At the end of May, the government of Bahrain summoned the international press to Manama for what it promised would be a major policy statement on Monday, June 3. I was in Bahrain at the time, conducting interviews for a report on human rights conditions there. Bahraini opponents of the regime in exile abroad, and critics inside the country with whom I spoke were predicting that the amir, Sheikh ‘Isa Al Khalifa, would announce an expansion of the four-year old handpicked Consultative Council, or Shura Council, from 30 to 40 men, perhaps even allowing some civic or religious groups a role in nominating candidates. On May 31, three opposition groups — the Bahrain Freedom Movement, the Popular Front and the National Liberation Front — issued a joint statement “reject[ing] outright” any such cosmetic concessions. “We will continue to press ahead with our call for the restoration of constitutional law to Bahrain,” their communique concluded.
For the last several years, public petitions and mass demonstrations have been alternately requesting and demanding that the ruling Al Khalifa family restore the National Assembly that it had closed by decree in 1975, and hold new elections. The government has responded by cracking down hard on all demonstrations, by indiscriminate arrests and arbitrary detention of several thousand persons, by abuse and torture of prisoners, by deporting alleged ringleaders, and by tightening restrictions on all forms of meetings and public expression. Just before I arrived, the authorities had detained several Bahraini residents whom they held responsible for arranging meetings and interpreting for a BBC television reporter.
This June 3 press conference, as it turned out, had nothing to do with concessions. Journalists, instead, heard claims that Bahrain’s British-led security forces had extracted confessions from dozens of detained persons to the effect that they belonged to a heretofore unknown organization, Hizballah Bahrain-Military Wing. The minister of interior claimed to have in hand the cadres in charge of the security intelligence and financial committees of the group, who had conveniently confessed “that they had established this terrorist grouping on the instructions of the [Iranian] Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and with its financing.” The next day, several of the accused were made to read parts of their confessions on Bahraini television. The past two years of political unrest and agitation on behalf of the abrogated constitution was again dismissed as part of a “scheme of sabotage and terrorism.”
The press conference and televised confessions produced the desired reporting in the Western press linking “Iran,” “Hizballah” and “Bahrain.” None of those accounts mentioned that these confessions had been extracted over a period of weeks during which the accused had no access to lawyers. Nor did they refer to Amnesty International’s September 1995 report documenting the systematic use of beatings and other forms of torture in the security service’s interrogation of political detainees, a pattern confirmed by lawyers and former detainees I spoke with.
The government’s charge that something called “Hizballah Bahrain” was behind the unrest is not new, although no Bahraini group uses this name. This, of course, does not prove that such an organization does not exist. Strangely, though, for such a well-armed and well-financed Iranian surrogate with more than three years of training in Qom and Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, Bahrain has not witnessed a single attack involving a weapon even as rudimentary as a pistol, and those explosions and arsons that have occurred, for the most part, have been noticeably crude and unsophisticated.
Inside Bahrain, the government used the confessions in a manner befitting the absolutist style of rule to which it has become accustomed. The country’s two newspapers, al-Ayyam and Akhbar al-Khalij, carried pages of congratulatory “reporting” of the Interior Ministry’s unceasing vigilance. The same message appeared in advertisements by private companies and sports clubs.
On the day following the announcement of the confessions, upper-level civil servants and officials, heads of civic organizations, and religious leaders were “invited” to the palace to “discuss” the latest developments with the amir and the prime minister (by all accounts the real power in the country). To not appear, Bahrainis told me, could well mean the loss of one’s job for a government employee and little likelihood of finding another. For a Shi‘i cleric, a no-show would likely produce a rude wee-hours summons to Interior Ministry headquarters on the grounds of the old prison fort in central Manama. Last year, Sheikh ‘Isa bin Rashid, the head of the General Organization for Youth and Sports, asked each club to sign a pledge of loyalty to the amir, and to send a representative to the amiri court to present it. “Even the sports clubs in Diraz and Sanabis,” one leading professional said, referring to Shi‘i villages that have been prominent in the unrest, “just to humiliate them.” The Aruba Club, a literary-social club frequented by liberal businessmen and professionals, initially resisted the summons, but the minister of information called in the club president, a respected and prominent businessman, and put heavy pressure on the group to sign. “So we did. Later Sheikh ‘Isa told someone, ‘You see, they came like dogs.’”
