details of the coup attempt are sketchy, but according to unconfirmed reports, the insurgents were accompanied by Iranian intelligence officers and intended to assassinate key members of the ruling family and cabinet ministers.



The coup was planned by supporters of "an Iranian cleric who claim Karbala [Iraq] as their home base and are back there now," Bahrain and Saudi Arabia specialist, visiting assistant-professor Toby Jones from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, US, explained to ISN Security Watch.



"They are Khomeinists and revolutionaries and they did organize a cell and attempted to overthrow the Bahraini government. I imagine they did have some support or at least some sympathy from Iran, but it was not an Iranian government-directed coup attempt," he added.



Radical Shia rioted in 1994 after women were allowed to participate in a sporting event. The violence escalated into a low-intensity Shia "insurgency" between 1994 and 2000, punctuated by several bombings.



According to reports, the events of the insurgency, in which around 40 people died, largely occurred in the areas of the island in which the indigenous Shia Baharna people predominate.



In an interview with ISN Security Watch, vice president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) Nabeel Rajab alleged that the Baharna have suffered from systematic discrimination at the hands of the state.



"Two years ago we [BCHR] made a statistical report that showed that 75 percent of the population are Shias, but when it comes to jobs they are only 18 percent, Rajab said. "In the army, the security force and police they are below 2 percent."



"They have also been marginalized in politics," he charged. "Today they are less than 25 percent of the ministers, and half of the cabinet are the royal family."



The BCHR has been a fierce critic of government policy and has led agitation for Shia rights. BCHR President Abdulhadi al-Khawaja was one of three opposition activists arrested last Friday.



Friday’s clashes were largely confined to Baharna areas northwest of the capital Manama.





Upon assuming the title of emir in 1999, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa launched a wave of democratic, security and governance reforms, promising his subjects that his top priority was "achieving national unity and internal security, through the solidarity of all Bahrain citizens, without discrimination, whatever their origin or creed."



The reforms, which were presented as a series of royal makramas [concessions], included measures to allow the formation of political associations; the granting of political rights to women; a general amnesty for political prisoners and exiles; the abrogation of state security laws; and the institution of a 40-member National Assembly elected on the basis of a general franchise.



Rajab argues that Sheikh Hamad was encouraged by the US to institute reforms, but has since stepped back from active involvement. "We believe that the Americans and the West have [now] pulled out and there is no more pressure on our government," he said.



"I think they [reforms] have been largely cosmetic," Jones opined.



"What has changed is that there’s a greater degree of ability for people to be critical […] without any kind of government crackdown. So there was a loosening of the grip on speech to some extent – although that has slowly been eroded in the last year and a half."



Asked to elaborate, Jones said: "The new national security law has been a disaster. It basically creates a very broad framework in which criticism of the government is not tolerated, particularly criticism of individual members of the royal family."





The second national elections for the reinstated National Assembly were held on 25 November 2006, with Shia opposition groups participating in a national poll for the first time since 1973.



Pro-government Sunni parties maintained their control of the parliament in the election, returning 22 lawmakers to the 40-seat parliament.



The predominantly Shia opposition represented by the left-leaning National Democratic Action Association (NDAA) and National Accord Association (INAA) garnered 18 mandates.



Both parties had boycotted the 2002 National Assembly elections citing concerns that the legislature was not being afforded sufficient powers.



Asked to explain the Shia policy reversal, Jones said: "They felt like they could put additional pressure on the government by coming in and being critical within the institution [National Assembly]. But they also left open the option that they would walk out and paralyze it. That would be a disaster."



Liberal parties and women failed to win any electoral contests, although one female candidate, Latifa al-Qouhoud, became Bahrain’s first woman parliamentarian after running unopposed in her constituency.



The failure of liberal parties to make any impact emphasizes the primacy of underlying sectarian tensions in the minds of voters.



The election "has brought a lot of disappointment to the people," Rajab told ISN Security Watch, claiming the result was fixed by a series of gerrymanders.



"The way that the [government] has divided the country to make the majority opposition to have a low [number of] seats and the loyalist areas have more seats [was done intentionally] to make sure that the Shia are a minority in the parliament."



The powers of the National Assembly are effectively delimited by an upper house populated by royal appointees, which is able to block assembly initiatives.



"The elected branch of parliament is used mostly as a debate society," Jones charged. "It is largely an empty vessel and I think it was designed to be that way."



Executive power in the kingdom remains largely in the hands of a ruling troika within the royal family: Sheikh Hamad, Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, and the king’s uncle, Prime Minister ‎Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa. The trio’s relationship to their primary political support base, the wider royal family, is managed by the Family Council.



It is in the struggle to balance this traditional power structure with the demands of the emerging democratic system that sectarian tensions have been exacerbated.





The strong performance of Shia parties in the November poll and the failure of the elections to dampen strident opposition assertions of discrimination have left the government in a quandary as to how to respond.



A decision appears to have been made recently to reassert control through a wave of arrests targeting prominent government critics.



The official Bahrain News Agency confirmed on Saturday that three opposition activists arrested the previous day – al-Khawaja, INAA head Haasan Mushaimaand and rights activist Shaker Abdul-Hussein – had been charged with "promoting change to the political system through illegitimate means, inciting hatred of the political system, agitation and harming the public interest."



As news of Friday’s arrests spread, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets in Shia villages and towns burning garbage and tires and throwing stones at riot police, who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets in clashes that continued throughout the day.



Regional crisis



The Shia-Sunni political struggle in Bahrain is being conducted against the backdrop of a developing civil war between the sects in nearby Iraq and the Iranian nuclear crisis.



Past links between a small group of Bahraini Shia radicals and Iran appear to have lapsed over the years though. According to reports, some of those involved in the failed 1981 coup are now members of mainstream Shia political parties.



It can be safely assumed that Iran has both an ideological and pragmatic interest in the emergence of a Shia government in Bahrain, which would likely see the expulsion of the US 5th Fleet from its strategically important base on the island.



"There’s a large Iranian ethnic community whose roots do go back to the other side of the Gulf. They are probably 15 to 20 percent of the Shia population. But a lot of them have been in Bahrain for as long as the al-Khalifa have," Jones said.



It is the fear of an Iran-backed Shia government and alleged Iranian involvement in the Iraq war that assures the al-Khalifa dynasty of strong US and Gulf state support.



While the potentially destabilizing nature of the wider Iraq and Iran crises on Bahrain should not be elided, both Jones and Rajab warn against reading what is inherently a long-term, localized civil struggle for reform and political power as an integral element in a wider regional sectarian struggle.



"The government has always played the card that the Shia in Bahrain are a potential fifth column for Iran and are more sympathetic to Khomeini and the legacy of the [Islamic] revolution than they are to the homeland," Jones said.



"The disintegration of Iraq simply lends power, credibility and the significance of a regional breakdown to the way they’ve framed their domestic politics for about 30 years."

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