- 1 For a recent discussion of political mobilization in Bahrain, see Matthiesen, 2013. However, Matthi (...)
1In Bahrain, the wave of mass protests by mostly Shiite demonstrators inspired by the Arab Spring prompted a range of Sunni political and religious actors to counter these with their own mass rallies. Two large demonstrations took place on February 21 and March 2, 2011 under the banner of the newly formed Gathering of National Unity (TGONU). In the broader history of political mobilization and contestation in Bahrain, the emergence of the Gathering of National Unity (TGONU) represents the first instance of a broad-based Sunni social movement.1
2By using the analytical tools and insights that Social Movement Theory (SMT) offer, I will examine two issues considered by Melucci2 to be central, and which both the structural and the resource mobilization approach within SMT have attempted to address. The first of these is why did TGONU emerge as a social movement, or in other words, what structural factors and historical trends made its emergence possible? Second, how did the movement come into being, i.e. who were the political entrepreneurs? What kind of political opportunity structure did they work with? Which frames and discourses did the movement adopt and what type of alliances did the movement enter?
3On the structural level, this paper makes the argument that although sectarianism along the Sunni-Shiite divide has always been a longstanding feature of Bahraini society, regarding the Sunnis, political dynamics based on ethnic, tribal and socio-economic characteristics used to prevail before the Arab Spring. However, the rebirth of Shiite Islamism following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran as well as the 2003 US-led regime change in Iraq left their mark on the Bahraini Sunni population. Thus, Shiite militantism has helped galvanize a crosscutting Sunni identity that has clearly overridden other collective identities, making the creation of an exclusively Sunni social movement possible.
- 3 Tarrow, 1993, p. 282‑284; Tilly & Wood, 2009, p. 4
4Moreover, political reforms undertaken since 2001 by the King have helped increase political opportunities as well as expanded the legitimate “repertoires of contention”3 available to political actors. The constitution and parliament were restored, political societies became legal as did public demonstrations. These reforms made possible the emergence of social movements openly espousing mass mobilization within the bounds of legality, i.e. without having to enter into a confrontation with state authority.
5The Arab Spring provided the founders of TGONU with the right political opportunity to launch a new social movement. This endeavor was helped by a feeling of vulnerability and insecurity experienced by many Sunnis as the result of the political and security concessions made by the ruling establishment to the predominantly Shiite protesters. I will examine how political entrepreneurs, mostly religious scholars trained at al-Azhar, seized the opportunity to reassert themselves after being marginalized for over a decade to the benefit of the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood. I will critically examine the discourse adopted by TGONU, as well as the discursive contradictions or tensions that ruined this attempt to construct a coherent identity. I will also shed light on the movement’s internal politics, most notably the disputes that led to its disintegration and to its transformation from a social movement (TGONU) to a hierarchical political organization (National Unity Assembly, or NUA).
- 4 Alhasan, 2011, p. 609
- 5 Alwaqt, 2007b
6The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran marked an important shift in the region, not least through the politicization of Shiite religious identity. Its impact was immediately felt in Bahrain as sympathizers of Ayatollah Khomeini flooded the streets in celebration.4 As the Iranian religious seminars of Qom and Mashhad began to grow and attract thousands of students, including from Bahrain, the political influence of Shiite religious groups and figures began to grow locally. The extent of their influence was demonstrated on a large scale during the unrest of the 1990s, during which Shiite religious clerics played a key role in mobilizing people.5
- 6 Louër, 2011, p. 238
- 7 These are widely known as the afandiya, and include non‑clerical, technocratic (yet still Shiite) f (...)
7In 2001, Shaykh ‘Alī Salmān, a young cleric who had made a reputation for himself during the 1990s unrest, formed al-Wifāq National Islamic Society, the first ever confederation to bring together “all the Shia Islamic currents under one banner.”6 In addition to the various Shiite Islamist groups, al-Wifāq also included among its leadership several technocratic, non-clerical Shiite figures.7
- 8 Source of emulation of religious Shiite scholarship, several of whom exist in the Shiite world such (...)
- 9 Kinninmont, 2011; Wikileaks, 2008
8Following the success of al-Wifāq, Shaykh ‘Aysā Qāsim, Shaykh ‘Abd Allāh al-Ghurayfī and a handful of other Shiite clerics subsequently founded the ‘Ulamā' Council in 2004, which became almost by default Bahrain’s most prominent clerical association, despite the fact that its members did not adhere to the same religious marja‘iya.8 Although it claimed to play no part in politics, its statements and positions have had significant political consequences. For example, it had an important role in stirring up opposition among the Shiite population to the Personal Status Law proposed by the government in 2005, ultimately leading to its withdrawal.9
- 10 Alshehabi, 2006a, 2006c
9In the eyes of many Sunnis, the establishment of al-Wifāq and the ‘Ulamā' Council indicated that Shiites were closing ranks -so to speak- within unified organizations despite theological differences between the various schools of thought. This prompted a group of Sunni activists to attempt to do the same.10
- 11 Haddad, 2013
- 12 Wikileaks, 2007a
- 13 Alshehabi, 2006b, 2006c
10The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq further added to the anxiety felt among Sunnis. It ushered sectarianism to the political center stage in Iraq and the wider region, particularly as the subsequent spread of Salafism promoted a new language of anti-Shiism among the region’s Sunnis.11 King Abdullah of Jordan further elaborated the sectarian frame when he articulated the notion of a “Shiite crescent”.12 In Bahrain, Shiites and Sunnis were respectively divided between supporters and opponents to the invasion. Sunnis felt the looming threat of Shiite regional hegemony -particularly as Iran had gained a foothold in Iraq- and consequently, had a new sense of urgency to build a united Sunni front domestically.13
- 14 Alshehabi, 2006c
- 15 Ibid., 2006b
- 16 Ibid.
