Gulf States Newsletter issue 770 - 25 November 2005

The next 12 months will show whether the creation of a radical new opposition force fractures Shiite Islamist support or broadens the range of pressures on Bahrain’s government.

A new political movement, Haq (Right), has been launched by a group of well-known Bahraini opposition hawks, who are dismayed by the main political societies’ decision to register under the current constitutional arrangements and prepare for probable participation in the October 2006 parliamentary elections (GSN 766/4).

Led by former Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society deputy leader Hassan Al-Mushaima, veteran leftist Ali Rabea and academic Abdeljalil Al-Singace (also ex-Wefaq), the new movement has powerful popular appeal.

Several thousand people listened for two hours to speeches from the trio and human rights activist Abdelhadi Al-Khawaja at the 11 November evening launch rally of Haq on a patch of open ground in the village of Bilad Al-Gadim, on the Manama fringes. A live address by the respected Saeed El-Shehabi – who remains in London exile – was broadcast by loudspeaker to the crowd.

The new movement could potentially eat deeply into Al-Wefaq’s support base – a major force in electoral politics given the society has been the dominant vehicle of political expression for Bahrain’s Shiites, who constitute well over half the population. Haq could also take support from Rabea’s National Democratic Action Society (NDAS). In an emotional statement in September, Al-Mushaima announced his departure from Al-Wefaq as the society’s board prepared to seek the endorsement of the membership for a reluctant decision to register under the controversial new Political Societies Law.

Al-Wefaq leader Sheikh Ali Salman indicated that this would almost certainly lead to an eventual further decision to participate in the 2006 parliamentary elections (GSN 766/5).

Together with NDAS and two smaller societies – the Islamic Action Society and National Democratic Rally Society – Al-Wefaq boycotted the 2002 poll, the first held under Bahrain’s new parliamentary constitution. They felt the powers accorded to the elected National Assembly were too weak, compared with the blocking rights accorded to the nominated Majlis Al-Shura whose members are chosen by King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa.

Al-Mushaima and Rabea believe the opposition boycott should continue since the King has not responded to opposition demands for an enhancement of the elected chamber’s powers. However, the majority of the Wefaq board and the leaders of the three other boycott parties believe that now is the time to change their stance.

The 2002 boycott was a high profile gesture of protest at the King’s imposition of a constitution which they claim did not live up to the commitments made in a National Charter that had been endorsed by a 98.4% ‘yes’ vote in a referendum. However, over the last year, they came under increasing pressure to abandon the boycott and join the 2006 election. It became clear that Western governments, and particularly the United States and United Kingdom, were solidly backing Hamad’s approach to reform. Washington and London made clear their view that the King had taken Bahrain a major step down the path of democratisation – and political groups should take full advantage of the reforms, rather than regard their shortcomings as justifying a boycott.

Some highly respected independent critics of government began warning that Al-Wefaq, in particular, would risk losing popular support if it continued to focus on the constitutional dispute rather than grassroots issues such as unemployment and housing. But the decisive factor was probably the Political Societies Law introduced this summer, which threatened to take away their status as political movements if societies failed to register (in the process implicitly accepting the constitution).

This eventually persuaded Al-Wefaq’s spiritual leader Sheikh Issa Qassim to reluctantly come out in favour of registration, creating the political space for the dovish majority on Al-Wefaq’s board, led by Sheikh Ali Salman, to change policy.

The coming year will test the levels of support for Sheikh Ali, and the alternative approach advocated by Haq – which draws heavily on Shia support but will also, thanks to Rabea’s participation, have some appeal to secular and Sunni voters.