A year after the “Arab Spring” struck Bahrain, the opposition movement has changed significantly from its original supporters. Initiated by a youth movement demanding political reform, the campaign, though still including a young population, has evolved into a mass political movement with a broad array of political backgrounds.
The following groups maintain a significant influence in the uprising:
Al-Wifaq: Founded as a political society in 2001, al-Wifaq is Bahrain’s leading opposition group. Its leader, Sheikh Ali Salman, has called for constitutional amendments that would give Bahrain’s elected Council of Representatives authority to form governments. In October, al-Wifaq and accompanying signatories released their demands in the Manama Document.
Al-Wifaq is bolstered by Sheikh Isa Qassim, Bahrain’s most influential Shia cleric. He claims to be above politics. However, according to the U.S. Embassy in Manama, Qassim “privately supports Wifaq and probably exerts considerable influence over it.” Last month, violence flared following Qassim’s release of a video calling for protestors to “crush police.”
While al-Wifaq has repeatedly stated its openness toward dialogue, its past suggests otherwise. When Bahrain’s political process doesn’t suit its leadership, al-Wifaq resorts to boycotting it. Since the crisis started, al-Wifaq’s National Council members resigned from office, walked out of the National Dialogue, and refused to participate in the October special election.
Other political societies opportunistically have allied with al-Wifaq and would otherwise be obsolete:
Al-Wa’ad: A socialist party formed by returning exiles in 2002, Wa’ad is led by Ebrahim Sharif, known for leading a delegation to Lebanon in 2008, where he met and publicly lauded Hezbollah militant Samir Al Qantar.
Al Minbar Progressive Democratic Society: With membership including both Shia and Sunni, Al Minbar includes the country’s former communists.
Islamic Action Society (Al Amal): Amal is known as the successor to the former Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, which launched a failed uprising in 1981 inspired by Iran’s Islamic revolution. Its founder, Mohammed Ali Al Mahfouth, spent the 1990s in Damascus calling for the overthrow of the royal family.
Bahrain’s hard-line groups that publicly advocate the use of violence include:
Coalition of the Youth of February 14th Revolution: Standing apart from Bahrain’s political societies, the February 14th movement calls on Shia youth to take to the streets and use violence to express their opposition to the government. In commemoration of the uprising’s anniversary, the movement calls for protestors to retake the junction formerly known as Pearl Roundabout, once the staging area for the opposition.
Al-Haq: Al-Haq was co-founded by Hasan Mushaima, a former al-Wifaq member, and Abduljalil Al Singace, currently serving a life-long prison sentence. While al-Wifaq supports the transformation of government into a constitutional monarchy, al-Haq demands the immediate resignation of the monarchy.
Independent human rights activists: The title of “human rights activist” is one often used by members of Bahrain’s opposition not directly affiliated with a political society. Such a title carries a vague job description that can often be used to manipulate a political agenda. As they condemn the abuses by the government, these self-appointed human rights activists simultaneously call for political reform and regime change. A more apt title for such individuals is “political activist.” This includes Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Rajab has become a well-known opposition figure, often leading protests, resulting in his well-publicized battle wounds.
Too often, outside observers who have called Bahrain’s reforms “cosmetic” are too eager to leap to the defense of the opposition without fully considering its many faces. Bahrain’s government is far from perfect, but then again, so is the opposition.