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The Dilemmas of Bahrain's Opposition Group Alwefaq: Between Fragmentation and an Underground Movement

Biled al qadeem, Bahrain. 6th February 2015 -- The clashes continue to more than 40 days in Bahrain, denunciation the arrest of Sheikh Ali Salman, and to revive the month of is February, in Biled AL Qadeem. -- Clashes continued between demonstrators and security forces during protests in Bilad al-Qadeem calling for the release of opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman who was detained after appearing at a protest in December 2014. Photograph by Sayed Hashim. Copyright: Demotix

Bilad Al Qadeem, Bahrain. 6th February 2015 — Clashes continued between demonstrators and security forces during protests in Bilad al-Qadeem calling for the release of opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman who was detained after appearing at a protest in December 2014. Photograph by Sayed Hashim. Copyright: Demotix

This article is co-written by Faten Bushehri.

The largest opposition group in Bahrain is on the verge of getting shut down by the regime, and its future is not looking good. Members of Alwefaq National Islamic Society are already expressing contradicting opinions on the society’s functions and the implications of its potential closure on the Bahraini opposition movement.

The Ministry of Interior stated that Alwefaq is being charged in relation to announcements made on their website and Twitter account.

The case has been referred to the public prosecutor, according to a statement made on the Ministry of Interior’s main Twitter account on February 17:

This comes after two leading members of Alwefaq were detained. Its Secretary General Ali Salman is still detained for investigation on charges that include “inciting hatred against the regime” and “inciting disruptions and protests”. His trial is ongoing and the fourth hearing was held on April 22, 2015. Also behind bars since mid-February 2015 is society's chairman of consultative council Jameel Khadim, who was leading the opposition’s delegation in the National Dialogue with the government. The trial of Ali Salman was adjourned until May 20, 2015, and Kadhim is serving a six-month sentence.

Bahrain, which bans political parties but allows political societies to function within narrow parameters, has been witnessing political turmoil following the 2011 popular uprising. Bahrain’s crackdown is nothing new, as most of the political movements in the country prior to 2001 were underground movements.

The period between 1973-1975 witnessed the start of organised political establishments in Bahrain. However, the experience was short-lived. After the near unanimous rejection by the National Assembly of the ‘State Security Decree of 1974′ the then-Amir of Bahrain decided to dissolve parliament. A state of emergency was declared, and political movements were forced to be clandestine again.

The political parliamentary process was resumed in 2001. The National Action Charter brought huge hopes of a promised constitutional monarchy. The 2002 constitution, on the other hand, came as a disappointment to the opposition. Political movements were again working publicly and participating in parliament. The last parliamentary and municipal elections were held in 2010, achieving a 67 per cent voter turnout rate. Alwefaq won a majority of votes with 18 out of the 40 total seats.

In the light of the attack on protesters on February 17, 2011, a day now remembered as “Bloody Thursday”, Alwefaq decided to withdraw from parliament due to “the lack of efficacy in the political process.” Since then they boycotted all elections and focused on extra-parliamentary activities.

In 2011 authorities came close to disbanding the two largest political parties in Bahrain, Al-Wefaq and the Islamic Action Society. However, the decision was postponed following what is believed to be pressure from the United States, when President Barack Obama’s administration expressed concern over such measures. In a statement on the official Bahrain News Agency (BNA), the government said it will determine its position towards the two societies “in light of facts and as investigation progresses.”

The Beginning of the End: Boycotting Elections

In 2014, four main opposition groups, including Alwefaq, boycotted the parliamentary elections that took place in November, protesting the lack of desire for a political solution within the government, and said their participation would legitimize the corrupt system.

On the October 28, 2014, prior to elections and following Alwefaq’s announcement to boycott, the Supreme Court suspended the society’s activities for a period of three months. The Ministry of Justice had filed a case claiming the group failed to abide by the rules when holding their general assembly meetings. The decision was quickly reversed by Justice Minister Khaled Bin Ali Al Khalifa, only hours later.

On February 17, 2015, Bahrain’s Interior Ministry said on its website that Alwefaq was referred to the public prosecutor after documenting statements made on Twitter that represent “criminal content punishable under the law.”

The violations included incitement to hatred against the ruling system, circulating false news to undermine civil peace and national security and insulting a foreign nation. The last charge comes after Alwefaq criticised the British Ambassador's support to the boycotted election.

Currently Alwefaq’s activities are frozen, and they are not granted permits to organize legal demonstrations. A court hearing has been set on June 1 to hear the claims of the representative of the government.

As the largest political group in Bahrain, they have former members of parliaments acting as non-official permanent delegates abroad. We spoke to Matar Matar in Washington D.C. and Jawad Fairouz in London, and their impressions and predictions of the future were anything but in sync.

“Punished for Boycotting the Elections”

The threats to the opposition happened as a consequence of sequential events that indicate the government continues to punish the political societies for boycotting the latest parliamentary elections, says Matar.

He added:

“Since the arrest of Ali Salman. Alwefaq has requested 90 permits for demonstrations and rallies, all which have been either rejected or not accepted in the first place.”

The government, claims Mater, is painting Alwefaq in a negative frame trying to “portray us as rejectionists who refuse to participate in elections in order to escalate the situation.” He denies the allegations, explaining the society was willing to negotiate and participate in elections even without a “perfect deal” because they believe in grassroots reform, but says the government did not offer anything.

“Dissolving Alwefaq Is a Matter of Time”

Matar says he believes dissolving Alwefaq is a matter of time and the “release of their members wouldn’t mean much, because they are always at risk of being arrested again.” He explains:

The big picture is that a decision had been taken to crackdown on even the moderate sides of the opposition who are calling for negotiation.