11The Iraqi Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars headed by Shaykh Ḥārith al-Dhārī served as a model and inspiration for certain Sunni leaders in Bahrain, some of whom have met al-Dhārī to seek advice.14 It is in this context that the first attempt to unite Sunni forces emerged, at the initiative of the same actors who would then go on to form TGONU a decade later. Hence, following the 2002 parliamentary elections, Shaykh ‘Abd al-Laṭīf Āl Maḥmūd launched an initiative called Ta’līf al-Qulūb — which roughly translates to the Warming of Hearts — whose aim was to create an organization encompassing the Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Azharis (who included a portion of the Sufis).15 In my view, this initiative was a not-so-subtle attempt at replicating the experience of the then newly established Shiite group, al-Wifāq National Islamic Society. In any case, the initiative failed.16
- 17 Wright, 2006, p. 12‑13
- 18 For instance, Mr. Majīd al‑‘Alawī became Minister of Labor and Minister of Housing, Mr. Nizār al‑Ba (...)
- 19 For a more in‑depth discussion of political reforms made under King Ḥamad b. ‘Aysā Āl Khalīfa, part (...)
12In the 2000s, after the accession of Shaykh Ḥamad b. ‘Aysā Āl Khalīfa to the throne in 1999, a number of political reforms modified the structure of political opportunities. Since the dissolution of parliament and the suspension of the constitution in 1975, Bahrain had operated largely under a State Security Law that provided the security forces with extended powers. Most public demonstrations were considered illegal, and those organizing or participating in them were often subjected to arrest, extrajudicial detention and even exile. This applied to Sunnis and Shiites alike. Reforms included releasing political prisoners and allowing exiles to return,17 some of whom were even appointed to the cabinet.18 The King also unilaterally abolished the State Security Law and the State Security Court.19
- 20 For an in‑depth overview of the differences between the 1973 and 2002 constitutions, see an officia (...)
- 21 Royal Decree Law no. 33 for 2002 regarding labor unions [Arabic], http://www.legalaffairs.gov.bh/Le (...)
- 22 The Ministry of Interior announced that it had licensed 151 public demonstrations in 2012 and over (...)
- 23 Jenkins, 1983; Mccarthy & Zald, 1977, p. 1222; Tarrow, 1988, p. 433‑436
13In 2001, a national referendum approved the National Action Charter (NAC) by a 98.4% vote with a turnout of 90.3%. The Charter proposed transforming Bahrain into a constitutional monarchy.20 It was followed by an amended constitution in 2002 which restored parliament albeit in a modified form. Public gatherings and demonstrations were legal once again. Labor unions and political societies were officially permitted.21 Despite some push-and-shove between political groups and the authorities, public demonstrations gradually made their way into the repertoire of contention sanctioned by the state.22 Such legal provisions also have cognitive effects on political entrepreneurs and participants in social movements, influencing their cost-benefit calculations. These reforms may have been quite significant in allowing TGONU to come into existence in the first place. As we shall see in more detail, both the literature subscribing to the Resource Mobilization Theory approach23 and our interviews with members of TGONU substantiate this claim.
14The Arab Spring and the toppling of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt emboldened a group of anonymous activists on the Internet dubbed “The Youth of the February 14 Revolution” to launch a call for protests on February 14, 201124. Although the call for protest initially received very little support from established political groups, the protest movement gained traction as clashes between protesters and security forces intensified.
- 25 Ibid., p. 73‑76
- 26 Ibid., p. 80
15On February 17, the police launched an operation to clear the roundabout and reassert its control over the area, leading to a series of violent clashes with protesters.25 Following initial talks with Shaykh ‘Alī Salmān, Crown Prince Salmān b. Ḥamad Āl Khalīfa ordered the withdrawal of troops from the GCC [Pearl] Roundabout on February 19 thereby allowing protesters to return.26
- 27 The Islamic Association (al‑Jama‘iya al‑Islāmiya) is a charitable society led by Shaykh ‘Abd al-Laṭ (...)
- 28 Al‑Wasaṭ al‑‘Arabī al‑Islāmī (The Islamic Arab Center) society is a Nasserist, Arab Nationalist com (...)
- 29 Followers of the Sufi sect are a small, traditionalist minority among Sunnis and tend to be geograp (...)
- 30 Leftist opposition activist ‘Alī Rabī‘ noted that the issue of regime change would undoubtedly be o (...)
- 31 Interview with al‑Maḥmūd, January 2, 2012
16Our interviews with members of TGONU all indicate that talks between the various Sunni groups that endorsed the call to rally — mainly the Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the Islamic Association,27 al-Wasaṭ al-‘Arabī al-Islāmī society (The Arab Islamic Center),28 the Sufis29 — began in early February 2011 in anticipation of the call to demonstrate on February 14. But it was only once the GCC (Pearl) Roundabout was cleared by the security forces on February 17 and the subsequent escalation of protesters — particularly chants of “death to the Āl Khalīfas” and calls to “overthrow the regime” — that the decision to act was made.30 In fact, the Sunni groups only took the collective decision to unite and mobilize when they perceived what they called a “noticeable retreat of the state”,31 by which Āl Maḥmūd meant the withdrawal of security forces from the vicinity of the GCC [Pearl] Roundabout from February 19 onwards and the sense of insecurity or lawlessness felt among Sunnis.
- 32 An article in al‑Naba News — a strongly pro‑MB weekly newspaper — claims that al‑Minbar initially c (...)
