One year ago, online activists called for a "February 14 Revolution" on the tiny island of Bahrain. Although the ongoing mass protests might come as a surprise for some, political movements in Bahrain and the wider Arabian Gulf have a long history that stretches back a hundred years. To place these movements in context, it is necessary to delve back in history to better understand the present and what harbingers these movements hold for the future.
The region witnessed a remarkable development in 1938. Three movements emerged in Bahrain, Dubai, and Kuwait—all then under British “protection”—calling for a greater say in ruling matters, even daring to ask for a representative assembly. Although this was not the first political initiative in Bahrain, it was up until then the most coherent and organized. The movements in Bahrain and Dubai were put down, and only in Kuwait did an elected assembly emerge for a few months before being disbanded. This set the tone for future political activities in Bahrain, swinging between regime overthrow versus reform, clandestine versus public activity, and broad-based coalitions versus factional movements.
1953–56: The Birth of Bahraini Nationalism
The early 1950s witnessed the largest public mass movement in Bahrain’s modern history, before being abruptly cut short again by force. Regionally, this was the period of revolution and rising Arab nationalism, heightened by the rising star of Jamal Abdul Nasser in Egypt. Arab developments echoed strongly in Bahrain. The Egyptian radio station Sawt al-Arab (Voice of the Arabs) was a particular household favourite, complemented by the rise of a strong national press and the formation of the first cultural and sports centres in the Gulf Arab States.
These slowly brewing factors needed a spark that would transform them into a wider national movement. This was provided by the sectarian violence that racked the country between 1953 and 1954. Skirmishes broke out between Shia participants and fdawiya—strongmen under the commands of the sheikhs—during the religious march of Ashura in September 1953. Intermittent clashes continued, resulting in several deaths and injuries.
To counteract these rising tensions, a series of meetings were held between Shia and Sunni community members to discuss the situation on the island. A Higher Executive Committee (HEC) headed by eight individuals—four Shia and four Sunni—was elected to put forward their demands to the authorities. These demands centred on a legislative council, a general legal and civil code, labour unions, and the establishment of a Supreme Court.
The HEC was able to collect twenty-five thousand supporting signatures—an extraordinary achievement in a country whose citizens barely numbered one hundred thousand. At first, the rulers refused to recognise the HEC. The authorities then tried creating an alternative committee of Shia notables and clergy, in the hope of splitting the public and weakening the HEC. At the time, the political movements were centred in the urban cities of Manama and Muharraq, while the villages were seen as more conservative and less prone to the political momentum sweeping the region. The HEC was forcibly sent to its deathbed in November 1956, when protests broke out to denounce the tripartite aggression on Egypt. The events were used as an excuse to arrest and deport the HEC’s leaders.
Although the HEC was silenced, it created a long lasting legacy that survives until this day. Foremost, it was the first popular political movement to be recognised by any government in the Gulf Arab states, and arguably constitutes the birth of modern Bahraini nationalism. It led to wide-ranging reforms in the legal and civil codes of the country, as well as successfully forming Bahrain`s first labour union, which was disbanded shortly afterwards.
1956–1971: The Move Underground
The fall of the HEC heralded a new era in Bahraini political movements. In essence, the HEC`s demands and activities reflected a mix of grievances directed at both British presence and the rulers, and it never went beyond asking for political reform within the system. Many saw the HEC’s aims as not reaching far enough. The subsequent political movements went underground and took a much more radical stance, with their outlook becoming distinctly anti-colonialist and anti-regime. Their goals were no longer simply system reform, but the overthrow of the regime using armed struggle.
Two clandestine movements came to dominate the scene, both largely secular in their composition and outlook. The Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN) had its origins in the American University of Beirut (AUB) with the aim of establishing a vanguard movement directed at the liberation of Palestine and rest of the Arab world using revolutionary means. Between 1958 and 1959, a group of Bahraini students at AUB and the University of Cairo approached youth groups in Bahrain with Arab nationalist leanings to bring them under the wing of the MAN. Within a few months the movement expanded hugely, encompassing several hundred members. The other major movement was the National Liberation Front (NLF): the communist movement in Bahrain that formally established itself on the island in 1955. Its creation was heavily influenced by its contacts with the Iranian Tudeh Party and the Communist Party of Iraq.
Both movements relied mainly on support in the urban cities of Muharraq and Manama, which were still the main hotbeds of opposition back then. Due to ideological differences, the relationship between them was ambivalent from the start. The MAN saw the Arab world as its natural home and the main aim of its struggle. It viewed the NLF as an international agent that did not have the Arab world’s interest at heart. Conversely, the NLF saw the MAN as a regional upstart clouded with nationalist xenophobia. The idea of Arab Nationalism did not sit well with it.