In the light of the latest action of revoking 72 citizenships taken by Bahraini authorities, Matar speaks on behalf of himself and his colleagues abroad saying:

We feel the danger of revoking our citizenship; we could be in any upcoming batch. The government is always promoting that we are tainting the reputation of Bahrain abroad and that’s not true, we are trying to respond to the distortion the government is practicing.

Matar adds:

The government is trying to spread the idea that Bahrainis are not ready for democracy. And that the pro-democracy movement is against immigrants, women rights, the ruling family, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Sunnis.

The government is also launching campaigns that suggest members of opposition are directly tied to Iran, and are supporters of terrorist groups.

Because of these campaigns portraying them as traitors, Matar says the process of revoking citizenships is a very easy process that does not require evidence or a fair trial in court. He notes it is just a single decision by the Interior Minister.

One of those who actually had their citizenship revoked is the former MP of Alwefaq Bloc Jawad Fairooz. He agreed that there is a very good chance that Alwefaq would be banned. Threats from the Ministry of Justice, and the arrests of many members by the Ministry of Interior show that many would like to see Alwefaq banned from practicing politics.

Matar and Jawad seem to have different perspectives on how future decisions will be made — an issue one could regard as alarming for Alwefaq’s followers and supporters.

Matar: Social Media to take the Lead in Political Activism

When it comes to decision making, Matar says social media will play a key role in the organization of the movement, while the role of officially recognized political parties will decrease:

Activism will not be centralized or organized from a particular body. You will see groups that used to be a part of Alwefaq, continue their activism through individual initiatives, and might function behind the scenes.

As a member of Alwefaq living in Washington D.C., Matar says he and other members abroad cannot represent a specific group because they are not on the ground. Therefore they are not directly involved in the decision making like they used to be when they were in Bahrain.

I was a senior member in Alwefaq. I was part of the decision making, but being outside there is a lack of communication, and lack of the ability to assess the situation. It is difficult for me to be part of the decision making process inside now.

He says this aspect will not change or be affected by the fate of Alwefaq. He will still remain outside and far from being part of the decision making:

I always believe that those who are inside are the ones who can decide where things should go. I’m here to amplify their message and their cause but not to speak on their behalf or to dictate what they should do.

Fairooz: “Shutting Down Alwefaq Will Not Marginalise It”

On the other hand, Fairooz argues that shutting down Alwefaq will not marginalise Alwefaq because he thinks that the political movement that Alwefaq represents is bigger than the official organisation.

Being unable to hold a general assembly for the political group will not change Alwefaq drastically, the key members of Alwefaq will still be able to organise among themselves and come up with decisions. When the leaders of other factions of the opposition were imprisoned their movements didn’t stop being influential.

Building his point of view on the recent progresses, Fairooz noted that the momentum of the protests increased after the arrest of Ali Salman. He added that the ban of Alwefaq might push those more reluctant to take part in the political struggle to take a stand.

Violence and Underground Movements

Matar and Jawad views varied on another possible consequence: Violence and Underground movements. They both fear the shutdown of Alwefaq and the absence of a centralized commander-in-chief may lead to violence amongst younger groups and coalitions, and eventually move the activism to underground.

“The current situation leaves no space for freedom of expression,” said Matar. “The government in Bahrain is dragging us to underground movement again.”

While Matar thinks it could still be controlled now, things could get out of hand if Alwefaq and other political societies get shut down.

It will hinder the ability of Alwefaq to engage in gradual process for political reform and negotiation, he said.

We can’t convince people to engage when it’s secret, to lead such kind of process.

Matar explains that underground work poses a threat and risk to the safety of those involved, including participation in demonstrations. Since the government no longer permits protests and demonstrations, people’s participation in rallies not approved by the government puts them at risk of prosecution for breaking the law.

Matar acknowledges the safety of activists is something essential for them to work and mobilize people but says “there is no alternative, I think underground movement is the way to go.”

Fairooz agrees that underground movements will arise and that there is a possibility for radicalization. However, he doesn’t think it’s probable as the existence of clergy that is supportive of Alwefaq demands and strategies, will form a method of crowd control. He explains:

The street movement might be swayed to higher demands, the mobilisation around these demands isn’t tied to the existence of Alwefaq as an official establishment, but rather to the stance and leadership of the popular clerics. The precedence with the faction of opposition who called for the downfall of the regime made it clear, despite their imprisonment, they continue to be a part of the political formula.

Alwefaq’s current status remains in limbo. Matar said he feels the government will play on this and make a big case of it, where it’s not clear whether or not the political parties are still functioning, whether they’re shut down or suspended.

With the current threats against Alwefaq and Waad, it makes it difficult for the parties to function as they did before.

Waad is the National Democratic Action Society, a secular opposition group, which is also being threatened by the government with closure.

And should the government decide to officially shut Alwefaq down, Matar says no one will be able to represent or speak on behalf of the bloc.

It will rather be merely individual statements representing individual thoughts.

Fairooz thinks that it’s actually the authorities who would lose more if Alwefaq was banned.

The closure of Alwefaq will expose the authorities lack of will for reforms, it will be the end of pretending to have any kind of democratic reforms in Bahrain. The regime will find no one to negotiate with and that will create a great deal of embarrassment to the allies of the regime. Political movements in Bahrain are used to working underground.

Fairooz also believes that the current situation is not sustainable, he believes this will push the regime to compromise.

In the absence of leaders no solution can be reached. Depending on the use of security measures as a solution proved it’s not viable, neither are one sided amendments, consensual reforms are the only way to move forward.

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