17Conditions surrounding the genesis of TGONU remain the subject of much controversy. Al-Asāla, al-Minbar and Āl Maḥmūd and his allies all claim to have spearheaded the initiative, an indication perhaps of its initial success.32 Less controversial is the choice of Āl Maḥmūd as the public face of the movement, primarily due to his image as an independent, unifying figure.
18On February 5, a meeting between several public figures — mainly Sunni Islamists — was convened to determine their position regarding the call for protest on February 14. In a letter sent to the King on February 7, the group outlined their views on political and socioeconomic reforms. Once protests materialized however, a Supreme Committee of 19 members was formed on February 17. Two days later, roughly a hundred public figures, mostly made up of Sunni personalities, launched a collective call for mass demonstrations on February 21 at al-Fātiḥ Grand Mosque.
19Interestingly, when interviewed Āl Maḥmūd was keen to emphasize the importance of a meeting he and a handful of Sunni figures had with the Crown Prince on February 19, shortly before the call for mass demonstrations was issued. Āl Maḥmūd claimed he received the Crown Prince’s tacit approval of the initiative, which must have played a pivotal role in tipping the scales in terms of its perceived cost-reward balance. Indeed, he viewed the Crown Prince’s tacit approval as a guarantee that the state authorities would not misinterpret his initiative as a hostile gesture.
20There were two dimensions to the political opportunity that presented itself to Shaykh ‘Abd al-Laṭīf Āl Maḥmūd and his associates. First, there was the destabilization that came with a predominantly Shiite movement numbering in the tens of thousands occupying the heart of the financial and diplomatic district of the capital city Manama, and whose more radical elements such as the Coalition for a Republic (created in March 8 2011 and made up of Ḥaqq, Wafā’ and the Bahrain Islamic Freedom Movement) demanded nothing less than regime change. The second effect was the vacuum in the Sunni political space that up until that point had been mostly occupied by the state.
- 33 For a brief discussion of this alliance and its potential for breakdown, see Yūsuf al‑Binkhalīl, “N (...)
- 34 In parliament, the share of seats of al‑Asāla, the Salafist political society, and al‑Minbar, the M (...)
21The state seemed unable either to lead or to counter-balance the February 14 movement with its own mass mobilization. In particular, it could not look to its traditional partners, namely the Salafists and the MBs33, as it was clear from the results of the 2010 parliamentary elections that these two movements had lost much of their appeal within Sunni constituencies.34 Given the circumstances, the government welcomed Āl Maḥmūd’s leadership to unite Sunni political forces and form a broad-based, anti-revolutionary front.
22Shaykh Āl Maḥmūd’s record speaks for itself. Not only does he have a history of political activism that has in the past put him in direct confrontation with the authorities, but he and his colleagues had also -via the Islamic Association- attempted to broker a Sunni coalition in 2002, albeit one that ultimately failed.
23Having obtained a bachelor's and a master’s degree from the faculty of Islamic Law (Sharia) at al-Azhar University in the early 1970s, Āl Maḥmūd went on to obtain a PhD in Sharia studies at al-Zaytūna University in Tunis in 1985. Upon graduation, he joined the faculty of Arabic language and Islamic studies at the University of Bahrain as a lecturer and professor.
- 35 Rabea, 2007
- 36 Alwaqt, 2007d
- 37 “دور المشاركة الشعبية في صياغة القرار السياسي ومستقبل الديمقراطية في المنطقة”, published for confer (...)
- 38 Alwaqt, 2007a
- 39 Ibid.
24Leftist activist ‘Alī Rabī‘ recounts Āl Maḥmūd’s involvement — mostly as the token Sunni cleric — in two petitions sent to the Emir in 1992 and in 1994 to protest the creation of an appointed Consultative Council in place of the elected parliament, and to demand the restoration of the constitution and parliament.35 Due to his refusal to clash with the authorities however, he eventually pulled out of the petitions committee in 1996.36 Previously, Āl Maḥmūd had published a paper entitled “The Role of Popular Participation in the Formulation of Political Decision and the Future of Democracy in the Region”37 that made a case for the separation of the executive and legislative powers, and greater constitutional rights.38 As a result, he was arrested on December 14, 1991 and jailed for two weeks.39
- 40 Both Ibrāhīm Būsandal (Salafist) and ‘Abd al-Raḥmān ‘Abd al-Salām (Islamic Association) agree howev (...)
25Another noteworthy episode in Āl Maḥmūd’s political career is his initiative to unite the various Sunni factions in Bahrain following the 2002 parliamentary elections.40 Āl Maḥmūd’s attempt came at a time when Al-Wifāq National Islamic Society had just been established as an encompassing Shiite organization. By contrast, the Sunnis — he observed — were divided into factions vying against each other for seats in parliament and for privileges in the state bureaucracy, making them more susceptible to political manipulation, and to being sidelined by the authorities to the benefit of Shiite groups.
- 41 Ibid., 2006b
- 42 Focuses on Iranian foreign policy, and is close to the views of Kuwaiti Islamist university profess (...)
- 43 Ibid.
26To achieve his aim, Āl Maḥmūd launched the Ta’līf al-Qulūb initiative under the auspices of the Islamic Association.41 In its first year, the Islamic Association’s aim was to hold one meeting per month with representatives of the Salafists and MBs at the association’s headquarters; yet ‘Ādil ‘Abd Allāh, a Sunni Islamist academic,42 notes that only the Islamic Association itself and the Sufis attended on a regular basis. Indeed, as the novelty of the initiative wore off, Salafists and MBs lost interest. Dr. ‘Ādil ‘Abd Allāh mostly blames a bid by the government to appoint new members to the Supreme Islamic Council, a state-sponsored panel of Sunni and Shiite religious scholars. This manoeuver by the state, he claims, supposedly fueled the rivalry between Salafists and the MBs so much as to prevent them from collaborating on a project for pan-Sunni unity.43
- 44 For instance, Āl Maḥmūd attempted to redefine the concept of al‑firqa al‑nājiyia, or the saved grou (...)
