Friday, April 15, 2011

Who Comes After the "Moderates"?: Political Affiliation among Bahraini Shi'a

Preliminary Note: I debated whether to attempt to get (a more general version of) this piece placed as an op-ed or an article, etc., since I think it tells us something important about what to expect moving forward in Bahrain. But given my poor luck in the past I've decided against it. So if there are any editors out there that agree with me, let me know. Otherwise, as always, imagine yourself browsing the Foreign Affairs website as you read this.

In light of all the commentary surrounding yesterday's move to dissolve al-Wifaq by Bahrain's Justice and Islamic Affairs Ministry, only to be followed by news today that this largest of Bahraini political societies has not been banned, or at least not until the end of the government's ongoing "investigation"--in light of all this, I thought it may be useful to examine the larger pattern of political affiliation among Bahraini Shi'a as suggested by the results of my 2009 mass survey of Bahrain. (If you don't know what this is, see here, for example.)

Apart from revealing the extent of the country's Shi'a population that would essentially be "driven underground" (as one commentator here recently noted) if al-Wifaq were indeed to be outlawed, these findings also help clarify the bases of political affiliation and orientation in Bahrain. More specifically, as we shall see shortly, the individual-level characteristics commonly thought to dictate whether one is a more "moderate" al-Wifaq supporter or more "hard-line" supporter of say, al-Haqq, in fact find little evidence in my Bahrain survey data. But more of this in a bit.

Bahrainis were asked the following open-ended question: "Which of the existing societies (associations) is closest to representing your political, social, and economic views?" In Arabic:

أي من جمعيات (منظمات) القائمة هي الأقرب لتمثيل طموحاتك السياسية، والاجتماعية، والاقتصادية؟

Of 249 Shi‘i respondents, representing some 58% of the total sample--a far cry, incidentally, from the standard population estimate of 65-70%, diluted over the previous decade in a program that opponents have termed "political naturalization"--a full 40% of respondents said that none of the existing societies represented their political views. Another 7% refused to answer outright. But what of the remainder?

Among Bahraini Shi‘a who identified with a political society, a little over half, 55%, named al-Wifaq. A further 10% of respondents aligned with socialist-leaning Wa‘ad, which attracts Sunnis together with Shi‘is and was originally invited to participate in the national dialogue initiative alongside al-Wifaq, only to be banned a week ago some time after the arrest of its Secretary General, Ebrahim Sharif, and later its Assistant Secretary General. Around 15% of Shi‘is, finally, mentioned various lesser-known societies, including local charities, human rights organizations, and liberal parties. These proportions we see in the graphic below.

The remainder—approximately 20%—identified al-Haqq. If this figure would thus seem to be encouraging for Bahrain's rulers, a deeper analysis proves to be less so. For one thing, at the time the survey was conducted, Sh. 'Abd al-Wahhab Hussain's Islamic Loyalty Movement was but a nascent organization known only as “the New Movement.” Now it is an important actor that competes for supporters with al-Haqq and al-Wifaq alike. Indeed, its Arabic name, al-Wafa’ al-Islami, is itself a riff on al-Wifaq. (If you hadn't guessed already, the heads of al-Wafa' have already been arrested and their homes ransacked.)

Moreover, contrary to the standard cliché that the most ardent political opponents in Bahrain are simply the poorest and least educated, with the most objective cause for complaint and least opportunity for social mobility, in fact there is no difference in household economy between survey respondents who support al-Haqq over against al-Wifaq. Neither is there any difference in education. As we gather from the graph below, only Wa'ad supporters are on average more highly educated (measured on an increasing 1-7 scale) and perhaps more economically-satisfied (on a decreasing 1-4 scale).

Together, these results cast real doubt on the idea that government opponents can simply be bought off with new jobs and housing projects paid for by Bahrain's rulers or, as attempted more recently, subsidized by suddenly-altruistic GCC countries. (Of course, with so many respondents refusing to answer this question, these conclusions should be treated only as preliminary.)

Yet perhaps most ominous for the prospect of political reconciliation in Bahrain is the picture that emerges when one looks at individuals’ actual responses to the question about their political leanings. “Al-Wifaq,” said one respondent, adding “but they don’t accomplish anything.” Many others expressed even more frustration: “al-Haqq, previously al-Wifaq.” And this in early 2009. Imagine the feelings in April 2011, even if the government ultimately decides not to dissolve al-Wifaq (an outcome that in any case is still far from certain).

Here, then, is the real danger: that supporters of al-Wifaq, whether for disagreement with its political positions per se or out of exasperation with the current lack of progress and indeed backward progress, turn (or have already turned) instead to more radical solutions. In which case the Coalition for a Republic of Bahrain may be the least of Bahrain's rulers' worries. Writing in Foreign Policy, Hussein Ibish asks outright whether the government's policy is setting the stage for a more violent sort of movement to arise--even, according to him, "a terrorist threat."

While one hopes and presumes we've not reached that stage yet (though I think Ibish vastly overestimates the tactical feasibility of guerrilla warfare in Bahrain), Bahrain's rulers do seem bent on encouraging a self-fulfilling prophecy to back up their claims that anti-regime protesters are not political opponents but Iranian-inspired, Shi'a terrorists. So far Bahrainis have not taken the bait. But this has been helped in no small part by the moderating role of religious-cum-political authorities such as Sh. 'Isa Qasim and Sh. 'Ali Salman, precisely the individuals the government will effectively serve to ostracize through its persecution of al-Wifaq. By cracking down on the only "moderates" left in Bahrain, whom do the Bahraini authorities expect will take their place?


  1. Worst comes to worst the government can always have dialogue with the famous Chanad fish. Maybe they have a political solution we missed?

  2. What's your view on where the BCHR fits in Bahrain's politics? Do you think they're a human rights group in the normal meaning of the term?

  3. Word verification for my comment above: 'nonsec'. V. ironic

  4. Interesting results. I'm happy to see the "Waad" data point support my previous comment on people with secular values. Slightly not surprised on Haqq/Wefaq, Haqq is probably viewed as strictly "political" whereas Wefaq is viewed as "socio-political" therefore any particular attraction disappears.

    Curious is the 40 + 7 % that are not included in the above- any speculation on that? I can only think of political burn-out or distrust of any organised political society accumulated over the years,

  5. @Penpal: Thanks for the comments. It's very likely that the 40% "no society" as well as the 7% refusals are both a product of the same thing--a reluctance to answer. This is why I cautioned that the results may be biased toward those who were less fearful of responding.


  6. Hi Justin,

    But why the reluctance can you speculate? Is it apathy? or am I reading too much?

  7. No, my guess is that they were nervous about answering. After all, it's a fairly sensitive question asking people to reveal their overall political views as represented by another society. And especially for those who would not subscribe to a more moderate ideology such as that represented by al-Wifaq, this is a potentially even more sensitive question.

    This is why I say it's difficult to extrapolate these proportions to the general Shi'a population, since it's possible (and even likely) that the exclusion of those 40% who say "there is no society" in fact systematically influences our results one way or the other.


  8. Yes good point - in that case, are there any commonalities in those that didn't answer, e.g. education background, etc.?

  9. They are somewhat poorer and less educated, but nothing compared to the difference between al-Haqq/al-Wifaq and Wa'ad, for example.

    The difference in education, for example, is just 4.67 (for the "don't know") compared to 4.78 (everyone else). And it's not statistically-significant.