Tides of change

Bahrain’s Shi’a majority is taking to the streets – and the polls – to secure greater power.

bahrain (photo credit: steven sotloff)
(photo credit: steven sotloff)
“MY SOUL, OUR SOUL, WE OFFER TO YOU,” the crowd of 30,000, divided between veil-clad women and men, chanted as Sheikh Ali Salman, religious leader of the Shi’i opposition movement al-Wefaq, took to the stage to speak. Wedged in an open field between Salman and the giant banner of him that had been draped around an office building across the street, the throngs waved their Bahraini flags wildly.
Though the largest campaign rally of Bahrain’s election season was ignored by most local media outlets, the Shi’a who came out in force did not seem to mind. They want political power and will exploit any opening the regime offers them to attain it.
But they are not fooled by the allure of democracy. They know that the political system is stacked against them.
The Kingdom of Bahrain is a Persian Gulf State composed of 33 islands crammed between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Of its 500,000 citizens, roughly 70% belong to the heterodox Shi’a Islamic sect, while the rest, including the royal family, are Sunni Muslims. Asmall indigenous population of about 30 Jews remain in Bahrain.
In August, just as the political season began heating up, the country found itself in the midst of an “anti-terror” crackdown. Twenty-three opposition leaders, human-rights activists and media figures were arrested in response to increased street protests by disgruntled citizens. Amid allegations of torture, many Shi’a protested the arrests; hundreds were detained.
Coming two months before the elections and with no evidence of terrorism revealed, many Bahrainis felt the crackdown was aimed at both eliminating dissent and instilling fear into the hearts of the opposition. The moves were partially successful – voter turnout was 67%, only 5% lower than in the last elections in 2006.
DEEP IN THE POOR SHI’I SUBURB OF SANABIS, an inconspicuous house is hidden away from the main road. A head occasionally emerges from the third floor window next door, as if keeping a lookout for trouble, but the street is silent. Inside, mattresses hug the perimeter of the large living room. On the wall, a large poster hangs with the faces of the 23 incarcerated dissidents.
The house belongs to Abdul Wahab Hussein, the leader of the Wefa movement, which has led the call for election boycotts. Hussein displays a newspaper clipping published days after the crackdown portraying him at the head of Bahrain’s terror pyramid, yet he sips his tea unperturbed by any government aggression.
“The government cannot play by the rules, so why should we vote and play by their rules?” asks the elderly sheikh, stroking his beard. “The government has to create tension because it is the only way they can face the objection movement. They are pushing people hard to take violent actions so they can have their reasons for the crackdown.”
Despite these vociferous calls to boycott the October 23 elections, Bahrainis still turned out in large numbers to vote. And though both the regime and the opposition feared an outbreak of violence, election day passed relatively smoothly, with the exception of several hundred voters claimiing their names were dropped from voter lists. The regime portrayed the country as an emerging democracy, with people excited to vote for change.
Al-Wefaq – the largest Shi’i group – gained only one seat, bringing its total to 18. They won in every district they contested, though no other Shi’i groups earned a place in parliament.
A newly formed independent bloc made the largest strides during the elections, winning 17 seats. Several secular opposition candidates allied with al-Wefaq survived to participate in a second round run-off vote on October 30 – all candidates needed to receive an absolute majority to win the first round – but were subsequently defeated by the independents.
The independents also dealt a potential death blow to various Sunni extremist groups like al-Asala, made up of puritanical Salafi Muslims, and Bahrain’s Muslim Brotherhood chapter, Islamic Inbar. These groups had previously benefited from political cooperation to ensure their similar views boxed out the opposition at the polls. However, disagreements early in the electoral campaign exploited their power share against the independents. As a result, they lost 10 of their 15 seats.
“It’s nice to win 100% of the districts we challenged, but it remains to be seen whether we will be allowed to channel this victory into constructive action for our community,” explains one al-Wefaq parliamentarian, who wishes not to be named, to The Jerusalem Report. “So far, we have only been able to document our grievances and corruption in the government. We should be able to do more.”
