The Arab uprisings have unleashed fraught issues around identity and national sovereignty. Within the struggles for a better future, opportunism and sectarian politics run rife. Amid suffusing uncertainty, some yearn for despotism or the old stability of Western colonialism.
Although the events have given way to many movements, activists that oppose the hydra of Western intervention, despotism, and sectarianism that confronts the Arab world are rare. Ibrahim Sharif, a Bahraini opposition figure, is a prominent exception. And, manifestly, a dangerous one: he is currently in prison, having been tortured, and facing the remainder of a five-year sentence. His plight has barely registered beyond Bahrain’s shores, but there is no better story than his to illustrate the complexity of this necessary fight.
Sharif was born on May 15, 1957, the ninth anniversary of the Nakba — which saw the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Arabs from historic Palestine — and the establishment of the state of Israel. His birthplace was Muharraq, the second-largest island in the Bahraini archipelago, and at that time the hub of political opposition to British colonialism. Sharif’s home was in Steeshan, a lower-middle-class neighborhood deriving its name from the English word “Station,” after the old central bus station that used to be located at the top of the neighborhood.
As with most people in Steeshan, Sharif’s family came from a Huwala background — a Sunni ethnicity that populates the two coasts of the Gulf, between the colliding Arab and Persian cultures. Such movement between the Gulf’s two worlds used to be commonplace, especially in a maritime economy built on mercantilist trade, well before the drawing of borders and the advent of modern nationalities in the region.
Sharif’s family came to Bahrain in the early twentieth century from Behdeh, a small village on the eastern coast. He came from a Sayyed lineage, his family claiming descent from the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter. Sayyed families have much less resonance among Sunni discourse than Shi’a, as the concept confers much more social, economic, and religious prestige and benefits to the latter.
The Huwala are a minority in Bahrain. Some members within the other ethnic groups look on their claims of Arabness with suspicion, due to their roots on the eastern coast of the Gulf. This perspective suggests a racial view of Arabness, imagining it can only be determined by clear and unbroken lineage to a tribe from the Arabian Peninsula. This blood-based identity discourse contrasts sharply with the modern notion of Arabness accompanying Arab nationalism, which takes language to be its primary trait.
This complex historical lineage has led many Huwala in Bahrain to embrace Arab nationalist currents, and the city of Muharraq, where most Huwala are concentrated, has become that movement’s main urban center. This is common among many minorities in the Arab world. For example, Christians and Alawites also disproportionately fill Arab nationalism’s ranks. The ideology has been presented as a unifying, non-sectarian, non-racial force that could guard against the tyranny of the majority and facilitate development in societies prone to sectarianism and ethnic divisions.
And indeed, sectarianism and ethnic politics, although present, took a back seat in 1950s Bahrain. The neighborhood in which Sharif grew up was a melting pot of ethnicities. His family frequently attended Shi’i religious places for worship and ceremony, a common phenomenon. A more defined segmentation was the urban-rural divide — the urban centers were more cosmopolitan, enjoying the benefits of a modern infrastructure sooner than the countryside. Naturally, the two main cities, Muharraq and Manama, were alive with radical politics, while rural sectors tended toward social and religious conservatism.
Sharif’s grandfather was a mulla, but his father was influenced by the rising tides of Arab nationalism and anticolonialism then dominating the wider Arab world. Bahrain had been a British protectorate since the mid nineteenth century, with the pax Britannica both dictating the island’s international politics and economics and heavily influencing local political affairs. A tense but dependent relationship with the Al Khalifa, the local ruling family who have controlled the island since 1783, prevailed. Previously unstable and vulnerable to threats from the Persians and the Wahhabi movement in the Arabian Peninsula, the British cemented the rule of Al Khalifa, gradually rearranging the institutional governance structure, though occasionally reorganizing local rulers within the same family when their interests so required.
By the mid 1950s, Bahrain was pulsing with anticolonial sentiment. Living minutes away from the British Royal Air Force base, Sharif’s political awakening was in Muharraq. His first political idol was Gamal Abdul Nasser, then by far the most popular leader in the Arab world. He was held in strong affection by the local people, who still remember his stopover in the island in 1955 on his way to the Bandung conference of the Non-Aligned Movement, when, much to the annoyance of the British, he was given a rapturous welcome.
As a primary-school student, Sharif participated in the March 1965 uprising — a series of strikes and demonstration that began in Bapco, the local oil company where his father used to work, which was still under British management. A strike protesting the layoff of hundreds of local workers quickly escalated into protests and riots. They continued for weeks before the local authorities and the British jointly put them down — part of the intermittent peninsular labor unrest that has been erased from court histories of the region and rentier-state theories alike.
