Bahrain’s Spoilers? Al-Wefaq’s Political Agenda
Bahrain’s 2012 F1 Grand Prix was a step towards national reconciliation at the civil society level. Shiite and Sunni, secular and foreign, people met each other in public spaces as equals. These meetings were not accidental and they were not filled with awkward silence or cold stares; they were engaging conversations, telling a different story than that of a country divided, they spoke of resolution, of moving beyond the violence of 2011.
Despite, or perhaps because of, such conversations, the al-Wefaq National Islamic Society in Bahrain tirelessly attempted to politicise the F1 race, stoking sectarian violence while increasing the tempo of inflammatory denunciations. Far from a solution to national problems, this episode has cast al-Wefaq spoilers likely to reinforce, not overcome, Middle Eastern authoritarianism if given the opportunity. This is plain to see through al-Wefaq’s consistent rejection of national dialogue, its fiery rhetoric, and its ‘days of rage’ relationship to the violent Coalition of 14 February Youth all of which have, historically, acted as precursors for violent revolution followed by terrible repression.
Yet, al-Wefaq insists it is not an instigator; that it is not a reincarnation of the dictators who dominated 20th and 21st century Middle Eastern politics. Speech-by-speech, Sheikh Ali al Salman – al Wefaq’s unrivalled decade-long leader – has sought to reaffirm his intentions to bring ‘real democracy to Bahrain’ while preserving the country’s ‘legitimacy and sovereignty’ going so far as to highlight, on several occasions, that Bahrain under al-Wefaq could practise the ‘democracy of Westminster, Switzerland and the USA ... not Gadaffi.’ If only such words were not a smoke-screen of sectarianism. Unfortunately they are nothing more.
Salman’s Marmariz Mataam speech (31 March 2012) coupled with al Wefaq’s F1 actions reveal the difficulties Bahrain’s government faces in establishing a credible, national reconciliation dialogue with opposition parties. The speech, like so many before, deliberately fans the embers while omitting several obstacles – which al-Wefaq alone can dispel – to political reconciliation.
Salman is allergic to accepting Iran’s involvement, direct or indirect, in Bahrain’s affairs. In contrast to Bahrain’s Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) indication that there lacked concrete evidence of direct Iranian interference in the 2011 uprising, verification of previous Iranian involvement is on public record and, given that record, there is little wonder why Bahrain remains cautious. If Salman was serious about national dialogue he would distance al-Wefaq from Iran. He cannot do so however because while Iran may (or may not) have kept away from direct involvement these past 14 months, there continues to be a very heavy Iranian clerical influence in al-Wefaq implying that it’s interests continue to be served.
Indeed, the party’s leadership is firmly entrenched in the Shiite clerical hierarchy. Salman’s speech opened by thanking Sheikh Abdul Ameer Al-Jamri, Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim and Sayed Abdullah Al-Ghuraifi, all of whom are or were senior Shiite clerics who have exerted influence over the society. Qassim, who studied in Qom (Iran) is a proponent of former Iranian Supreme Leader Khomeini’s doctrine of wilayat-e-faqih – theocratic rule. As such it is highly unlikely that Qassim or Salman would support the establishment of a truly democratic state. Bahrain would more likely end up with a theocratic democracy similar to Iran. Such murky relationships may also be the reason behind the society’s lack of elections and transparency.
Even if al-Wefaq were independent of Iran’s clerical influences, its relationship to the Coalition of February 14 Youth reinforces its spoiler credentials since the latter routinely deploys violence against Bahrainis, police and civilians. While Salman recognises al-Wefaq failed ‘to have effective communication with the youth, which caused some complaints and criticism of its method of operations’ it is deplorable that they maintain a relationship at all. But of course, it was not without its reason since the Coalition swelled the people marching under al-Wefaq banners. And the supposed popularity of al-Wefaq prompted Salman and his deputies to turn a blind eye to the violence used by the Coalition. In effect, al-Wefaq empowered the movement that currently holds Bahrain hostage, but it can no longer control it.
Most problematic of all is al-Wefaq’s sectarian agenda. Salman acknowledged his failure to diversify al-Wefaq’s membership from its core supporters of devout Shiites and thus become a party for Bahrain. This will not change while senior Shiite clerics dominate its decision-making process. In the meantime, al-Wefaq complains that the government uses immigration to dilute the size of the Shiite community in Bahrain seen in Salman’s called for all non-native Bahraini citizens to be denied the right to decide on their country’s future. This sectarianism attempts to make immigrants second-class citizens and suits al-Wefaq’s demand for democracy on their own terms.
But how can this be reconciled with the fact that Bahrain is home to sizable Palestinian and Syrian communities? Does al-Wefaq truly want to re-displace Palestinians who found refuge on the Island following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war? Should Syrians be forced back to a country in turmoil? Should these communities be repressed or relocated simply because they are Sunni? These issues are paid such scant attention to that many assume they do not exist. Instead, al-Wefaq is comfortable insisting that Bahrain is a black-and-white case of a minority ruling a majority: a self-serving simplification.
Such unanswered questions underscore the fact that al-Wefaq remains politically immature; unable to control some of its more violent off-shoots, using political positions to hold parliament in suspended animation, abandoning political processes, cozying-up to Iran’s spiritual leadership while bullying naturalised Bahrainis. Also, al-Wefaq has insisted that the government negotiate a political settlement bilaterally, despite the presence of many other political societies from across the political spectrum that are entitled to contribute to any discussion on reconciliation. Al-Wefaq’s intransigence on many of these crucial issues reveals its true attitude towards reconciliation.
Undoubtedly, al-Wefaq sympathisers will seek to debase these arguments, which is their right. However, the situation is too pressing to get trapped in the game of diatribes and al-Wefaq must meet the government halfway, a government which has earnestly laboured to compromise and reform. Every minute that passes without political settlement and the unequivocal rejection of violence inches the country to greater perils, perils that will impact each and every person living in the country. Perhaps only then will al-Wefaq be truly satisfied; when all Bahrainis suffer together under the myopic, theocratic eye of Salman.