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Bahrain: split over proposed GCC union, and chronic failure of Sunni groups to mobilize

Bahrainis of all political affiliations waited in tense anticipation as rumours of a Saudi – Bahraini union circulated days before the Gulf leaders convened in Riyadh for the Gulf Cooperation Council summit on May 14th, 2012. The summit fell short of expectations however.

Bahrainis of all political affiliations waited in tense anticipation as rumours of a Saudi – Bahraini union circulated days before the Gulf leaders convened in Riyadh for the Gulf Cooperation Council summit on May 14th, 2012. The summit fell short of expectations however. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal explained in a press conference that GCC leaders preferred to wait and attempt to resolve issues impeding the accession of some GCC member states to a union, believed - according to the King of Bahrain’s media advisor Nabeel Alhamar - to be primarily Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

In a quite familiar scene, Bahrainis split into two camps organized roughly on sectarian lines to express their stance vis-à-vis greater GCC political and military integration. Shiite Islamist Al-Wefaq alongside its secular Arab nationalist and leftist sidekicks staged a massive demonstration on May 18th entitled “Labayk ya watani” (i.e. ‘My country, I answer your call’) protesting what they deemed an erosion of Bahrain’s sovereignty and independence as a price for greater GCC, but mainly Saudi, integration. Ironically though, the demonstration was largely centred on the figure of Bahrain’s most prominent Shiite cleric Ayatollah Isa Qassim who has been the subject of a ferocious campaign waged against him by pro-government MPs and journalists , leaving Al-Wefaq’s more secular allies in an undoubtedly awkward position.

In response, a coalition of Sunni political societies including The Gathering of National Unity (TGONU) - the group that staged huge anti-opposition demonstrations last year - called for a counter-rally at the Alfateh Grand Mosque the next day in order to express support of the proposed GCC union. Unsurprisingly, attendance was weak and the rally was relatively symbolic. Since the disintegration of TGONU and its transformation during the second half of the year 2011 from an umbrella organization of Sunni political groups to a faction among others as a result of internal power disputes, Sunni factions have proven incapable of effective collaboration or mass mobilization.

Intra-Sunni rivalries came more clearly to the surface during a standoff last March between, on the one hand a number of residents of the city of Muharraq backed by Salafist and Muslim Brother MPs and, on the other, the royal family member / Minister of culture Shaikha Mai Al-Khalifa. In brief, Islamists attacked the Minister for the “un-Islamic” nature of her cultural programme, an issue of dispute since several years now. The standoff was carried on to Parliament where Shaikha Mai provoked outrage by calling protesters who had staged a sit-in the night before near the Shaikha’s cultural centre as “mercenary children”. When the Prime Minister Shaikh Khalifa paid a visit to Parliament a few days later in order to soothe tensions, 15 Salafist, Muslim Brother and Independent MPs boycotted the meeting . Their move sparked much dismay and criticism by ex-police officer turned political activist Dr. Adel Flaifel and other more loyalist, pro-government Sunnis.

With the Sunni street placing its hope in the government and in greater GCC integration to mitigate the opposition’s influence, the future of the Sunni political groups as a mobilizing force - whose cohesiveness has been repeatedly put into question - looks, for the time being at least, quite grim.

This is a column for Arab Awakening's This week's window into the Middle East.

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About the author

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


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