FOR THE MORE EDUCATED AND POLITICALLY oriented opposition, the most important election issue was political reform. The Shi’a feel there is no way they can be proportionally represented in the government as long as gerrymandering exists, and they know their interests are not best served as long as the current relationship between the two chambers of government prevails. But while the dissident movements feel it is best to utilize their abilities outside of the political system, others feel it impossible for the king to ignore voters forever.
For the average Bahraini voter, jobs were the most important issue. Unemployment is officially at 3.5%; unofficially it is closer to 20%. The Shi’a have been banned from the security services – the country’s largest employer – since a supposed Iranian-backed coup was foiled in 1981, and an official policy of naturalizing foreign Sunnis to fill the gaps in military manpower has created a demographic shift within the population.
“It’s not just unemployment. Many educated Shi’a find themselves underemployed due to discrimination,” warns one politician, speaking with The Report on condition of anonymity. “In the government, only three ministries are headed by Shi’a.
“People just want suitable jobs,” the politician claims. “No regime in the world deals with their own people like this.”
Many Bahrainis also seek a solution to the huge housing shortage affecting the country. Of 33 islands, only four are for civilian use. The rest belong to the royal family. Many Shi’a have been waiting for public housing for 15 years, yet some of the imported Sunnis have been fast-tracked to receive these benifits at the expense of native Bahrainis.
In the courtyard of his mansion in Muharraq, al-Asala’s Isa Abu al- Fath sits in his tent with several supporters. Aplasma television recycles video footage of his speeches and public praise for his work.
“Reforms cannot be achieved overnight. We have limited resources,” says the Salafi candidate. The Shi’a say they are treated poorly, but if they suffer from housing shortages, [Sunnis] do also.”
But in a Shi’a village off of the Boudaiya Highway, overpopulated Shi’a households, crumbling from years of neglect and grafitti, make up the majority of the structures.
“We have four generations of family in my house,” claims Hassan Mahdi Ali, 34, who applied for public housing in 2002. “Me and my wife share a bedroom with my parents. I can’t live like this anymore. I need the housing I’ve been promised.”
Corruption is yet another important voter issue. The opposition accuses the government of hoarding land and selling it unlawfully. Though fishing is a traditional occupation in Bahrain, land reclaimed from the sea to create high-end office space and luxury residential areas has cut off fishing villages from the water. The Sheraton Hotel as well as the new Bahrain Stock Exchange sit on reclaimed land. The land reclamation project – officially known as ‘sustainability’– is so extensive today that there are no public beaches on the island.
UNLIKE IN MUCH OF THE ARAB WORLD, ELECTIONS are not a new phenomenon in Bahrain. Universal suffrage was instituted after Bahrain gained independence from Great Britain in 1971, and a 40-member parliament was elected in December 1973, but disagreements over budget transparency and the parliament’s condemnation of a proposed security law allowing the indefinite imprisonment of citizens led its dissolution in 1975. Many opposition members found themselves victims of the law they refused to pass and spent decades arbitrarily detained and tortured.
After 25 years of authoritarian rule, an era of hope emerged when a new king came to power in 1999. People cheered his planned reforms and in the Shi’i stronghold of Sitra, residents even hoisted him on their shoulders. Political prisoners were freed and Bahrainis in exile were invited back.
But officials who had tortured them were also pardoned. Many Shi’i intellectuals and politicians believed that a new constitution would be drafted using the values of the original constitution as its guideline. However, not only were they prevented from participating in drafting it, but the new constitution differed greatly from their hopes for political liberalization.
As a result, the opposition boycotted the first elections in 2002. Afterwards, many Shi’a felt this policy was counterproductive, leading several opposition parties to participate in the 2006 elections. That decision, however, created a schism within the opposition. While groups like the religious bloc al-Wefaq and the secular movement Wa’ad ran for parliament, elements within them broke away to form splinter groups like al-Haq and al-Wefa, whose members refused to participate in a system they felt was designed to work against them.
