x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Bahrain’s mainstream Al Wefaq-led opposition loses support

Mounting frustration among once-moderate critics and opponents of the government has translated into growing support for groups whose goals and tactics are more extreme.

SITRA, Bahrain // When Jamana, a 17-year-old Bahraini high school student, talks of how her life has changed since pro-reform protests escalated in the kingdom last year, her answers range from the very personal to the very political, with barely space between.

For one thing, she has trouble sleeping. One of her best friends was killed when police broke up a demonstration in November, and at night, in the darkness of her bedroom, their last phone conversation keeps replaying in her mind.

Jamana has also begun to lose faith in the mainstream opposition, led by the Shiite bloc Al Wefaq. After the death of her best friend and all the rest she has seen in Bahrain's season of turmoil, she says she is in no mood for compromise with the government — a key tenet of Al Wefaq's programme.

"I appreciate how hard they have pushed for reform," she said in a café, in between homework assignments. "But sometimes Al Wefaq drives me crazy."

Jamana is not alone in her growing disgruntlement with the Shiite bloc and its allies.

Since long-running protests against the government intensified last year on the heels of upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, the Al Wefaq-led opposition has taken pains to reiterate its support for the monarchy even as they call for political reform. Their peaceful, licensed marches have been supported by tens of thousands of Bahrainis. Two weeks ago, the head of Al Wefaq asked supporters not to chant anti-regime slogans.

As the kingdom's political stalemate has ground on, however, mounting frustration among once-moderate critics and opponents of the government has translated into growing support for groups whose goals and tactics are more extreme.

One such organisation is a youth coalition calling itself February 14 — after the day the demonstrations stepped up in 2011. It has urged more aggressive tactics aimed at forcing the ruling family to step down. On Sunday, Bahrain's National Day, they blocked roads with burning tyes and organised village marches that police broke up with tear gas.

Until recently, Al Wefaq and February 14 have coexisted and shared supporters. But, as Bahrain's opposition fragments and its politics polarises, Jamana is one of many opposition supporters now leaning toward the youth coalition. Anger at the lack of what some Bahrainis see as a lack of meaningful reform could complicate fresh calls by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa for negotiations to end the political deadlock.

Opposition moderates such as Abduljalil Khalil Ebrahim fear the political ground under them is slipping away.

"Last year, the more radical elements were maybe 20 per cent or so. We could reach a political solution. It was much easier to convince our supporters, said Mr Ebrahim, former head of Wefaq's parliamentary bloc. "But nowadays, because of a lack of solutions to the crisis, the trend for radicals is up. Many in the villages are very angry."

The prospect of a political solution to Bahrain's crisis has surfaced, off and on, since the protests widened in 2011. Initially, Crown Prince Salman tried to orchestrate talks to calm tensions. But the negotiations were interrupted when a security forces from Bahrain's neighbours deployed to the kingdom under a Gulf Cooperation Council mandate.

Beginning in the spring, Mr Ebrahim says that Al Wefaq has again been approached for talks, first by the minister of the royal court, then the deputy prime minister, and most recently in late summer, the minister of justice.

The most overt invitation to return to the negotiating table occurred earlier this month, when the crown prince publicly called for dialogue in remarks at a conference on regional security in Manama.

"I soon hope to see a meeting between all sides, and I call for a meeting between all sides, as I believe that only through face-to-face contact will any real progress be made," he said.

Any negotiations over the opposition's demands - which include more representative government, an end to what they say is economic discrimination and the release of political prisoners - would be complicated, not just because of its weakening moderates.

Political blocs once considered firmly loyalist have stepped up with their own demands of the government.

"Everyone agrees that dialogue is the only way to find an end to the current crisis, but it must include all political powers," said the Sunni leader of the National Unity Assembly, Abdulatif Al Mahmood. "Many [Shiite] opposition groups want a dialogue between just the government and the opposition, and we are totally against that."

Mr Mahmood also said he was sceptical whether Al Wefaq could be a partner for dialogue.

"There is a big gap between the 'official' opposition and the other movements," he said. "There are hawks and doves."

Nowhere is rising discontent more evident than in Sitra, an opposition stronghold known for its unrelenting demonstrations and an equally persistent security response. These will be the toughest opposition supporters to convince that compromise is needed.

The streets at night are deserted, lined only with the burn marks from dumpsters and tyres once set ablaze. The street lights are out, and residents say that the water is shut off by 10pm. That doesn't stop nightly protests, coordinated on Blackberry Messenger and navigated through winding streets to avoid police SUVs.

Residents here say they have seen every iteration of Bahrain's crackdown. Most recently, the police have conducted several rounds of dawn raids since early November and arrested roughly 35 young men.

"We are not happy about calls for dialogue after everything that has happened," said one father in Sitra, whose son is wanted by the police.

"They don't give up in Sitra. Every day since February 14, 2011, there has been a protest," says Said Yousif, acting head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights.

"Sitra is mostly February 14 supporters. You can count the Wefaq people on one hand."

bdickinson@thenational.ae