Bahrain: united on ends, divided on means?

Bahrain: united on ends, divided on means?
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To what extent then do the demonstrations since February put inter-communal peace at risk in Bahrain?

A YouGov-Cambridge poll conducted whilst protestors occupied the Pearl Roundabout in central Manama but before the entry of Saudi forces into the country provides some answers, but those answers are far from unambiguous. Those who see the protests as a portent of Sunni-Shi’a antagonism would point to how responses of the two religious denominations differ strongly to key questions about the country’s present situation. Most strikingly, 86% of Shi’a Bahrainis see the current protests as “the true voice of the people of Bahrain”, whilst only 9% of Sunni Bahrainis agree; instead, 62% of Sunnis see them as the “result of external interference from neighbouring countries”, adhering to the Bahraini government’s claim that Iranian meddling lies behind the demonstrations, a view which only 2% of Shi’a accept.

This difference brings back long-standing fears of the major power to Bahrain’s north – Iran formally abandoned its claim to sovereignty over Bahrain in 1971, but the issue still has strong resonances in both countries – which in turn raises inter-communal suspicions, especially when accusations of collaboration fly.

Sunni and Shi’a in Bahrain interpret the current protests in diverging ways, but do their actual ambitions differ greatly? Here the poll results are somewhat more favourable. When asked to select from a list what values respondents would like to see improve in Bahrain, the most popular response from both Sunni and Shi’a is that of “equal rights to all citizens”: 76% of Shi’a rate this as the highest or second highest priority, whilst 62% of Sunnis likewise rate it as their first or second choice. The underlying current is the significant and long-standing disparity between Sunni and Shi’a in access to the labour market, particularly in the state sector. Whilst over the past decades this has meant that many Shi’a families have become wealthy through acting as private entrepreneurs, a large majority of Bahrain’s poor are Shi’a. Their restricted political influence – there is an elected lower house of parliament, but its power is curtailed by a fully appointed upper house and executive – has also entailed limited redress against actions of Bahrain’s security forces. This feature has become most visible with the deaths of protestors in the on-going demonstrations, night-raids against homes, and deaths in police custody, all of which have principally affected Shi’a…

This difference brings back long-standing fears of the major power to Bahrain’s north – Iran formally abandoned its claim to sovereignty over Bahrain in 1971, but the issue still has strong resonances in both countries – which in turn raises inter-communal suspicions, especially when accusations of collaboration fly. 

Sunni and Shi’a in Bahrain interpret the current protests in diverging ways, but do their actual ambitions differ greatly? Here the poll results are somewhat more favourable. When asked about to select from a list what values respondents would like to see improve in Bahrain, the most popular response from both Sunni and Shi’a is that of “equal rights to all citizens”: 76% of Shi’a rate this as the highest or second highest priority, whilst 62% of Sunnis likewise rate it as their first or second choice. The underlying current is the significant and long-standing disparity between Sunni and Shi’a in access to the labour market, particularly in the state sector. Whilst over the past decades this has meant that many Shi’a families have become wealthy through acting as private entrepreneurs, a large majority of Bahrain’s poor are Shi’a. Their restricted political influence – there is an elected lower house of parliament, but its power is curtailed by a fully appointed upper house and executive – has also entailed limited redress against actions of Bahrain’s security forces. This feature that has become most visible with the deaths of protestors in the on-going demonstrations, night-raids against homes, and deaths in police custody, all of which have principally affected Shi’a…

Through the significance attributed to equality in polling results, one can conclude that both Sunni and Shi’a recognise the scale of the socio-economic and political problems that arise out of long-standing inter-communal disparities. Both groups seem to recognise that overcoming these disparities will be a major task of any future government. What they remain divided on though is the means through which they should be addressed. When asked about who “has the qualities to take Bahrain forward”, only 6% of Bahraini Shia have confidence in the prime minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who has held that post since 1971, and is the uncle of the King Hamad. Prince Khalifa, having dominated Bahrain’s politics for forty years, has been the target of many of the protests, and is blamed by many Shi’a for having failed systematically over that time to address the country’s disparities. Nevertheless, 59% of Sunni Bahrainis still see him as a suitable leader, making him by a large margin the most favoured political figure in that community.

Perhaps the most illustrative difference over means comes from answers to a question about the future of the monarchy. When asked to choose between a “powerful monarch”, a “modern constitutional monarch” in which “the monarch is a figurehead, but has no political power”, and “no monarch at all”, almost three-quarters (73%) of Sunni Bahrainis opt for the powerful monarch whilst more than three-quarters (78%) of Shi’a Bahrainis opt for a figurehead monarch. Only a relatively small proportion – 4% of Sunnis, 13% of Shi’a – wants to do away with the monarchy as a whole. Sunni Bahrainis still have faith that the political system that has largely served them well can continue to address the country’s problems, whereas most Shi’a think significant structural changes are needed for this to be achieved. Nevertheless, even for the Shi’a, few are seeking the overthrow of the monarchical system, indicating that careful management by the rulers remains a viable strategy for preserving the kingdom.

One of the central questions that will be engaged in any attempt by the current rulers to move the country out of crisis is the future role of Shi’a-led political parties in the government of Bahrain. Here the actions of the government have vacillated – after announcing the legal disbanding of two parties in mid-April on grounds that they were harming ‘national unity’, it then decided to defer this measure a day later. One of these parties, al-Wafeq, forms the largest bloc in the lower house of parliament, with 18 of the 40 seats. The polling results again here indicate the division between Bahrain’s sectarian groups: 50% of Shi’a Bahrainis choose al-Wafeq as their first choice for a party to be involved in the governance of Bahrain, and 49% see its leader, Ali Salman, as having the qualities needed to take Bahrain forward. However, only 3% of Sunnis have this opinion of Salman, who was exiled by the government in 1995 and returned with an amnesty in 2001. Half of Shi’a Bahrainis also favour a role for Sheikh Isa Qassim, one of Bahrain’s two preeminent Shi’a clerics, as having the qualities necessary to lead the country, even though Qassim has himself formally disavowed a political role. Again, only 3% of Sunnis would agree. For many Shi’a, the secular goal of equal rights is to be achieved through the inclusion of their leaders – both political and religious – within government, and efforts by the government to prohibit leading parties is unlikely to sway that stance; on that issue, at least, disagreement between Bahrain’s two communities remains.

Bahrain’s politics has long relied upon a sense of inter-communal mistrust to uphold the current structures of rule. The fear that many Sunnis hold that greater rights and power for Bahrain’s Shi’a entails will bring Iranian interference into the country’s politics is a significant impediment to reform. However, only 29% of Bahrain’s Shi’a record that they “strongly approve” of the Iranian government; 38% want closer links with Iran, whilst an almost-equal number (35%) would like to keep relations in the frosty state that they are in at the moment. It is unlikely that Bahrain’s future will be shaped by the actions of its northern neighbour, but suspicion of it distinctly colours relations within Bahrain itself.

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