The small Haq movement has opposed Shia participation in Bahrain's elections since its founding in 2005. During the first few months of 2009, the temporary detention of Haq's leaders left a leadership vacuum among Bahrain's Shia rejectionists. Abdulwahab Hussain, a once-prominent Shia activist who had kept to himself for over eight years, re-emerged as the center of the "Wafa'" ("loyalty") movement.
Abdulwahab Hussain and Shia cleric Abduljalil Maqdad announced 06 February 2009 that they had established a new Shia opposition grouping. The new group immediately staged a 10-day hunger strike to protest the detention of Haq leaders Hassan Musheima and Mohammed Habib Maqdad, and other "political activists" - most of whom were facing charges for rioting or other political violence (ref D). The hunger strike attracted support from members of Haq (most notably media and public relations specialist Abduljalil Singace - who was also briefly detained), Abdulhadi Al Khawaja (local rep for Front Line, a human rights NGO)), and even a few members of Wifaq. As expected, the strike achieved little -- the detainees were released in April most likely as a result of quiet negotiations between Wifaq and the government. But the strike did announce the return of Abdulwahab Hussein to the opposition scene.
Wafa' aims to pressure the government to include the extra-parliamentary Shia opposition in a 'national dialogue'. It calls for the establishment of a formal "Government-Opposition dialogue" to discuss issues of contention such as the 2002 constitution, sectarianism, discrimination, corruption, and human rights. Bahrain's government typically responds that parliament is the appropriate forum for government-opposition dialogue. It is also worth noting that the government has reached out intermittently to the rejectionist opposition; King Hamad even met with Mushaima in London in early March, 2008.
Wafa' leader Hussain appeared to be pursuing a multi-pronged strategy to achieve these goals. -- He and other leaders hold open seminars in Shia villages to explain the new movement, its goals, and its plan of action. The first such seminar took place 06 March 2009, and many observers noted the similarity between Hussain's "seminars" and the "teach-ins" led by Shia oppositionists in the 1990s. The group met with political activists and prominent Shia clerics to gain as much support and legitimacy as possible. Several Shia community contacts told us that, following his meeting with Hussain and Maqdad on 14 March 2009, Bahrain's pre-eminent Shia cleric, Shaikh Isa Qasim, was not impressed. The movement sent an open letter to the King in which they explained themselves and their "demands." Using contacts developed by Haq and other rejectionists, Wafa' leaders sought the support of international NGOs in bringing pressure to bear on the government. Wafa' claimed credit for organizing some of the spring 2009 street demonstrations demanding the release of security detainees.
Wafa' and Haq compete for the same Shia oppositionist base. Both have declined to register with the government, as required by Bahraini law, but operate largely unmolested by the authorities. However, Wafa' has several assets that give it the potential to pull ahead of Haq as the vanguard of the most disenchanted Shia. Abdulwahab Hussain's stature and credibility as a conservative leader is much greater than Musheima's. Hussain was higher up in the Shia opposition of the 1990s, when he had the ear of the late opposition clerical leader Abdulamir Al Jamri in a way that Musheima never did. Hussain also has a reputation as a thinker.
In order to secure popular support in the Shia community, politicians must have religious support for their policies and activities. For instance, Wifaq benefits greatly from Isa Qassim's public support - most famously, his endorsement in 2005 of Wifaq to end its boycott of elections and to enter parliament. With Haq unable to generate support from the clerical establishment, Musheima attempted to take the mantle of religious guide for himself. Lacking formal clerical training, he convinced few that he had religious credentials. Instead, Haq relies on the passion of its radical message and its ability to put on the streets youths who are small in number but ready to skirmish with the police every night if necessary. Wafa', on the other hand, has the public blessing of a senior Shia cleric, Abduljalil Al Maqdad. Thus, while Wafa's following is at present still small, it has the potential to appeal to more pious Shia.
Wafa' is a Shia movement in a way that Haq is not. Haq's membership is overwhelmingly Shia, but it has included a few Sunnis in its leadership, like former leftist politician Ali Rabea and iconoclastic cleric Isa Jowder. In contrast, Wafa' pointedly recruits only among Shia. Perhaps in response, Haq has shed at least one of its token Sunnis: Ali Rabea quit Haq's board, "Sometimes you are forced to be with people you hate... We shared similar political goals, but I hated what they did."
Leading Shia clerics Isa Qassim and Abduljalil Maqdad have had a contentious relationship for years. Qassim acquired his status of Ayatollah during his 1990s exile in Qom. Bahrain's preeminent Shia cleric and a member of the 1973 parliament, Isa Qassim took no public position on the opposition's decision to boycott the 2002 parliamentary elections. In the run-up to the 2006 parliamentary elections, however, he publicly proclaimed his strong support for participation. Qassim refers for guidance to Grand Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf, who also supports Bahraini Shia participation in parliament. This support from its Marjaiya enabled Wifaq to engage with the government and run candidates, but also led Mushaima and other rejectionists to split from Wifaq and establish Haq. It also stoked differences within the Ulama Council which continue to this day.
