Thursday, 17 February 2011

Discontented Shi'a Muslims take to the streets in Bahrain

The demonstrations in Bahrain have been mostly by Shi'a Muslims associated with groups that have rejected the deal agreed by the main Shi'a political party (Al Wefaq) and the regime, under which there are 18 Shi'a members in the lower house of the parliament.

The majority of Shi'a appear to support the deal which allows a substantial Shi'a representation and accept for the time being (or have done up to now) the reality that the Sunni minority (40 per cent plus) get most seats in parliament (22 out of 40). King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa has made other moves to involve the Shi'a in government and decision making.

Several smaller Shi'a groups reject this arrangement and have been engaged in various forms of protest over the past 4-5 years including, on occasions, quite big demonstrations.

During the 1990s, there were several years of Shi'a rioting and low level violence mostly in rural areas against a constitution that allowed them virtually no representation. When King Hamad took power in 1999 he offered a new deal whereby the Shi'a appeared to be able to vote freely for a Lower House which would have the main say in parliament. He later altered this to an equal voice to the Upper House. Election arrangements for the Lower House are organised (i.e. gerrymandered) to ensure that the Shi'a are under-represented. The main Shi'a leader, Sheikh Ali Salman, recognising the fact that the Sunni control the defence and security services, and of course the ruling family, accepted the new arrangement and they have tried to negotiate changes to it. Salman believes that the Shi'a have more to gain by working with the regime than against it.

The current disturbances are, therefore, part of a long running problem and, so far, appear to affect only a section of the Shi'a population. The majority of the Shi'a, however, have not been able to make much progress in trying to negotiate with the King which has caused some loss of support to the minority groups. There are also strong suspicions that the regime has been granting nationality to Sunni from Jordan and other countries in an effort to increase Sunni demographic size. The situation is further complicated by divisions within the ruling family between a more liberal element that seem to be amenable to granting concessions to the Shi'a and a hard liner faction led by the King's uncle Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa, that do not.

The situation will need to be watched. It is containable, as illustrated last night with the forced clearing of the protestors from Pearl Square, and the King has acted quickly to look into the deaths of Shi'a demonstrators. The King will want to ensure that demonstrators do not get greater support and no doubt will be worried by the Egyptian effect. He will also be aware that if the Shi'a get too violent Sunni groups may take it on themselves to confront the demonstrators.

© 2011 Menas Associates

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