Bahrain: Elections overshadowed by crackdown on Shia protesters

The Guardian

It's hard to miss the signs on the streets of Manama: King Hamad peering benignly from giant billboards, and everywhere pictures of smiling candidates in spotless white dishdashas and headdresses pledging to build more houses, fight corruption and devote themselves to the welfare of ordinary voters. "Our appointment is with you," declares one official poster. "Your vote is for all of us," promises another. But tomorrow's election comes at an awkward moment for Bahrain, the Arab world's smallest country and – until now – one of the freest in the Gulf.

Final rallies this week brought out thousands – male and female supporters strictly separated – to cheer Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of the al-Wifaq movement, whose slogans blend Shia religion and secular politics. Nearby, in Madinat Issa, teenage girls in jeans and T-shirts handed out sweet pastries as the liberal Wa'ad party made its last eve-of-poll pitch.

Yet, this impressive display of democratic campaigning is being overshadowed by a crackdown that some people worry risks the future stability of an island state just a few miles from Iran which manages to be a bustling international financial centre and home to the US fifth fleet.

Forty seats in the lower house are up for grabs in a contest dominated by al-Wifaq, which is popular with the two-thirds or so of Bahrainis who are Shia Muslims. The country's Shias are generally poorer than their Sunni compatriots, and follow religious leaders in both Iraq and Iran. Last time the party captured 17 seats, the rest taken by Sunnis loyal to King Hamad's al-Khalifa dynasty, which came to the island from Saudi Arabia via Kuwait two centuries ago.

The government and the western PR advisers it employs are working hard to burnish Bahrain's image at this "historic moment" – the third election since much-vaunted reforms began in 2002. Arab and western media – including the Guardian – have been invited to cover the vote.

Still, unease is not hard to find. "It is not a comfortable situation," admitted Abdulnabi Alekry of the Bahrain Transparency Society. "The country is passing through a period of tension. You have to be on your guard about what you say so you are not accused of tarnishing the state's reputation."

The latest trouble began in August after seven people were convicted of killing a policeman. Protesters burning tyres and throwing petrol bombs in Shia villages faced a sudden massive crackdown, with 250 or more arrested in raids that were a grim throwback to the bad old days of the 1990s.

But it went beyond rounding up the usual suspects. Muhammad Sahlawi, a dentist and Wifaq supporter, was taken away by unidentified men and is still in detention. "We don't know why they took him and where he is now," said his sister Fatima. "Maybe it is to do with the elections."

Human Rights Watch is concerned about allegations of torture and violations of due process, warning of "a return to full-blown authoritarianism".

The tensions are palpable in Sanabis village near Manama, where slogans proclaim solidarity with "martyrs" and the 23 people who were arrested on terrorist and conspiracy charges this month.

"Tyrants beware," warns one crudely printed flyer.

"We do not forget our prisoners," says another.

Scorch marks on the roads signpost previous clashes. Riot police vehicles stand guard at junctions, blue lights flashing in the hot night air.

The government is unapologetic. "It is not a matter of a security crackdown," insisted Sheikh Khalid bin Ali al-Khalifa, the minister of justice. "There were crimes committed that coincided with the elections."

Sunnis and some Shias support tough measures. But both Bahraini and foreign observers believe something larger is afoot – a carefully co-ordinated response decided on by the king and his advisers.

In this view, the reform process was in serious trouble long before the rioting during Ramadan. Anger was mounting over $65bn (£41bn) worth of prime real estate that used to be public land but somehow became royal property. And alarmingly for the government, Shia and Sunni MPs had joined forces to investigate this previously taboo issue, showing that parliament was far from toothless even with an appointed upper chamber to keep things under control.

"The government is happy when Sunnis and Shias quarrel," said Mansoor al-Jamri, editor of al-Wasat newspaper, a rare independent voice. "This was a red line." The aim of the crackdown, he and others believe, was to provoke a reaction and perhaps an election boycott by Wifaq. "It was saying to everyone: 'Behave yourselves. The Sunnis are our servants. And you Shia – we can break your heads any time.'"

Another hot button sectarian issue is tajnis: the naturalisation of non-Bahraini Sunnis – Syrians, Jordanians, Yemenis and Baluchis. The government says it is importing skills. Critics say the goal is to change the demographics to boost Sunni dominance, especially in the security forces. "It's humiliating," said Yusuf, a Shia student.

Precise figures are not available but the population has grown from 750,000 to more than 1 million in a few years while the number of Shias in senior jobs has decreased.

Newer concerns include the dissolution of the Bahrain Human Rights Society, an independent NGO. The Wifaq and Wa'ad websites have both been shut down. Both parties failed to persuade the government to tighten up monitoring of the 10 central non-constituency polling centres that were widely suspected of being used for fraud last time.

Quiet lobbying by the US is credited with helping to restore a measure of calm in the past few days. British diplomats have also been talking privately to the government about the dangers of its current hard line.

Part of the problem is countering Bahraini arguments about regional threats – with Iran glowering across the Gulf and Arab governments still nervously digesting the implications of the war in Iraq and the popularity of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

"The Bahraini government has been quite successful in convincing the world that the problems here are linked to Iran and the wider Sunni-Shia divide," said human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, a fierce critic.

Tehran is certainly sympathetic to the Khalifas' opponents. But there is no evidence of Iranian state support for subversion or violence. The trial of the 23, due to start next week, will be watched carefully for that.

Munira Fakhro, a highly regarded Wa'ad candidate, has no doubts about what has happened so far. It is Bahrain's future that is uncertain: "The government wanted to worsen tensions between Sunnis and Shias by blaming the Shias and saying there is a conspiracy," she said. "But it is also possible that everything will go back to normal after the elections when the government has the parliament it wants."