Bahrain, today the administrative headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet, is the main island of a small archipelago in the Persian Gulf, some 25 kilometers by causeway from the oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Bahrain’s original population, the Baharna, are Arab Shi‘i Muslims. The Al Khalifa conquest in 1783 — part of a general movement of tribes out of the Najd region of Arabia that also brought the Al Sabah to Kuwait — ended nearly two hundred years of Persian rule and imposed a Sunni Arab tribal superstructure that dominates the country’s political system yet today.
With the shift of the British regional imperial apparatus from Bombay and Bushire to Bahrain after the 1920s, and later the development of the oil and service industries, expatriate labor from the Indian subcontinent and the Arab countries (as well as from Britain and later the US at the upper levels) became an entrenched part of the island’s population profile, even before the tremendous demands for foreign labor with the increase of oil revenues in the 1970s and early 1980s. Bahrain’s significant merchant, service and industrial sectors also led to the emergence of a fairly differentiated class structure, further complicating the social and political dynamics of the country.
Today the population numbers some 550,000; expatriate workers make up one third of this total, but comprise two thirds of the labor force. At least two thirds of native Bahrainis are Shi’a. They are represented in the country’s commercial elite and in certain government departments, but the top ranks of the government, the security services and the armed forces are exclusively controlled by the Al Khalifa and families close to them, all Sunni.
The protracted political crisis in Bahrain is not, contrary to the usual characterizations, a conflict of Sunni versus Shi‘i. Many Bahrainis I met insist that their primary identity is that of Bahraini citizen. “I hate being tagged as a Sunni,” one lawyer told me, explaining why he makes a point of taking the cases of Shi‘i political detainees. A Shi‘i colleague used similar words to explain his reluctance to be part of “Shi‘i delegations” summoned to meet with the prime minister.
Nevertheless, the crisis is taking on a confessional coloration, for a number of related reasons. One is the extent to which economic and class divisions in Bahraini society reinforce sectarian divides. Unemployment and poverty are concentrated among the Shi‘a. A second is the jolt which the 1978-1979 Iranian revolution gave to a self-consciously Shi‘i political activism throughout the region, not least in Bahrain. Third, by the end of the 1970s, the regime had fairly decisively smashed the secular opposition forces — the Popular Front (tied to the Arab Nationalist Movement) and the National Liberation Front (the organization of Bahraini Communists). Activists were imprisoned and then sent into exile, where most of them remain today. This left the field of oppositionist politics open to forces with a distinctively Shi‘i cast — the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, initially inspired by Khomeinist Iran, and the village-based traditional leadership of clerics such as Sheikh ‘Abd al-Amir al-Jamri, which evolved into the Bahrain Freedom Movement. The regime took advantage of developments in Iran to advance its own absolutist agenda. The revolution and its aftermath “gave the government reasons to follow its illiberal instincts,” one Bahraini defense lawyer told me.
The most relevant political divide remains that between the ruling family and its many allies, on the one hand, and the growing number of Bahrainis calling for restoration of the 1973 constitution and the “contract” that it represented between the traditional rulers and expanding modern political and social forces. Most Bahrainis want to see a continued major role for the Al Khalifa, but a negotiated one. Underlying the widespread demand to restore the constitution and the partially elected parliament is the issue of control of resources, and access to national income. For impoverished Shi‘a, this demand includes employment: Of the 77,000 Bahrainis in the work force, more than 60,000 are on the state payroll, but hiring has become increasingly discriminatory. For merchants and businessmen, corruption is a major issue: They want to see accountability and transparency in the state budget — an allocated annual sum for the expenses of the ruling family, for instance, and checks on the multi-sector business investments of the prime minister and his sons. “You can’t be both prime minister and the country’s premier businessman without there being a fantastic conflict of interest,“ a bank official told me. “The others complain about how he leaves nothing for anybody else.”
