There are arguably four main political trends in Bahrain: Secular/left-wing; secular/liberal; Shia Islamist and Sunni Islamist.
The left-wing groups have the longest pedigree, going back to union activity and independence demands in the 1950s. Three existing societies (left-wing, nationalist and Baathist) have their roots in this period. The 2001 Constitution legalized and formalized political societies. However, in subsequent rounds of elections these organizations failed to achieve the success they enjoyed in previous decades. These societies associated joined the opposition’s boycott of the political process in 2011. As the unrest took a sectarian turn; Sunnis, moderates and the middle classes abandoned these societies in large numbers, leaving real questions over their continued relevance.
The weakest of these four trends are the nationalist and liberal societies. A few societies like the National Action Charter Society received considerable support when they first emerged in 2002, but squeezed between the left-wing and the Islamists, they failed to make an impact. During the 2011 unrest, several societies, like Al-Wasat and the National Dialogue Society joined the Al-Fateh Coalition, a staunchly Sunni loyalist movement. Only a few tiny societies continue to occupy the centre ground, with no national exposure.
Shia Islamist activity has roots in the 1970s, such as the Religious Bloc in the 1973 Parliament. The 1979 Iranian revolution radicalized these entities, leading to the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain’s Iran-backed coup attempt in 1981. Activists were jailed or exiled and political activity went underground. In 2002 these trends formed Al-Wefaq, although unregistered radical groups like Al-Haqq and Al-Wafa broke away. Al-Wefaq boycotted elections in 2002 and participated in 2006, winning 17 seats. During the 2011 unrest Al-Wefaq walked out of Parliament and haven’t returned. As of 2016, two of the major Shia sectarian societies – Al-Wefaq and Amal have been closed down.
Sunni Islamic societies first formally came to being in 2002 and the two main societies, Al-Asalah (Salafist) and Al-Minbar (pro-Muslim Brotherhood) won 12 seats between them. Although both societies have remained socially and politically active, their political support has gradually drained away to the point where both societies today only have three formally serving MPs.
Full list of registered political societies
Below is a full list of the active and registered political societies in Bahrain. The first segment looks at the six societies which are currently part of the loyalist Al-Fateh Coalition. The final section reviews the opposition societies which are still boycotting the parliamentary process. The middle section looks at the other seven “independent” societies which are not formally part of either the opposition or Al-Fateh.
The six below political societies are part of the Al-Fateh Coalition, made up of a group of loyalist societies which came together in 2011 to make a stand against the activities of the opposition. Salafist Al-Asalah left Al-Fateh in 2013 and Al-Wasat in 2014 suspended its membership.
Al-Minbar al-Watani al-Islami (Islamic League): This is a Sunni society with close links to the Muslim Brotherhood. In the 2002 parliamentary elections it gained six seats. However, it has struggled in more recent years, only gaining one or two seats in the last two rounds of elections. Although the society enjoys widespread support, its links to the Muslim Brotherhood have arguably been a hindrance in the last couple of years. Its only current MP, Mohammed al-Ammadi, has generally tended to avoid Islamic issues altogether in Parliament.
National Unity Gathering (Tajammu al-Wahdah al-Wataniyah): This movement appeared in response to the 2011 unrest, primarily featuring Sunni loyalists and led by Abdullatif al-Mahmoud. It quickly gained large amounts of funding, support and attention. However, by 2014, despite a high-profile campaign and strong candidates, it failed to gain any seats at all in the parliamentary elections. In 2015 it recorded a 90% fall in donations and relatively little has been heard from the movement in the media.
National Action Charter Society (Mithaq al-Amal al-Watani): The society was set up in 2002 in support of the King’s new Constitution and campaigned hard but unsuccessfully in the 2002 parliamentary elections. However, 16 members, including technocratic and business figures, gained seats in the Shura Council. This liberal society has supported progressive causes and was closely associated with the Al-Muntada Society in the years prior to 2011. The society spoke out against the opposition in the 2011 unrest and consequently affiliated itself with Al-Fateh.
Islamic Shura Society: A Political society of Sunni Islamic orientation. It won two seats in the 2002 parliamentary elections, but has been a less visible presence in recent years. It’s Secretary-General Shaikh Abdulrahman Abdulsalam recently expressed his frustration at the difficult climate political societies are facing.
National Dialogue Society (Al-Hiwar al-Watani): This society was set up in support of the post-2011 National Dialogue process. Following its affiliation with Al-Fateh, it has been less visible as a separate entity.
National Constitutional Assembly (Al-Tajammu al-Watani al-Dusturi): This has never been a high profile society, but it has continued to maintain a presence since being established in 2002. Its secretary-general is Abdulrahman al-Bakir.
Independent political societies
The below societies are entities which are not currently affiliated with the Al-Fateh Coalition and are not among the opposition societies which are currently boycotting the political process.
In December 2015 two societies; the Justice and Development Society, and the recently-formed Democratic Nation Society announced that they were closing, citing struggles in maintaining consistent support.
Al-Asalah al-Islamiyah: This Salafist society has been an influential political force, having won six seats in the 2002 elections. However, in the last two rounds of elections it only succeeded in winning a couple of seats (although customarily a number of Islamist MPs have associated themselves with this society). Despite only representing a narrow fringe of Bahraini society, Al-Asalah has tended to be highly influential when campaigning on social issues. Al-Asalah separated from the Al-Fateh Coalition in 2013 following differences over how to pursue participation in the National Dialogue process.
