Bahrain - from national celebration to day of rage

A “palm revolution” in the Gulf? Political upheaval in the desert state of Bahrain: there have been calls for a Day of Rage in Bahrain to replace the celebration of 10 years of constitutional monarchy on February 14th which is set to split the country in two

Bahrain, the small Gulf island is at a crossroads. Its oil is running out, and a majority of its population is frustrated with the lack of reform. Bahrain, is an interesting model for what a post-oil country should not look like; failure to diversify the economy adequately away from oil (80% of exports are petroleum based) combined with the lack of reform of power structures and political institutions to see it through the transition away from oil wealth dependency means that the Bahraini government is between a rock and a hard place.

The proposed cuts to commodity subsidies (on food and fuel) have caused outrage and have been retracted, sales taxes are in the pipeline - adding to those already in place disguised as ‘fees’ -  inadequate funding of health and education and increasing unemployment are just some the very serious economic challenges facing the country.  In spite of a ‘Bahranisation’ policy in the labour market, the dependency on foreign labour is increasing and the population has reached 1.2 million -double the number a decade ago. There is increasing pressure on resources and even the middle class - despite being a small proportion of the population - is complaining.

Income inequality is driven by crony capitalism that has also lead to enrichment of a small elite. Vast land reclamation projects, unaccounted for in official land registries have been sold off and exposed in a parliamentary investigation last year. Although average incomes are higher than Egypt and Tunisia, income inequality remains high. It is difficult to obtain accurate estimates - there is no disaggregated data - but relative poverty probably stands at 30-40%.

Sectarianism in the country increased particularly after the Iraqi invasion, and the regime seems to have sown divisions further. Shias complain of economic discrimination whilst sunnis claim that  the regime is much more responsive to shia demands. There are no accurate published data, but Shia account for 50-70% of the population. The sectarian discrimination perceived by them exists at many different levels; politically, electoral districts have been carved in such a way that tames their power in parliament, the number of top positions of government (5 out of 25 ministers are Shia compared to 12 from the ruling family), and on the economic level, the distribution of wealth and services in the country are highly skewed.

However, sunnis have also suffered a lot from the land reclamation policy in their areas. The King is believed to have overridden the country's law to naturalise an estimated 50,000 foreigners in order to manipulate the demographic composition – a policy that has aggravated sunni sentiment as well as shia, since these new communities are located in sunni areas. Abdulhadi Khalaf, a Bahraini sociologist, describes this policy as a process by which privileges and positions are given to the loyalists of the ruling family regardless of sect.


Today, the newly found sense of self-empowerment drawn from Egypt and Tunisia means that a dangerous concoction of factors is bringing the country to boiling point. The key trigger that has pushed the people to their maximum pain threshold is the trial of an alleged terrorist cell that includes a prominent political blogger called Ali Abdulemam (who coincidentally participated in US funded training programs) that has descended into a complete charade, with two defense teams withdrawing from the trial. Mass arrests took place last summer, including members of the terrorist cell which the government believes lead the street protests that saw burning tires at many village entrances over the last five years.
 

Riding on these historical grievances and a renewed sense of empowerment, youth at the grassroots level using Facebook (over 8000 members) have called for a day of rage on February 14 with one of their main stated aims being a new constitution, and the resignation of the Prime Minister who has been in power for 40 years. This in itself is a strong act of empowerment, overriding not just official authority, but the religious establishment who have been quiet on the issue of political detainees for a long time. As of yesterday, Sheikh Isa Qassim, the main religious leader, has given subtle support for peaceful protests and reiterated the demands without explicitly supporting the movement.

The government had intended for it to be ‘the day of pride’ for the nation to celebrate the 10th anniversary of  the referendum in which 98.4% voted for a constitutional monarchy, in which the Emir would become 'King' and the State would change names to a 'Kingdom' - (this was the resurrection of the abandoned 1973 constitution). The Emir took this popular mandate as a carte blanche to deliver a heavily edited version of a constitution a year later. The new parliament was composed of an elected chamber and an unelected chamber, both with 40 members, with ultimate veto power with the King.

Bahrain has in the past had an active opposition movement dating back at least to the 1920s. This has consistently pressured governments for political reform and demanded participation, and has taken on many different colours, from nationalist to ethnocentricists.

Today, the opposition movement mostly represents the marginalised Shia. But there is a growing secular movement that was popular in the 70s but lost out to the Islamists in the 80s.The 'constitutional coup' was a big blow to the opposition as whole. After boycotting the first parliamentary elections, the popular Alwefaq Islamic Society (“Society” because parties as such are banned) decided to participate in 2006 and radical members splintered off to set up the Haqq movement which continued to boycott the elections.

This groups has chosen to work outside the parliamentary system, and has had some success in campaigning outside Bahrain in the media and international human rights organisations. On the other hand, Alwefaq has chosen to work firmly within the boundaries of the system and state law, despite its restrictions on freedom of association and information. Alwefaq has nevertheless always won all the seats they have run for. The National Democratic Action Society (Wa'ad) is a much smaller, but increasingly popular secular movement, particularly among the Middle-class youth, who have not won any seats in parliament, and believe this is because of a conspiracy to keep progressive voices out of an ethnocentricised parliament.
 
The attempt at turning a regime-initiated day of celebration on its head has already reaped some fruit – the King announced an increase in subsidies (albeit simply adding to the public debt) and is expected to make further concessions. The government’s fear is evident; Bahrain TV started blurting out national songs a week ago, a special task force to curtail and counter popular forces on Web2.0 was announced, the head of the Bahraini security agency made a special visit to meet his counterpart in Cairo, presumably to get some advice on how to contain protests; and a flurry of diplomatic backdoor meetings like the one between the Bahrain foreign minister and the Qatari ambassador to discuss the role that Aljazeera will play in covering the upcoming events.

The King is expected to give a big speech on the 12th. What he will pull out of the hat is anyone’s guess, but it is expected that he will release the hoards of political prisoners in jail since last summer. On the 11th, the King issued a 'makrama' (a 'handout' which he uses as a means to distribute favours) that paid 1000 dinars (about 1600 British Pounds) to each family. The response on the street was mixed: some Tweeted "not 1000 or 2000, Monday is the day of reckoning”. Mixed with a tide of jubilation over Mubarak's downfall, feelings are running high ahead of Monday's planned demonstrations (see picture of graffiti, which reproduces the tweet).

 

How many will actually turn out on the day and how the regime will respond to this call for protest is hard to tell. The author has heard the 14th of February being discussed among private school children and Jimmy Choo-clad women – very different from the tyre-burning unemployed youth that are the usual suspects. Will there be a severe clampdown or will the government let the protestors be? Will the proposed ‘makramat’ be enough to appease the people’s call for reform? Certainly, Saudi Arabic, the US and UK are following the situation very carefully. Bahrain is a geostrategic ally that they would not want to lose. The American 5th fleet is based there. There may not quite be a revolution, in the Tunisian and Egyptian sense on the 14th but the political upheaval taking place will definitely be the beginning of a long struggle for more equality and freedom and more importantly emphasising the mortality of authoritarianism of the regime.


 

About the author

Dr Ala'a Shehabi is a Bahraini writer, researcher and pro-democracy activist, and currently a fellow for the Arab Council of Social Sciences.  She is one of the founders of Bahrain Watch, an ngo working on transparency and accountability. She has a PhD in Economics from Imperial College London, and previously worked as a policy analyst at RAND Europe, and as a lecturer in economics at the Bahrain Institute for Banking & Finance. You can follow her on twitter @alaashehabi