Saturday, May 21, 2011

Al-Wifaq: Back to Boycott

Famously, in 2006 al-Wifaq ended its one-term boycott of Bahrain's newly-resurrected parliament, leading to a protracted intra-Shi'a schism and the fracture of the old al-Wifaq into the al-Wifaq of today on the one hand and al-Haqq and other undeground movements on the other.

Now, its 18 deputies having already resigned from parliament months ago (though the resignations of the final 7 have just recently been accepted) in protest of the government treatment of protesters, al-Wifaq has reportedly decided to return to its boycotting roots and will not contest in the make-up elections scheduled for September 2011. I have not seen this yet in the English press, but Al-Wasat reports (Arabic) that it:
"has learned from reliable sources that [al-Wifaq] has decided not to participate in the complementary elections to be held in September 2011 for the seats that fell vacant after the resignation of 18 of the bloc's members of parliament, pointing out that 'the society [al-Wifaq] met with a number of cadres in the regions and constituencies [of the empty seats] and there was a broad consensus on the society's decision not to participate.'"
The story goes on to make clear that other political societies that ran candidates in these districts in 2010 have not explicitly declared their intentions to run in these special elections, while the National Unity Gathering--the al-Fatih Mosque counter-rally folks--has already issued statements that have ruled out its supporting candidates in September.

In one sense the boycott from al-Wifaq comes as little surprise. Certainly, following the arrests of two of its MPs and more obviously the government's abandoned (or postponed) attempt to dissolve the society altogether, the group has no shortage of reasons to not wish to participate in a parliament through which it seemingly achieved little anyway.

Moreover, al-Wifaq's central role in spurring ordinary Shi'a to the streets during the post-February 14 protests (which never really exploded until al-Wifaq put its weight behind them) reaffirmed that, despite the group's being outgunned in parliament by the manufactured pro-government majority, nonetheless in society its power to organize political mobilization remains unmatched in Bahrain, rivaled only by that of the government itself.

A final element playing into this decision to boycott, however, may be something quite unrelated: the apparent view among al-Wifaq leaders--voiced recently by Sh. 'Ali Salman--that the U.S. is finally coming around to a more constructive position in Bahrain as indicated, for example, by the rebukes contained in Obama's speech. Speaking with a PBS Newshour reporter in Bahrain (is it just me or is PBS Newshour all over Bahrain recently?) 'Ali Salman told her
"he was 'delighted' to hear the criticism of the detentions of opposition leaders and the destruction of Shia mosques. ... [He] said, 'I am pleased with the whole speech, and now looking for the speech to be carried out in practice,' ... adding 'there shouldn't be a different standard' for how the U.S. responds to uprisings in different countries.
Her related interview with Jeffrey Feltman (conducted before the Obama speech), which is much longer than the other versions releases so far, is below. The transcript is also available.

Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.

The interview is notable in that he seems to suggest the U.S. has been (privately) pushing not only the Bahrainis but also the Saudis toward a more measured approach in dealing with the opposition. He says in conclusion,
"These [arrests, destruction of mosques, etc.] are things that we talk about with the Bahrainis, we press the Bahrainis on, and not only the Bahrainis; we talk with the others who have influenced on Bahrain as well"
Accordingly, al-Wifaq's decision to remain outside of the parliament may reflect not only its rejection of government policy toward it and its members, but also the recognition that, if the U.S. really is beginning to exert more pressure on the government to return to some effort at political reconciliation, it is perhaps better to remain outside of the system for the time being.

Indeed, if al-Wifaq already had, say, more than a dozen representatives in parliament (if it were to win back most or all of the seats being re-contested), the government may attempt to push a "reform" process that operated via the legislature itself, which could not possibly lead to the sort of fundamental change al-Wifaq and others desire. By going back to boycott, then, al-Wifaq leaves itself open for the possibility of direct discussions with the government, not qua parliamentary bloc but qua opposition representative more generally.

As happened before in the run-up to the National Action Charter of newly-crowned King Hamad, any fundamental political reform that will occur, will not proceed in democratic fora such as the parliament but behind closed doors--whether in the royal court or, as happened in 2001, at the home of someone like Sh. 'Abdullah al-Ghurayfi. Whether or not such meetings will actually take place is a good question, but al-Wifaq seems at least to be setting itself up in the event that they do.


  1. Liked it. Just a small correction. according to alwasat reprot today, the National Unity Gathering has already issued statements indicating that it will "NOT" support candidates in September.

  2. Ah, right. I misread استبعدت as "ruled" rather than "ruled out."


  3. PBS has had a team with Margaret Warner in Bahrain all week.

  4. Right. I've been watching the reports. Just seem to be the only outlet that hasn't given up on (been kicked out of) Bahrain


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.