Walking the tightrope: Al Wefaq’s quest for relevancy in post-uprising Bahrain

A call for foreign intervention is a cry for help by an embattled opposition walking a shaky tightrope with a tough choice ahead.

In a recent interview, Mr. Matar Matar, a US-based ex-MP belonging to Bahrain’s largest Shiite Islamist opposition group AlWefaq, claimed that the policy espoused by Bahrain’s King is one of “revenge, persecution and genocide”, insisting that the solution for the country’s political stalemate, “should be forced from outside after agreement by the regional powers, including the United States.”

Excessive sensationalism aside, Mr. Matar’s plea for a foreign-imposed solution to the country’s political impasse reads like a cry for help by an embattled AlWefaq that, in spite of itself, is having to walk the shaky tightrope between engaging with the government and maintaining popularity amongst its disgruntled Shiite constituency. 

At first sight though, one can hardly miss the irony that resonates in Mr. Matar’s plea for foreign intervention. On the March 14, 2011, following the collapse of talks between the Crown Prince and AlWefaq, Bahrain requested military assistance from neighboring GCC countries to help secure borders and critical infrastructure according to official sources. As a result, Saudi Arabia sent in about 1,000 troops, the United Arab Emirates dispatched 600 policemen and Kuwait offered navy units to patrol Bahrain’s sea borders. The opposition at the time, spearheaded by Mr. Matar’s group AlWefaq, decried the decision and contemptuously labelled it blatant foreign interference in, if not  foreign occupation of Bahrain. 

More importantly, AlWefaq’s call for a foreign-imposed solution reflects in my view its inability to act pragmatically and review its position in a manner that takes into account Bahrain’s new power configuration – one in which it no longer holds a dominant position. More than a year and a half has elapsed since the pre-dominantly Shiite February 14 uprising first erupted, a period during which the balance of power in Bahrain’s political landscape has tilted alternately in favour of either the government or the opposition, even giving birth to an increasingly unpredictable and vocal Sunni political movement

The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s report (articles 452 and 485-488) recounts how at the height of its power, roughly between mid-February and mid-March 2011, AlWefaq felt it was in a position that enabled it to declare to its interlocutor the Crown Prince that its demands were non-negotiable and that it was opposed to the idea of entering a national dialogue inclusive of other groups in society, in reference mainly to the Sunnis.

After weeks of relentless efforts, talks between the Crown Prince and the opposition finally broke down on the March 13, 2011 when AlWefaq’s patriarch and the country’s foremost Shiite religious leader Ayatollah Isa Qassim chose to exercise his veto power against them. 

Today however, following a highly criticized security campaign by the government that most recently culminated in a temporary ban on protests and the revocation of the citizenships of 31 opposition activists, the opposition including AlWefaq can hardly be thought of as being in a position of strength. Yet, AlWefaq has failed to act pragmatically and to articulate, publicly at least, a more realistic set of demands, acceptable to both the government and Sunni groups, that reflects the country’s new political reality, thereby doing little to help end the stalemate.

Some question, however, AlWefaq’s ability to negotiate effectively with its counterparts, particularly since its capacity to win over support from the international community and to lead its own Shiite constituency seems considerably constrained.

The King’s highly celebrated decision to commission the Bahrain Independent Commisson of Inquiry and accept its critical findings, in addition to the Bahraini government’s acceptance of 90 percent of recommendations made within the framework of the Universal Periodic Review last September, have helped alleviate international pressure, although implementation has remained a concern.

Conversely, incidents like the recent set of terrorist bomb attacks that took two civilian lives are more likely to have induced the international community to view the opposition with suspicion. To makes things worse for itself, AlWefaq’s initial knee jerk reaction to news of the terror attack was to question whether the incident ever took place; Mr. Matar Matar himself suggested it was either a government-orchestrated plot or an act committed by rogue police or a military unit. Apparently succumbing to international pressure though, AlWefaq and its allies issued a statement two days later condemning violence and advocating peaceful means for dissent instead.

Others have begun to question the effectiveness with which AlWefaq might persuade its Shiite constituency eventually to accept a deal with the government if one were to be made. Radical groups such as the obscure February 14 youth, Haqq and Wafa who compete over legitimacy within the largely discontented Shiite community appear to have managed to outflank AlWefaq. Lest it lose popular support, AlWefaq seems at times unable to avoid direct confrontation with the government. Clearly, AlWefaq’s ordeal is exacerbated by the ongoing pro-government demonization campaign directed against the opposition and its leading cleric, Ayatollah Isa Qassim. 

AlWefaq has a tough choice ahead. Either to accept Bahrain’s old-ish new political reality, partially revert back to its pre-February 14 discourse of engagement with the government but risk losing popular support from within the Shiite community. Or, further align itself with more radical revolutionary groups, but lose international goodwill and risk irrelevancy in an arguably sustainable state of low-level street violence in which the government maintains the upper hand.

About the author

Hasan Tariq Al Hasan is a Bahrain-based economic and political analyst.