A shared political consciousness
As the first state in the Arabian Gulf region to discover oil in 1931, Bahrain has a long history of political and civil society activism. Many of the first generation of modern political figures were educated in new schools set up during the 1920s, giving Bahrain a strong progressive edge over many of its neighbours. The first girls’ school in the entire region appeared in Manama in 1928.
Due to Bahrain’s small size, most of the prominent figures who would dominate Bahrain’s political scene over the coming decades went to school with each other; including members of the ruling family, political activists and professionals.
The first manifestations of political activism appeared among workers of the national oil company, Bapco, with workers demanding better pay and conditions; as well as preferment for Bahraini workers. During this generation which appeared between the first and second world wars, one of the noticeable features was the eradication of sectarian barriers. People from both Sunni and Shia villages attended these modern schools together and worked alongside each other.
Demands for greater labour and political rights unified workers, irrespective of their sectarian background. Bahrainis gained greater awareness and tolerance of differences in belief and religious practice. For example; Shia religious festivals were often a national holiday for everyone and Sunnis would often go and watch Shia processions to mark these occasions. This is not to say that sectarian tensions were entirely absent, but this was an important period for cultivating a sense of unified Bahraini national awareness.
Bahrainis would have to wait until the 1960s for higher education institutions. Until then, those who wanted to continue their education had to go overseas. A favourite location was the American University in Beirut. Those who returned didn’t just bring back with them skills and knowledge for the jobs market; they also brought back new political and social ideas. In particular Arab nationalist and left-wing/Marxist ideologies were popular among Arab intellectuals at that time.
Beginnings of political activism
The nearest thing to formal political societies in the early 1950s were various clubs. Some of these, like the Bahrain and Uruba Clubs, were started by figures who had received education in Beirut or Cairo and were exposed to Arab nationalist ideas. These two clubs in particular emphasized “Arab enlightenment” – rejecting sectarianism, opposing colonial rule and promoting workers’ rights. These ideas were promoted in lectures and through sympathetic newspapers.
In 1953 tensions began to appear between Sunnis and Shia in the context of industrial unrest and scuffles around religious processions. Five Sunni and Shia members of the Bahrain and Uruba Clubs got together to try and put a stop to the disturbances. The initial efforts of this “network of five” to settle the issue through traditional reconciliation methods failed. This network then organized itself into a broader political front which took the name of the Higher Executive Committee.
This Committee then put forward a series of demands to the authorities for reforms. However, as mediation with Bahrain’s leadership got underway, the Committee found itself weakened by differences between its membership over objectives and tactics. The result was that each time the authorities offered concessions, the HEC failed to reach agreement internally on what position to take. By March 1956 the HEC had failed to make any progress and tensions escalated after an attack by rioters on the car of the British Foreign Minister.
The rulers agreed in May 1956 to recognize the Committee, under a new name; the Committee of National Union. However, as these talks began to make progress, the CNU organized protests against the Anglo-French attack of Egypt in the context of the Suez crisis. Protests turned violent and several arrests were made. Although this marked the effective end of the CNU; this period of Bahraini history was an important phase of the emergence of nationalist groupings. After independence, many of the leading figures from the CNU gained high-level roles in the new administration.
Left-wing, Marxist and Baathist parties
The 1953-1956 social tensions helped bring about a new generation of civil society activists; many of whom were thoroughly immersed in pan-Arab; nationalist and left-wing ideologies. There were three particularly important political movements which emerged in the decades leading up to independence:
The nationalist “Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arab Gulf” emerged in the Gulf region during the late 1960s, with aspirations for greater independence from colonialist powers. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Bahrain split off from this grouping in 1974.
The National Democratic Assembly represented the Iraqi-dominated Ba’ath Party in Bahrain. The NDA was established by Bahrainis who had studied in Iraq during the 1960s and 1970s.
These groupings played a significant role in the March Uprising of 1965 against British colonialism. This was triggered by hundreds of workers being laid-off by the national oil company, BAPCO.
Following Bahrain’s 1971 formal declaration of independence; 1972 witnessed a period of intense political activity by leftist and liberal groups demanding greater freedoms and a more representative political system. These efforts forces arguably contributed to the decision to create a Bahraini National Assembly in 1973.
Bahrain’s 1973 National Assembly
Pressure from progressive and left-wing groups for reforms and democratic freedoms bore fruit in the decision immediately after independence to establish a single-chamber Parliament in 1973. Twenty-two seats were contested; several seats went to independents, but the dynamics of the new National Assembly were largely defined by two political blocs; the progressive “People’s Bloc”, with eight members; and the “Religious Bloc”, with the core membership being Shia clerics who had received their education in the religious schools of Najaf in Iraq. Members of the People’s Bloc in the National Assembly were understood to represent the three already-established groupings:
- National Liberation Front—Bahrain (Marxist/left-wing)
- Popular Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (Arab nationalist/left-wing/anti-colonialist)
- National Democratic Assembly (Bahrain wing of leftist/Arab nationalist Ba’ath Party)
These eight MPs had differing degrees of nationalist, leftist and liberal views, but they were united by a modernizing vision for Bahrain, which proved to be broadly in tune with that of the Monarchy and the Government on many issues. Three were lawyers, one a sociologist and five had teaching experience. Both Sunnis and Shia were represented in this bloc. One Shia representative had been elected in a Sunni-majority constituency, showing that Bahrainis did not necessarily vote on a sectarian basis.
