Why Did Democracy Fail in Bahrain?
Between sectarian tensions and the U.S.'s imperial interests, Bahraini democracy never stood a chance.
The tiny Persian Gulf sheikhdom of Bahrain is in the midst of seemingly irresolvable mayhem. When, in February 2011, influenced by the eruption of political protests in other Arab states, many Bahrainis poured into the streets of Manama, they were expressing their frustration of the repressive and unjust situation they had long endured. Demands for constitutional reforms, democratic rights, and a more equitable society were met with the harsh and brutal reaction of the authoritarian regime of Al-Khalifa, with the implicit consent of the United States. The neighbouring Saudi Arabia and Islamic republic of Iran manipulated the situation, aggravating the turmoil.
The complicated status of Bahrain can be understood in light of the historical Persian (Iranian) and Arab rivalries, on the one hand, and the colonial and imperial interests of Britain, and now the United States, on the other. Historically a part of the Persian Empire, Bahrain came under Arab influence in the 8th century, and shifted hands several times, leading to the rule of the Al-Khalifa tribe in the 18th century. Iran did not give up its claim over Bahrain, and, even in the 1950s, declared it a province of Iran. However, in the early 1970s, with Britain’s intervention, the majority of Bahrainis opted for independence.
The Al-Khalifa tribe was a non-native Arab Sunni tribe originating from central Arabia, and ruling over a Shiite-majority territory. As a result, it had to rule with force. It needed the support of neighbouring Sunni tribes, and the backing of the dominant imperial power of the time, Britain. Interestingly, compared to other Arab sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf, Bahrain has had a stronger civil society, labour unions, women’s organizations, and political parties.
The present ruler of Bahrain, Sheikh Hamad Al-Khalifa, came into power in 1999, when he replaced his father. As a result of political pressures, he introduced some reforms. In 2002, he changed the political system to a “constitutional monarchy” with an elected lower house, and promoted his own status from emir to king. He also established a new labour law that allowed the creation of a general federation of trade unions. Further changes included the fact that women were granted the right to vote, and, even though no woman was elected to sit in the lower house, the king appointed six women to the upper house. Generally, compared to those in other small Arab states, Bahraini women have had better chances for education, and have been more active in public life. But most of these privileges have been limited to the minority Sunnis.
The 2011 uprising was a genuinely spontaneous, secular movement by the civil society, without outside influences. Shiite religious organizations certainly entered the scene and expressed their long-standing grievances. The Shiite community constitutes about 70 per cent of the population of Bahrain, and has been subjected to outright discriminations. In 1995, a Shiite minister entered the cabinet, and, in the 2006 election, the Shiite opposition won 40 per cent of the votes. Despite this, however, the hostilities towards the Shiite population have never relaxed. Such hostilities exist for both religious and political reasons. Sunnis consider Shiites to be heretical, and the ruling Sunni regime – particularly after the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran – has been suspicious of Shiites as agents of Iran.
There is no doubt that the present Iranian regime has tried to infiltrate Shiite organizations. In 1981, and again in 1996, claims were made that Iran and the Bahraini Hezbollah were plotting against the rules of Bahrain. The fact, however, is that over 80 per cent of Bahraini Shiites are Arabs, and they do not have much interaction with Shiites who are of Iranian origin. Many of the latter, aware of the atrocities that the Iranian regime has committed against its own people, are not interested in having a similar regime in Bahrain.