Bahrain is something of an anomaly among the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. While its ruling family and as much as 30 percent of its population are Sunni Muslims, the overwhelming majority of its citizens are Shi’ites. One of the first major oil exporters in the region, it was also the first of the Gulf “oil sheikhdoms” to face significant depletion of its petroleum reserves and the need to make the transition to a non-resource-based economy. Further, although it is far from qualifying as a free country, Bahrain also stands apart from other Gulf states in its relatively high degree of social and cultural openness: the sale and consumption of alcohol are permitted; movie theaters, discos and labor unions are allowed; freedom of worship is present; the press is somewhat free; the NGO sector is active (albeit regulated and constrained); and there is even a significant—albeit limited—degree of democracy.
While political parties are officially banned in Bahrain, an assortment of “political societies,” most of them sectarian and Islamist, field slates of candidates for legislative elections, and in general function as political parties in all but name. The royal family has attempted to preserve Bahrain’s stability (and their rule) by playing off Shi’ites against Sunnis and Islamists against secularists. Until recently, this strategy worked rather well. Although a few Bahrainis have traveled overseas to join in jihad, and others have been involved in providing financial or logistical support for al-Qaeda, Islamism in Bahrain has maintained an almost exclusively domestic focus, with recent Islamist efforts directed at confronting “morality” issues through political action rather than violence. While the presence of the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain would appear to make the country an attractive target for anti-American terrorism, neither Bahrain’s government nor its Islamists appear ready to condone or facilitate such attacks.
Bahrain’s majority Shi’ite population is significantly poorer than its Sunni minority counterpart, and complains of discrimination in employment (particularly with regard to senior-level government and security-service jobs), housing, immigration policy, and government services. Accordingly, the Shi’ite opposition—which is almost entirely Islamist in character—has an agenda largely based around the attempt to redress these inequalities, in addition to more traditional Islamist goals such as imposing sharia law. The political and economic goals of the Shi’ite opposition include:
- Genuine democracy, in which the Shi'ite community, as the majority population, would have a much greater say in legislating and setting policy. This would necessitate the rewriting of Bahrain’s constitution, as well as revising an electoral district system that favors Sunni candidates.1
- The dismantling, or at least a substantial weakening, of Bahrain's internal-security apparatus, and the release of political prisoners.
- Economic justice, including equality of opportunity in employment and equal provision of government services.
- Equal access to positions of authority in the government bureaucracy and the military/security services.
- An end to Bahrain’s policy of facilitating Sunni immigration, which is perceived as a governmental effort to reduce or eliminate the Shi’ite demographic advantage. (Participants in the February 2011 demonstrations noted that many of the security personnel confronting them were immigrants from other Arab countries, and even Urdu-speaking Pakistanis, who had been granted Bahraini citizenship as an inducement to serve in the Bahraini security services.2 )
- Traditional Islamist moral and social issues, such as the elimination of alcohol, prostitution, and other “evils” from the kingdom, the application of Sharia law, etc.
It is worth noting that most Bahraini Shi’ites are adherents of the Akhbari school of Twelver Shi’ism, as opposed to Iranian Shi’ites (and most Iraqi Shi’ites), who are members of the more common Usuli Twelver faction. Among other differences, Akhbaris believe that while clerics can and should advise political leaders, they should not seek or be given direct political power. As Akhbaris, Bahraini Shi’ites have traditionally claimed that they are loyal to the state and to its ruling family, seeking change within the system rather than wanting to overthrow it.3 The Bahraini Shi’ite community does not have its own marja (“source of emulation”) or any other religious figure of sufficient stature to constitute a Khomeini-style threat to the Bahraini establishment.
Despite the Shi’ite community’s assertions of loyalty to Bahrain and its governing family (if not to its Constitution), many Bahraini Sunnis accuse the Shi’ites of being suspiciously close, culturally and politically, to Iran; the fact that Bahraini Shi’ite clerics are often trained in Iran adds some credibility to this accusation. Shi’ites respond by pointing out that many Bahraini Sunnis have just as much cultural connection to Iran, and that quite a few of these Sunnis in fact speak Farsi, rather than Arabic, at home.
The Bahraini government and others in the Sunni elite, as well as outside commentators concerned about Iranian influence in the region, have repeatedly claimed that Shi’ite unrest in Bahrain is the product of Iranian scheming, aided by allies and proxies such as Syria and Hezbollah. At first glance, such accusations are plausible: Iran is certainly not averse to meddling in other countries’ affairs, and Iranian officials occasionally reassert their country’s historical claim on Bahrain as Iranian territory.4 However, no concrete, convincing evidence has ever been produced to back these claims, and neutral observers have pointed out that Shi’ite unrest can be quite adequately explained by the genuine grievances of Bahraini Shi’ites.5 The recent unrest has not strengthened the case for an Iranian conspiracy to destabilize Bahrain; nothing in the protestors’ goals or tactics is inconsistent with what would be expected from an entirely domestic movement.
