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‘Too big to succeed’: a case of Sunni politics in Bahrain

Although conservatives within the ruling establishment will go to considerable lengths to ensure Shiite political movements are kept at bay, expect them to be equally relentless in ensuring an uncontested domination over its core Sunni constituency.

Less than three weeks ago, the predominantly Sunni political group dubbed The Gathering of National Unity (TGONU) released an important 14-page political statement in which it articulated its view on becoming a political movement independent of the government. The report, which took on a confrontational tone, comes a long way from February 2011 when TGONU emerged mainly as a Sunni response to the Shiite-dominant protests taking place at GCC (Pearl) Roundabout.

Back then, TGONU represented a government-backed Sunni political alliance encompassing various political groups such as the Salafists (Al-Assala), the Muslim Brothers (Al-Menbar), Azharis[i], Arab Nationalists, and others. Today, owing to a number of internal rivalries, power struggles and a government effort to undermine it over the past year and a half, TGONU can hardly be described as much more than an Azhari-Arab Nationalist alliance with diminished mobilizing capacity.

The report argued that the ruling establishment, acting through proxies such as the Salafist Al-Assala and the Muslim Brother Al-Menbar has endeavoured to nip in the bud any prospect for the crystallization of TGONU as an independent Sunni political group capable of making genuine demands for reform vis-à-vis the government. In effect, the possibility that the prospect might open up of a cross-sectarian alliance with the predominantly Shiite opposition capable of facing down the government, is nothing short of a political nightmare for the conservatives in the ruling establishment.

Accordingly, although TGONU emerged at first sight in February and March 2011 as a potent alliance of different Sunni political groups, it soon manifested a number of internal rivalries that would subsequently lead to its disintegration. These rivalries quickly materialized in the debate over the form that the organization was to take. In a personal interview, Shaikh Abdulatif Al-Mahmood contended that while Al-Assala (Salafist) and Al-Menbar (Muslim Brotherhood) advocated a minimalist configuration, such as turning TGONU into a registered charity and maintaining it as an informal alliance respectively, Al-Mahmood himself alongside his supporters advocated registering the organization as a political society.

Al-Mahmood and his allies, most of whom have a history of political activism, eventually prevailed. Their victory was even more evident as both the more government-loyalist Al-Assala and Al-Menbar failed to obtain almost any representation in TGONU’s Central Committee. Elections for the Central Committee held in July 2011 came to be dominated by the Azharis, such as Al-Mahmood himself and Shaikh Naji Al-Arabi, and Arab nationalists such as Ibrahim Hijris most of whom came from the Al-Jam’iyya Al-Islamiyya [The Islamic Society] and the Jam’iyyat Al-Wasat Al-Arabi  [Society of the Arabic Center] respectively.

Soon enough, prominent Salafists and Muslim Brothers such as ex-MP Shaikh Nasser Al-Fadhala began announcing their resignation from the group. Supposedly, rival movements secretly applauded by the government such as the Sahwat Shabab Al-Fateh [Al-Fateh Youth Awakening] - a vocal group often discounted as a youth branch of the Bahraini Muslim Brotherhood – sprouted simultaneously, leading to considerable tensions with TGONU. As a result, the latter gradually witnessed its prominence on the Sunni political scene wither away.

Today, TGONU’s recent political report accuses the ruling establishment of using it merely as a political tool against the opposition, albeit a tool that it now wishes to discard. Despite recent attempts to incorporate a greater youth element and to make a comeback on the political scene, it is difficult to imagine TGONU successfully evolving beyond the Azhari-Arab Nationalist alliance that is at its core today.

Finally, the case of TGONU is an interesting one for it sheds some light on political dynamics within the Sunni community and how the ruling establishment in Bahrain deals with them. It confirms the notion that although conservatives within the ruling establishment will go to considerable lengths to ensure Shiite political movements are kept at bay, one can expect the establishment to be equally relentless in ensuring for itself an uncontested domination over its core Sunni constituency.


[i] The term Azhari refers to religious figures that have attended Al-Azhar University in Egypt or other institutions of a similar orientation. In Bahrain, the term may be used to designate members of the Al-Jam’iyya Al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Society) such as Shaikh Abdulatif Al-Mahmood and Shaikh Abdulrahman Abdulsalam as well as certain Sufis such as Shaikh Naji Al-Arabi.

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