In the wake of increasing street violence in Bahrain—a far cry from the peaceful rallies of February and March 2011—the Bahraini regime is attempting to restart dialogue with the opposition. Initiated by a leading representative of the ruling dynasty’s hardliners, Royal Court Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, the dialogue involves pre-conditions that the opposition is unlikely to accept—most notably the acceptance of the 2002 constitution which has deprived parliament of any meaningful power—and has yet to convince the opposition of its sincerity. If started, the dialogue will have difficulty in achieving genuine rapprochement, as the political scene has undergone increasingly prevalent fragmentation. In this environment, describing the actors simply as “the regime” and “the opposition” becomes problematic.
The Proliferation of Opposition Groups
The opposition’s splintering was already a reality before the uprising. After al-Wefaq’s decision to participate in the 2006 parliamentary elections—despite gerrymandering, fraud, and limitations imposed on parliament—several officials split and founded al-Haqq, a movement advocating boycott of elections as long as the 2002 constitution remains in force. While al-Wefaq is still content to maintain the battle cry of last year (“the People want reform of the system”) and to posit constitutional monarchy as the solution to Bahrain’s problems, al-Haqq has joined with al-Wafa and the Islamic Bahrain Freedom Movement in the Coalition for a Bahraini Republic, a project in which the Al Khalifa dynasty is assigned no place at all. The two opposition groups pose completely different visions of reform in Bahrain—and the monarchy deals with them accordingly: al-Wefaq is the only opposition force that can organize legal demonstrations and has been less targeted by repression than other political societies (none of its leaders, notably, are currently in prison).
But while al-Wefaq remains dominant among advocates of a constitutional monarchy, the regime-change camp has been deeply reshaped in 2011’s aftermath. As the leaders of the formal groups—al-Haqq and al-Wafa—serve out life sentences in prison, youth movements have taken the lead under the February 14 Coalition, which some have deemed the current most powerful opposition movement. Described by its members as a “byproduct of the revolution,” the coalition is not entirely new; it can be considered a political manifestation of the bahrainonline.org site founded in 1998 by Ali Abd al-Imam (who is currently in hiding) and which quickly became a major forum for opposition groups. Today, the movement has a logo and a charter, but beyond these formalities, it is difficult to appraise, having no identified leader or members of note. The adopted anonymity allows the group to operate in an extremely repressive environment, but also reflects an attitude of resentment toward the very idea of traditional political formalization. Conversely, however, the coalition doesn’t always speak with one voice, and several groups within it seem to act autonomously. These subgroups exhibit strong local identities and are named for cities or townships: for example, the Sitra Youth, the Sanabis Youth, the Movement of the Diraz Youth. This tendency to provincialization—even on the Internet—is unsurprising given the spread of security forces across the country and their ability to constrain the free circulation of reformers.
In the future, however, the loose nature of the February 14 Coalition could cause internal tensions and splits; if al-Wefaq succeeds in brokering a deal, the group will have to reorient itself around the agreement. While the group has been making increasingly radical demands, there are signs that some elements could endorse a deal if constitutional amendments that gave more powers to parliament were included. Here, it is worth remembering that February 14 refers not only to the date of the first 2011 demonstration but also to the King’s promises in the National Action Charter submitted to popular referendum on that date in 2001—which includes the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. Thus, demands were initially framed in the context of what was perceived as a legitimate contract between the ruler and the people.
The Twists and Turns of Dynastic Rule
The regime has had splits of its own: King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has had to arbitrate with at least three power centers in the last year. Before the 2011 uprising, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa was the rising figure within the dynasty; young, Western educated, and liberal-minded, he has long been the sweetheart of Western diplomats and is regarded by al-Wefaq as the best card in the regime.
But the ascent of the crown prince has been at the expense of his great-uncle, Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who heads the dynasty’s old guard. Khalifa’s power rests largely on networks within the private sector—particularly among the merchant families who have been a pillar of the ruling family for decades. Their interests have been hit hard by the crown prince’s reforms—most notably those of the labor market, which encouraged Bahraini youth to participate in the private sector as a means of tackling huge national unemployment. In order to overcome the merchants’ reluctance to employ more costly Bahraini labor, taxes were imposed on the use of expatriate workers.