Ultimately, as long as Bahrain’s Shi’ites are kept relatively powerless, there is no way to validate their claims of loyalty to the country and its al-Khalifa rulers; and no matter how enthusiastically Shi’ite demonstrators wave Bahraini flags, many Bahraini Sunnis will continue to believe that the country’s Shi’ites are, at best, a potential pro-Iranian fifth column. Even if Bahrain’s Shi’ites are sincere in their expressions of patriotism, there is no question that, should they achieve significant political power, Iran will view Bahrain as “low-hanging fruit” and attempt to gain their allegiance.6
The most prominent Bahraini Shi’ite political “society” is the al-Wefaq National Islamic Society (Jam'īyat al-Wifāq al-Watanī al-Islāmīyah, also known as the Islamic National Accord Association), led by Qom-educated cleric Sheikh Ali Salman, with some 1,500 active members.7 (Salman himself is considered a “mid-level” cleric. Bahrain’s most prominent Shi’a cleric, Ayatollah Isa Qassim, himself a disciple of Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, does not openly take political positions but is considered an al-Wefaq supporter; in 2005 he publicly endorsed the group’s decision to register as a “political society” and enter the Council of Representatives.8 ) After boycotting the 2002 elections to protest the new constitution’s failure to provide a fully democratic constitutional monarchy, al-Wefaq decided to compete in the 2006 elections, and scored a resounding success: out of 17 candidates fielded by the group, 16 won their districts outright in the first round of voting (and the 17th candidate won his seat in a second-round run-off), making al-Wefaq by far the largest bloc in the Council of Representatives.9 The group repeated this success in the 2010 elections, winning all 18 seats it contested; and were the Bahraini electoral system not gerrymandered to favor Sunni candidates, there is little question that, given the country’s demographics, al-Wefaq would have easily won a commanding majority of the Council’s 40 seats.10
Until the recent round of protests and the government’s heavy-handed response to them, al-Wefaq had consistently positioned itself as a loyal opposition, working to achieve equality for Bahraini Shi’ites while maintaining allegiance to Bahrain and its monarchy, if not to the current Constitution and Cabinet. This stance has now been considerably shaken. All 18 al-Wefaq members of the Council of Representatives have resigned in protest, and the group’s leaders have refused to enter a dialogue with the government until Prime Minister Khalifa al-Khalifa, perceived to be the driving force behind the marginalization of Bahraini Shi’ites, is replaced.11 As the crisis has persisted, positions have hardened: there have even been calls among the demonstrators for the outright abolition of the Al Khalifa monarchy, and it will be difficult for Al Wefaq’s leadership to maintain a conciliatory position if the group’s Shi’ite supporters are no longer willing to work within the system.12
Al-Wefaq’s main competition for the loyalty of Bahraini Shi’ites is the Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy, founded in 2005 by a group consisting mostly of al-Wefaq’s more radical leaders, who objected to al-Wefaq’s decision to participate in the upcoming 2006 elections and thus grant an appearance of legitimacy to Bahrain’s quasi-democratic constitution. Haq’s agenda appears to be more specifically targeted at achieving full democracy, and the group is less identified with “morality” issues and Shi’ite sectarianism than its parent movement; in fact, one of Haq’s leaders, Sheikh Isa Abdullah Al Jowder, is a Sunni cleric, and another founder (who recently left the movement13 ), Ali Qasim Rabea, is a secular leftist-nationalist.14 Nonetheless, Haq is generally thought of as both Shi’a and Islamist, even though its leader, Hasan Mushaima, is a layman and the group is not endorsed by any senior Bahraini Shi’ite cleric.15
Haq has unquestionably benefited from the breakdown in the relationship between the Bahraini government and Bahraini Shi’ites, since—unlike al-Wefaq—Haq never invested its credibility in a political process that it perceived (and loudly denounced) as inherently unfair and dishonest. (In fact, Haq has consistently refused even to register as an official “political society,”16 even though its rejectionist record is not absolute: Mushaima met with King Hamad in London in March, 2008.17 ) While al-Wefaq spent four years in the Council of Representatives ineffectually working for the Shi’ite community’s interests, Haq (or, at least, groups of young Shi’ites apparently inspired by low-level Haq activists) was out on the streets throwing rocks at the police,18 and Haq itself was submitting petitions to the United Nations and the United States calling for condemnation of the Bahraini government.19 While the rocks and petitions accomplished no more at the time than did al-Wefaq’s political maneuvering, they established Haq as a genuine “fighting opposition”—one respected by Shi’ites and feared (and persecuted) by the Bahraini government.
As part of the Bahraini government’s efforts to confront Haq, officials have accused the organization’s leaders of being in the pay of Iran, either directly or through Hezbollah intermediaries. While it is very difficult to prove that such a relationship does not exist, and many in the Sunni community take it as an article of faith that Bahraini Shi’ites are more loyal to Iran than to Bahrain, disinterested observers, including the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain, have pointed out that no convincing evidence has ever been produced to back these accusations.20
Haq Secretary General Hasan Mushaima returned to Bahrain from Great Britain in late February 2011 to a “rapturous” welcome; he had been charged and tried in absentia for conspiring against the government, but the charges against him were dropped as part of a package of government concessions aimed at establishing a dialogue with the Bahraini opposition.21 Mushaima, one of the founders of al-Wefaq, who left that group to co-found Haq, is now attempting, with other opposition leaders, to formulate a unified platform of demands and expectations; Haq’s participation in a united opposition will likely lend it credibility that al-Wefaq may have lost as Bahrain’s Shi’ites have become more radicalized.22
A third Shi’ite opposition movement, Wafa’ (“Loyalty”), was founded in early 2009 by Abdulwahab Hussain, a cleric who had been a leading Shi’a activist in the 1990s and a co-founder of al-Wefaq. Unlike Haq, Wafa’ is “officially” Shi’ite, and enjoys the open backing of senior cleric (and rival of Ayatollah Isa Qassim) Sheikh Abduljalil al-Maqdad. And unlike al-Wefaq, Wafa’ has consistently and firmly opposed participation in Bahrain’s quasi-democratic constitutional government.