27When interviewed, Āl Maḥmūd identified himself as an Azhari, which in the strict sense of the term refers to alumni of the Islamic university of Al-Azhar in Egypt. In a broader sense and within the Bahraini context, Azharis comprise a number of clerics mostly in their 50s and 60s more akin to an informal movement than a homogenous group. They tend to look toward al-Azhar for spiritual and jurisprudential guidance, which affords them a more tolerant stance vis-à-vis the Shiites than their Saudi-leaning Salafist counterparts for instance.44 Their members boast several institutional affiliations. Among these are the charitable Islamic Society (al-Jama‘iya al-Islāmiya) run by Shaykh Āl Maḥmūd and its political sister organization The Society of the Islamic Consultation (Jama‘iyat al-Shūrā al-Islāmiya) run by Shaykh ‘Abd al-Rahmān ‘Abd al-Salām, a member of the appointed Consultative Council.
- 45 Interview with Āl Maḥmūd, January 2, 2012
28The Azharis’ record, both in terms of their tolerant theological approach and their diverse political alliances, indicates that their opposition to Shiite political actors including al-Wifāq was not motivated by theological or sectarian differences. Rather, Āl Maḥmūd was keen to point out that his activism was more of a reaction to al-Wifāq’s political goal seeking to unite the various Shiite political groups and actors on a sectarian basis. This trend, he argued, manifested itself clearly and violently during the February 2011 unrest, which he described as sectarian in essence.45
- 46 Ṭarīqa, literally meaning way or path, refers to the various Sufi orders; Al‑Turabi, 2011, p. 52
- 47 One should not make too fine of a point of the Azhari, non‑Azhari distinction among Sufis. Shaykh R (...)
29A portion of the Sufis, who represent a small, traditional and ageing minority among Sunnis concentrated in the old town of Muharraq, also identify as Azharis and were involved with TGONU from the outset. Chief among them is Shaykh Nājī al-‘Arabī, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Bahrain and leader of the Qādiriya order46. Al-‘Arabī graduated from both Egypt’s al-Azhar University and Tunisia’s al-Zaytūna University, and now occupies the post of Friday preacher at the ‘Ajlān Mosque in Muharraq. In 2010, Shaykh al-‘Arabī ran for MP but lost against the MB-backed candidate Sāmī Gambar. By contrast, non-Azhari Sufis did not play a considerable part in TGONU, opting for political quietism47.
- 48 ‘Alī Rabī‘, “Khilāfat al‑ṣūfiya wa‑l‑salafiya tu’akhkhir qiyām marja‘iya muwaḥḥada li‑l‑sunna fi‑l‑ (...)
- 49 “Shaykh al‑ṣūfiya fī‑l‑Baḥrayn Rāshid al‑Muraykhī”, al‑Wasaṭ, October 7, 2008. http://www.alwasatne (...)
- 50 Ibid, “Al‑Muraykhī yaṭma’in ‘alā Ṣaḥat al‑Shaykh ‘Aysā Qāsim”, Manama Voice, January 12, 2010. http (...)
30In the past, Salafists and MBs have attacked Sufis, Azharis and non-Azharis alike, over their perceived laxity or proximity with Shiites. These attacks got to the point where, in an interview with al-‘Arabiya, Shaykh al-‘Arabī felt compelled to deny rumors that he had been covertly backed by Iran and Bahraini Shiites in the 2010 election.48 In the same interview, al-‘Arabī blamed Salafists and MBs and their control of the mosques for Sufis being unable to celebrate the Mawlid (Prophet’s birthday) openly in mosques. Another Azhari, Shaykh Rāshid al-Muraykhī has also expressed himself to that effect and criticized Salafists and MBs49. Part of the dispute stems from the fact that Sufis consider Shiites as being legitimate Muslims. Moreover, in the past al-Muraykhī publicly visited and received senior Shiite clerics including Shaykh ‘Abd al-Āmīr al-Jamrī and Shaykh ‘Aysā Qāsim.50
- 51 Interview, January 3, 2012; conversations with ‘Aysā al‑‘Arabī (Shaykh Nājī al‑‘Arabī’s brother, al (...)
31Unsurprisingly, Azharis felt particularly disadvantaged by the rise to prominence of the Salafists and MBs who enjoyed far greater privileges thanks to their considerable proximity to the state. According to al-‘Arabī, the authorities placed the Salafists and the MBs in top positions at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and the Office of Religious Endowments respectively, allowing them to carve out their turfs and split state-funded mosques among themselves.51
- 52 See Louër, 2012, p. 263‑285
- 53 Lahoud‑Tatar, 2011, p. 50‑56
- 54 Kepel, 2000, p. 104‑114
32One possible explanation for the influence of these two groups resides in the government’s effort to coopt powerful Sunni forces.52 The hypothesis is that the government in Bahrain allied itself to the Salafists and MBs who had risen to the forefront of Sunni political activism in the Gulf, to the detriment of the traditionalist Sufi and Azhari movements. From the 1940s onwards, many MBs migrated to the Gulf from Egypt, Jordan and Palestine to escape persecution in their home countries and to seek employment as teachers and engineers, hence capturing a significant presence in schools and educational institutions.53 Saudi Arabia’s generous material support for Salafist ideology helped weaken the hold of Egypt’s al-Azhar on Sunni religious scholars, as well as diminish the allure of local traditionalist Sufi and Azhari movements in the Gulf States.54 Bahrain was no exception to this regional trend.