Up until that moment, demands for reform had almost entirely come from the political left and their sympathizers. However, once the National Assembly began to do its work, one of the major forces of disruption was the Religious Bloc which wanted Islamic law and Islamicization. The Religious Bloc thus clashed with the Monarchy, nationalist MPs and the rest of Bahrain’s ruling class which wanted to open up Bahrain to foreign investment, tourism and a globalized work-force.
The Religious Bloc, led by figures like Isa Qassim and Abdulamir al-Jamri, advocated measures like the separation of men and women in society; banning alcohol; criminalizing blasphemy; and Islamic forms of punishment; all of which would have been disastrous for the vision of opening Bahrain up to the outside world.
“The relationship between the ruling family and the religious bloc deteriorated quickly because of Shia opposition to the government’s support for socially liberal and progressive legislation initiatives, which Sheikh Qassim and his Shia colleagues considered contrary to Islam.” (A. Alfoneh)
This pressure from Islamist MPs for laws unfavourable to non-Muslims were a contributing factor towards the failure of the National Assembly project. However, the Security Law proposed by the authorities united both leftists and Islamists against the Government, ultimately setting in motion the tensions which would bring the National Assembly to an end two years later.
Bahrain’s left-wing during the 1980s & 90s
After the 1975 dissolution of the Parliament, with little room for organized political activity in Bahrain, the NLF, NDA and Popular Front ceased to be active domestically. Many activists came to be based overseas.
By the 1970s, the weaknesses of secular political parties in the Arab world were becoming more visible, particularly after the defeat of the “progressive” Arab states like Egypt and Syria in the 1967 Seven-Day War against Israel. Progressives found themselves losing ground to increasingly assertive Islamist groups across the region.
Intellectuals who came of age during the 1960s and 70s remained core figures in Bahrain’s society. As increasing numbers of Bahrainis attended domestic universities and higher education institutions, Bahrain’s academia established an international reputation for itself. Bahrain also remained ahead of the region in medicine, banking, tourism, journalism, literature and the arts. Meanwhile, Bahrain’s public sector grew rapidly, producing a new generation of civil servants, administrators and diplomats.
Thus, during the 1980s and 90s the circle of Bahrain’s intellectuals, writers, academics and professionals expanded, paving the way for a new period of political openness after 1999.
King Hamad’s National Action Charter – A new phase of political activity
King Hamad came to power in 1999 and unveiled a series of initiatives for transforming the political climate in Bahrain, including the pardoning of exiles and political prisoners; a new two-chamber Parliament; and Bahrain’s new constitution, the National Action Charter, which more than 98% of Bahrainis voted in favour of in a 2001 popular referendum.
The three principal left-wing political entities which had been active in Bahrain during the 1960s and 70s all re-established themselves.
The Baathist National Democratic Assembly (NDA) returned to Bahrain under the leadership of Hassan Ali and Mahmoud Kassab. The society won two seats in the 2002 parliamentary elections, but has been electorally unsuccessful since.
The Progressive Democratic League (PDL) was formally established in 2002, but considers itself to be the successor to the Bahrain National Liberation Front, first established in 1955. The membership is relatively small and mostly elderly, made up of those with a history of left-wing activism.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Bahrain was re-established under the name the National Democratic Action Society (Wa’ad). Wa’ad was led by the veteran left-wing activist Rahman al-Nuaimi until 2006; after which he was succeeded by Ibrahim Sharif. The society failed to win seats in the 2002 municipal elections and boycotted the parliamentary elections that year. It participated in 2006, but was unsuccessful, despite the participation of high profile candidates like the academic Munira Fakhro. Between 2012 and 2016, the movement was led by Radhi al-Mousawi. Fouad Siyadi took over in 2016.
In 2009 all three of these societies united to form the “Nationalist Democratic Movement” which it described as a “secular, democratic opposition”. However, once again, these left-wing societies failed to make any impact in the 2010 parliamentary elections. Sunni and Shia Islamist societies won 23 out of 40 seats and the other seats going to independents. Other “secular” societies set up since 2001 have likewise struggled in national elections, although some, like the National Action Charter Society, were given seats in the Shura Council (the appointed chamber of Parliament).
Boycotting the political process
In 2011 six opposition societies united to boycott Parliament and align themselves with the protest movement. Along with Wa’ad, the PDL and the NDA; there was the leading Shia society Al-Wefaq, the smaller Shia (Ajam) society, Ikha; and the Unitary National Democratic Assembly (dissolved in 2015).