“We struggled for election rights almost 80 years. One of the main points in a democracy is the need for [the people] to write the constitution, not the government and the King,” says Hasan Mushaima, general secretary of the outlawed al-Haq movement, who resides in London and faces arrest upon return to Bahrain. Speaking with The Report by telephone, he says, “We want to participate in elections, but for a real parliament, which can issue rules for the people and stop the corruption of the country.
Even if all of the Shi’a had come out to vote against regime-backed candidates, royal initiatives would be safe. The new constitution introduced two parliamentary houses, an elected assembly of 40 deputies, and another with an equal amount of appointed “advisers” to the King. Though this council’s role is to review legislation originating in the parliament, with only 3 Shi’i members, its real function is to stymie laws the regime deems unfavorable.
Another tool the regime has used to hinder the opposition is gerrymandering. It has created arbitrary voting districts to limit the electoral power of the Shi’a. Though they form an overwhelming majority in the country, they can in theory only win 18 of the 40 electoral districts. The regime has increased the voting strength of the minority Sunnis by establishing districts with as little as 2,000 people in their areas while creating districts with as many as 20,000 people in Shi’i ones.
YET NOT ALL CANDIDATES BUY INTO THIS ARGUMENT. “The constitution is the main source of action in Bahrain,” says Esa al-Qadhi, an independent candidate. “People are fed up with these political issues. People have a choice, so why participate in the political process if you don’t accept the constitution?”
Hundreds of cars line up along the road leading to al-Qadhi’s two large red tents. Unlike most other campaign sites, these tents provide free-standing air-conditioners and sliding glass doors to insulate the gender-segregated crowds from the island’s sticky humidity. Elegant chandeliers illuminate the tents. Free shwarma sandwiches are carved up at a booth between the two tents.
Al-Qadhi was unknown a month before elections, but his massive advertising campaign attracted attention, at the expense of experienced candidates in his district. Many of his opponents had accused al-Qadhi of buying votes with his money, services and gifts, but he claimed to be all about transparency.
“People need services for their problems, not arguments,” claims al- Qadhi. “My vision is of one nation. Politics creates sectarianism.”
But though the electorate clamored for change, behavior during the campaign proved that more of the same was on the horizon.
A major concern during elections was Bahrain’s lack of press freedom. Ali Abdulman, Bahrain’s most famous blogger, who had provided a forum for Bahrainis to speak openly about politics and society was arrested as part of the security sweep in August.
Bahrain’s dailies praised loyalist candidates while attacking opposition candidates. The one semi-independent newspaper attempted objective coverage, but did so believing the security crackdown might target them next. The pan-Arab satellite channel al-Jazeera-was banned from Bahrain several weeks before the elections for airing programs unfavorable to the Bahraini government. Several international journalists were conspicuously followed by government intelligence agents. International observers were also prohibited from monitoring the elections.
Four opposition websites were blocked by the government, depriving them of the means to connect with voters. As a result, these groups, led by al-Wefaq, spearheaded a mass campaign utilizing social media like Facebook and Twitter to mobilize voters.
The government also tore down the billboards of several opposition candidates, including the giant orange signs featuring Dr. Muneera Fakhro, the leading Wa’ad candidate and a former professor at Columbia University, because she vowed to end government corruption.
Several tents serving as opposition headquarters were also burned down in the final week of campaigning. While there is no proof of government involvement, prominent opposition members have accused those responsible of being linked with loyalist candidates.
Al-Wefaq’s campaign slogan read, “Our Country, We Defend It.” Some view this as a warning, since the authorities prohibit Al-Wefaq’s supporters from joining the armed forces. Some see it as support for the dissident forces who have been the bane of government officials for the past five years. If the Shi’a do not see public efforts that heed their interests as the majority of the population and with the majority group in parliament, they may feel forced to settle their differences outside of the political realm once again.