The period when Haq leader Hasan Mushaima was in self-imposed exile presented something of an opportunity for Wafa’ to attract support from Shi’a rejectionists However, despite the fact that Wafa’ has the clerical backing Haq lacks and has credible, experienced leadership, it does not appear so far to have gained much traction among Bahraini Shi’ites. Now that Hasan Mushaima has returned to Bahrain and al-Wefaq has quit the Council of Representatives, Wafa’ is likely to have a great deal of difficulty finding a meaningful niche for itself in Bahraini Shi'ite politics.23
Yet another rejectionist Shi'ite Islamist “political society” is Amal (the “Islamic Action Society,” Jam’iyyat al-Amal al-Islami, also referred to by Bahrainis as “the Shirazi faction”). This group is “the non-violent heir to the defunct Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, which launched a failed uprising in 1981 inspired by Iran's Islamic revolution.”24 Amal refused to register before the 2002 election, did not win any seats in the 2006 election,25 and decided not to participate in the 2010 election. The society’s Secretary General, Sheikh Mohammed al-Mahfoodh, justified this decision by citing the usual objections to Bahrain’s political system, claiming that “[W]e don't want to just be employees... the members of parliament are just employees who get a big salary.”26 It is not entirely clear, however, if Sheikh al-Mahfoodh’s feelings would have been the same had there been a significant likelihood of his actually becoming one of these “employees.”
The challenge for the “official” organized Shi’ite opposition, as well as for leaders of the young, self-organizing “Twitter generation” protestors and the leftist secular organizations that have joined the protests, is to agree on a set of demands that are ambitious enough to maintain the enthusiasm of the protestors (and, of course, to offer a realistic hope of solving the real problems facing Bahraini Shi’ites) but can also be palatable to Bahrain’s ruling family and its Sunni allies.27
Unlike the majority Shi’ites, Bahrain’s Sunni community is not uniformly Islamist in its beliefs; this means that Sunni “political societies” must compete with secular groups and independent candidates for voter support. Further, Sunni Islamist groups are constrained in their ambitions by Bahrain’s demographic and economic situation: because Sunnis are a relatively wealthy, privileged minority, Sunni Islamists do not join their Shi’a colleagues in calling for genuine democratic reform (which would disempower them and their supporters), and—while they may aspire to “increase the standard of living for Bahrainis; strengthen political, social and economic stability; and enhance financial and administrative oversight of the government and industry”28 —they quite understandably do not agitate for fully equal opportunity for Bahrain’s Shi’ites. Because the American military presence contributes to Bahrain’s economy and provides a bulwark against Iranian designs on their country, the mainstream Sunni Islamist groups do not oppose the infidel presence on Bahrain’s territory. In short, Bahrain’s organized Sunni Islamists are considered pro-government “societies,” working at times for incremental modifications to the status quo but not advocating full democracy or other large-scale, disruptive changes.
There are two principal Sunni Islamist “political societies” in Bahrain. The first is the al-Menbar National Islamic Society (al-Minbar al-Islami), the political wing of the al-Eslah Society, Bahrain’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The second is the al-Asala Political Society, which in turn is the political wing of the Islamic Education Society (al-Tarbiya al-Islamiya), a conservative Salafist organization.
Al-Menbar is the more liberal of the two Sunni Islamist parties, and has, for example, taken positions in favor of women’s rights.29 However, this liberalism has its limits: in 2006 the group’s Council of Representatives members formed part of a bloc that prevented Bahrain from ratifying the government’s signature on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, on the basis that the Covenant would mean “that Muslims could convert to another religion, something against the Islamic law, since those who do so should be beheaded.”30 Al-Menbar had promised to field several female candidates for the 2006 election, but as part of an electoral pact with al-Asala, which does not approve of women’s standing for political office, this pledge was dropped. Further, al-Menbar’s parent organization (with “support” from the Islamic Education Society) held a 2008 workshop opposing government efforts to promote gender equality.31
Its association with al-Eslah, which runs a network of mosques, gives al-Menbar a solid social support base among Bahraini Sunnis. Further, al-Eslah (and, by extension, al-Menbar) benefits from the official patronage of the Bahraini royal family (its President is Sheikh Isa bin Mohammed al-Khalifa), as well as from some of Bahrain’s largest businesses.32 While charitable contributions to al-Eslah do not necessarily provide direct support for al-Menbar’s political activity, they unquestionably contribute to al-Eslah’s standing in society, and thus to al-Menbar’s credibility.
