Feb 2009
Bahrain’s fraught sectarian divide
Bahrain flag
As Bahrain prepares for the trial of alleged militant plotters, ISN Security Watch’s Dominic Moran speaks to government opponents concerning recent unrest and sectarian relations.

By Dominic Moran in Tel Aviv for ISN Security Watch

Sectarian violence has again flared in Bahrain following a wave of arrests associated with an alleged plot to attack national day celebrations.

Feb 2009
Bahrain’s fraught sectarian divide
Bahrain flag
As Bahrain prepares for the trial of alleged militant plotters, ISN Security Watch’s Dominic Moran speaks to government opponents concerning recent unrest and sectarian relations.

By Dominic Moran in Tel Aviv for ISN Security Watch

Sectarian violence has again flared in Bahrain following a wave of arrests associated with an alleged plot to attack national day celebrations.

Described as a fraud by government opponents – who allege the strengthening of repressive mechanisms and measures and moves to promote discrimination in recent years – the alleged terrorist conspiracy and rioting in predominantly Shia areas underlines the fraught nature of sectarian relations in the Gulf kingdom.

The ongoing crisis has raised questions about the civil and democratic reform process enshrined in the National Action Charter, which won almost unanimous popular support in a 2001 referendum for a shift from absolutism to a constitutional monarchy and establishment of representational government through a bicameral legislature.

A series of ancillary reforms promoted by King Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa included important moves to ease related inter-communal tensions through the return of exiles, freeing of political prisoners and allowing the formation of political movements. The enfranchisement of women and moves to ease press restrictions and security strictures followed.

Government opponents charge that the impact and implementation of reforms has been limited and that a regression has in fact occurred in recent years, in particular through the re-imposition and extension of security restrictions and discriminatory measures targeting the Shia majority.

While they have succeeded in drawing most opposition groups into the political process, the reforms have had little impact on the overall authority of the monarchy. The monarchy is guaranteed through the royal appointment of members of the upper house of the legislature, selection of judges and appointment of the prime minister and his cabinet.


Hundreds of rioters clashed with police in the capital Manama on 30 January in the wake of a 12,000-strong peaceful demonstration, called to protest alleged discrimination against Shia.

According to AP, the motivations of the rioters were unclear, though some carried posters referring to the arrest of three prominent members of the predominantly Shia opposition Haq political society, including leader Hassan Mesheima.

Police arrested Mesheima, al-Haq spokesperson Dr Abduljalil Alsingace and cleric Mohammed al-Moqdad on 26 January after they refused to respond to Public Prosecution summons.

The highest Shia authority in the kingdom, The Islamic Council of Ulemas, responded to the detentions by calling for the trio’s immediate and unconditional release, warning of a “grave escalation which will aggravate [sectarian] tensions.”

Speaking to ISN Security Watch by phone, Alsingace described his arrest last month. Police raided his home in the early hours of the morning, taking him to a detention center where he was held in solitary confinement before being moved to the Public Prosecution service later that day.

“The Public Prosecution interrogated me on my writings; use of the internet; the addresses of people; what I believe [concerning] the 2002 constitution; involvement in […] the Haq movement; my travel to Washington DC, London and other cities; my activities abroad; and my participation in public demonstrations, etc. and then decided to release me but banned me from travel.”

The Haq trio are accused of promoting a coup “through terrorism” and are to appear in court on 23 February.

The Manama violence came after rioting in Shia villages outside the capital earlier in the week.

“In the villages you can see almost an uprising going on,” Bahrain Human Rights Center Nabeel Rajab claimed in an 11 February interview with ISN Security Watch. “If you go to the roads and streets outside Manama […] you see government militias which have been brought from outside, from Jordan and Syria and Yemen and Balochistan in Pakistan,” he said. ISN Security Watch was unable to verify this claim.

The alleged plot

The detention of the three Haq activists came in the wake of the16 December arrest of 14 Bahrainis in connection with a purported conspiracy to launch a series of militant attacks.

The plot allegedly involved the ambush of police and attacks on shopping malls, markets and hotels with homemade explosives. The suspects’ confessions were subsequently aired on national television.

According to Sheikh Rashed bin Abdullah al-Khalifa, the militants in custody received training in bomb-making and the booby-trapping of cars in July-August 2008 from two British-based Bahrainis, having traveled to the Baathist state on the pretext of a Shia religious pilgrimage.

“If you see the confessions you will learn there are many basic contradictions that tell you this is all bogus,” Alsingace said. “There are contradictions on the dates; some of them have not been to Syria.”

Torture claims

According to Alsingace, “This time they used electrocution to not only have a quick extraction of confessions but also not to leave any future trace of torture.” He alleged. that “some of them were even electrocuted on their genitals.”

Referring to the torture claims, Rajab said, “I’m afraid if this does not stop in the coming weeks and months the situation is going to deteriorate more and more,” he said.

The Public Prosecution strongly denies allegations of prisoner mistreatment and that confessions were extracted under duress.

Diverging Shia trends

October 2006 elections to the lower house of the bicameral national legislature saw the emergence of a strong Islamic bloc led by the Shia Islamic al-Wefaq party.