In the aftermath of the Gulf war and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and encouraged by electoral and parliamentary developments in Kuwait, Bahraini liberals sensed an opportunity to raise again the issue of elections and their own parliament. Following informal discussions, a group consisting mainly of professionals and businessmen drew up a petition that was then signed by more than 300 prominent individuals. “We called for elections to a restored parliament, release of political prisoners and permission for exiles to return,” one petition leader told me. “It was extremely polite, and included our fulsome respect for the Al Khalifa…. We had known of the [amir’s plan for a Shura Council] and were trying to preempt it…it could not be a substitute for the elected National Assembly.” The amir promised to study the petition and reply to its organizers, but never did.
A version of this petition — one modification was a clause demanding political rights for women — was initiated publicly in late September 1994 and quickly gathered about 25,000 signatures. That July had seen several large demonstrations demanding jobs at the Ministry of Labor, which the government disrupted with tear gas and arrests of alleged ringleaders. “We were not involved in those demonstrations at all,” one petition organizer told me, “but they certainly added to the atmosphere of ripeness that we felt.”
With the first petition, the organizers made a point of gathering a more or less equal number of Sunni and Shi‘i signatories, but the public petition was another story. “That’s why some of us argued against a popular petition,” one signer of the first, himself a Shi‘i, told me. “The [Shi‘i] sheikhs have the signers. They will overwhelm you. And that’s exactly what happened.” Although the demands were essentially the same, the public petition campaign frightened many Sunnis. The government was quick to exploit this Sunni hesitation by consistently refusing to meet with joint Sunni-Shi‘i delegations. The thousands of recent arrests and detentions have almost exclusively involved Shi‘i opponents and critics.
One of the organizers of the July demonstrations at the Labor Ministry, a young sheikh named ‘Ali Salman, also campaigned for the popular petition. He was arrested several times that summer and fall, the last time on December 5. “I played a role in this because my sermons were very popular,” he told me. After several weeks in prison, Sheikh ‘Ali was being interrogated by a leading official in the security services, Col. ‘Adil Filayfil. “‘If you withdraw the petition,’ he said, ‘this will all be finished.’ I refused.” Sheikh ‘Ali was forcibly expelled from Bahrain with two other young Shi‘i leaders in early January, and now resides in London. The government’s decision to expel Sheikh ‘Ali and the others — a tactic learned from the British textbook of colonial rule — was one key escalation of the crisis. His arrest had been a major cause of the demonstrations of December 1994, and his expulsion sent a clear signal that there would be no compromise or dialogue around the demands raised in the petition. A second escalation came in late 1995, when the government publicly reneged on an informal understanding it had reached with Sheikh al-Jamri and other Shi‘i community leaders then in detention. This led to the revival of demonstrations and attacks against public property in late December and early January 1996, and the rearrest of al-Jamri and many others.
The staged confessions of early June represent the ruling family’s latest signal that they will not concede on demands for constitutional limits to their power. The regime enjoys unstinting public support from other kings and autocrats. “We are against any other parliament in the Gulf,” Prince Nayif, the Saudi interior minister, reportedly said recently to a group of Saudi Shi‘a who urged Saudi mediation of the conflict.
Just as predictable have been the unrestrained endorsements by Britain and the United States. A week prior to the public confessions, Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Manama. “We support Bahrain’s efforts to ensure its stability, and we continue to accuse Iran as a threat to the stability of the region,” he told an informal press conference. Following the confessions spectacle, Bahraini authorities released a statement from President Bill Clinton to the amir which said that “the United States fully supports Your [sic] government and the sovereignty and safety of Bahrain’s territories.”
The regime can, in the short term, probably preserve its unfettered rule. And Washington can, in the short term, enlist regional support in the campaign to isolate Iran. The majority of Bahrainis are paying a heavy price for these dubious accomplishments, though, and the opportunities for a resolution that would preserve Bahrain’s legacy of social tolerance and liberality are fast vanishing.