- 55 Interview with Ibrāhīm Hijras, January 8, 2012
33In our interviews, TGONU members hailing from al-Wasaṭ al-‘Arabī al-Islāmī repeated a view almost identical to the one presented by the Azharis, namely that the government was favoring the Salafists and MBs. According to al-Wasaṭ al-‘Arabī, the ruling establishment indirectly supported the electoral campaigns of Salafists and MBs in 2002 and 2006.55-
34The al-Wasaṭ al-‘Arabī al-Islāmī also represents a minority of reformed Sunni Nasserist, Arab Nationalist sympathizers permeated by Islamist influences, who enjoy little popular support. Its members include ‘Abd Allāh al-Ḥuwayḥī, Ibrāhīm Hijras and ‘Ādil al-Shaykh — middle-aged technocrats and medium-size merchants. In terms of their political positions, they tend to oppose the government and demand greater political and economic rights. For instance, they initially rejected the 2002 constitution because it granted the appointed Consultative Council broad prerogatives. By the same token however, they oppose the predominantly Shiite opposition, particularly al-Wifāq, which they view as sectarian and clerical.56
35TGONU also included smaller groups within its ranks. Among them is the ‘Adāla movement, a handful of leftist, Arab nationalist activists and Sunni Islamist radicals who joined forces in the 2000s to defend Bahraini Sunnis suspected of belonging to al-Qaeda during the Bush-era war on terror. Several independents and unaffiliated businessmen swelled TGONU’s ranks as well, an illustration of the movement’s eclectic, perhaps ideologically incoherent nature.
36It is noteworthy to point out that both the Azharis and al-Wasaṭ al-‘Arabī al-Islāmī felt marginalized and disadvantaged by the authorities to of their Salafist and MB rivals. The Sufis and al-Wasaṭ al-‘Arabī may have very well perceived Āl Maḥmūd’s initiative to establish TGONU as an opportunity for them to return to the fore, politically speaking. After all, the Sufis had been among the strongest supporters of Āl Maḥmūd’s Ta’līf al-Qulūb initiative in 2002.57
37But how did these disgruntled groups with little influence successfully mobilize on a wide scale on February 21, particularly when they had failed to do just that in the past? Resource Mobilization Theory may have an answer to this. Jenkins and Perrow (1977) analyzed the farm worker insurgencies of the 1960s, which, unlike their predecessors, were quite successful in achieving social and political change. The explanation, Jenkins and Perrow argue, lied in the social resources and support from the federal government and liberal organizations that farm worker groups managed to tap into. The case of TGONU was not so different. With the government’s support and the backing of established groups including al-Asāla and al-Minbar, the Azharis and al-Wasaṭ al-‘Arabī were able to instrumentalize TGONU to further their own social and political agenda and find their way back into the political landscape.
38Owing to the diversity of both their constituencies and their goals, it was inevitable that TGONU’s identity and discourse would face a number of tensions. It was, after all, a coalition of Sunni groups with very different approaches to dealing with the ruling establishment. Moreover, the goals that TGONU leadership had set out, particularly Āl Maḥmūd, likewise lacked coherence: at times, it was unclear whether Āl Maḥmūd wanted to establish an independent Sunni political force or a national cross-sectarian grouping.
39The first point of contention was perhaps due to the discrepancy between the sectarian identity of the movement and its stated goals. On the sectarian side, the constitutive groups and individuals of TGONU were overwhelmingly Sunni. In a manner similar to the February 14 movement, TGONU — despite having been formed on a predominantly sectarian basis — nonetheless attempted to project an outward nationalist discourse and portray itself as a gathering of diverse religious groups.
- 58 The Bohras are a subset of the Shiite Ismaili sect of Islam concentrated mainly in India and Pakist (...)
- 59 For an in‑depth discussion of a household survey on the impact of sect, income, religiosity and oth (...)
40Hence TGONU was eager to include token representatives of religious minorities, including Christians, Jews and Bohras.58 A few Shiite clerics known for their proximity to the regime and for their suspicion of al-Wifāq such as Shaykh Muḥsīn al-‘Aṣfūr and Shaykh ‘Abd Allāh al-Mugābī also joined in. The intended underlying message was that a genuine national front had emerged against the February 14 movement, described as sectarian, hence the name of ‘The Gathering of National Unity’. At the end however, TGONU could not distance itself from the determinism of its core sectarian component: it was essentially an alliance of Sunni Islamist and Sunni Arab nationalist groups, and sectarian discourse was the key to mobilizing the movement’s constituency.59 For instance, Āl Maḥmūd articulated a ‘you-us’ opposition when addressing the Shiite and Sunni streets respectively:
- 60 Āl Maḥmūd’s speech at TGONU’s first rally, February 21, 2011
“The second message to all our Shiite brothers, including protesters at Pearl Roundabout, those who belong to Shiite societies and those who do not: we are one people… Our hands are stretched out to you [repeats three times]. Come, that we may be together in good and righteousness, not sin and aggression. The third message goes to the Sunni street with its various factions and movements: we have opinions and arguments, and we meet arguments with arguments [repeats twice]; and opinions with opinions; we discuss steadily and forcefully; and we will hold fast to our common visions and fear none other than God. ”60
41The second and certainly more troublesome issue that TGONU faced was with regards to its political orientation or identity. This was mainly due to the discrepancy between the ambitions of TGONU’s leadership and their core Sunni constituency.
