Bahrain's Sunni Awakening

by Justin Gengler | published January 17, 2012

For background on the original uprising, see Cortni Kerr and Toby Jones, “A Revolution Paused in Bahrain,” Middle East Report Online, February 23, 2011.

Bahrain’s bout with political unrest is nearing its one-year anniversary. Though there are multiple parties to the protracted conflict, analysts continue to focus almost exclusively on a single dyad, Sunni vs. Shi‘i. To some, the ongoing mobilization of Bahraini Shi‘a since February 14, 2011 is a continuation of a decades-long struggle for basic social reform. To others, it is an opportunistic attempt at wholesale takeover of the country, supported in spirit if not in deed by foreign sympathizers. By either of these readings, the heart of the matter in Bahrain is the standoff between the Sunni state and the Shi‘i-led opposition. Many see the revolt on this small island as but a microcosm of the competition for regional dominance between the Arab Gulf monarchies and Iran, as well as their respective great power patrons.

Certainly, the February 14 uprising should have invited extended examination of the disenfranchised Shi‘a majority’s struggle against the Sunni-dominated state. Of the 21 opposition leaders now imprisoned in connection with the mass protests of February and March, only one is Sunni. Bahrain’s largest and best-organized opposition group, al-Wifaq, is led politically by a turbaned secretary-general and spiritually by the ranking Shi‘i cleric on the island. And the youthful street movement that shuns the formal opposition -- favoring nightly battles with riot police -- is comprised of residents of Shi‘i villages outlying the capital of Manama.

The state, on the other hand, is controlled by the ruling Al Khalifa tribe and, to a much lesser extent, by a set of allied families. Most of the latter aided the Al Khalifa in their conquest of Bahrain in 1783. The regime is a tribal one, therefore, even if most of its scions are indeed Sunnis. Sunnis are particularly prominent in those government entities charged with guarding state power, including the police and armed forces. In a survey of Bahraini citizens I conducted in 2009, 13 percent of Sunni households reported at least one member employed by the police or military. Not a single employed Shi‘i male who offered occupational data -- 127 respondents -- said the same.

The Sunni state-vs.-Shi‘i rebel narrative, then, is not without substance. But its use as a framework for analyzing Bahraini politics, including the present impasse, obscures other important elements of the story -- even whole characters. The prevalent storyline tells little, for example, of ordinary Sunni citizens, who make up more than a third of the island’s population and are about as far removed from power as the Shi‘a. These Bahrainis have been no less decisive than the Shi‘a or the state in shaping the country’s political trajectory over the past year. Nominally pro-government, the Sunni population has functioned, perhaps unwittingly, as the foundation of the Al Khalifa monarchy, a captive ethno-religious constituency conditioned to care more for combating the perceived march of collective Shi‘i ambition than for advancing an independent political agenda.

Yet there are signs that the social forces unleashed by the uprising, and the wider Arab awakening, have made Bahraini Sunnis more cognizant of their perennial position as political counterweight -- and more resistant to it. The same grassroots movements that rose in defense of the regime in February and March are now daring to articulate reform demands of their own, albeit not yet with a coherent purpose. Ever since the days when the Iranian revolution threatened to inundate the Arab Gulf with Islamic populism, Bahrain’s rulers have raised that specter to win the reflexive support of ordinary Sunnis and to diffuse citizen pressure for a political opening. Ironically, it may be an upheaval initiated by Bahraini Shi‘a that hastens the end of this arrangement.

Gulf Politics Redux

The prevailing interpretation of politics in the Arab Gulf -- the so-called rentier state paradigm -- holds that the regimes can buy the political acquiescence of the citizenry through judicious distribution of oil revenues. Yet, like their fellow royal families, Bahrain’s rulers figured out long ago that many people are not easily placated by the promise of wealth or other advantages. They further learned that they do not have to silence these vocal citizens, so long as they keep a minimum winning coalition of supporters. From the standpoint of the Bahraini government, that is, finite resources are best spent on satisfying a core constituency whose continued allegiance is sufficient to keep the government in power. The state has reasoned that many Shi‘a are likely to be unhappy with Al Khalifa rule, but that their complaints will be in vain so long as most Sunnis remain loyal -- especially those in uniform.