Amid this atmosphere, Sharif finished high school, where he excelled, and moved to Lebanon to continue his studies in the mid 1970s. Bahrain had achieved independence in 1971, after the withdrawal of the British from their posts east of the Suez. A new constitution was inaugurated in 1973, followed by parliamentary elections in the same year, which were supposed to herald the advent of democratic politics on the island. But emboldened by rising oil revenues and frustrated by parliament’s lack of cooperation, the local rulers terminated constitutional rule, declaring a state of emergency that lasted twenty-five years. Colonialism had officially ended, but despotism was coursing through the Bahraini political system.
At the American University of Beirut, Sharif found himself in the epicenter of progressive politics in the Arab world. There, he formally entered political activism. Initially approached by the Muslim Brotherhood, he rejected their overtures due to their poor reputation in Bahrain at that time, where they were seen as politically weak and unsupportive of anticolonial and democratic movements. Instead, he decided to join the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG), an organization with roots in the Arab Nationalist Movement, a pan-Arab revolutionary organization with chapters around the Arab world, which took an ideological turn towards Marxist-Leninism twinned with a tactical turn to armed struggle.
Sharif also became active in student union organizations — when he moved to Texas after the civil war broke out in Lebanon in 1975, he established a chapter of the Bahrain student union there. It was also during his time in North America that he met his future wife, Farida Ghulam, a political activist and a student at Concordia University in Montreal. Although Farida was Shi’i, this posed no problem for Sharif, and they would eventually marry in Bahrain.
But he could not finish his studies in North America. On his way back from a student union event in Canada in 1980, he was stopped by the authorities for carrying flyers and donations in support of Palestinian and Dhofari revolutionaries. He was handed over to the Americans. They interrogated him, expelled him on charges of terrorism — a familiar incantation — and remanded him to Bahrain. There he spent two weeks in prison, where the government detained him for belonging to the PFLOAG — then, along with the communists, the main threat to the dynasty.
After his release, Sharif found work at a local bank, where he would stay for the next three decades. It was an odd post for a leftist, but not unusual in Bahrain as a whole, which had become the hub of Middle East financial services as banks migrated from Beirut during Lebanon’s civil war.
The eighties were a politically quiet decade for Sharif and the PFLOAG. Successive crackdowns by the authorities on student and labor activism tamped down the movement’s power. Meanwhile, amid the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet-Afghan war, Islamism was ascending, leaving leftists in Bahrain and more broadly struggling and isolated, increasingly untethered from a mass base.
Nineteen-ninety was a turning point. The fall of Communism and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait catalyzed calls for reform across the region. In Bahrain, a popular movement for the restoration of parliamentary democracy, spearheaded by both progressives and Islamists, quickened throughout the nineties. Sharif returned to political activism during this period, his house becoming a progressive organizing node.
By the end of the nineties, after a grueling period of civil strife, the current King Hamad ascended to the throne. He promised a new era of reform. He released prisoners, allowed exiles to return, and permitted political societies to officially form. Sharif quickly helped establish WAAD, an officially registered group and heir to the PFLOAG. Given global and regional changes, the movement changed — some might murmur, diluted — its ideology to an inchoate liberalism aimed at uniting nationalists, liberals, and progressives in a popular front.
WAAD and the other leftists, in turn, aligned themselves with Shi’i Islamist opposition societies, by far the most popular groups on the street. This alliance quickly faced problems, with the leftists accused of acting as the coat’s tail of the Islamists, putting a respectable liberal face on an increasingly “Islamist” opposition.
It did not help that splits started to striate the societies themselves, particularly after the passing of the new constitution of 2002 and the parliamentary elections held in the same year. Both were widely regarded as shams, with many complaining that the regime had no interest in substantive reform. The constitution was written behind closed doors, and granted the half-elected legislature scant powers. The vast majority of the opposition boycotted the 2002 elections. In turn, Sunni Islamists with loyalist tendencies populated the parliament.
Soon, grumbles grew that an opportunity had been missed, and many felt that the opposition should participate in the upcoming 2006 elections, creating a split between the hawks, who saw participation as legitimating an illegitimate political system and refused it on principle, and those who thought that the elections provided a media opportunity — a way to reach the people and embarrass the regime. Sharif fell within the latter camp. The formal societies ended up running in the second 2006 elections, in which he ran and lost his seat. The more popular Shi’i Islamist opposition, however, gained eighteen out of forty legislative posts.
This disagreement led a splinter group of the hawks to leave both the Islamists and the formally registered leftist societies in order to form their own movement, HAQ — one that refused to register under the restrictive new laws that straitjacketed the formal societies.