Al-Asala takes a harder line than al-Menbar on various issues. As noted above, al-Asala does not approve of fielding female candidates, and the group is, in general, opposed to Bahrain’s comparatively modern, freewheeling character. It has also taken positions opposed to U.S. military action in Iraq. Despite their differences, however, al-Menbar and al-Asala have often cooperated, and, like al-Menbar, al-Asala cannot be accurately described as an opposition “society” even though it dissents from some Bahraini government policies.
In the 2006 elections, al-Menbar and al-Asala agreed to divide the Sunni electoral districts between them in order not to compete with each other and split the Sunni Islamist vote.33 This strategy worked well, with the two groups winning seven seats each.34 In 2010, however, they failed to come up with a similar arrangement. As a result, the two “societies” ran against each other in many districts, and the consequence was the loss of most of their seats: al-Menbar now has only two seats in the Council of Representatives, and al-Asala has just three.35
Unsurprisingly, Sunni Islamist organizations have not participated in the recent anti-government demonstrations in Bahrain; if anything, they may have been one of the forces behind several pro-government rallies that have taken place while Bahrain’s Shi’ites were protesting against government policies.36,37 While these were not openly acknowledged as al-Menbar or al-Asala events, there is no question that Bahrain’s Sunnis consider Shi’ite protests to be a threat to their privileged situation, and Sunni “societies” need to be seen as promoting the interests of their constituents. Beyond any such cynical calculations, Sunni Islamists would be justifiably concerned that a Shi’ite-Islamist-governed Bahrain would be much less hospitable to Sunni practices and beliefs than a relatively liberal Sunni-dominated Bahrain—despite the latter’s tolerance of various social vices. (It is also worth noting that these pro-government rallies may not have been quite the “spontaneous outpouring of affection” that they appeared to be: Bangladeshi expatriate workers claim that they were forced to participate).38
In addition to political activities, many of the established Islamist groups in Bahrain engage in conventional charitable and “outreach” work: supporting widows and orphans (and other poor people), operating mosques and providing religious education, and proselytizing for their particular brand of Islam. Al-Eslah, in particular, appears to run a large charitable enterprise, supported by corporate zakat as well as private contributions. Notably, al-Eslah has also made a number of prominent humanitarian contributions to the Gaza Strip, including funding construction of a building at the Islamic University there in 2005 and sending five ambulances to Gaza in 2009.39 The particular affinity of al-Eslah for aid to Gaza is explained by the fact that both al-Eslah and Hamas are offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood; Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, and the Islamic University there has been associated with Hamas since its founding. (In fact, the university was founded by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, ten years before he founded Hamas.)
As bitter rivals for political and economic power, Shi’ite and Sunni Islamists in Bahrain are not particularly comfortable cooperating, even when they agree. However, some issues are uncontroversial enough (at least within Islamist circles) that Shi’ite and Sunni leaders have joined forces to fight for their shared ideals, or at least have managed not to interfere with each others’ efforts:
- While they have not been successful in completely banning the sale and consumption of alcohol in Bahrain, Islamists have done what they can to impose limits on drinking in the kingdom. Islamist organizations supported a government move to close bars in cheap hotels in 2009;40 and a few years earlier, a mob of Islamist youths (of unspecified affiliation) stormed into a Manama restaurant and firebombed cars parked outside it, in a protest against its sale of alcohol.41
- Horrified by reports that Manama had been ranked as one of the top ten “vice cities” in the world, Islamists have attempted to eliminate prostitution—either by banning female entertainers in cheap hotels or by attempting to prevent the issuance of visas to women from Russia, Thailand, Ethiopia, and China. (The latter measure, proposed by the Salafist al-Asala “society,” fell flat; even other Islamists in the Council of Representatives pointed out that it would cause diplomatic damage if passed, and probably not be very effective in any case.)42
- In 2007, Islamist parliamentarians condemned a performance by Lebanese composer/oudist Marcel Khalife and Bahraini poet Qassim Haddad that was presented as part of a government-sponsored culture festival, complaining that it included “sleazy dance moves” that would “encourage debauchery.” It appears the show went ahead as planned.43 A year later, the same Council members united again to attempt to ban a show by provocative Lebanese singer Haifa Wehbe; this show also went ahead, although Wehbe did tone down her act a bit in response.44
Traditionally, Bahraini Sunnis and Shi’ites have lived and worked together with minimal friction. However, the recent Shi’a protests and the Sunni government’s response (including, in at least some cases, Sunni vigilante participation45 ) have done a great deal to damage the relationship between the two communities. Within a week of the February 14th onset of Shi’ite protests, Sunnis had begun to mount counter-demonstrations;46 and as the crisis has continued, confrontations between Sunni and Shi’ite groups have become more frequent and more violent. Even assuming that a political settlement is reached between Bahrain’s government and the organizations representing the Shi’ite majority, it is difficult to imagine that Bahrain’s social atmosphere will quickly return to the comfortable status quo ante.
