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Mar 11, 2011 | 00:25 GMT

6 mins read

Bahrain: Friday Prayers and the Shiite Split

ADAM JAN/AFP/Getty Images
Two demonstrations are planned for March 11 in the Bahraini capital: one anti-government demonstration planned by a new hard-line Shiite coalition, and one pro-government rally organized by the National Unity Gathering, which is led by a Sunni politician. The leader of Bahrain's mainstream opposition coalition — a Shi'i — has urged his followers to avoid the hard-line demonstration. Whether his followers heed his call will indicate the degree of the division among Bahrain's Shia. The outcome of the demonstrations will also illustrate the chances Iran has of being able to foment continued unrest in the Persian Gulf.
The Bahraini capital of Manama is bracing itself for two demonstrations planned for March 11 that could indicate the general sentiments toward the ruling al-Khalifa monarchy and of the potential for Iran to foment continued instability in the Persian Gulf. One rally is being led by a pro-government Sunni politician, the other by a newly formed hard-line Shiite opposition coalition seeking to overthrow the al-Khalifa regime. The leader of Bahrain's mainstream opposition coalition, a Shi'i, not only condemned the plans for the latter demonstration but also reportedly pledged to attend the pro-government group's rally at some point in the day. Whether or not his followers heed his calls to avoid the hard-line Shiite demonstration will speak volumes about the extent of the division among Bahrain's Shia — something the royal family (along with the Saudis) hopes to exploit to avert a serious revolutionary effort that would serve Iran's interests. The pro-government National Unity Gathering (NUG), led by Sunni politician Abdel Latif Mahmood, plans to hold a rally at the al Fatah Mosque after Friday prayers March 11. The NUG has held previous rallies at the mosque that have all drawn significant crowds in support of the al-Khalifas' continued rule and the current government. The regime thus looks upon the NUG favorably, with Bahraini state media consistently attempting to publicize the group's marches as a means of showing that the al-Khalifas do in fact retain support from a large swath of the population. As roughly 70 percent of Bahrain's residents are Shiite, however, the NUG is certainly not as popular as these reports suggest, but the rally planned for March 11 could be its largest yet. The recent split in Bahrain's Shiite opposition has created a developing alliance of convenience between the NUG and Bahrain's leading Shiite group, Al Wefaq. Though this split was public March 8, it began earlier and largely can be attributed to Iran's suspected influence among certain segments of the Bahraini Shia. The creation of the "Coalition for a Republic," whose stated mission is to overthrow the monarchy and establish a republic in Bahrain, means there are now two main camps among the Bahraini Shia: those who want total regime change (and thus a true revolution) and those who merely want significant political reform, including the resignation of the current government, but not the complete undoing of the Sunni monarchy that has ruled the country for more than two centuries. The former camp is composed of the Haq movement, the Wafa movement and the lesser-known, London-based Bahrain Islamic Freedom Movement. The latter camp is represented predominantly by Al Wefaq, which holds 18 of the 40 elected seats in Bahrain's lower house of parliament. Al Wefaq leader Sheikh Ali Salman has already urged his followers to avoid the Haq/Wafa-led march to the royal palace March 11. His stated reason is that the march, which is projected to pass through Sunni areas of Manama, will aggravate sectarian tensions in a country that has seen a series of violent incidents between Sunnis and Shia in the past week. In addition to urging Al Wefaq supporters to avoid the hard-line Shiite march, Salman also said in a March 9 Arabic media interview that he would be willing to pray with the NUG's Mahmood at the al Fatah mosque at the upcoming Friday prayers. (Though Al Wefaq supporters and other members within the mainstream coalition do appear to have a rally of their own planned, which would put the total number of demonstrations in Manama on March 11 at three.) One of the main questions, then, is whether the budding friendship between Salman and Mahmood means that Al Wefaq is on the verge of finally entering into a formal dialogue with Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, who was tasked by the regime in February with handling the negotiations with the opposition. Thus far, Al Wefaq and the rest of the mainstream opposition coalition have resisted actually beginning any formal dialogue, demanding that Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa resign first. An internal power struggle between the crown prince and the prime minister has added complications to this process, but this has not affected Al Wefaq's core objective: using popular demonstrations to force the regime to grant the Shiite majority more political power through negotiations. While the Al Wefaq leader's plans to publicly pray alongside the NUG's Mahmood might not mean that he has dropped his anti-government stance, it could be that he feels now is the time to enter negotiations in an attempt to sideline the hard-line Shia calling for total revolution. The Shia who are pushing for regime change are direct competition for Al Wefaq, which the al-Khalifas viewed as one of the biggest threats to their grip on power until the emergence of the new Haq/Wafa coalition. Now, ironically, the monarchy sees Al Wefaq as a potential tool to avert a serious crisis, assuming the group can maintain the loyalty of a large enough segment of the Shiite opposition and thus weaken the more radical Haq and Wafa followers. The player that appears most likely to come out a winner as a result of these recent developments is Iran. In a best-case scenario for Tehran, Bahrain would undergo an Islamic revolution akin to the one that led to the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. But should that be infeasible, the empowerment of Al Wefaq would likely strengthen the Shiite community as a whole in the island nation. This would directly serve the interests of Iran due to the cultural, economic and political links it maintains with Shia throughout the Persian Gulf region. Moreover, with tensions simmering in the Shiite regions of eastern Saudi Arabia, just across the causeway from Bahrain, there is a chance for Iran to experience an even greater success around the corner.

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