Ibrahim as a Leader
In 2008, WAAD’s founding father decided to step down and open up the leadership to the younger generation. This was Sharif’s moment, and he was duly elected as the new Secretary General. Before then, he had been relatively unknown. He was not particularly striking physically, with a heavy physique and rounded facial features. Still, his charisma, knack for numbers, and ability to put arguments coherently and swiftly built his reputation. Railing against the misuse of public lands and corruption, one of his appearances on national television even led to a minister’s firing — and, subsequently, the shutdown of the television program on which he appeared.
With these scandals looming, WAAD entered the 2010 election campaign, with Sharif running for the seat in his old neighborhood in Muharraq. The political map had changed drastically since the seventies, with the historic city largely emptied of citizens through urban decay, the slow demise of the Left, and the rise of sectarian politics. What came to be known as the Sunni street had become considerably more conservative, hewing to the government and filled with chatter about the intentions of its Shi’i counterpart.
Nevertheless, the 2010 elections and Sharif’s performance appeared to be a watershed moment, with many defying the regime’s wishes and voting for WAAD candidates. Indeed, even though Sharif and the Left lost the elections, they galvanized the street in an unprecedented manner.
Still, the government seemed to be in a comfortably commanding position. The formal opposition was effectively contained within a lame-duck parliament, and the more radical elements outside of the official institutions were strongly curtailed by a slew of trials and imprisonment, on charges of terrorism and plotting to overthrow the regime.
Then came the Arab Spring. Amid the insurrections in Tunisia and Egypt, cyber-activists in Bahrain called for a Day of Rage on 14 February 2011. Security forces killed a protester, and the number of protesters, initially small, swelled greatly the next day during his burial.
The funeral procession ran near to the now infamous Pearl Roundabout. Protesters turned it into their own Tahrir, and the Pearl became the center of the protest movement for the next month. Sharif quickly became a movement favorite. He was one of the few well-known politicians to lead the funeral procession, and was one of the first to arrive at the Pearl — literally on the protesters’ shoulders. Being Sunni in an overwhelmingly Shi’i crowd added symbolic power to his presence.
The sectarian divide was the most formidable political obstacle facing the protesters, and their initial response was savvy and calculated. Aware that the media was their strongest weapon, they carried flowers to policemen, in a staged image that would cause some to christen it the Uprising of the Roses. They also toned down on the violent or religious connotations of the chants, with Bahraini flags replacing sect-based figures and symbols. The initial and brutal response of the government and the resulting shock from the casualties and severity of the attack garnered sympathy for the opposition — both internationally, and among local Sunnis.
But local sympathy from the “other side” started to fray as time wore on, and the opposition slowly fell into the sectarian quagmire — one that the government had, in so many ways, created. Protests spread from the Pearl Roundabout across the island, as many set up camps in the country’s main hospital complex. Marches even reached Riffa, the royalty’s heartland. Simultaneously, chaos on the streets increased — vigilante groups appeared, sectarian clashes occurred. The opposition split, with the more radical elements breaking from their previous stance of calling for a constitutional monarchy, and instead demanding a republic. Given that all those who made the republican demand were from a Shi’i Islamist background, many Sunnis construed this as a call for an Islamic Republic, along the lines of the theocracy in Iran. Calls grew louder for government intervention.
It emerged only later that throughout the month of protests there were backdoor talks between the Crown Prince, considered the more liberal wing within the regime, and the official opposition — Sharif included. They were frantically trying to reach an agreement before the more “radical” elements of both sides could take over.
I remember meeting Sharif a few days before the crackdown. We sat at a burger restaurant, and I asked him about their main demand. He said, “The most important is to elect a constitutive committee representative of the people to write a new constitution for the country to replace the current one. Everything else is secondary.”
I said, “You realize they will not accept that, and that this basically means there will be a showdown.”
He looked up from his hot dog, paused, and then nodded.
“Yes, it probably does.”
The showdown wasn’t far.
On March 14, Saudi troops entered Bahrain over the causeway. A day later, the King declared a state of emergency. Pearl Roundabout was cleared of protesters, and over the subsequent two months, dozens were killed, thousands arrested, and thousands more fired from their jobs.
On March 17 at dawn, dozens of masked men arrested Sharif. Over the subsequent weeks, he endured beatings with plastic hoses, sexual assault, sleep deprivation, and solitary confinement. His case was not unusual.
Sharif’s arrest did, however, stand out for a different reason. He was the only leading opposition arrestee that did not come from an Islamist political background. The arrest of a secular Sunni went against the regime discourse of a Shi’i plot to take over the country. Sharif had proved a serious pain to the authorities over the past few years, and the timing seemed right for his foes. His popularity was at a nadir among the Sunnis, the same community he did so well with only a few months previously in the elections. Resentment and fear of the Shi’i protesters was at its apex.