- 61 Gengler, 2011
- 62 Alhasan, 2012
42The Sunni population remains by and large committed to upholding the monarchy under the Āl Khalīfas, perhaps because it is fearful of a Shiite takeover and sees its fate as being tied to the royal family. It is no secret that the singlehandedly most popular figure among Sunnis today is Prime Minister Shaykh Khalīfa b. Salmān Āl Khalīfa61, whose resignation has been a long-standing demand of the Shiite opposition. His popularity surged from 2006 onward partly thanks to his opposition to the Crown Prince’s economic reforms, largely interpreted by Sunni merchants and small business owners as detrimental to their interests.62 The PM is considered by many to be a “hardliner” or a “conservative” and is thought to be opposed to substantive reform. His uncompromising image has contributed to his popularity among Sunnis, particularly at times of political or sectarian tension.
- 63 ‘Loyalist’ is a term often used pejoratively by the opposition to describe Sunni groups for their p (...)
- 64 Personal interview with Ya‘qūb Slays, former member of the NUA, founding member of the al‑Fātiḥ You (...)
- 65 February 21, 2011
- 66 March 2, 2011, http://altajam3.org/portal/arabic/post/78#more‑78
43However, Āl Maḥmūd and the Azharis were determined not to be promptly dismissed as “loyalists”.63 As his previous involvements show, Āl Maḥmūd is a long-time proponent of reform. At times, he makes it a point to openly criticize the ruling establishments, including during his discussions with Western interlocutors.64 For instance, in his speech at the first TGONU rally, Āl Maḥmūd demanded that those responsible for the deaths of citizens — presumably among the security forces — be promptly brought to justice and, addressing the King, noted that, “It is insufficient that the constitution provides rights, which are then either not implemented or circumvented.”65 Conversely, Āl Maḥmūd came out more anti-revolutionary in his speech at the second TGONU rally, proclaiming that TGONU does not agree with the political leadership’s decision to allow protesters to return to GCC [Pearl] Roundabout, nor does it agree with demands that the government resigns as a prerequisite for dialogue as put forward by the opposition. 66
- 67 See Ben Birnbaum, “Top Sunni: P.M. should mull quitting after crisis”, The Washington Times, August (...)
- 68 “National Unity Gathering respond to what was published in the Washington Post”, Bahrain News Agenc (...)
44The tension between these two realities — the popularity of the PM among Sunnis and Āl Maḥmūd’s ambition to position himself as a reformer — materialized quite visibly when journalist Ben Birnbaum of the Washington Times published an interview with Āl Maḥmūd under the provocative headline: “Top Sunni: P.M. should mull quitting after crisis”.67 His remarks, especially the way they were carried and spun by the newspaper, sparked Sunni outrage. Feeling the pressure, Āl Maḥmūd issued a statement disputing the paper’s claims.68
45On December 9, 2011, Shaykh Nāṣir al- Fuḍāla, a former MP and member of the pro-MB al-Minbar political society, announced his resignation from TGONU.69 From the second half of 2011 onwards, it gradually became clear that both the Salafists and MB were beginning to distance themselves from the new organization, and then finally broke away.
46Two main tensions hurt TGONU and eventually led to the resignation of the representatives of al-Asāla and al-Minbar. The first centered on the form that TGONU would take, i.e. whether it would be officially registered as a political society or not.
- 70 “Mustaqbal tajammu‘ al‑waḥda al‑waṭaniya…ilā ayna yattajih?”, al‑Naba News, August 6, 2011. http:// (...)
47Āl Maḥmūd and his allies, namely the Azharis and al-Wasaṭ al-‘Arabī al-Islāmī, argued in favor of registering it as a political society. Al-Asāla and al-Minbar, which already were registered political societies, disagreed and proposed to enlist TGONU as a charitable NGO and as a coalition or an umbrella organization. Members of al-Asāla and al-Minbar were also concerned because under the Bahraini law, an individual cannot be a member of two different political societies at the same time. Registering TGONU as an official political society would therefore imply the resignation of several prominent leaders of al-Asāla and al-Minbar from their respective societies70.
48TGONU leaders Āl Maḥmūd, al-‘Arabī and Ibrāhīm Hijras (another senior TGONU member and member of the Central Committee)71 claimed that al-Asāla and al-Minbar, which they considered government proxies, had intended to weaken TGONU from the start to prevent it from effectively challenging the government. Āl Maḥmūd claimed that the proposals put down by the two groups would have rendered TGONU toothless and sluggish. Eventually, TGONU’s Supreme Committee including the 19 founders of TGONU voted in favor of Āl Maḥmūd’s proposal. On June 28, 2011, TGONU was officially registered as a political society, henceforth called the National Unity Assembly (NUA), by order of the Minister of Justice.72
- 73 Interview with Hijras, January 8, 2012 and interview with Āl Maḥmūd, January 2, 2012.
- 74 “Iqṣā’ al‑Minbar wa al‑Asāla… sharkh fī jidar tajammu‘ al waḥda al waṭaniya,” al‑Naba News, July 27 (...)
- 75 See Appendix 1 to compare the composition of the February 2011 Supreme Committee and the July 2011 (...)
49The subsequent dispute revolved around the elections to the then newly created Central Committee. Both Āl Maḥmūd and Hijras claimed that al-Asāla and al-Minbar’s members had drawn up secret lists, some of them being on several lists at the same time, in order to get more seats. They were equally convinced that the two political groups had launched a defamatory campaign against Āl Maḥmūd himself.73 Both al-Asāla and al-Minbar vigorously denied such claims, and leveled the exact same accusations against Āl Maḥmūd74. In fine, Āl Maḥmūd and his allies ended up winning all the seats.75
- 76 Originally founded in 1941 under the name of Nādī al‑ṭalāba or the Students’ Club in the town of Mu (...)