Additionally, a duo has recently emerged as a third power within the dynasty: Royal Court Minister Khaled bin Ahmed Al Khalifa and the Minister of Defense and Commander-in-Chief of the Army Khalifa bin Ahmed Al Khalifa (they are, incidentally, brothers). Their relationship with the prime minister is unclear. Since the uprising, the minister of defense has made regular comments castigating foreign influence, pointing to Iran but also to the United States and the United Kingdom for halting arms deals to Bahrain. The royal court minister, although less controversial, is no less uncompromising; the opposition is particularly fearful of him, believing him to be the main sponsor of radical Sunni Islamist movements—a claim endorsed by external observers. At this stage, it is still undetermined whether the new dialogue he is supposed to lead is merely a charade for the regime to legitimize itself on the world stage.
The uprising has shifted the balance among these three dynastic power centers. Key to restoring order was the March 2011 intervention of (mainly) Saudi troops under the banner of the joint GCC military force Peninsula Shield , but whether the intervention was made after a request—or imposed by the Saudis—is unknown. What is clear is that the intervention put a sudden end to the dialogue between the crown prince and al-Wefaq and amounted to his disavowal; suddenly, bin Salman found himself sidelined by an alliance between the hardliners and the Saudis. And while the crown prince still has the support of the UK and the United States, it is unlikely that they are ready to go head-to-head with the Saudis on his behalf.
New Players: the Sunni Islamist Activists
New Sunni movements have complicated the landscape. Prior to the uprising, the regime tried to mold Sunnis into a captive constituency by systematically presenting the governmentas the best rampart against “Iran-supported Shi‘i sectarianism.” This sectarian strategy brought the Muslim Brotherhood (organized under the name of their political society, al-Minbar) and the Salafis (al-Asala) into the regime’s fold. Sunni Islamist activists have not necessarily been unconditional in their support; on several occasions they have expressed a political vision of their own which (among other things) involves more respect for Islamic orthopraxy in public spaces and more power for parliament. So far, they have refrained from pushing too much for fear of empowering the Shi‘a opposition movements.
2011 radicalized and fragmented the Sunni Islamist activist milieu. In March 2011, the cleric Abd al-Latif al-Mahmud organized the National Union Gathering (NUG) at Bahrain’s largest Sunni mosque, al-Fatih. Mistakenly regarded by many as a massive pro-regime rally, the NUG actually signaled a new dynamic within the Sunni population. Mahmud distinguished himself in the early nineties by a petition demanding the reinstatement of the parliament (it had been disbanded in 1975)—a demand that cost him his job as professor in Islamic studies at the University of Bahrain. His opposition to the revolution was not a defense of the status quo, but rather reflected an autonomous vision of his own: one that demands increased legislative power, stigmatizes the Shi‘a-led opposition for its anti-Sunni tendencies and subservience to Iran, and demands that Sunnis receive a full voice in negotiations to solve the crisis.
In the last weeks of 2011, a youth movement split from the NUG. It currently calls itself the Sahwat al-Fatih (“al-Fatih Awakening”) in reference to its Friday rallies at the mosque of the same name. Like the February 14 Coalition, it refuses to organize into a traditional political group and criticizes the older leadership of NUG for doing so, accusing it of preoccupation with the consolidation of its leaders’ power. Sahwat al-Fatih also advocates stronger action to counter the opposition’s violence, and is particularly sensitive to the issue of Western pressure on Bahrain (at one point, organizing a rally called “Hands off Bahrain”) and perceives any concession from the regime to the opposition as a betrayal of its loyal supporters. Unsurprisingly, as soon as news of dialogue between the government and al-Wefaq spread, the Fatih Youth made known that they would refuse to accept any dialogue that did not include them.
Though present before the protests of the past year, the extent of the current fragmentation is unprecedented in Bahrain’s recent history and deeply complicates negotiations for a solution to the current stalemate. In the unlikely case that dialogue between the regime hardliners and al-Wefaq were to achieve anything tangible, both camps will be hard pressed to sell it to multiplicity of subgroups that have sprouted up.
Laurence Louër is a research fellow at Sciences-Po, the Centre for International Research and Studies (CERI), Centre for National Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris.
* Correction, 9/11/2012: This article has been edited to reflect that only the leaders of the formal opposition groups al-Haqq and al-Wafa are serving life sentences. The leader of al-Wa'ad received a sentence of five years.