Why Bahrain's Shiite majority is restless despite election gains

Bahrain's Shiite majority now holds 18 of 40 seats in parliament. But Shiites are increasingly upset with the Sunni monarchy, which arrested 23 dissidents in the run-up to this week's election.

By , Contributor

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    Election observers for the Shiite opposition al-Wefaq Party count voters emerging from a polling station, on Oct. 23, in the village of Dumistan, Bahrain.
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Flanked by anti-regime graffiti and standing next to a dumpster torched during protests last month, Mazen complains that Bahran's king has broken a promise to open up his country's political process.

“We thought we were heading toward reform,” says the carpenter, who asked that his full name not be used. “None of that was real. We are worse off now than we were 10 years ago.”

That pessimism, shared by many of Mazen's neighbors, is a far cry from the hope that accompanied King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa’s ascension to the throne in 1999. In 2001, many of Bahrain's Shiites welcomed a limited democratic opening by Hamad, which they anticipated would pave the way for a greater Shiite voice in the government.

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For almost 30 years since independence from the UK in 1971, Bahrain had been ruled by a Sunni monarchy led by Hamad's father, Isa, until his death in 1999. So Hamad's promise of political reform two years later was met with enthusiasm by the country's Shiite majority. In 2001 Hamad restored a parliament that had been suspended in 1974, released political prisoners, and invited dissidents home.

And in this past weekend's parliamentary election, the leading Shiite opposition group won another seat in the lower house of parliament, where it now holds 18 of the 40 positions.

Yet in the poor Shiite neighborhood of Sitra where Mazen lives, youths have engaged in sporadic clashes with security forces over the past two months. Why? The government arrested 23 Shiite dissidents. That's part of a broader crackdown that's alienated much of the Shiite majority, which complains democratic reforms have done little to improve their historically second-class status.

Bahraini Shiites

The Shiite sect of Islam broke from the mainstream Sunnis in the late 7th century over the question of the Prophet Muhammad's rightful successor. Though a minority in the overall Islamic world they are a majority on this tiny island, just as they are in Iran, the major regional power on Bahrain's doorstep. In Bahrain, Shiites are estimated at about 70 percent of the population. Rule by a Sunni minority has fed sectarian tensions in the country.

The regime has angered the Shiites by denying them access to government jobs. Most ministries have a policy of not hiring them and they are largely barred from serving in the security forces. Instead of employing resident Bahrainis to defend the country, the monarchy has imported Sunni Arabs from Jordan and Yemen to crackdown on Shiite protesters and dissidents.

Bahraini opposition politicians and exiles say the monarchy has rewarded these foreigners by giving them citizenship, seeking to shift the demographic balance in favor of Sunnis. These foreigners are fast-tracked to receive government-subsidized housing while many Shiites have waited 15 years to claim the same right.

“They take our jobs, our land, and our benefits,” says Ali, a teacher. “Tell me, why I should support the king? What has he done for me?”

Tensions reached a boiling point in August when the regime arrested 23 Shiite dissidents and charged them with attempting to overthrow the government and engaging in terrorism. It also recently stripped prominent Shiite cleric Ayatollah Hussein al-Najati of his citizenship.

Driving a wedge

The government has tried to drive a wedge between the Shiites and Sunnis, who share many of the same grievances. It has sought to depict the Shiites as an Iranian fifth column that threatens Sunni rule on the island.

Bahrain was ruled by an Iranian dynasty between the 16th and 18th centuries and Tehran only gave up its claim to the island in 1970.

And amidst the revolutionary fervor that brought them to power in 1979, the mullahs in Iran sought to export their revolution to neighboring countries. In 1981, the Bahraini government announced that it had arrested 71 people affiliated with an-Iranian backed group that sought to overthrow the regime.

Tehran has long renounced trying to undermine other Islamic nations but Bahrain's monarchy overstates Iran's influence to keep disgruntled Sunnis in line. The monarchy has claimed to have uncovered Iranian-backed plots to overthrow the monarchy, but has never proffered credible proof to back them.

Yet though the island’s Shiites identify with their Iranian coreligionists, they deny that their loyalties lie beyond their borders.

“Iran is a source of Shiite power, and we see it the way Jews in America view Israel,” explains Sheikh Ali Salman, the political leader of al-Wefaq, the largest Shiite political party, who studied in the Iranian religious center of Qom. “Not speaking out against Israel when they disagree with its policies doesn’t mean their loyalties lie with Israel. It is no different with us and Iran.”

Saudi ties

Demonizing the Shiites and highlighting the Iranian threat also curries favor with Bahrain’s patrons in Saudi Arabia. As the Sunni power in the Persian Gulf, the Saudis have long feared the Iranians harbor regional aspirations that would weaken Riyadh’s position in the Arab and Islamic worlds. And the current impasse over Tehran’s nuclear program has stoked a strong fire.

By calling attention to the Iranian threat, the Bahrainis assure that the Saudis will come to their defense.

Riyadh has responded to Bahrain’s alarm in the past by propping up the regime. It offers the island nation financial subsidies and allows it to draw from an off-shore oil field.

Bahrain’s crackdown against the Shiite population does not bode well for a country whose democratic reforms were once praised by President George Bush in his 2005 State of the Union address.

Election day passed with relatively few irregularities but this came after weeks of government efforts to stifle the oppositions message by controlling the media and tampering with campaign efforts. There is a popular belief on the street that Bahrain’s allies have allowed security concerns – real or perceived – to trump democratic values.

Steven Sotloff is on a one-month fellowship with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. He is based in Yemen.

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