The activities of the two groups reached a climax by the middle of the decade, with the uprising of March 1965, still referred to in legendary terms by both movements. Events ignited when the local oil company announced plans to lay-off several hundred local workers. This quickly spiralled into nationwide protests and civil disobedience, focused mainly in the cities of Manama and Muharraq.
The quickly escalating protests caught the MAN and the NLF by surprise and with little preparation. Spontaneously, cadres from each organization tried to work together to coordinate on tactics. The hastily assembled coalition quickly fell apart. Several arrests were made and the protests were put down, but not without leaving a strong imprint on the future path of history. Muharraq was nicknamed “Port Said” in ode to the Egyptian city that became famous during the 1956 tripartite aggression. It was a hotbed of the protests, and security forces were unable to enter the city for several days. The uprising also signalled a major reshuffle within the underground movements on the island, particularly within the ranks of the Arab Nationalists.
The defeat of the Arab Forces in the June 1967 War against Israel damaged the image of Nasser and was the final death knell in the MAN movement. This heralded the rise of the leftist forces within the MAN. A new movement was born in the late 1960s, which would eventually solidify under the banner of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG). The main differences were the refocus of the movement on the Arabian Gulf instead of the wider Arab world; the adoption of Marxism-Leninism as an official ideology; and finally the endorsement of armed struggle. The explicit aim became the overthrow of the sheikhdoms through violent means. The PFLOAG became increasingly active in the Dhofar movement that was active in Oman from 1965 to 1976, with several Bahraini cadres actively joining their Dhofari comrades.
Meanwhile, the British had drawn up plans in 1967 to withdraw from the Arabian Peninsula. To counteract potential Iranian claims to the islands, a UN plebiscite was held in Bahrain regarding independence. The outcome was the establishment of the independent state of Bahrain under the rule of the Al Khalifa in 1971.
1971–1975: Labor, Coalitions, and the Return to the Public Sphere
Shorty after independence, the path of political movements turned once again from underground political activity toward public coalition-based popular movements. This was spurred by the establishment of the Constitutive Committee (CC) for the General Federation of Workers in Bahrain, the first organized public mass movement after independence. The CC signaled a major shift within the tactics of Bahrain’s political movements. Although the CC was spearheaded by a coalition of individuals from PFLOAG, NLF, and MAN, it was not organized along party lines and included many independents among its ranks. The CC also took its work to the public rather than focusing on clandestine activity. It organized petitions for the establishment of a general labor union that was able to garner nearly five thousand signatures. In this regard, it was the first truly secular public-coalition in Bahrain, where sect and religious issues did not play any notable role in its composition or goals.
The authorities refused to recognize the CC. The situation culminated in the March 1972 uprising, when workers at the local airline company, Gulf Air, went on strike after a group of expatriate workers were brought in from Pakistan. The strikes quickly escalated and spread nationwide. Eventually the Bahraini military were deployed and the protests were put down. The members of the CC were either imprisoned or went into exile abroad.
During the March 1972 uprising, however, authorities explained to the CC members that they would go beyond simply granting them their demands, and would instead give them their full rights. This was optimistically seen as a promise to implement broader political and economic reforms on the island. The activities of the CC hastened the moves to establish the Constituent Assembly of 1972, a partly elected assembly tasked to draft and approve a constitution, a significant milestone in the country’s political history.
The NLF and PFLOAG, along with other Arab Nationalist elements, would coalesce once again to form the “Shehabi bloc,” an alliance that ended up boycotting the constitutive assembly due to internal differences. This was quickly followed by the elected legislative assembly of 1973, with the Shehabi bloc being a precursor to the “People`s bloc,” a similar grouping of leftist and Arab Nationalist individuals who won eight seats in the newly elected parliament. The rest of the assembly was composed of nationalists, independents, and Shia religious figures.
The parliamentary experiment was to see an abrupt end. The legislature formed a cohesive unit that refused to submit to the government on the new state of emergency law and the renewal of the lease for the American naval base in Bahrain. The constitution was suspended, a state of emergency was declared, parliament was dissolved, and many of its members were arrested. Thus ended Bahrain’s first brief filtration with formally established political institutions.
1979–2000: The Rise of Islamists
The continuing security crackdown and the success of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran signalled a new shift in Bahraini politics, once again resorting to clandestine movements. By this point Shia Islamist movements were on the rise, notable among them was the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, which was responsible for a failed 1981 coup attempt. PFLOAG, now on the back foot due to continuous security hits, also attempted a coup via the Bahrain Defence Force in 1979. This marked a shift by political groupings back toward a strategy of overthrowing the regime using violent and covert means, with the idea of an alliance-based public movement taking a back seat for the remainder of the 1980s.
