Bahrain politics: Agitated

FROM THE ECONOMIST INTELLIGENCE UNIT

The atmosphere leading up to Bahrain’s parliamentary election in the end of October is getting increasingly tense as the government has arrested several leading opposition figures and cracked down on street protestors. The agitation serves to highlight the disaffection of a significant portion of the population, but there is still likely to sufficient participation in the election to give it some vestige of legitimacy.

On August 14th-15th, four opposition activists, including Abdel-Jalil Singace, the head of the extra-parliamentary group Haq, were arrested on charges of forming “an organised network aiming to shake the security and stability of the country,” according to an official from Bahrain’s national security service. Mr Singace had previously been arrested and released in 2009. Another of those detained, Sheikh Mohammed al-Moqdad, had been arrested and released only as recently as July for “instigating an unlicensed demonstration” while visiting an injured man at a hospital. The government arrested an additional four opposition activists later that week, including a leading figure from the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, an NGO. According to a report from the official Bahrain News Agency, several of the detained activists have admitted to receiving funding from groups that “incite violence. The implicit reference to external financing is likely to prompt speculation that Iran may be involved in fomenting unrest among Bahraini Shias, many of whom look to the Islamic Republic and to Lebanon’s main Shia movement, Hizbullah, for inspiration.

Retrograde step

In reaction to these arrests, several street protests took place to call for the release of the activists. The police arrested 12 after tyres and rubbish skips were set alight according to a report in the Gulf Daily News, a local English language daily. The crackdown on these protestors attracted comments from Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of al-Wefaq, a mainly Shia group that constitutes the largest bloc of MPs in the elected lower house of Bahrain’s parliament. Sheikh Salman said the government’s actions have “destroyed ten years of progress in this country”, referring back to the 1990s when Bahrain endured significant civil unrest. Regional players like Saudi Arabia and the US have an interest in a politically stable Bahrain, albeit for different reasons. Bahrain serves as the financial hub for the Gulf Co-operation Council, with many of its offshore banks holding the assets of regional investors. Bahrain is also the host of the US Fifth Fleet, which is currently expanding its base in Manama, the capital.

Boycott threat

The government has been quiet on the fact that all of the arrested opposition figures are Shias, the Muslim religious community that forms the bulk of Bahrain’s population, presumably to avoid adding an overtly sectarian dimension to the current electoral campaign. The Bahraini royal family is Sunni Muslim and the government is dominated by Sunnis. We expect voter turnout to be quite low as Bahrain’s Shia population has been largely excluded from the political process and influential Shia groups that operate outside of parliament, such as Haq, will call for a boycott of the election in protest of parliament’s limited powers. The parliament’s composition will likely remain unchanged however, with al-Wefaq expected to remain the largest bloc. The two leading Sunni societies, al-Menbar (associated with the Muslim Brotherhood) and al-Asala (a salafi or puritanical movement) have agreed to co-operate in an effort to cut into al-Wefaq’s representation.

Bahrain is only one of three countries in the GCC with an elected lower house of parliament (Kuwait is the other—Oman has an elected upper house) and eagerly promotes its democratic credentials to economic partners like the US or European countries. At the same time, it has struggled with its human rights reputation and protests are relatively frequent. The government’s recent efforts to crackdown on opposition figures and protestors will likely reinforce the sectarian divide between ‘the rulers’ and ‘the ruled’ in the country, further alienating some Bahrainis from their government.
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