After a turbulent period during the 1990s, the country’s new king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, restored constitutional government in 2002. From then until January 2011, Bahrain’s government was largely successful in channeling the energies of the country’s Islamists into non-violent political activity rather than terrorism or major civil unrest. In accordance with the 2002 constitution, elections with universal suffrage are held every four years (most recently in October 2010) for the lower chamber of the National Assembly, the Council of Representatives (Majlis an-nuwab); all members of the upper chamber, the Consultative Council (Majlis al-shura), are appointed by the King. Both chambers must approve any legislation, giving each one effective veto power over proposed laws. As a result, since the one national body that is democratically elected has such limited ability to accomplish anything against the wishes of the ruling establishment, Bahrain’s version of democracy has never been entirely satisfactory to the majority of the country’s citizens. Still, even this limited form of democracy provided the people of Bahrain with a voice and hope for future improvement.
Nevertheless, Bahrain has retained most of the essential characteristics of traditional Gulf emirate governance. Real power is concentrated in the ruling al-Khalifa family, members of which occupy the most important governmental positions, including 20 of the country’s 25 Cabinet seats.47 The Prime Minister, Prince Khalifa ibn Sulman al-Khalifa, has held office since the country was granted independence in 1971, and is currently the world’s longest-serving Prime Minister. He is the uncle of King Hamad, and is also thought to be one of the wealthiest people in Bahrain.48 Even the Council of Representatives’ ability to block legislation is not really much of a constraint on royal power; under the Constitution, the King retains the right to rule by Royal Decree, bypassing the legislature entirely.49
While the current Shi’ite unrest in Bahrain has eclipsed most other news about Bahraini Islamism, earlier news stories paint a more complex picture of a government quite willing to work with Islamists to achieve its goals, but equally willing to take strong measures to limit the actions and influence of such forces.
While the Bahraini government is generally perceived as working against Islamism (or at least working to limit Islamists to minor victories while preserving Bahrain’s modern, open character), it is not above using Sunni Islamists as weapons against the Shi’ite community. In a 2006 report, the Gulf Centre for Democratic Development detailed a government effort led by Sheikh Ahmed bin Ateyatalla al-Khalifa to “manipulate the results of… elections, maintain sectarian distrust and division, and to ensure that Bahrain's Shi'as remain oppressed and disenfranchised.” The initiative reportedly involved government payments to a number of individuals and NGOs, including both al-Eslah/al-Menbar and the Islamic Education Society/al-Asala. Among the tasks to be achieved by the various participants in this scheme were “running websites and Internet forums which foment sectarian hatred” and running “Sunni Conversion” and “Sectarian Switch” projects.50
The foreign-policy implications of Islamism can sometimes create problems for the Bahraini government. Al-Eslah’s affinity for the Gaza Strip has already been mentioned, and is harmless enough when it involves sending ambulances and other forms of aid there. But when, in late 2009, al-Eslah leader Sheikh Fareed Hadi gave a sermon condemning the Egyptian government for building a steel barricade across the Egypt-Gaza Strip border, Bahrain’s government, not wishing to ruffle feathers, stepped in and suspended him from delivering further sermons. The eloquently-named Bahraini Society to Resist Normalization with the Zionist Enemy promptly objected, reminding Bahrain’s government and citizens of “the dangers of Zionism and its drive to infiltrate Arab and Islamic societies and influence them.”51
Nevertheless, Bahrain is not known as a major source of mujahideen, terrorists, or financial/logistical support for overseas jihad in its various forms. Much of this is probably due to the fact that Bahrainis are neither especially impoverished nor exposed to the more radical forms of Wahhabi fundamentalism. Still, a small number of Bahrainis have traveled abroad to participate in jihad. One, Khalil Janahi, was arrested by Saudi authorities in the course of his religious studies in Riyadh, and was accused of being one of a group of 172 al-Qaeda militants planning “to storm Saudi prisons to free militants and attack oil refineries and public figures.”52 Another was royal family member Sheikh Salman Ebrahim Mohamed Ali al-Khalifa, who was captured near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and held by the United States in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba as a Taliban/al-Qaeda supporter before eventually being released to return to Bahrain.53
Inside Bahrain itself, the government has acted against individuals providing funding or other support to al-Qaeda. For example, two men associated with a small Salafist movement known as “National Justice” were arrested in June 2008 for sending money to al-Qaeda; one was released shortly afterwards for lack of evidence,54 and the other was among a group of prisoners officially pardoned in mid-2009.55 Some other Bahrainis have been implicated in plots to support or engage in terrorism,56 but the Bahraini government has far worse problems dealing with domestic Shi’ite popular unrest than it does with the global jihad.
In the months leading up to the 2010 elections, Bahrain’s government instituted a crackdown on many political organizations and news outlets, and vigorously suppressed demonstrations and civil unrest.57 The ostensible justification was that Shi’ite opposition leaders were planning to lead a revolt against the government. In February 2011, Bahrain experienced a new and significant round of demonstrations and rioting by Shi’ite citizens, triggered by this apparent rollback of democratic reforms and by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. The beginning of the mass demonstrations also coincided with the February 14th anniversary of the restoration of constitutional government in 2002 and the referendum in 2001 that approved the new constitution.58 The government’s initial reaction to these demonstrations was an indecisive and unproductive vacillation between brutal suppression and attempts at conciliation. But after seven demonstrators had been killed and many more injured, Bahrain’s rulers decided to back down from lethal confrontation, and on February 19th began a concerted effort, led by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, to de-escalate the crisis and promote a “national dialogue” to iron out a solution.59 At first, it appeared likely that such a dialogue would soon take place;60 but Shi’ite leaders demanded substantial concessions before talks could begin, and, four months later, a starting date has yet to be set. Clearly, even once negotiations begin, they will be difficult; after four months of protests, repression, allegations of torture,61 mass dismissal of Shi’ites from their jobs,62 and demolition of Shi’ite mosques,63 there is very little good will or mutual trust between Bahrain’s Shi’ites and their government.