The 1990s saw the re-emergence of a public movement that would once again try to unite the different political factions to push for greater political representation. Former members of the PFLOAG, NLF, and independents started acting in an individual capacity, initiating the “elite petition” and “popular petition” movements for the restoration of the 1973 constitution and parliamentary democracy. At this point, political Islam was at its peak on the island, with the scene dominated by sectarian considerations and the opposition mainly composed of Shia religious figures. The latter would combine with the secularists and become the leaders of the new movement, galvanizing the streets behind their demands. Once again, the movement was faced with a campaign of violence that increasingly targeted individuals on a sectarian basis, blaming Iran for foreign meddling and plunging the country into what became known as the “nineties uprising” that lasted from 1994 to 1999.
2000–2011: Back to Square One
At the turn of the century, the authorities, now under a new ruler, seemed to enter a new phase of parliamentary politics. The National Action Charter of 2001 promised the establishment of a constitutional monarchy with greater political and economic participation. The new constitution of 2002 came to disappoint the opposition. It was written behind closed doors and with no popular input in its creation. It established a half-elected legislative with weak supervisory and legislative powers, to be elected via heavily skewed electoral districts. This was in explicit contradiction to what the authorities openly promised them.
A plethora of political societies and movements emerged. These groups were frequently at odds with each other, failing to agree on a common approach to the new political developments. Some chose to enter into the formal political process, while others chose to boycott it. Al Wefaq, a Shia Islamist movement, and Wa’ad, a liberal-secular society with its roots in the MAN and PFLOAG, led the formally recognized societies. Individuals who refused to recognise the new political system established Haq, an unauthorized movement that continued to campaign for a full constitutional monarchy. The stalled political situation finally exploded on 14 February 2011, and the rest, as they say, is history.
What does the future hold for Bahrain’s political movements? The island now is a heavily politicized society, with a new generation of youth entering the political scene for the first time. If the most followed Bahraini twitter account is anything to go by, roughly twenty percent of the population is on-line and actively engaged politically. What is beyond doubt is the existence of a fertile, and as yet, unstable political terrain with constantly shifting developments.
The more formally established political societies, such as Al Wefaq, are losing ground to new groups, including the 14 February Coalition. Groups like the latter have resorted to underground mobilization and are more involved in direct street action, stating regime change as their explicit goal. Whatever the regime will offer in terms of reforms, it is likely that a significant chunk of these activists will not be satisfied. This is in contrast to the demands that the formally established political societies announced, which focus on system reform and a constitutional monarchy. Questions regarding the ideology of these movements are also unsettled and constantly shifting. Although religious-based figures still play a leading role within the opposition, the dominant discourse emerging is one focusing on “human rights” and a liberal democracy, with even Al Wefaq more openly adopting such a discourse.
During the past ten years, the sphere of activities and grievances of Bahraini political movements focused mainly on domestic matters, but recently they have started reaching out abroad. Currently, most of their support comes from western organizations and media, with entities such as Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights playing a leading role in advocacy on local issues. Although Bahraini activists take inspiration from other movements in the Arab world, including those in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, it is yet to be seen whether this will materialize into a coherent trans-Arab movement such as those witnessed in the 1960s and 1970s, with activists in each country currently pre-occupied with developments in their own homeland. One possibility that has started to materialize is for support in the Arab world to coalesce along sect-lines, with the most vocal and active regional support for the Bahraini opposition coming from Shia’s in Iraq, Lebanon, Kuwait, and the Eastern province in Saudi Arabia.
What is now known as the “Sunni street” has also started mobilizing, with groups such as The Gathering of National Unity and Al Fateh Awakening emerging on the scene. Although their stance, so far, has focused against what they see as the Shia opposition, they have also started to signal their increasing frustration with the way the authorities are conducting themselves. They too have turned their gaze abroad, with active calls for a union with the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). They have also increasingly adopted the Syrian uprising as their cause célèbre on the Arab-uprisings front.
What about movements for a public coalition with a national outlook that tries to bring together all of these divergent groups? Very little has been witnessed in this regard, with the deep divisions in Bahraini society making any such move unlikely. Recently, however, an endeavour called the National Meeting has emerged, calling for reform along the Crown Prince`s Seven-Points Initiative, which includes a fully elected legislature and fair electoral districts. Individuals who were involved in past national movements, including members of the HEC of the 1950s and the popular petition of the 1990s, spearheaded this movement. Most pundits are sceptical, seeing it as a throwback to a by-gone age of nationalist sentiments. But these individuals have experience that spans nearly sixty years of political activism, so they should not be discounted.
The current Bahraini political cocktail encompasses an explosive mixture of both public activism and underground movements, with those calling for reform vying with activists bent on regime change, with each reaching out to possible partners in the Arab world and beyond. In such a combustible situation—coupled with Iranian, Saudi Arabian, and American interests in the region—what is certain is that Bahrain will be a hotbed of political twists and turns for years to come.
This article is partly based on a paper entitled “The Constitutive Committee and the 1972 March Uprising in Bahrain” that the author presented at the Historical Materialism Conference 2012 in London.