Bahrain : the spectrum of community quarrrels

Bahrainis are called to the polls on October 23. Despite progresses during the last decade, the approach of these elections has the effect to stress the regime and thus to revive the tensions between the Shia and the Sunni in the little oil kingdom. Within recent weeks, Human Rights organizations have raised the alarm given the tough political repression by the regime on the Shiite opposition movements.

The current political system in the island is more or less similar to the one prevailing in Iraq before 2003, a majority Shia population ruled by a Sunni minority. The 90’s had also been marked by extremely strong clashes between the two communities, that only the amnesty policy conducted by the new emir – who has become the king since – Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa had eased.

Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa then introduced a series of promising reforms: authorizing political organizations, introducing a lower chamber of 40 members, subject to popular vote and granting voting rights to women. Elections were held in 2002 and 2006. The main Shiite formation, the Association for Islamic National Accord (Al Wifaq), boycotted the first but decided to participate to the second, winning 17 seats out of 40 in the House in 2006.

But this grace period of the 2000s seems to have reached its limit last month. At the announcement of elections in October, claims for more proportionality have been issued by the Shiite formations, leading to a wave of arrests of their leaders, but also to the arrests certain members of the Bahraini civil society.

The other Arab capitals of the Gulf supported Bahraini government’s repression plan. As to Western diplomats, they remain silent what means ultimately the same, despite the dangerous drift towards authoritarianism. It is true that the regional climate is tense now, since Iran has announced the launch of its first nuclear power plant in Bushehr in August. Especially since Bahrain is the basis for the U.S. Fifth Fleet, responsible for U.S. naval forces in the region. The West fears local struggles between Sunnis and Shiites are to be recovered by Iran, and, as usual prefer to promote the security against the values.

Besides the Shiite opposition, it is indeed the defenders of Human Rights who have to endure the costs of new community tensions. Moreover it is regrettable that a country that had made real progress in this area suffers such a setback. But responsibility is also to be found in Western influences which by their silence encourage a choice that is morally reprehensible and strategically questionable.

Nathalie Janne d’Othée