More than sixteen months have passed since the start of Bahrain’s “Sunni Awakening”—the mass political mobilization of Sunni citizens launched exactly one week into last year’s Shi‘a-led uprising. While the unprecedented scale of the counter-movement was and still remains clear (supporters famously, if implausibly, claimed attendance of more than 300,000), what exactly it represented is as much a puzzle now as it was then. The leaders of the nascent associations—the National Unity Gathering (NUG) and, later, the al-Fatih Awakening (Sahwat al-Fatih, so-named for the mosque where its rallies take place)—were not the familiar faces of the country’s established Sunni political societies, but individuals with relatively little history of direct political involvement. Initially aiming only to halt the momentum of anti-government demonstrations, the coalitions soon invoked platforms of their own and demanded tougher crackdowns on protesters—sometimes  even expressing wider aims, like ending corruption and empowering parliament.

More than a year later, these platforms remain ambiguous. Does the post-February explosion of popular political enthusiasm in this only-too-recently apolitical community represent a genuine shift in Bahrain’s political landscape? Or is the mobilization tied somehow to existing Sunni political powers—or even to the state itself?

These are not questions asked only by outside observers. Sahwat al-Fatih’s members split from the National Unity Gathering precisely because they saw it as having been co-opted by the government. Yet Sahwat al-Fatih’s novelty and independence is similarly contested; with much of its leadership and many of its supporters linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, some view it as a youth-oriented proxy of the Brotherhood-affiliated Al-Menbar National Islamic Society. Given the poor performance of both al-Menbar and the Salafi al-Asalah in the 2010 parliamentary elections, Bahrainis seem to recognize that if either group wanted to mobilize popular action and support in early 2011, it would have been wise (and perhaps necessary) to do so outside the framework of the formal political society. 

Doubts about the true nature of these movements are likewise driven by a continued lack of concrete policy demands beyond generic support for the security services and rejection of government concessions to the main Shi‘a opposition society, al-Wefaq. When movement leaders have articulated substantive (occasionally even bold) positions, these assertions are often followed by retreats or outright denials, feeding suspicions about their willingness to meaningfully challenge the ruling family. In the most famous instance, NUG head Abd al-Latif Al Mahmud suggested in an August 2011 interview with The Washington Times that Bahrain’s hawkish prime minster of 41 years should step down once the uprising was under control. Mere hours after the article’s publication, the NUG issued a formal denial carried subsequently in the official Bahrain News Agency, saying that the paper had misrepresented his remarks.

These same movements, however, have actively demanded an independent voice at the negotiating table, and even helped derail the latest attempt at government-opposition dialogue initiated in March by the hard-line Royal Court Minister Khalid bin Ahmad. The state’s thinking, apparently, was that by involving the most uncompromising member of the Al Khalifa from the beginning, it might otherwise avoid the talks being undermined later. The problem, however, proved to be not Sheikh Khalid, but the reaction of the newly emboldened Sunni movements. As in countless previous initiatives, Bahrain’s rulers sought to engage in backroom negotiations with leaders of the formal opposition, reaching out personally to al-Wefaq and at least three other well-known nationalist and liberal societies. Conspicuously missing was any political grouping that mobilizes around Sunni identity.

Sahwat al-Fatih immediately rallied against the initiative not because it signaled capitulation to the opposition, but specifically because the group had been overlooked. To that end, al-Fatih adopted the slogan “No dialogue without al-Fatih.” On the other hand, Al Mahmud declared a boycott of the dialogue until the opposition ended protest activities, despite the fact that the NUG had not been invited anyhow. Soon NUG supporters wondered publicly why their leadership had voluntarily excluded them from whatever concessions the government might offer. “A boycott,” said one angry editorial in the conservative daily Al-Watan, “would mean that the hundreds of thousands who stand behind the [NUG] won’t make their voices heard at the dialogue table.” Under this pressure, Al Mahmud and the NUG reversed their decision, joining al-Fatih in demanding participation.

Faced with these changed expectations, the government opted to pull the plug on the dialogue before it even began. From the standpoint of the regime (which is attempting to forestall popular demands for a greater role in political decision-making), the prospect of cross-sectarian coordination is the most worrying of scenarios. Until now, the government has succeeded in portraying the demands of the Shi‘a and secular opposition as unrepresentative of—and even detrimental to—the interests of other citizens by raising the specter of Iranian or Western influence. Indeed, the fear of association with this opposition has precluded many Sunni citizens from forcefully voicing grievances they nonetheless share: concerns over systemic corruption; a parliamentary framework that institutionalizes political polarization and the domination of elites; and the continued recruitment of foreigners for police and military service at a time when many citizens already lack adequate housing and employment. The last thing Bahrain’s ruling family is prepared to do is sit at the negotiating table with both Shi‘a and Sunni political societies. 

Today, there are renewed rumors of government-opposition talks. Former al-Wefaq MP Jasim Husain even writes of a “looming fresh political dialogue” spurred by redoubled U.S. pressure, the “strengthening” of the moderate Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad, and a newfound government willingness to engage. Other signs include a recent spat involving the Secretary General of al-Wefaq, Ali Salman, and Field Marshal Sheikh Khalifa bin Ahmad Al Khalifa. A day after security personnel vandalized his home, Sheikh Ali used a half-hour address at an opposition rally to taunt the Minister of Defense and the Commander-in-Chief of the Bahrain Defense Force, saying of mass protests during the uprising: "We love this nation (which includes you) and we are merciful…and if not for this mercy, fear, and love, one would have worn a funeral shroud on March 15 or 16 2001 and set off a battle of devastating proportions.” He added, addressing the field-marshal directly: “Your Excellency, you should know that we haven’t used even 50% of the power of this people […] and that with two words of a fatwa tens of thousands would be ready to die.” Such bravado by the al-Wefaq leader is thought to have been an attempt to raise his standing among more radical members of the opposition in order to facilitate their acceptance of any eventual agreement with the government. (Its effectiveness is a separate matter.)

Renewed hope of political dialogue would suggest one of two things. Either Bahrain is taking a page out of Saudi Arabia’s botched GCC union playbook and organizing a conference without securing participants’ agreement beforehand; else the government has forged some understanding with Sunni groups like the NUG and Sahwat al-Fatih. The latter would seem more logical. Absent changed expectations about the initiative’s outcome, why would the state embark on a new enterprise just three months removed from an overt failure?

Yet whether now or a year from now, a renewed effort to end Bahrain’s festering political standoff will eventually materialize; with it will come the final answer to the nature of Bahrain’s new Sunni movements. If they relent in their demands to participate in any dialogue involving the government and the opposition, the limits of their political agenda will be plain, and we may rightly label them (as some already do) as the opposition only to the opposition. On the other hand, if the leaders of the National Unity Gathering and Sahwat al-Fatih remain steadfast in their insistence on seats at the bargaining table—and not simply separate, bilateral negotiations with the government—one may have more confidence that this post-February appearance of Sunni movements indeed marks a fundamental evolution in Bahraini politics, and has opened the door for genuine change.

Justin Gengler is a senior researcher at the Doha-based Social and Economic Survey Research Institute. In 2009 he undertook the first-ever mass political survey of Bahraini citizens as part of his dissertation on sectarian political mobilization in the Gulf. He also maintains a blog on Bahraini politics.