The three left-wing societies are oppositionist in their orientation, so it was natural for them to side with the opposition movement as a whole. However, in practice, this proved to be a strategic disaster, for a number of reasons:
Al-Wefaq Islamic Society, which held 18 seats in Parliament prior to 2011, was by far the biggest and most powerful element of the opposition. Most Bahrainis saw Al-Wefaq as the vehicle of the opposition, with the small left-wing societies acting as a fig-leaf for this sectarian entity. By mid-March the protest movement had taken a highly-sectarian turn, with the country being seen as on the brink of conflict between communities.
Sunni professionals, moderates and intellectuals – the core support-base of these left-wing societies – were very quick at this moment to distance themselves entirely from the protest movement. Almost overnight, Wa’ad and its allied found themselves entirely cut-off from their natural constituencies. Between 2011 and 2017 this collapse in support became more pronounced as the opposition became increasingly radicalized; with a militant fringe engaged in acts of rioting, violence and terrorism.
There is an older generation of figures who have been associated with left-wing activism for many decades. It was among this small hardcore of supporters that Wa’ad, the PDL and NDA could continue to look to for support. For younger liberals who did not feel similar levels of loyalty, either they aligned themselves with different societies, some of whom joined the loyalist Al-Fateh Coalition; or most of them took a step back from any kind of political activity.
By the 2014 elections most Bahrainis were fed up with all kinds of political societies, which were seen to prioritize ideology over practical policies. As a result, 90% of Parliament seats went to independent candidates. In late 2015 two liberal societies; the Justice and Development Society, and the Democratic Nation Society announced that they were closing down, citing struggles in maintaining consistent support.
The end of the road for Wa’ad
This collapse in active left-wing support created major tensions within these organizations; between those who remained ideologically committed to boycotting the political process, and those who felt that they were going in the wrong direction and desired compromise. In 2014 the PDF broke away and rejoined the political process.
In mid-2016 Al-Wefaq Islamic Society was closed down by the authorities who accused it of inciting violence and civil tensions. Wa’ad’s former secretary-general Ibrahim Sharif had been detained at the height of the 2011 unrest. He was released in mid-2015, but was detained shortly afterwards after a speech that was considered to be inflammatory. Sharif was freed in July 2016.
Secretary-General of Wa’ad, Radhi al-Mousawi, in October 2016 hinted at a change in position by declaring that “an elected government is not suitable for Bahrain at the current time”. He said the organization should concentrate on other issues. These comments created such a storm within Wa’ad that Mousawi had to issue a statement clarifying that these were his personal views. Within a month, he had been replaced as leader of the society by Fouad Siyadi.
The 7 March 2017 announcement by the Ministry of Justice for commencing legal procedures for the closure of Wa’ad thus does not come as a complete surprise. Supporters of this move point out that Wa’ad failed to distance itself from those engaged in violence and who were responsible for the killings of more than 20 policemen. Former supporters claim that Wa’ad had betrayed its secular roots by affiliating itself with a sectarian organization with an anti-national agenda. Meanwhile, some Bahrainis have questioned whether the move was indeed necessary, given that Wa’ad had become such a weakened and irrelevant entity.
The future of secular & left-wing activism in Bahrain
Even before the dissolution of Wa’ad, it was clear that any future success by liberal and secular elements would probably have to come from a new political movement; given that the old left-wing societies had discredited themselves so fatally in the eyes of many Bahrainis. Even relatively liberal societies like the National Dialogue Society and Wasat had joined the Sunni loyalist Al-Fateh Coalition and more recently have ceased to be visibly active. Thus, Bahrain is in dire need of activism from the liberal centre of society.
Others would argue that Bahrain is currently better off without political societies. The Islamist societies failed to perform well in recent elections and progressive societies have effectively disappeared. This leaves Bahrain’s Parliament dominated by independent MPs, which arguably is the choice of the electorate.
As is the case in many Western nations; left-wing political parties face a wider crisis in economies where the traditional working class is no longer the dominant part of the workforce; or where the majority of society mobilizes around very different labels and issues. Since 2001 the left-wing societies could never claim a popular mandate among most Bahrainis.
In practice today, Islamists are by far the most socially-organized segment of society in their ability to reach supporters through the social media or mass mobilization of supporters. New measures by the government banning the participation of clerics and sectarian entities in politics are important for curbing this ideological influence. However, Bahrain’s liberals and progressives lack any kind of cohesive voice or organized representation within the Parliament, although the progressive instincts of Bahrain’s leaders and the tolerant and inclusive provisions of the 2001 Constitution protect their interests.
There is a long-term need for young people and progressives to find a coherent voices to reflect their interests in society and at the political level. Many young people say that they feel disinclined to vote or participate in politics because they don’t feel that Parliament represents them – Maybe it is time for us to realize that if we fail to actively participate in politics then we can never expect the political system to effectively represent us.