Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Bahrain’s Opposition: The History of the Movement’s Dissolution

Bahrain’s authorities eliminated the two largest organizations that represented the main wings of the opposition.

Bahrain's Opposition
Bahraini police leave after dispersing protestors during clashes in the Shiite village of Shahrakkan, south of Manama on April 5, 2016. MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic.

Bahrain’s elections in November saw more than 330 candidates, including 73 women, competing for 40 seats in Parliament, a race that the country’s authorities deemed a great achievement given the record number of contenders.

International human rights organizations, however, were less celebratory, failing to see the breadth of the participation as a positive development as far as freedom of political action in the kingdom is concerned. Rather, these groups were unanimous in pointing out that the elections took place amid a calculated absence of all political opposition, thus striping the vote of any credibility.

Over the past six years, local and domestic policies have been influenced by the calculations of regional countries surrounding Bahrain, and the priorities of foreign interventions, leading gradually in the formation of today’s political scene.

As a result, Bahrain’s political life has been stripped of the relative diversity found in other constitutional monarchies such as Kuwait and Jordan, leading many to believe that the country’s current system of governance has become merely a democracy in name.

Elimination of the opposition in stages

The Bahraini authorities in recent years have gradually sidelined the opposition and paralyzed its ability to operate. On June 14, 2016, the authorities moved to dissolve the Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, which represents the largest Shiite Islamic opposition organization in the country.

On that day, a number of charges were leveled against the group, including “subservience to foreign powers, spreading terrorism and extremism in Bahraini society, and endangering civil peace.” It became evident that the Bahraini authorities were aiming to associate the viewpoints of the opposition Shiite community to Iranian meddling, which Bahrain accuses of attempting to destabilize its monarchy.

A year later, in May 2017, the authorities proceeded to dissolve the “National Democratic Action Society (Wa’ad),” which represents the secular, liberal wing of the Bahraini opposition. The charges this time involved committing “grave violations against the principle of respecting the rule of law, supporting terrorism, and covering up violence by glorifying those convicted in terrorism cases.”

In the run-up to this verdict being issued, Bahrain’s state media accused Wa’ad of implementing the agenda of the Shiite “Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society” in an attempt to implicate the organization in sectarian and regional polarization despite its clear secular stances.

Bahrain’s authorities thus eliminated the two largest organizations, which represented the main wings of the opposition – the Shiite religious wing and the liberal secular wing. This compromised the opposition’s organizational capacity and its ability to set up electoral campaigns.

For a finishing blow, the authorities carried out sporadic operations to arrest key opposition figures. As a result of these arrests, there are currently more than 4,500 political prisoners in Bahrain, according to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

In fact, at various times there have been more than 15,000 political activists in prison, a huge number compared to the number of Bahraini citizens, which are fewer than 713,000.

Judicial rulings and political isolation

In a bid to increase pressure on the opposition, the Bahraini courts issued harsh sentences on the arrested dissidents.

For example, in November 2018, the Supreme Court of Appel sentenced to life Sheikh Ali Salman, the head of the dissolved National Islamic Al-Wefaq Society. The court charged Salman with engaging with other governments such as Qatar and disclosing defense intelligence that compromised national security.

These types of judicial rulings became a deterrent in the hands of the authorities, allowing them to intimidate people active in public affairs who breached their red lines.

In addition to the life sentences in prison, there are 26 opposition activists awaiting death sentences issued by the Bahraini courts, after all means of appeal were exhausted.

All of these rulings came against the backdrop of issues related to their political activities. Currently, Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has the authority to sign and implement these sentences, or to grant royal pardons.

However, reports by international human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch indicate that the civil rights of the accused, such as the right to contact a lawyer, were never respected during the trials in the cases of all those arrested. There are also doubts regarding the credibility of the investigations, and the extent to which they involve confessions extracted under torture.

Finally, since 2018 Bahrain has implemented the Political Isolation Law to completely restrict the opposition’s ability to compete in elections. This law allows the government to prevent thousands of affiliates of dissolved organizations from running in the elections, or even serve as members of the boards of directors of local associations or public institutions.

The provisions of the law also stipulate the implementation of isolation procedures in perpetuity, without allowing those affected to object or appeal to the judicial authorities. The government has also been successful in concealing the precise number of persons impacted by enforcing these procedures on those in question without making the decisions publicly available.