- 77 “Fī masīra kubrā da’ā ilayhā Shabab Ṣaḥwat al‑Fātiḥ: ḍāq al‑muwāṭinūn dhar’an bimā yaḥduth ‘alā al‑ (...)
- 78 Video montages of rally coverage on January 13, 2012 reposted on Ṣaḥwat al‑Fātiḥ Youths’ official F (...)
- 79 On March 16, 2012, it organized a rally called “No to dialogue”. See Ṣaḥwat al‑Fātiḥ Youths’ Facebo (...)
- 80 Karīm Ḥāmid, “Al‑‘unf yataṣā’id fī‑l‑Baḥrayn…wa‑l‑sunna “yaksharūn ‘an anyābihim””, January 28, 201 (...)
50The evolution of TGONU led to yet another split when, on January 13, 2012, a group of young men affiliated with the MBs — particularly its social and charitable wing, the al-Iṣlaḥ Society76 — regrouped under the banner of Ṣaḥwat Shabāb al-Fātiḥ (al-Fātiḥ Youth Awakening). These youths had taken part in the February 21 and March 2 TGONU rallies. They organized a protest in front of the al-Fātiḥ Grand Mosque in Manama after the Friday prayers.77 The group adopted an extremist tone — it erected gallows and demanded the death penalty for those responsible for killing police officers78. The group, led by senior MB leaders MPs Mohamed Khālid and Nāṣir al-Fuḍāla, expressed its opposition to any dialogue with the opposition, which it described as “terrorists”.79 It also criticized the government for not equipping police officers with something more effective than tear gas when dealing with protests and riots.80
- 81 ‘Alī al‑Mūsāwi, “Āl Maḥmūd: lan aḥḍur tajammu’ “al‑Fātiḥ” al‑yawm”, al-Wasaṭ, 2012. http://www.alwa (...)
51Tensions between Ṣaḥwat al-Fātiḥ Youths and the NUA clearly rose to the surface when the former singlehandedly organized a rally on February 21, 2012 at the al-Fātiḥ Grand Mosque to commemorate the first anniversary of TGONU without extending an invitation to Āl Maḥmūd and the NUA.81
- 82 Founding statement posted on Twitter on December 16, 2011 http://www.twitlonger.com/show/eollvn
- 83 AKBARI & STERN, 2012, p. 28; NUA, 2012, p. 10; personal interview with Ya‘qūb Slays, September 16, (...)
- 84 “Al‑taqrīr al‑siyāsī li tajammu’ al‑waḥda al‑waṭaniya 2011‑2012”, National Unity Assembly, June 30, (...)
52Ṣaḥwat al-Fātiḥ proved short-lived. According to its founding statement, it was established on December 9, 201182, and — judging by the last post on its official Facebook page — suddenly disappeared unannounced on June 18, 2012. During these six months, it managed to organize little more than a few poorly attended rallies. Members of the NUA expressed privately and publicly their suspicion that the Ṣaḥwat al-Fātiḥ was a façade for MB youths mobilized by the government presumably to undermine the NUA,83 a belief reinforced by the Ṣaḥwa’s sudden — as though calculated — definitive disappearance.84
- 85 Despite the similarity in names between the Ṣaḥwat al‑Fātiḥ and the al‑Fātiḥ Youth Coalition, the t (...)
- 86 “’Istiqālāt shabābiya jadīda fī tajammu‘ al‑waḥda, al‑Ayyām, April 4, 2013. http://www.alayam.com/N (...)
53A few months after the creation of Ṣaḥwat al-Fātiḥ, tensions within TGONU led to the emergence of another splinter group named al-Fātiḥ Youth Coalition (FYC)85. The FYC was informally founded in March 2012 but only started operating as an official group independent of the NUA in March 2013. Its members — ‘Alī Fayṣal, Ya‘qūb Slays, Rāshid al-Jāsim, Lāfī al-Ḍāfirī, Badr al-Ḥājirī, and others — were for the most part educated, urban, middle-class Sunni youth in their 30s. Most hail from the NUA and do not boast any specific prior political affiliations. They resigned from the NUA between March and May 201386.
- 87 Interview with Ya‘qūb Slays, September 16, 2013
- 88 In the September 1, 2012 election, the FYC faction supported two candidates running for top posts a (...)
54Their growing resentment regarding the NUA stemmed from their belief that it had been coopted by the government. They criticize the NUA’s failure to live up to its promise to constitute an independent, critical Sunni voice.87 They also claimed that their candidates and allies within the NUA were sidelined by Āl Maḥmūd at almost every election.88
55On June 30, 2013, the FYC published its manifesto. It read as an attempt to weave a strictly Sunni narrative of political activism since the beginning of the 20th century, centering particularly on Shaykh ‘Abd al-Wahhāb b. Ḥajjī al-Zayānī and Shaykh Aḥmad b. Rāshid b. Lāḥij in 1923.89 The FYC highlighted these men’s refusal of the British decision to dismiss Bahrain’s ruler at the time, Shaykh ‘Aysā b. ‘Alī, who had opposed a set of administrative reforms introduced by the British and supported by a faction of the ruling dynasty headed by the Crown Prince as well as Shiite notables. The FYC manifesto described the deposition of Shaykh ‘Aysā b. ‘Alī as a colonial move and as a favor to the Shiites. But it also shed light on a string of concerted efforts during the 1930s spearheaded by Sunni and Shiite figures to protest the colonial, discriminatory policy of land distribution and to demand greater political rights. The FYC’s historical narrative represented an attempt at bringing to the fore a historical precedent for its own delicate balancing act: a strictly Sunni political group, united with the ruling establishment against foreign interference, but unopposed to cooperating with the Shiite opposition to demand greater political rights.