The events of the critical first two months of the uprising appeared to bear out this logic perfectly. Just as mounting protests seemed to pose an existential threat to the status quo, Sunnis organized a mass mobilization of their own, known as the National Unity Gathering. In line with the group’s popular nature, it was led not by an established political figure but by a university professor-turned-activist cleric. Large pro-government rallies and campaigns of armed violence against Shi‘i demonstrators aimed to slow the momentum of the uprising. By mid-March, there was a full-fledged counter-revolution that could have led to open sectarian clashes. Bahrain’s premier, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, would later pay homage to these “loyal citizens” for their “honorable mobilization against wicked plots” and “for standing united as a bulwark defending their country against subversive conspiracies.” [1]

Even prior to Bahrain’s revolt, however, it was clear that the island’s politics did not operate by standard rentier assumptions. In early 2009, I conducted the first-ever mass political survey of ordinary Bahraini citizens as part of a study of sectarian conflict and political mobilization in the Arab Gulf. [2] Administered to a nationally representative sample of 435 households, the survey aimed precisely to assess the relative importance of prosperity and confessional identity in determining political orientation. The results show, among other things, that the political opinions and behaviors of Bahraini Shi‘a are not significantly influenced by their level of economic satisfaction, but that those of Sunni citizens are. Variation in support for the Bahraini government among Shi‘i citizens is unrelated to material wellbeing, in other words, while among Sunnis economic considerations are quite important in forming political attitudes.

Consider, for instance, the question of participation in political demonstrations. Respondents were asked whether they had joined a demonstration in the preceding three years. According to the survey data, a Sunni reporting a “very good” household economy was just 7 percent likely to have participated, all else being equal, while a Sunni in “good” circumstances was 16 percent likely, “poor” condition 29 percent likely and “very poor” 45 percent. Among Shi‘i respondents, by contrast, the estimated probability of demonstrating increased from 48 percent among those reporting “very good” economic health to just 51 percent among those with “very bad,” a rise that is statistically indistinguishable from zero. As of early 2009, the poorest Bahraini Shi‘a were no more prone to protest than any other Shi‘a. But poorer Sunnis were much more likely to do so.

In only two of six statistical models investigated in the study was household economy a significant predictor of direct or indirect political participation -- and there only among Sunnis.

Shi‘i citizens protest, sign petitions, attend public inquiries and vote in elections not because they seek redress for economic grievances, but on principle. Their political orientation stems from dissatisfaction with the system as a whole, in which Shi‘i social standing and access to political power is limited on the basis of confessional affiliation. Only among Sunnis is there evidence that the rentier model works, the other implication being that Bahrain’s rulers do not get a free pass from Sunni citizens merely on account of sect. For their nearly unwavering support, and for their help in keeping the government’s fiercest critics at bay, ordinary Sunnis expect something in return.

Bahrain’s Other Revolution

Unfortunately for the regime, the country’s experience over the last 11 months -- spanning mass protests, a comprehensive crackdown and now perfunctory efforts at reconciliation and reform -- has exposed and exacerbated fundamental problems in the sectarian strategy of rule. The first problem is in sustaining the sectarian narrative that underlies the general reluctance of Sunnis either to join Bahrain’s existing reform movement or to push a program of their own. The problem may not be apparent today, following the government’s successful demonization of the opposition. The hardline newspaper al-Watan, for instance, has labeled the Shi‘i Islamist organization al-Wifaq an Iranian-backed “Bahraini Hizballah.” But such was not necessarily the case in February and March.

At the height of demonstrations, the late Pearl Roundabout played host to a number of Sunni personalities who appealed to their co-religionists to join the protest movement. These Sunnis insisted the movement was in the interest of all citizens and not simply Shi‘a. Protesters donned stickers and badges bearing the slogan, “No Sunni, No Shi‘i, Just Bahraini.” While these attempts to bridge the sectarian-cum-political divide never gained traction, and few Sunnis were likely to be persuaded in any case, even the outside chance of cross-sectarian coordination was enough to elicit a furious government effort to brand the uprising an Iranian conspiracy -- and to ostracize and punish any Sunni who dared to join it.