The Bahraini ruling establishment has a number of factors in its favor as it attempts to maintain the status quo:
- It appears to have solid support from almost all members of the country’s Sunni minority, which holds most economic power and controls all of Bahrain’s security forces.
- It enjoys substantial outside support from neighboring Sunni states—particularly Saudi Arabia, which is concerned about the possibility of unrest or even rebellion by its own large Shi’a minority and has a history of intervention to preserve Bahrain’s Sunni regime. In mid-March, a 1,500-strong force of Gulf Cooperation Council troops and policemen (which may in fact have been as large as 5000 or more men),64 headed by Saudi Arabia, entered Bahrain to assist government forces in restoring order;65 this force will apparently remain in place at least until the end of 2011,66 and could indeed become a permanent feature of the Bahraini landscape.67
- It is backed by the United States. Although the U.S. has been critical of the Bahraini government’s more extreme measures to confront the recent unrest, and has called for more democratic rule and better protection of human rights, Bahrain’s importance as a naval base and the dangers a regime collapse would pose to other Persian Gulf governments give Washington little real maneuvering room.68 In the words of one anonymous U.S. official, Bahrain is “just too important to fail.”69
Nonetheless, it is clear that the Bahraini government has done tremendous damage to its own perceived legitimacy, both at home and abroad. While it would appear unlikely that the regime faces any real danger of being overthrown in the near future, it is equally true that unless it can find some way to regain the trust of the country’s Shi’ite community, Bahrain’s ruling class will have a difficult time maintaining stability in an era of increasing democratization and rising expectations.
 Mahjoob Zweiri and Mohammed Zahid, “The victory of Al Wefaq: The rise of Shi'ite politics in Bahrain,” Research Institute for European and American Studies (RIEAS) Research Paper no. 108, 10-11, http://www.jcss.org/UploadPolling/224.pdf; Al Wefaq National Islamic Society, “Bahrain Split by Electoral Boundaries,” June 9, 2010, http://alwefaq.net/~alwefaq/index.php?show=news&action=article&id=4723; “Bahrain Opposition Representation: Was it a Silent Majority or is it now a Loud Minority?” n.p., n.d., http://www.scribd.com/doc/49888133/Bahrain-Opposition-Representation.
 Robert Fisk, “Abolish Bahrain’s Monarchy, Chant Shi'a Muslims,” New Zealand Herald, February 21, 2011, http://www.nzherald.co.nz/democracy/news/article.cfm?c_id=171&objectid=10707688; “Several Hurt as Sunnis, Shi'ites Clash in Bahrain,” Reuters, March 4, 2011, http://tribune.com.pk/story/127573/several-hurt-as-sunnis-shiites-clash-in-bahrain/.
 “Bahrain Shi'ites Eye Easing of Sunni Grip,” Agence France Presse, October 23, 2010, http://www.arabtimesonline.com/NewsDetails/tabid/96/smid/414/ArticleID/161106/reftab/73/t/Bahrain-Shiites-eye-easing-of-Sunni-grip/Default.aspx.
 “Bahrain WikiLeaks Cables: Bahrain as ‘Iran’s Fourteenth Province,’” Telegraph (London), February 18, 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/wikileaks-files/bahrain-wikileaks-cables/8334785/GENERAL-PETRAEUS-VISIT-TO-BAHRAIN.html.
 Christopher Hope, “WikiLeaks: Bahrain Opposition ‘Received Training from Hezbollah,’” Telegraph (London), February 18, 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/wikileaks/8333686/WikiLeaks-Bahrain-opposition-received-training-from-Hizbollah.html; “US Embassy Cables: Bahrainis Trained by Hezbollah, Claims King Hamad,” Guardian (London), February 15, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/us-embassy-cables-documents/165861.
 Jonathan Spyer, “Gulf Regimes: The Real Game – Saudi Arabia,” Jerusalem Post, March 11, 2011, http://www.jpost.com/Features/FrontLines/Article.aspx?id=211679; According to Spyer, “Iran… is adept, however, at turning political chaos into gain… If the Gulf regimes fail to effectively navigate the current unrest, Iran is fair set to begin to apply these practices in this area.”
 Zweiri and Zahid, “The Victory of Al Wefaq,” 9.
 “US Embassy Cables: Guide to Bahrain’s Politics,” Guardian (London), February 15, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/us-embassy-cables-documents/168471; “Bahrain WikiLeaks Cables: Wafa’: A New Shi'a Rejectionist Movement,” Telegraph (London), February 18, 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/wikileaks-files/bahrain-wikileaks-cables/8334607/WAFA-A-NEW-SHIA-REJECTIONIST-MOVEMENT.html.
 Zweiri and Zahid, “The Victory of Al Wefaq,” 11.
