A boy carries a Bahraini flag at a pro-government rally in Muharraq, north of Manama, Bahrain's capital, February 21, 2013. (Reuters)

I don’t know a single Bahraini who wouldn’t agree that the Bahraini government is in great need of reform. We need a governing system that is more representative and more responsive. However, it is only a very vocal and militant minority who believe this means that Bahrain needs a revolution – particularly as we watch the developing catastrophe of post-revolutionary Egypt.

Since the unrest broke out in Bahrain during the Arab Spring, some outside observers have shrouded the truth behind the uprisings with a web of misconceptions. While many of the criticisms of Bahrain’s ruling system contain elements of truth, I would like to argue that things are not as straightforward as they may appear.

voices post VOICES: Bahrain   Sectarian Tensions and Foreign MisconceptionsSince King Hamad came to power just over a decade ago, Bahrainis voted overwhelmingly for a new constitution which brought with it a number of reforms; it also put our Kingdom on a slow – but steady – path to becoming a fully representative constitutional monarchy.

We have seen a number of further amendments for empowering the elected parliament to challenge the government and its policies. So far, many of these new reforms remain partly untested, particularly after the opposition Al-Wefaq Islamic Society walked out of parliament two years ago (with 18 MPs, Al-Wefaq had occupied nearly half of the 40 seats).

Regarding the portrayals of Bahrain as a virtual war zone, these days one has  to actively seek out some of the worst corners of the country to find the few troublesome neighborhoods where roads are blocked with burning tires and rioters pelt policemen with Molotov cocktails. I myself live close to an area considered a hotspot for trouble, but even there life mostly goes on as normal.

“Bahrain needs international solidarity in helping us continue down a path of reform…” – Ali Fathalla

The use of burning tires is a particularly clever tactic. From a distance, one tire can give off enough black smoke to make it seem as though the entire neighborhood is burning down. However, it is also an extremely dangerous practice. Tire burning results in the release of dioxin as well as several other small particles, which settle deep in the lungs.

Dioxin has been identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the most potent man-made carcinogen; even low levels of dioxin exposure may cause several long-term side effects and health risks. However, protesters have used tire burning as a means of disrupting traffic since the 1980s; old habits die hard.

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A police officer stands in front of a row of burning tires set aflame by rioters in Manama, Bahrain's capital, in this April 21, 2013, file photo. (Reuters)

Unrest in Bahrain dates back to 1979, when the Islamic Revolution in Iran inspired and supported several homegrown revolutionary groups like the Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, which staged several coup attempts in the 1980s. The Front also nurtured the next generation of dissidents who came of age by regularly clashing with police and wreaking havoc on the country in the mid-1990s.

Many protesters who were at the forefront of the movement were exiled for their involvement, later to be pardoned by the king after his inauguration in 2002. Upon their return to Bahrain, these now seasoned and more mature dissidents eventually began establishing political organizations and occupying key positions in government institutions.

Consequently, this has resulted in the development of a more radicalized and sectarian opposition leadership in Bahrain, which tends to use religious figures to incentivize and mobilize its supporters.

A lack of religious support would yield disappointing results for protesters. When religious leaders have chosen not to participate in protests, the turnouts have been trifling, as witnessed during the August 14 Tamarod rallies. Only when Ali Salman, secretary general of Al-Wefaq, is standing in the front row, hundreds are inclined to show up.

What is the problem with this, one may ask? Bahrain – originating as an island trading nation – has always enjoyed an open-minded and tolerant society that harmoniously combines conservative Islamic traditions with increasingly popular libertarian values.

Women in Bahrain enjoy prominent roles in society; we are generally free to dress and behave as we choose; and we don’t want religious figures acting to change this. Most Bahrainis are just as nervous about overly vocal Salafist MPs as they are about radical Shia clerics.

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Anti-government protesters armed with Molotov cocktails are seen during clashes in Diraz, west of Manama, in this July 18, 2013, file photo. (Reuters)

The government and the opposition blame each other for letting the sectarian genie out the bottle. However, it is fair to say that both sides share some responsibility and that the unrest has polarized society to a degree never before seen by my generation.

Although many Sunnis originally joined the protests, one would have great difficulty nowadays finding any Sunni who is sympathetic to the continuing unrest and rioting. This division of society is very dangerous and I can’t say with certainty where this will take Bahrain.

Nobody expects the unrest to end completely any time soon, but a great deal of heat and danger that was present in the early days of the protests seems to have diffused and for most of us life is back to normal, with the economy once again relatively buoyant.

Bahrain is not a microcosm of Egypt or Syria; and so prescribing similar forms of treatment for our country would likely bring undesirable results. Bahrain needs international solidarity in helping us continue down a path of reform that would allow us to consolidate our liberal and conservative customs. But the last thing we need is to be coerced into revolution by radicals and outside observers who are ignorant of Bahrain’s culture and history.

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 VOICES: Bahrain   Sectarian Tensions and Foreign Misconceptions

Ali Fathalla

Ali Fathalla is a member of Citizens for Bahrain, a group describing itself as dedicated to facilitating reconciliation in the kingdom.

  • Mohamed CJ

    I stopped reading after “Bahrainis voted overwhelmingly for a new constitution”. Bahrainis did not vote on the constitution, they voted on the National Action Charter. The consititution was unilaterally issued by the King who gave himself more powers than any constitutional monarch I know of (he heads the army, appoints the cabinet and its ministers, appoints the upper half of Parliament and has the right to dissolve its lower half, heads the judiciary.. etc)

    The so called group “Citizens of Bahrain” is a Bahraini government PR group. You are no more than a government mouth piece defending the government paying you.

  • saidpharmd

    shia take over next thing kill all the sunni muslim and establish hussainiat

  • Harry Weaver

    I’m afraid any statement that comes from Bahraini government – either side, is suspect, while the influence of what sits in the harbour in Manamar, applying pressure on Iran is present.

    Almost everybody there knew, at the original protests at the Pearl roundabout, before the authorities destroyed it in their effort to remove a focal point for the protests, that any appeal to the King was pointless and their appeal to the Crown Prince, who enjoyed some level of popularity with the people, proved himself to be without substance and a waste of time.

    But the ultimate betrayal came through your Minister for Foreign Affairs who apparently gave approval for Saudi forces to come in and, literally, violently crush the protests. I would believe this, because a couple of weeks before the Saudi forces arrived, Defense Minister Gates, from the U.S. was in Bahrain, then went to Saudi Arabia immediately afterward. Hilary Clinton immediately followed him there. And you only have to look at a picture of the Foreign Minister to see the very picture of self indulgence.

    Anybody that was injured and went to the hospital for treatment was thrown in jail – without treatment. So was any doctor who attempted to treat them.

    There were and are *many* other examples.

    Or you are talking about another country.

    Or you work for *an interest*, because what you relate has little bearing on the reality that I know.

    Bahrain was not “coerced into revolution by radicals and outside observers”.
    It started from within, was excluded from Western media for at least twelve months until it couldn’t be suppressed any more and said media were finally forced to do their job, to the minimal extent.

    This is when the Sunni vs Shia cast was placed on the situation, by western political interests, which was never the case, because they believed that this translation on events would further isolate the eventual target, Iran.
    But anybody that knows the situation there knows this is rubbish, because any Shia that live in Bahrain have been there for generations and Bahrain is their home.

    So, you either don’t know what you are writing about, and you apparently live there, or this is a deliberate misinterpretation of events.

    • pilly_lilly

      Based on previous writings by members of Citizens of Bahrain I believe your second supposition to be correct. This is a deliberate misinterpretation of events.