Bahraini authorities’ concerns

The Bahraini government’s actions against dissidents are motivated by distinct political considerations. With a total size of no more than 765 square kilometers, Bahrain is a small nation made up of a major island that is home to the capital and a 32-island archipelago.

Throughout history, various countries and regional powers have tried to control this small country, due to its archipelago’s unique location in the heart of the Arabian Gulf, and the vast waters that lie among its islands.

Iran was the most significant of all the historical powers that sought to rule Bahrain’s islands; up until 1970, Iran made a formal demand that Bahrain be brought under its control.

In fact, Bahrain was given seats in Iran’s Parliament at that time by Iranian legislation, which regarded Bahrain as the 14th Persian directorate. Iran was unable to establish its military rule on Bahrain because it was at the time protected by the British.

Al Khalifa, the ruling family of Bahrain, were aware of the enthusiasm Shiites in Bahrain felt for the new Iranian government following the Iranian revolution and the proclamation of the Islamic Republic in Iran. The majority of Bahrain’s population adheres to the Twelver Shiite school of thought, in contrast to the Al Khalifa dynasty and the tribes in Bahrain that support them.

Simply put, Bahraini authorities feared the new Iranian administration’s ideological shifts would undermine the loyalty of Bahrain’s predominantly Shiite population. The regime was also concerned that Iran may seek to topple Bahrain’s government or meddle in Bahraini domestic affairs using sectarianism in order to advance its long-standing goals for these islands.

When members of the “Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain” attempted to stage a coup in 1981 to topple the Bahraini government, the worries of the Al Khalifa ruling family were confirmed. This front, an armed Bahraini Shiite movement, called for the establishment of a religious regime in Bahrain similar to Velayat-e Faqih, or Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist, in Iran.

At the time of the coup, the Front was led by Tehran-based cleric Hadi Modarari who, with the support of the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, recruited a group of young Shiites in Bahrain under the slogan “The uprising of all Muslims under the leadership of Imam Khomeini.” Despite the coup’s failure, the party continued to work from Tehran to achieve these goals, until it was dissolved in 2002.

Due to its demographic and historical ideological sensitivities, the Bahraini administration has come to consider all opposition movements that adopt a Shiite character, such as the “Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society,” with mistrust as a result of these events.

Additionally, the Bahraini regime’s concern over the size of the local Shiite opposition movements, which it views as a doorway through which Iran might meddle in its domestic affairs, grew as a consequence of Iranian media support for these groups.

Regarding the liberal opposition, the government views it as a way to aid the Shiite Islamist opposition. It increased its security response against the domestic political opposition as a result, including those who abstained from the public rallies against the regime.

Other regional factors

The Bahraini regime’s position against the domestic opposition was bolstered by a number of regional factors. Similar to how Tehran used the Houthis in Yemen to reach the western shores of the Arabian Gulf, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council identified in Bahrain’s opposition a means through which Iran could achieve its aspirations.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states continue to support the Bahraini government, even when doing so entails internal meddling in political affairs. An example of this is the arrival of the Peninsula Shield Forces in 2011 to support the regime against a popular uprising.

Western nations, on the other hand, take a number of variables into consideration, including the fact that Bahrain is home to the only British base in the Arabian Gulf and that the US Navy’s 5th Fleet Command is stationed in the “Juffair” region to the east of Bahrain’s capital, Manama. Because Bahrain’s archipelago of islands is spread out over a large maritime area, the American and British militaries are able to control the Gulf’s oil supply routes owing to their presence in Bahrain.

Therefore, the US and Britain have always turned a blind eye when it comes to human rights violations in Bahrain due to the advantages of Western countries’ military collaboration with the Bahraini administration and their worries that any political changes could disrupt this cooperation.

The Shiite majority in Bahrain is another concern for Western nations, as is the likelihood that any political shift could bring about the rise of a new government linked with Tehran. And even while the United States has occasionally made public statements denouncing Bahrain’s limits on freedoms, this hasn’t stopped it from signing arms deals with the Bahraini government.

All of these internal and external factors played a role in the Bahraini opposition’s exclusion from the political scene and its inability to participate in the most recent elections. The bulk of the new Parliament’s members are independent, allowing the regime to exercise influence over certain aspects of legislative affairs without being constrained by any sizable opposition blocs.

With such a weak Parliament, the dictatorship can restrict opponents’ freedoms and expand its control over public freedoms, which will only put more pressure on the opposition.

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