- 90 “"Shabāb al‑Fātiḥ": lā nas’ā li-l-muwājaha ma‘a “tajammu‘ al‑waḥda”, al‑Wasaṭ, July 7, 2013. http:/ (...)
56Remarkably, the FYC was not opposed to cooperating with the pre-dominantly Shiite opposition and has even attempted to enter talks with it. However, the FYC has complained of the opposition’s failure to take it seriously.90
57So what has been the government’s strategy throughout TGONU’s three years of existence, particularly during the various stages in its evolution?
58At first in February and March 2011, the government welcomed the initiative to rally the various Sunni clerics and groups and stage a mass counter-revolutionary demonstration. Incapable of mass mobilization on its own or through its Salafist and MB allies alone, the government certainly viewed TGONU as a popular counterweight to the predominantly Shiite protests at the GCC [Pearl] Roundabout. One day after TGONU’s rally on February 21, Prime Minister Shaykh Khalīfa b. Salmān Āl Khalīfa said when addressing a supportive crowd:
- 91 “Sumuw ra’īs al‑wuzarā’ yad’u ilā binā’ irāda waṭaniya yushārik fīha al‑jamī’ biqiyādat ‘āhil al‑bi (...)
“What we witnessed yesterday at TGONU and al-Fātiḥ mosque, and what we lived today with you in your rally, has honestly reflected Bahrain’s positive face and the unity of its children; this is what we have sought to reaffirm, for the world to understand that we are one hand.”91
59However, a political report published by TGONU in June 2012 plainly articulated the view that once the government thwarted the uprising thanks to the Peninsula Shield Force and the declaration of a State of National Safety, TGONU began to outlive its usefulness as a counterweight. Instead, as tensions with the government began to surface, it gradually became an inconvenient and increasingly critical Sunni voice. In fact, the first public display of this simmering tension was Āl Maḥmūd’s comments regarding the Prime Minister carried by the Washington Times in August 2011. Soon enough, toward the end of 2011, individuals belonging to factions allied with the government like the Salafists and MBs began to withdraw from TGONU. The report, as well as the NUA’s leadership interviewed for this article, claimed that the government had mobilized the Ṣaḥwat al-Fātiḥ Youth in an effort to undermine their own organization.
60Tensions continued to mount toward the end of 2012, when pro-government vigilantes on social networking sites launched a defamatory campaign against a handful of TGONU youth members, who would later form the splinter group FYC. Pro-government accounts accused these youths of orchestrating a plot, called the 30 December plot, consisting of organizing protests on December 30, 2012 in the predominantly Sunni town of Muharraq. The idea, according to the pro-government accounts, was for the protests to provoke clashes with the police in order to foster Sunni opposition to the government. Unsurprisingly, no such plot materialized.
61As TGONU began to lose its younger, more rebellious elements between March and May 2013, most of whom left to form the FYC, it gradually found a place as a government-sanctioned political society, alongside the Salafist from al-Asāla and the MB from al-Minbar. Its discourse, especially vis-à-vis the government, has softened considerably, its initial aspiration to rally the Sunni groups under its banner now a distant dream.
62TGONU was the product of a unique combination of two factors: an opportunity for political mass mobilization, or the so-called Arab Spring, embedded in a context of sectarian politics. The result was a largely unprecedented event: tens of thousands of predominantly Sunni Bahrainis took to the streets at the al-Fātiḥ Grand Mosque at the behest of most Sunni political groups, temporarily united under one single banner.
63However, TGONU’s project of forming an encompassing Sunni movement, in some sense a Sunni mirror image of al-Wifāq, proved short-lived. The movement effectively began to disintegrate towards the second half of 2011. There were many reasons for TGONU’s failure, some tactical such as choices made by its leaders, while others were of a structural nature.
64Tactically, Āl Maḥmūd’s insistence on turning TGONU into a hierarchical political society made it impossible to accommodate the range of groups that had taken part in its founding. Eventually, the NUA devolved into a narrow Azhari-Arab Nationalist alliance that failed to win a single seat in the 2014 parliamentary elections. Moreover, Āl Maḥmūd’s desire to adopt a more critical tone towards the ruling establishment put him at times at odds with his core Sunni constituency and allies. It was also clear that the NUA realized that its hope of creating an encompassing Sunni mammoth organization was antithetical to the ruling establishment’s strategic preferences: this was the view plainly expressed in the NUA’s June 2012 political report92.
65On the structural level, it is reasonable to argue that attempting to form a Sunni equivalent of al-Wifāq was too difficult a task considering the political, cultural and religious features of the Sunni community in Bahrain. Al-Wifāq’s strong link with Shaykh ‘Aysā Qāsim and other senior clerical authorities in Bahrain undoubtedly aided it. Even so, al-Wifāq could not help prevent splinter groups like Ḥaqq from breaking away in 2006. Given the lack of a centralized Sunni clerical hierarchy or religious or cultural equivalent, Āl Maḥmūd’s project of creating an enduring Sunni crosscutting organization turned out to be all the more challenging.
66For the Sunni masses, the perceived “retreat of the state” — to borrow Āl Maḥmūd’s formula — coupled with the perceived existential Shiite threat created a sense that they needed to unite in February 2011. However, once security had been restored and the threat dissipated, the need to “rally under one banner” disappeared and the broad-based social movement that TGONU embodied at one point eventually disintegrated.