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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
09MANAMA438 2009-07-22 14:02 2011-02-18 21:09 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Manama
DE RUEHMK #0438/01 2031428
R 221428Z JUL 09
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 MANAMA 000438 
E.O. 12958: DECL: 07/22/2019 
REF: A. 08 MANAMA 313 B. 08 MANAMA 536 C. 08 MANAMA 592 D. 08 MANAMA 593 E. 08 MANAMA 762 F. MANAMA 50 G. MANAMA 57 H. MANAMA 190 I. MANAMA 220 J. MANAMA 342 Classified By: Ambassador Adam Ereli for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

1.(SBU) Summary: Despite stiff criticism from Sunni political opponents and many in the Shia community, Bahrain's Shia opposition party, Wifaq, is staying the course and is committed to pursuing peaceful change through legitimate institutions. With the end of the parliamentary session on May 27, Wifaq has achieved some success in challenging the government. Party leaders have made it clear that Wifaq will continue to participate in the political process and have begun to focus on the Fall 2010 parliamentary elections. End summary. --------------------------------------------- ------ 2010 Elections: Making a List and Checking It Twice --------------------------------------------- ------

2.(C) Wifaq remains committed to participating in parliament, and has repeatedly stated that it will run candidates in 2010 (Note: Wifaq led the 2002 opposition boycott of parliamentary elections. When it decided to run candidates in the 2006 elections, the party split; those who favored a continued boycott left and formed the Haq Movement. End Note.). While the party continues to deal with criticism from the Haq Movement, Wifaq remains the preferred choice among the mainstream in Bahrain's Shia community (ref D). MPs remain focused on addressing key constituent concerns, while fending off sectarian challenges within parliament.

3.(C) Hamed Khalaf leads the internal committee charged with determining the makeup of Wifaq's parliamentary list for 2010 (ref J). He told poloff on June 8 that many of the current parliamentarians will not be asked to run for reelection (Note: Khalaf's comment reflects popular sentiment that most current parliamentarians are incompetent good-for-nothings. End Note.). Echoing comments from other Wifaqis, Khalaf stated that the next list will include more technocrats and fewer religious leaders. His committee reviews each of the current parliamentarians annually and already has a good idea of who will stay and who will go, but Khalaf refused to shed more light on the internal horse-trading.

4.(C) Some of the current parliamentarians have grown tired of their roles. Several have complained to us that their constituents call them day and night, asking for loans, jobs, housing assistance, help with weddings, and other personal requests that, traditionally, they would direct toward the village leadership. NDI's regional trainer has focused much of her training on parliamentarians' staff with the intent of helping them deflect many of those type of constituent complaints. Saeed Al Majed, a close adviser to Wifaq General Secretary Ali Salman, confirmed to A/DCM recently that Salman would not run for parliament at the next election. He has become frustrated with day-to-day politics in the chamber and wants to focus on running the party (ref J). ------------------------------------------- Relating to the Shia Street Not Always Easy -------------------------------------------

5.(SBU) Wifaq's Shia constituency demands that the government address perceived discrimination directly and provide free housing, jobs (especially in the security sector), and further reform of the political system. A relative few within the Shia community who gravitate toward the Haq Movement's calls for street action criticize Wifaq for what they perceive to be a lack of quick, forceful action on these demands. Their street protests often end in the rock throwing and tire burning that garner sensationalistic headlines both inside and outside Bahrain, but are hardly representative of the great majority of Bahrain's Shia opinion (Note: Following a series of protests and tire burnings in the Bahraini hotspot village Jidhafs, residents issued a statement on July 20 condemning violence and rioting as the actions of "outsiders who have hidden personal agendas." End Note.).

6.(SBU) Wifaq leaders regularly condemn violence, whether on MANAMA 00000438 002 OF 003 the part of security forces or protesters, and insist that the Shia street follow the rules as laid down by the government by informing the appropriate officials of forthcoming protests and refraining from violence and vandalism. Nonetheless, many youth, inspired by Haq and the images they see on their televisions from Gaza (refs C and D), ignore these admonitions. Small-scale riots calling for the release of arrested "activists" wracked the streets of many Shia villages on an almost weekly basis from December 2007 through the King's April 11 amnesty. (Note: Most of the "activists" were charged with violent crimes, including murder, assault of a police officer, arson, theft of a police weapon, and plotting attacks on civilians. End Note.)

7.(SBU) Recognizing the power of the street, Wifaq tries to mollify Shia demands and passions while demonstrating to the government its mass support. In contrast with the small riots, Wifaq has shown that it can peacefully mobilize 10,000-20,000 marchers on as little as 48 hours' notice. Wifaq officials patrol their events to keep marchers on message, prohibit any symbols that may be construed as foreign, and keep the demonstration peaceful.