Al-Wasat al-Arabi: A centrist Arab nationalist society which joined the Al-Fateh Coalition in 2011. Al-Wasat’s Al-Fateh membership has been suspended since October 2014 and the leadership has on occasions hinted at discomfort in being associated with a Coalition which was sometimes accused of having sectarian leanings. Al-Wasat’s secretary-general, Ahmed al-Binali, resigned in 2014 in the context of the parliamentary elections contest. Since then the society has been relatively dormant, with only an interim secretary-general, Jassim al-Muhazza.
Islamic League (Al-Rabitah al-Islamiyah): This moderate Shia society is currently represented by MP Ali al-Atish in Parliament. The society was active following the 2001 new constitution and gained three seats in the 2002 Parliament. However, it has been less visible as a coherent society in recent years.
Islamic Saff Society: A smaller conservative Sunni Islamist society established in 2007. Its Secretary-General Abdullah Bughammar has recently complained about the difficulty of attracting funds and remaining politically active.
National Justice Movement (Harikat al-Adalah al-Wataniyah): This society describes itself as a secular movement with liberal and left-wing tendencies. It was established in 2006 with Abdullah Hashim (a founding member of Wa’ad) as its secretary-general. The organization has been outspoken against Islamic societies like Al-Wefaq and Al-Asalah. It has been less visible in recent years.
Free Thought Society (Al-Fikr al-Hurr): Considered to be a moderate and liberal opposition society, which has been outspoken against violence. It has never been successful in elections, but has gained Shura Council seats. The Secretary General is Layla Rajab
Opposition political societies
These societies early in 2011 announced their boycott of the political process, which continues up until today. Note that the PDL was previously affiliated with the opposition boycott, but since 2014 announced its return to the political process.
These societies are a mixture of Shia sectarian and left-wing secular entities. The closure of Al-Wefaq, Amal, the UNDA and Al-Ikha leaves only Wa’ad and the NDA as legally-functioning societies continuing to boycott the political process.
*Al-Wefaq Islamic Society: Al-Wefaq was founded in 2002 when many Islamic opposition figures returned from exile and came out of jail in the context of King Hamad’s amnesty. The decision-making apparatus of this society is dominated by Shia clerics and its spiritual leader is Ayatollah Isa Qassim. The organization’s secretary-general is the cleric Shaikh Ali Salman, who was jailed in 2015. Al-Wefaq boycotted the 2002 elections, but participated in 2006 and 2010. Al-Wefaq had 18 MPs in the 2010 Parliament before its walkout in 2011. Al-Wefaq boycotted the parliamentary elections in 2002, but participated and won 17 seats in 2006. In June 2016 it was announced that Al-Wefaq would be closed down, with the Justice Ministry accusing the society of fueling sectarianism and extremism.
Wa’ad (National Democratic Action Society): This left-wing society has a long history of political action. Despite having enjoyed support among moderates and the middle classes, the society consistently fared badly in parliamentary elections. Under its previous secretary-general, Ibrahim Sharif, Wa’ad fatefully joined forces with Al-Wefaq during the 2011 uprising, losing most of its mainstream support in the process. The current leader is Radhi al-Mousawi.
National Democratic Assembly (NDA; Al-Tajammu al-Qawmi al-Dimuqrati): The group is led by Hassan Ali, and Mahmoud Kassab as deputy secretary-general. This Baathist society was established by Bahrainis who had studied in Iraq during the 1960s and 1970s. The society gained two seats in the 2002 parliamentary elections, but failed to win seats in subsequent elections. Since 2011 it has boycotted the parliamentary process.
Progressive Democratic League (PDL; Al-Minbar al-Dimuqrati al-Taqaddumi): This is a left-wing society which was formally established in 2002, but which considers itself to be the successor to the Bahrain National Liberation Front which was first established in 1955, making it the oldest active political society in Bahrain. The membership is said to be small and mostly elderly, made up of those with a history of left-wing and communist activism. It retains an influence within the trade union movements.
In 2009 the PDL affiliated itself with Wa’ad and the NDA to form the “Nationalist Democratic Movement” which it described as a “secular, democratic opposition”. In 2011 the PDL, Wa’ad and the NDA united with the Shia Islamic society Al-Wefaq in boycotting the political process. However, since 2014 the PDL broke away from the other opposition societies.
*Unitary National Democratic Assembly (UNDA; Al-Tajammu al-Wahdawi al-Watani al-Dimuqrati): This movement is associated with the opposition and has boycotted the political process since 2011. In 2015 the Justice Ministry issued a statement announcing that the organization would be closed down for violations of the constitution and undermining security.
*Brotherhood Society (Al-Ikha): This society emerged in 2002, primarily among Bahrainis with Iranian roots (known as Ajam) living in Muharraq. Its secretary-general is Musa Ghulum al-Ansari. The society affiliated itself with the opposition in boycotting the political process after 2011. However, many Bahrainis from the Ajam community, particularly well-established figures, were reluctant to associate themselves with the opposition and distanced themselves from Ikha. As a result, this society in June 2016 eventually decided to close down after failing to find sufficient active members to fill executive positions.
*Amal (Islamic Action Society): Amal is associated with the Shirazi segment of the Shia community in Bahrain (who followed the leadership of Mohammed al-Shirazi and were associated with Hadi al-Mudarrisi – Amal’s spiritual leader). The Shirazis have a history of radical political activism in Bahrain going back to the 1970s, notably in the form of the Iran-sponsored Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain which was dissolved after staging a coup attempt in 1981. Amal brought these trends together in the context of King Hamad’s reconciliation programme and the movement was formally registered in 2006, but failed to win any seats in the parliamentary elections that year. Amal boycotted the 2010 elections and aligned itself with the opposition movement in 2011, before being closed down by the authorities in 2012.
* The asterisk indicates societies which have closed down or are to close as of June 2016.