The party, which boycotted the previous parliamentary poll in 2002, won 17 of the 20 seats in which it stood candidates in 2006, emerging as by far the largest political group in the kingdom, but falling short of an overall majority in the 40-member Chamber of Deputies. With the 12 deputies of the pro-government Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist, el-Wefaq has promoted socially conservative legislation, sometimes at odds with the palace’s promotion of women’s rights and the stances of liberal legislators.

Haq broke away from al-Wefaq in 2005 over the latter’s decision to participate in the political system and, with a Sunni Salafi splinter, led calls to boycott the 2006 elections. A leading figure in the movement at the time, Abdulwahab Hussain, reportedly called on Bahrainis in July 2006 to draw arms against the government should peaceful measures fail to bring reforms.

Alsingace avers: “What we did in Haq is to peacefully demand a democratic constitution to be drafted by the people of Bahrain.”

He said this was “looked at by the authorities to be a true challenge to their legitimacy because what they did in 2002 was to nullify the only socially binding constitution in Bahrain and unilaterally replace it with a constitution which was drafted by a secret committee.”

In a second referendum, the group called “for the resignation of the prime minister allowing for the peaceful exchange of power through the people and ensuring that none of the al-Khalifa [are] in executive power as per the […] National Charter.”

“In Haq we have Sunni people. The vice-president is a Sunni sheikh. He was leading a press conference last week and […] he was not mentioned in the press.” That “just gives you an idea of how they want to present us; that “It is all Shia and nobody else.””


The focus of many of the banners carried in the 30 January demonstration in Manama was reportedly on the controversial bestowal of Bahraini citizenship on Sunni immigrants – a move that opponents charge is designed to tip the demographic balance against the 60-50 percent Shia majority.

Najab accuses the government “of sectarian apartheid where they are separating Shia and Sunni cities and towns,” adding “they are playing with the demography of the country by naturalizing tens of thousands of tribal Arabs from other countries to make sure that the number of Sunnis becomes more than the indigenous Shia.”

To Alsingace, discrimination “used to be in jobs, higher jobs; then it went more to the exercise of political rights. They [Shia] were marginalized, misrepresented using gerrymandering; the use of the politically naturalized to undermine their power.”

Now the discrimination is becoming more “focused” he claims, impinging particularly on the rights of Shia to formal religious education and institutions. “Their children are forced to be educated in jurisprudence other than Shia theology, which is really against basic religious rights,” he alleged.

The government strongly denies systematic discrimination, pointing to such measures as the creation of a 500-strong Shia police force to work in Shia areas.

The kingdom has appeared to move towards the extension of security force prerogatives in recent years, through such measures as the August 2006 Protecting Society from Terrorist Acts bill. The bill was criticized at the time by a UN special rapporteur as containing too wide a definition of terrorism and terror-related activities.

Article 1 of the act prohibits acts that “damage national unity” or “obstruct public authorities from performing their duties,” while the law also allows for extended detentions without judicial review, Human Rights Watch notes.

Najab explained that in 2004 the number of Shia in high-ranking public sector positions “had reached 18 percent. We revised that report again in 2008, two months ago, and that 18 percent has [been reduced to] 13 percent.”

Outside influences

The Bahraini government is deeply concerned at the extension of Iranian influence in the Gulf and wider region, with crown prince Sheikh Salman ibn Hamad Al-Khalifa the first prominent member of a gulf royal family to openly accuse Iran of seeking a nuclear weapon.

As the only Shia-majority Gulf state, Bahraini concerns have been further piqued by the rise to power of Shia parties in nearby Iraq, though relations with the Nouri al-Maliki government do appear to have improved in recent months with Bahrain naming its first ambassador to Baghdad since the US-led invasion in July 2008.

Bahrain is a key US ally in the region and hosts the US Fifth Fleet – facts that opponents of the al-Khalifa point to as preventing the effective imposition of significant US pressure for further reform and the politicization of human rights concerns recognized by the US State Department in its annual reports.

“The United States government is quiet so far as they see their interests maybe lie with the ruling elite,” Najab said, adding that annual US government reports criticizing the Bahraini human and civil rights record were probably raised in private meetings. “It doesn’t seem that they [US] want to anger them.”

Asked to directly address government claims of Iranian influence amongst the Shia opposition, Alsingace argued that the government was “using the Iran phobia; the West considering Iran a threat; and making a correlation which is not substantiated.”


With sporadic clashes continuing and genuine progress towards a full constitutional monarchy in question, there appears a real danger that the important moves by the monarchy to promote representational government and the involvement of Shia in decision-making processes could founder.

A regression towards the imposition of tighter security strictures and a seeming failure to systematically address the perceived sectarian structuring of access to land, state resources and jobs lie at the heart of decades-old tensions.

A failure to further promote sectarian harmony could ultimately have wider repercussions, Najab believes:

“The situation is deteriorating and we are afraid to see violence spreading in this country,” he said. “It is not only Bahrain and the Bahrain government that is going to lose but [also] those countries that have interests in this country.”


Dr Dominic Moran, based in Tel Aviv, is ISN Security Watch’s senior correspondent in the Middle East and the Director of Operations of ISA Consulting.


International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

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