Opposition politicians say November poll will take place in repressive environment
Few of the houses and stores lining the narrow streets that weave through villages on Bahrain’s Sitra island have escaped opposition graffiti.
Stencilled images of young men killed in anti-government protests mix with slogans attacking the kingdom’s ruling al-Khalifa family. “Martyrs, we will not cry, we will revenge,” reads one. “Leave al-Khalifa” and “No dialogue” say others.
Each serves as a reminder of the unrest that has plagued the Gulf nation, which is preparing for parliamentary elections on November 24. The government, keen to promote Bahrain’s image as a prosperous financial hub, hopes the vote will draw a line under seven years of protests by the kingdom’s Shia majority.
But opposition figures say the poll will take place in a repressive environment that reflects an increasing autocracy across the Middle East since uprisings swept the region in 2011. “They want us to surrender. They are not giving the opposition any chance to participate. They don’t talk to you, they put you in jail,” said an opposition politician, who, like others, asked not to be named for fear of retribution.
They want us to surrender. They are not giving the opposition any chance to participate. They don’t talk to you, they put you in jail Opposition politician The government has crushed the worst of the unrest and silenced most of its critics. More than 3,000 people have been jailed, the main opposition movement, al-Wefaq, has been dissolved and its leader locked up. Hundreds of people have fled into exile or been stripped of their nationalities, activists say.
Now Manama’s challenge will be to convince Shia voters, many of whom have long complained of discrimination, to turn out in sufficient numbers to give the election the credibility it desires. Members of Wefaq and Waad, a secular movement that has also been dissolved, have been barred from standing in the election.
In their place, Bahrainis say, the government is encouraging individuals not associated with the opposition to contest the poll as independents. Bahrain’s rulers are trying to “re-orientate parliamentary life to get away from religious-based political groups”, said a western official. Bahrain, an ally of the west that hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and is considered a bulwark against Iran, is unique in the Gulf because it is home to a Shia majority ruled by a Sunni monarchy. Cycles of unrest have often blighted the kingdom, but the al-Khalifa family faced the biggest threat to its rule when several hundred thousand people took to Manama’s streets in 2011.
The protests were put down after neighbouring Saudi Arabia dispatched troops to support government forces. But clashes continued between police and protesters in Shia villages that lie in the shadow of the capital’s gleaming high-rises. The Pearl roundabout that was the epicentre of the 2011 uprising only reopened last year — reconfigured as a junction, renamed and still under the watchful gaze of security forces.
The government blames Wefaq, a Shia Islamist movement, for fomenting the unrest and alleges that Iran supplied arms and improvised explosive devices to militants who attacked Bahrain’s security forces. Wefaq has always insisted it only supported peaceful protests. It won 18 of parliament’s 40 seats in 2010 elections, but withdrew from the assembly — which critics deride as toothless — after the 2011 uprising.
It boycotted polls four years later and turnout dropped markedly. Wefaq’s leader, Sheikh Ali Salman, was then imprisoned on charges that included “promoting forceful political change”. Issues were addressed, we are still working on it. These are ongoing challenges you have to live with but it’s not a doomsday situation. Bahrain as a society has matured Zayed Alzayani Zayed Alzayani, the industry, commerce and trade minister, dismissed allegations of human rights abuses and insisted the “issues” Bahrain faced in 2011 “are well behind us”.
“Issues were addressed, we are still working on it. These are ongoing challenges you have to live with but it’s not a doomsday situation. Bahrain as a society has matured,” Mr Alzayani said. Some Shia also believe that it is time for their community to re-engage with the state. “We have problems, they can only be solved if we build trust again . . . If you want to develop the system you have to work from within,” said Majeed al-Alawi, a Shia former minister who was involved in negotiations between the royal family and Wefaq in 2011 and 2014.
Wefaq, he said, failed “to understand the politics of the Gulf”. The dynamics of the region shifted after the 2011 uprisings. Saudi Arabia and its ally the United Arab Emirates have become more assertive and pushed back against Islamist groups in the region. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, on whose financial support heavily indebted Bahrain depends, are also leading Arab efforts to counter Shia Iran’s influence.
The election of Donald Trump also emboldened the region’s autocratic monarchies, say analysts. Activists note that Bahraini security forces launched an assault on the home of the kingdom’s top Shia cleric just days after the US president met Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa and other Arab leaders at a summit in Riyadh in May 2017. Five people were killed and 286 arrested in the raid. Police say they were attacked. The US state department did call for the release of Mr Salman, Wefaq’s leader, in June. In its 2017 human rights report, the state department said the most significant human rights issues included “reports of arbitrary or unlawful killings by security forces; allegations of torture of detainees and prisoners”. The question now is whether the authorities have succeeded in ending the unrest or has forced it underground. In Sitra, the mood is one of frustration and quiet defiance.
In a café where men play board games and drink coffee, Mohammed spoke for many when he said: “They’ve won the battle, but I don’t think they’ve won the war. “Voting won’t change anything. This is not real democracy, we want something where people have a real voice,” he said. “If there’s a chance to go back to the streets, I’m pretty sure most people will go for it.”