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Bahrain Analysis: The Kingdom's "Sunni Awakening" (Gengler)

Sunni activist Mohamed Albuflasa, detained February 2010Justin Gengler writes for the Middle East Research and Information Project:

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 party, 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.


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.”

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. 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.


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.

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