Discord Accompanies Bahrain Vote

Protesters in Bahrain's capital call for an inquiry into allegations that the government plotted to rig balloting against Shiites.
Protesters in Bahrain's capital call for an inquiry into allegations that the government plotted to rig balloting against Shiites. (By Hasan Jamali -- Associated Press)
By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 25, 2006

MANAMA, Bahrain -- Friction between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in this strategic Persian Gulf kingdom, which is holding its second parliamentary elections in three decades, has clouded the voting set here for Saturday.

The campaign for the National Assembly's 40-member lower house has been marred by an alleged plot by a senior government official to rig the elections in favor of the ruling Sunni minority.

A 214-page report disclosed in September accused a senior official of secretly plotting to sideline the country's majority Shiites. The report, released by a former government adviser, is the latest in a series of events that have exacerbated Sunni-Shiite discord in this nation of 700,000, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

The report has sparked demonstrations and calls for the prime minister's resignation and an international investigation. Its release coincides with simmering tensions caused by the sectarian violence in Iraq, fears of neighboring Iran's regional ambitions and the birth of a conservative Sunni political movement here.

Bahrain, a grouping of 33 islands, is the poorest oil-producing Gulf country and the only one with a Shiite majority. More than 200 candidates, including 16 women, will vie for seats in Saturday's elections.

The report was written by Salah al-Bandar, the former government adviser, and claims that a government minister and member of Bahrain's ruling al-Khalifa family planned and funded a plot to weaken the country's Shiites, who make up more than 60 percent of the population.

The 10-point plan, to be executed over a five-year period, called for paying a stipend to poor Shiites who convert; accelerating the naturalization of foreign Sunnis to alter the country's demographic makeup; and spying on Shiite organizations.

Bahraini officials have acknowledged a need for political balance between the country's sects but said the Bandar report was all lies. The government charged Bandar, a British citizen of Sudanese origin, with sedition and deported him days after the report's release.

Several of the people named in the report sued Bandar for defamation last month. He, in turn, is suing the government for wrongful termination.

Government officials said about 20 officials cited in the report have been suspended but have declined to comment further while the court cases are pending.

Bandar, who worked for the cabinet affairs minister and the government statistics department, wrote the report on his own initiative with the help of government whistle-blowers. The report included copies of checks, bank statements showing large sums transferred to anti-Shiite figures and a memo calling for Shiites to be "cleansed" from Bahrain.

According to the report, more than $2.5 million was spent on the scheme, which also included plans to manipulate electronic voting to rig the upcoming elections in favor of Sunnis.

The report named people it said were hired to cause friction between the two sects by writing inflammatory articles, posting offensive comments on popular online forums, denigrating Shiite beliefs and casting suspicion on Shiites' patriotism.

Over the past couple of years, Bahraini Shiites have been accused by Sunnis and some in the government of allegiance to Shiite Iran, with which they have historic religious ties, and of ambitions to dominate the country, emboldened by the empowerment of Iraq's majority Shiites.

Shiite leaders say the government is trying to create a sectarian divide to deflect attention from the country's lack of democracy and political reform.

Wearing the long, dark cloak and rolled turban of the Shiite clergy, candidate Ali Salman, head of the largest Shiite opposition group, the al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, said the conflict is not between Shiites and a Sunni leadership, but between activists seeking political rights on the one hand and an autocratic regime on the other. "We are not asking for more Shiite mosques," said the 42-year cleric, who studied in Qom, Iran, and in Saudi Arabia. "We are not asking to set up an Islamic republic. All we're asking for is our full political rights."

At an election rally in Jid Hafs, a suburb of Manama, the capital, thousands of men and women sat on plastic chairs in a dusty lot to hear Salman speak.

Salman, who is widely viewed as the nation's most influential and moderate Shiite cleric, issued a warning to the government. "If this parliament is not able to give hope to the people, Bahrain will go through a very difficult time very soon," he said. "I will not be able to contain those who demand their rights."

In addition to the elected lower house, Bahrain's legislature includes an equally powerful, state-appointed upper chamber, and all legislation must be approved by the king. The opposition has called for constitutional amendments that would allow parliament to appoint the prime minister and for laws to be passed by elected representatives.

In a Shiite fishing village outside Manama, Mohsen Abdullah, a member of a local youth unemployment committee, sat cross-legged on the carpet in his living room and described a sit-in he plans to hold next week in front of the Interior Ministry. Abdullah, 24, who was released from prison last month after serving nine months for participating in an illegal demonstration, said he applied for a government job for more than two years and would keep protesting until he got one.

Now he lives with his parents, two brothers and a sister, and supplements his income by net-fishing near his home. He is enrolled in night school and said he is looking for any entry-level government job. "Why do they give foreigners jobs at the ministries and we don't get them?" he asked.

Despite police beatings and stints in jail, Abdullah still attends demonstrations and agitates for jobs for unemployed youths, most of whom are Shiites, he said. "I don't want to go to jail, but it's better than this," he said, gesturing. "Without a job, I can't get married, I can't buy a car, I can't get my own place."

Over lunch at an upscale Japanese restaurant, Information Minister Muhammad Abdul-Ghaffar Abdulla said that there was no poverty or discrimination in Bahrain and that jobs were awarded on merit.

"The government wants to build balance in the whole political system," he said. "Democracy is a long process. The most important thing for us is security and stability."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company