 Al Wefaq National Islamic Society, “Bahrain Split by Electoral Boundaries”; Note that in addition to having district lines that separate Sunni and Shi’a populations in order to create Sunni-majority districts, the population size of the districts drawn varies widely: some Sunni-majority districts have as few as 1,000 voters, while some Shi’ite-majority districts have as many as 15,000 voters.
 “MPs Urge Al Wefaq to Rethink Resignation,” Gulf Daily News, March 9, 2011, http://www.gulf-daily-news.com/NewsDetails.aspx?storyid=301425; Adrian Bloomfield, “Bahrain King under Pressure to Sack Prime Minister Uncle,” Telegraph (London), February 20, 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/bahrain/8336934/Bahrain-king-under-pressure-to-sack-prime-minister-uncle.html.
 Robert Fisk, “Bahrain—An Uprising on the Verge of Revolution,” Independent (London), February 21, 2011, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/robert-fisk-in-manama-bahrain-ndash-an--uprising-on-the-verge-of-revolution-2220639.html.
 “Bahrain WikiLeaks Cables: Wafa’: A New Shi'a Rejectionist Movement.”
 “Shaikh Isa Al Jowder and the Haq Movement,” Chan’ad Bahraini blog, May 31, 2006, http://chanad.weblogs.us/?p=487.
 “Bahrain WikiLeaks Cables: Wafa’: A New Shi'a Rejectionist Movement.”
 “US Embassy Cables: Guide to Bahrain’s Politics.”
 “Bahrain WikiLeaks Cables: Wafa’: A New Shi'a Rejectionist Movement.”
 “Bahrain – Political Parties,” globalsecurity.org, n.d., http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/gulf/bahrain-politics-parties.htm.
 “US Embassy Cables: Guide to Bahrain’s Politics.”
 “Bahrain Unrest: Sh'ia Dissident Hassan Mushaima Returns,” BBC, February 26, 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12587902.
 “Bahraini Shi'a Groups Seek to Unify Demands,” Financial Times, February 27, 2011, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/a5766674-429e-11e0-8b34-00144feabdc0.html.
 “Bahrain WikiLeaks Cables: Wafa’: A New Shi'a Rejectionist Movement”; “Wafa’ (‘loyalty’),” globalsecurity.org, n.d., http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/gulf/bahrain-politics-parties-wafa.htm; “Wafa’ (‘loyalty’),” globalsecurity.org, n.d., http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/gulf/bahrain-politics-parties-wafa.htm.
 “US Embassy Cables: Guide to Bahrain’s Politics.”
 Zoi Constantine, “Opposition Party Votes against Bahrain Election,” The National (UAE), August 26, 2010, http://www.thenational.ae/news/worldwide/middle-east/opposition-party-votes-against-bahrain-election.
 Joe Parkinson, “Bahrain is Roiled by Return of Shi'ite,” Wall Street Journal, February 28, 2011, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704430304576170661773277324.html; Joe Parkinson and Nour Malas, “Bahrain Opposition Steps Up Pressure,” Wall Street Journal, March 7, 2011, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704504404576183972416733938.html?mod=WSJEurope_hpp_LEFTTopStories.
 “US Embassy Cables: Guide to Bahrain’s Politics.”
 Zweiri and Zahid, “The Victory of Al Wefaq,” 7.
 Suad Hamada, “Anti-Gender Equality Campaign Starts,” womangateway.com, August 4, 2008, http://www.womengateway.com/NR/exeres/7A81C4CA-5539-4C3D-9F97-38EB79F2A735.htm.
 National Bank of Bahrain, “Social Responsibility,” n.d., http://www.nbbonline.com/default.asp?action=category&id=6; “Sakana Contributes Zakat to Al Eslah Society,” sakanaonline.com, October 7, 2010, http://www.sakanaonline.com/en/press-releases/sakana-zakat-al-eslah-society.html.
 “Bahrain: The Political Structure, Reform and Human Rights,” Eurasia Review, February 28, 2011, http://www.eurasiareview.com/analysis/bahrain-the-political-structure-reform-and-human-rights-28022011/.
 Ibidem; Habib Toumi, “Al Asala, Islamic Menbar Join Forces in Bahrain,” Gulf News, October 29, 2010, http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/bahrain/al-asala-islamic-menbar-join-forces-in-bahrain-1.703600.
 Michael Slackman and Nadim Audi, “Protests in Bahrain Become Test of Wills,” New York Times, February 22, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/23/world/middleeast/23bahrain.html.
 Nancy A. Youssef, “Huge Bahraini Counter-Protest Reflects Rising Sectarian Strife,” McClatchy, February 21, 2011, http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2011/02/21/109155/huge-bahraini-counter-protest.html.
 “Bangladeshis Say Being Forced to Take Part in Bahrain Pro Government Rally,” ANI, March 18, 2011, http://www.sify.com/news/bangladeshis-say-being-forced-to-take-part-in-bahrain-pro-government-rally-news-international-ldsrkjcfgba.html.
 Aniqa Haider, “Society Sends Five Ambulances,” Gulf Daily News, January 15, 2009, http://www.gulf-daily-news.com/NewsDetails.aspx?storyid=240214; See also Bahrain Tribune (Manama), September 13, 2005.
 Habib Toumi, “Bahraini Islamist Societies Press for Closure of Bars, Discos,” Gulf News, April 22, 2009, http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/bahrain/bahrain-islamist-societies-press-for-closure-of-bars-discos-1.1880.