People found wearing “Just Bahraini” paraphernalia were singled out for harassment at checkpoints. One of the speakers at the Pearl Roundabout, a former army officer and salafi named Muhammad Al Bu Filasa, was arrested hours after his address, emerging only several months later to issue a forced apology and retraction that was aired on state television. Unluckier still was Ibrahim Sharif, then secretary-general of the secular, socialist-leaning National Democratic Action Society. A long-time critic of the government, Sharif, too, used the occasion of the uprising to call upon Sunnis to break ranks with the regime. Tried by a military tribunal along with 20 other senior opposition leaders -- all of them Shi‘a -- he is now serving a five-year prison sentence.

In alienating ordinary Sunnis from the existing reform movement, then, the state has had much success. But in this effort to direct Sunni energy at containing the opposition, Bahrain’s rulers have cultivated an atmosphere of fear and even personal enmity toward “traitorous” Shi‘a that has roused a wide cross-section of the Sunni population from political dormancy. People previously content to leave decision-making to the ruling elite are now more reluctant to defer to their wisdom -- including that of King Hamad himself.

Constantly warned of the Shi‘i danger, many Sunnis see a contradiction between the alarms and the government’s simultaneous unwillingness to stamp out the threat once and for all. As a result, popular favor of conservatives within the ruling family has increased markedly at the expense of those seen as overly conciliatory, including the king and his son, the crown prince. Indeed, when Bahraini Shi‘a recite the battle cry of the Arab revolts -- “The people want the fall of the regime!” -- Sunnis commonly retort, “The people want Khalifa bin Salman!” The implication is that Bahrain’s hawkish prime minister of 41 years would deal better with troublemakers than an indecisive King Hamad.

The second, more intractable problem in Bahrain’s political balancing act is precisely that the more the state succeeds in convincing “loyal citizens” of the need to defend Bahrain against Shi‘i and Iranian designs, the more it opens itself to the charge of not acting firmly enough. Each perceived act of clemency, each rumor of back-channel negotiations with al-Wifaq, provides another occasion for Sunni backlash. To take one example: On January 9 the state bowed to world opprobrium and overturned the death sentences of two protesters convicted in May of murdering two police officers. Two days later, an angry editorial appeared in al-Watan. It cautioned:

If the state wants to retreat, or get involved in suspicious deals and let the traitors slice its neck or even cut its head off, that is its own business. But we [Sunnis] refuse to be just spectators, toadies or puppets who do not stick to their convictions and quickly change moods, alliances and attitudes. [3]

The government, many Sunnis feel, cannot have it both ways: If the Shi‘i threat is grave enough to require steadfast support for the regime, it must be grave enough to preclude state compromise with the opposition or cave-ins to international pressure on matters of national security.

Frustration runs so high that some citizens have started taking matters into their own hands. In December, a Shi‘i religious procession was attacked by members of a “Military Society” newly founded by ‘Adil Filayfil, a polarizing former intelligence officer dismissed in 2002 after widespread accusations of torture. Procession-goers, Filayfil later said at a meeting in which he was reprimanded by the interior minister, had refused to alter their route around Sunni neighborhoods and were shouting anti-government slogans. His group had merely stepped in where the state had failed to act.

As worrying as these developments are for Bahrain’s rulers, more ominous still is the final cause of Sunni dissatisfaction, and its implications for the viability of the regime’s political strategy. With the government fixated on managing Shi‘i displeasure, the growing impression among ordinary Sunnis is that they are being repaid poorly for their continued allegiance, made to accept whatever care and resources are left over from pacifying perennial Shi‘i malcontents. Despite being disproportionately loyal to Bahrain’s royal family, many Sunnis observe, they nevertheless lose out on the bulk of its benefaction.

Like the National Unity Gathering, mobilization around this sentiment has sidestepped traditional loci of Sunni politics in Bahrain, including the country’s two well-established political societies -- one salafi, the other affiliated with the Muslim Brothers -- represented in Parliament since its reestablishment in 2002. In the intervening decade, neither society (parties are illegal in Bahrain) has done more than rubber-stamp government initiatives and, since al-Wifaq ended its electoral boycott in 2006, obstruct the opposition. Indeed, some measure of the orientation of Sunnis’ formal representation in Parliament may be gleaned from the fact that Bahrain is the only Arab country where the Muslim Brothers have historically been pro-government.