Abduljalil Maqdad led those who publicly disagreed with Qassim's support of Shia participation in the political process, and resigned from the Ulama council in 2005 in protest - much as Musheima resigned from Wifaq over the same issue. Maqdad publicly criticized the Qassim-led Ulama Council in 2007 for its silence regarding hot-button Shia political issues like discrimination and detainees, and some religious issues.
Wifaq leaders have consistently argued that Wafa' does not represent a significant sector of the Shia street and will prove to be a passing phenomenon. Wifaq and Wafa' leaders met officially for the first time on 02 September 2009. In a press release they affirmed the importance of mutual respect. Wafa' refrained from directly criticizing Wifaq, but gone to great lengths to identify itself as a separate movement that takes its guidance from clerics abroad, not Qassim.
While Wafa' remained small, it is a prominent topic of conversation among politically-conscious Bahrainis. The editor of Bahrain's largest paper, the Shia-directed "Al Wasat", Mansour Al Jamri told us that Hussain concerned him more than Mushaima because the Wafa' leader is a religious ideologue who has throughout his life gravitated to the extreme end of the Shia spectrum.
Faisal Fulad, a Sunni Shura council member and President of the government supported NGO Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society (BHRWS), blamed Wafa' and Haq for a spate of violent protests in spring 2009. Fulad, was cited in the 2005 Bandar Report for his alleged role in a plot to disenfranchise Shia. Haq and Wafa' prey on the Shia angst generated by a lack of government attention to core complaints, particularly unemployment. Nonetheless, the leaders of Haq and Wafa' (along with the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights), were encouraging children to participate in sectarian and xenophobic violence that climaxed in the lynching of a Pakistani in March 2009. On 06 August 2009, Fulad formally lodged a complaint against the leaders of these organizations with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva.
Abdulwahab Hussain was one of the most prominent Shia activists during the 1990s' unrest. Hussain remained in Bahrain rather than going to exile - which led to his arrest in March 1995 and again in January 1996 - he was finally released by King Hamad when he assumed the throne in 2000. Although the late Shaikh Abdulamir Al Jamri was the religious leader of the Shia oppositionists at the time, Hussain's admirers claim he was the thinker behind the unrest. He coordinated activities with the exiles in London. With Hassan Mushaima, Hussain acted as a trusted interlocutor between the Government of Bahrain and the exiles when King Hamad came to power. Hussain worked hard to get Shia street support for the 2001 National Charter, and chaired the committee that founded Wifaq in 2001. When King Hamad promulgated the constitution in 2002, Hussain himself convinced many of the opposition societies to boycott the parliamentary elections that year. When, in 2006, Wifaq decided to run parliamentary candidates, Hussain resigned from the society and stopped making public statements.
Shaikh Abduljalil Al Maqdad is a prominent Shia cleric who runs his own Hawza (Shia seminary). His admirers call him "Wise Mentor" and "the pious one." Although he helped found the Ulama Council in 2004, Maqdad resigned from the council in 2005 when he publicly disagreed with Wifaq's decision, supported by Shaikh Isa Qasim, to run in the 2006 parliamentary elections. He began to publicly criticize the Ulama Council in 2007, focusing on its decision to avoid political issues important to Shia oppositionists, and on some esoteric questions of Shia doctrine. Maqdad's brother, Mohammed Habib Maqdad, was arrested with Mushaima on January 26 for his role in an alleged terrorist plot and accusations of terror finance.
Dr. Abduljalil Singace was the chairman of the Engineering Department at the University of Bahrain until he was fired in 2005, allegedly for his political activities. He was not involved in the 1990's opposition movements, and therefore did not go into exile, but was a founding member of Wifaq in 2001. He served as Wifaq's public relations chief until he joined Mushaima to found Haq in 2005. Singace serves as Haq's public relations specialist, and maintains a network of opposition contacts in the UK and the U.S. An outspoken critic of the Government, Singace sends regular anti-government emails to his supporters. Singace was behind a 2008 petition that called for the Prime Minister to retire. He was arrested with Mushaima and Maqdad on 26 January 2009 for his alleged role in the Hujaira plot, but was released on bail the next day. Singace must use a wheelchair or crutches as a result of a chronic illness.
Wafa' seized upon the opportunity presented by Mushaima's arrest to quickly establish its credentials in the rejectionist Shia community. The combination of Hussain's political history and Maqdad's religious support gives the movement credentials, and a potential for growth that Haq lacks. However, despite Wafa's initial appeal, the majority of Bahrain's Shia community continued to support Wifaq's message of political participation and peaceful opposition. Most are wary of Wafa'; in two instances, Shia villages have refused to allow Wafa' leaders to speak in public. Wifaq met with Wafa' in September 2009 to try and reunite the fractured Shia opposition community ahead of next year's parliamentary election. Given the philosophical differences between Wifaq and the rejectionists, it is unlikely that Wifaq will be able to bring Wafa' or Haq back into the fold.
Wafa' continued to rely upon a small core of rejectionist Shia for support, and, absent a significant change in the political landscape, will likely struggle to siphon off much support from Wifaq. However, Wafa' scored some early success among rejectionists appears well-positioned to challenge Haq to become the radicals' standard bearer. The radical opposition may shift from the opportunistic Haq movement to the ideological, religiously credible fringe Wafa'. Speculation on Wafa's intentions varied widely.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|