 “Islamists Threaten Bahrain Diners,” BBC, March 18, 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3525198.stm.
 Toumi, “Bahraini Islamist Societies Press for Closure of Bars, Discos”; Alexandra Sandels, “BAHRAIN: Islamists Seeking to Curb Prostitution Fail in Bid to Ban Women From 4 Countries,” Los Angeles Times Babylon & Beyond blog, December 15, 2009, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/babylonbeyond/2009/12/bahrain-conservatives-seeking-to-curb-prostitution-fail-in-bid-to-ban-visas-for-women-from-russia-thailand-ethiopia-and-china.html.
 “Marcel Khalife and Qassim Haddad Cause Fury in Bahrain’s Parliament,” FREEMUSE, March 27, 2007, http://www.freemuse.org/sw18500.asp.
 “Haifa Wehbe Sings in Bahrain,” Middle East Online, May 2, 2008, http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=25672.
 “Bahrain Protesters March on Palace as Gates Visits,” Associated Press, March 12, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/12/AR2011031201563.html.
 Youssef, “Huge Bahraini Counter-Protest Reflects Rising Sectarian Strife.”
 Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, “Factsheet: Bahrain Protests Feb. 2011,” CJPME Factsheet Series no. 114, February 22, 2011, http://www.cjpme.org/DisplayDocument.aspx?DocumentID=1474.
 Bloomfield, “Bahrain King under Pressure to Sack Prime Minister Uncle.”
 “Bahrain Opposition Representation.”
 Habib Toumi, “Call to Reinstate Imam Who Criticised Egypt’s Steel Fence,” Gulf News, December 25, 2009, http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/bahrain/call-to-reinstate-imam-who-criticised-egypt-s-steel-fence-1.557927.
 http://newsblaze.com/story/20090612184137sand.nb/topstory.html . .
 “The Guantanamo Docket: Sheikh Salman Ebrahim Mohamed Ali al Khalifa,” New York Times, n.d., http://projects.nytimes.com/guantanamo/detainees/246-sheikh-salman-ebrahim-mohamed-ali-al-khalifa/documents/2/pages/1781.
 Bahrain Freedom Movement, “Two Men Accused of Funding al-Qaeda Groups,” June 25, 2008, http://www.vob.org/en/index.php?show=news&action=article&id=324.
 http://newsblaze.com/story/20090612184137sand.nb/topstory.html . .
 See, for example, Jon Marks, “Bahrain returns to the bad old days,” Guardian (London), September 13, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/sep/13/bahrain-opposition-protests.
 Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, “Factsheet: Bahrain Protests Feb. 2011”; Simeon Kerr, Robin Wigglesworth and Abigail Fielding-Smith, “Arab Regimes Brace for ‘Days of Rage,’” Financial Times, February 3, 2011, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/63ce290c-2ef1-11e0-88ec-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1G7GakJjJ.
 “Bahrain King Orders Release of Political Prisoners,” Associated Press, February 22, 2011, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/bahrain-king-orders-release-of-political-prisoners-2222371.html.
 “Bahrain’s Shi'ite Opposition Set to Talk to Rulers,” Associated Press, March 3, 2011, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/03/03/ap/world/main20038661.shtml.
 Kristen Chick, “Bahrain Rights Activist’s Wife Details Torture, Unfair Trial,” Christian Science Monitor, May 16, 2011, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2011/0516/Bahrain-rights-activist-s-wife-details-torture-unfair-trial.
 Kristen Chick, “Amid Unrest, Bahrain Companies Fire Hundreds of Shi'ites,” Christian Science Monitor, April 7, 2011, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2011/0407/Amid-unrest-Bahrain-companies-fire-hundreds-of-Shiites.
 “Shi'ite Mosque Demolished in Bahrain Crackdown,” Associated Press, April 23, 2011, http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110423/ap_on_re_mi_ea/ml_bahrain.
 “Gulf States to Remain in Bahrain in 2011,” World Tribune, May 13, 2011, http://www.worldtribune.com/worldtribune/WTARC/2011/me_gulf0577_05_13.asp.
 “GCC Troops Dispatched to Bahrain to Maintain Order,” Al Arabiya (Dubai), March 15, 2011, http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/03/14/141445.html.
 “Gulf States to Remain in Bahrain in 2011.”
 “GCC Force may be Expanded,” Gulf Daily News, May 20, 2011, http://www.gulf-daily-news.com/NewsDetails.aspx?storyid=306236; “Bahrain Moots Gulf Force Expansion,” Khaleez Times, May 20, 2011, http://www.khaleejtimes.com/DisplayArticleNew.asp?col=§ion=middleeast&xfile=data/middleeast/2011/May/middleeast_May512.xml.
 Thomas Fuller, “Bahrainis Fear the U.S. Isn’t Behind Their Fight for Democracy,” New York Times, March 5, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/05/world/middleeast/05bahrain.html.
 Adam Entous and Julian E. Barnes, “U.S. Wavers on ‘Regime Change,’” Wall Street Journal, March 5, 2011, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703580004576180522653787198.html?mod=WSJEUROPE_hpp_MIDDLETopNews.