It is thus a new generation of Sunni activists that has begun to demand a more efficacious role in political decision-making and a larger share of state benefits. Among the most vocal of these nascent coalitions is an offshoot of the National Unity Gathering called the al-Fatih Youth Union, whose Friday rallies draw thousands of Sunni supporters each week. A column in al-Watan describes the group as “a gathering of young people who do not want to be associated with any existing political trend,” continuing:

They are fed up with the fact that those who have always supported the entity of Bahrain, Arabism, sovereignty and the royal family are being fooled because their loyalty is taken for granted; therefore they are treated as a reserve division. These are serious mistakes, and we will never know what they will lead to. [4]

The perception that the government tries harder to win over its detractors than reward its supporters plays on long-standing Sunni misgivings over other apparent wastes of state resources, including corruption and Bahrain’s decade-long program of naturalizing foreign Sunnis in return for police and military service. Despite a flagging economy and per capita oil revenues well below those of other Gulf states, Bahrain’s property prices remain high and private housing out of reach for many, as the royal family owns a disproportionate share of the island (which is just 2.5 times the size of Washington, DC) and doles out large parcels to its senior allies. Yet, at the same time that Bahrain is unable to accommodate its existing citizens, it recruits new ones from abroad, Sunnis from Yemen, Syria, Pakistan and elsewhere to help populate a military that ranks eleventh in the world in spending as a proportion of GDP. [5] Because Shi‘a have led the outcry about these issues, organized Sunni criticism has been muted by fear of association with the opposition. Yet privately Sunnis remain troubled, especially by what they see as the dilution of Bahraini national identity via political naturalization.

The Future of Sunni Docility in Bahrain

Of course, prospects for wholesale transformation in Sunni political orientation in Bahrain face roadblocks that the state will be eager to fortify. The first question is whether citizens can look beyond government scare tactics that proclaim, “You’re with us or you’re with the mullahs in Iran.” That campaign is doubly effective, as it discourages any and all political involvement while deflecting the enthusiasm of those who insist on being active against the opposition. Equally difficult is the matter of achieving cooperation among a diverse and politically fragmented Sunni population. Tribes historically aligned with the Al Khalifa are unlikely to shift their allegiance and will be content to remain apolitical, while experience has shown that even the salafi and Muslim Brother societies in Parliament find policy and electoral coordination difficult. New movements like the National Unity Gathering already face suspicions of cooptation, fueling internal dissension and prompting groups like the al-Fatih Youth Union to break away. Despite decades of organization and greater unity of purpose, Bahrain’s Shi‘i opposition has never overcome its tendency to fracture. What hope, then, for Sunnis?

Yet, irrespective of the final outcome of Bahrain’s Sunni political awakening, one thing is clear: In shaking this constituency out of slumber as the uprising progressed, Bahrain’s rulers got much more than they bargained for. With their supporters conditioned to fear and even hate the opposition, any compromise the Al Khalifa may wish to strike to end the uprising will be qualitatively more difficult to achieve. Conservatives within the ruling family have capitalized on -- or, in another view, cultivated -- this popular obstructionism, allowing civil society to help fight interpersonal battles once confined to the royal court. As a result, the crown prince and, to a lesser extent, the king himself have fallen victim to charges of appeasement, lack of resolve and thralldom to Western policy advisers. If, as is probable, Bahrain is unable to find a speedy exit to its crisis, the cause will owe as much to the newfound political expectations of ordinary Sunnis -- and the collapse of the regime’s sectarian balancing act -- as it does to any age-old animosity between Shi‘i-led opposition and Sunni-led government.

Endnotes

[1] Gulf Daily News, April 22, 2011.
[2] Justin Gengler, “Ethnic Conflict and Political Mobilization in the Arab Gulf,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 2011. The full text of this dissertation may be found at: http://bahrainipolitics.blogspot.com/2011/09/ethnic-conflict-and-politic....
[3] Hisham al-Zayani, “My Homeland Is Where My Dignity Is Preserved!” al-Watan, January 11, 2012.
[4] Hisham al-Zayani, “Will Al-Fatih Youth Union Toll the Bells?” al-Watan, December 12, 2011.
[5] According to the authoritative database compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, between 2000 and 2009 the top 11 military spenders as a proportion of GDP include five of the six Gulf Cooperation Council states: Oman (1), Saudi Arabia (2), the United Arab Emirates (4), Kuwait (6) and Bahrain (11). Data available at: http://www.sipri.org/databases/milex.

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