Sharif was seen as a traitor for siding with them.
Giant billboards with photos of him and other opposition figures went up in Muharraq, reading, “No amnesty. We demand the harshest punishments on the traitors,” coupled with a depiction of a hangman’s noose.
Since then, the protest movement has shown remarkable resilience. There have been officially sanctioned protests in the suburbs and clashes with the security forces in the capital, Manama, in addition to Molotov cocktails and roadblocks made of burning tires. For its part, the state has shown no real intent to make substantial political reforms. An uneasy and unsteady political stalemate is in effect.
Society continues to be split on sectarian lines. The fall of the regime has become the opposition rank-and-file’s main demand, but the legal parties continue to call for a constitutional monarchy. Many Sunnis, long dormant, have mobilized. Although lacking confidence in those wielding power, they think that Bahrain is a front line in a regional battle between the two sects — a battle requiring conscientious and sustained preparation, with the other side far more advanced than they.
This division suits the regime well, ensuring that no ecumenical movement is able to emerge, as has happened in the past. One crucial factor that worries the regime post-crackdown is its abysmal international image — with the attendant negative impact on Bahrain’s small and open economy. Its diversification efforts away from oil have hinged on attracting Foreign Direct Investment and international events like the Formula One, and the non-oil sector is extremely sensitive to its reputation abroad. Although not yet catastrophic, due to high oil prices, the economy has stagnated, with the public deficit and debt climbing at alarming and unsustainable rates.
Events in the Arab world, especially Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, have further agitated sectarianism. Unfortunately, many (but not all) within both camps have opted to cynically use the language of freedom, dignity, and human rights as Trojan Horses to disguise sectarian interests. One very vocal member of the opposition, a Shi’i Islamist with supposed leftist inclinations, told me that what happened in Iraq over the past ten years, starting with the US invasion and the subsequent sectarian division of the country, is the best role model for future governance of the Middle East. Two sentences later, she stated without any hint of irony that she opposes Western intervention against the Bashar regime in Syria. This sectarian logic abounds on both sides and is illustrated vividly by developments within the local communist party, whose members have openly split based on sectarian affiliations.
I asked Sharif what he thought of what had happened. Looking considerably aged and having lost a lot of weight, he had been reading and thinking a lot in prison. He likened current political perturbations to the rapid movements of the French Revolution. Bahrain and the Arab world, he said, are still only in the initial stages of shifts likely to be filled by revolutions, counterrevolutions, and civil strife. It should not be forgotten, after all, that very few of the leaders of the French Revolution started off with a republican vision, and for years even many of the Jacobins continued to call for a constitutional monarchy.
For Sharif, the principles of democracy are yet to be learned, not only by wider society but even by activists themselves, and they will take time to ingrain. He believes that Bahrain’s opposition is more advanced than that of other Arab countries, especially Egypt, because leftists and secular activists have adapted to coalition-building and working with Islamists in the opposition. He contrasted this with Cairo, where progressive revolutionaries had yet to adapt to the practicalities of forming coalitions with alternative forces.
There are reasons to be skeptical. Ultimately, Bahrain is a small island chain, its history perennially overdetermined by outside forces. Currently, the dominant players are Saudi Arabia and the United States. The latter’s Fifth Fleet has been based in Bahrain for more than half a century. Iran’s influence also lingers, openly supporting the opposition, while Saudi Arabia stands strong behind the regime.
At the same time, both the government and the opposition are frantically jostling for Western, especially American, support. Although the presence of the Fifth Fleet and the relationship with Saudi Arabia means that the Americans will ultimately back the monarchy, institutions like the National Democratic Institute (NDI), The US-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) have increasingly funded opposition groups, in what looks like a cynical game of hedging their bets.
What’s to Come
Bahrain’s and the region’s future remain captive to despotism, foreign powers, and sectarianism. In the current climate, central issues regarding the distribution of wealth and class relations have taken a backseat, with society’s marginalized frequently pitted against each other behind sectarian fronts. What’s more, Bahrain’s location in an oil- and capital-rich region, so central to the vitality of global capitalism, makes any progressive change doubly difficult. But never impossible.
And so the island — and the region as a whole — more than ever needs individuals like Ibrahim Sharif: those gifted enough to fend off despotism, imperialism, and the sectarianism which is its handmaiden, and exemplify a struggle that can lead poor Shi’i and poor Sunni of Bahrain, Damascus, and Baghdad alike to see that what they have in common is more important than what is different between them. It is that hope, and only that hope, which offers a future for the region.