8.(C) Wifaq's work to keep the street peaceful has cost it some political capital. Graffiti in several Shia villages ridiculed Wifaq parliamentarian Jalal Fairouz for saying that violence is "haram" - religiously forbidden. Following the April 11 amnesty, members of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, and opposition bloggers claimed that street protests and the attendant international pressure forced the King's hand, not Wifaq's behind-the-scenes negotiations with the Royal Court and the Interior Ministry. ---------------------------------- Sectarian Divide within Parliament ----------------------------------

9.(SBU) Wifaq, the only opposition party in parliament, alleges that the government gerrymandered constituency boundaries in the 2006 elections to ensure Sunni, pro-government, dominance of parliament. (Note: For more information on Bahrain's largest parties, see ref C. End Note.) According to Wifaq, the population of the largest district, which it represents, differs from that of the smallest, represented by a pro-government Sunni independent, by a factor of 13, yet each district only has one representative. The GOB has given no indication that it will change the constituencies or voting practices, many of which were the subject of mass criticism in the 2006 election, for 2010.

10.(SBU) Wifaq faces an uphill battle within the parliament where smaller Sunni blocs and a smattering of pro-government independents cooperate to control 22 of the 40 seats. When it walked out in protest over the disputed censuring of former (Shia) Housing Minister Mansour bin Rajab during the last session of the 2007-2008 cycle on May 13, 2008, Sunni parliamentarians laughed at Wifaq's "theater" (Note: During the last session of the 2008 year, parliament voted along sectarian lines to overturn the Wifaq-dominated committee's finding of innocence for Rajab. Wifaq walked out in protest, and the Government later found the vote unconstitutional and overturned it. For more information, see ref A. End note.). Later that year, in October, some attempted to press criminal charges against Wifaq MPs Jasim Husain and Jawad Fairouz for "spreading false information" about Bahrain while overseas. Husain, who gave a briefing at the National Press Club in Washington, welcomed the criticism as it raised international awareness of Shia issues. The attacks on Fairouz centered on negative comments he made about Bahrain while leading a parliamentary delegation to Geneva; Fairouz maintains that he was not speaking in his official capacity at the time. Neither was actually charged (ref E).

11.(SBU) Wifaq struck back in March when a parliamentary committee it controls voted to lift independent Salafi rabble rouser Jassim Saeedi's immunity so that the Ministry of Justice could charge him with inciting sectarianism for allegedly labelling Shia "worse than Zionists." The Sunni blocs retaliated by threatening to lift Wifaq MP Jasim Husain's immunity and prosecute him for his actions the previous October. Cooler heads eventually prevailed and the blocs agreed that both Saeedi and Husain could retain their immunity.

12.(SBU) Wifaq has proven that, despite such sectarian bickering, it can work with the other blocs to achieve its aims - provided there is a shared interest. Abduljalil Khalil, the Wifaq parliamentarian who chairs parliament's MANAMA 00000438 003 OF 003 finance committee, has proven particularly adept at bringing the disparate parties together to force government action. In March, parliament forced the government to shell out an additional 50 million BD ($132.5 million) in a continuation of the 2008 "inflation allowance." Wifaq also claims credit for coordinating the tide of parliament's criticism that allegedly forced out the CEO of Gulf Air, Bjorn Naf, over claims of corruption and mismanagement at the airline (Note: Gulf Air officials tell us that the controversy had nothing to do with Naf's departure. End Note.). Khalil led both of these efforts. The blocs were also able to set aside their differences on certain "Islamic" issues such as calling upon the government to restrict the sale and availability of alcohol and pork; the government has thus far refused to accommodate these demands. (Note: Khalil was not involved in these efforts; he enjoyed a glass of wine at the Embassy's July 4 celebration. End Note.) --------------------------------------------- ------ Working to Establish "Loyal Opposition" Credentials --------------------------------------------- ------

13.(SBU) Many of Wifaq's critics, particularly Sunnis, use the Shia practice of looking to "marjaia" (religious referents) for guidance on political and religious issues to assert that Bahrain's Shia are more loyal to outside influences (i.e. Iran) than to Bahrain. In fact, the vast majority of Bahraini Shia look to Grand Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq, and most of the rest refer to Grand Ayatollah Fadhlallah in Lebanon, not Khamenei. (NOTE: For more information on Bahrain's senior Shia clerics, see ref B. End Note.)

14.(C) Wifaq's opposition to a Family Law gives these critics ammunition. Under instructions from Bahrain's leading Shia cleric, Ayatollah Isa Qassim, the bloc objected to the Ja'afari portion of the government-proposed Family Law in part because Sistani had not cleared the text. The GOB withdrew the joint draft on February 4 in response to Wifaq opposition; the Sunni portion passed the chamber and was ratified May 27. Later that month, three Wifaq parliamentarians - Jasim Husain, Jawad Fairooz, and Khalil Marzooq - met with Sistani to discuss the issue. According to Husain, Sistani said that he had no role to play in what he termed a "local matter," and indicated that Qassim was qualified to determine whether the law complied with Sharia.

15.(U) Other Sunni critics point to the display of Hizbollah flags and portraits of Khomeini in Shia villages as evidence of divided loyalties amongst the Shia population. Sensitive to this criticism, Wifaq's leadership is at pains to cast itself as a loyal, Bahraini opposition and prohibits the display of such symbols at its rallies. An early 2009 rally against what Wifaq claims is the wholesale naturalization of Sunnis drew 8,000-10,000 people who displayed Bahraini flags and carried pictures of King Hamad and Isa Qassim. ------- Comment -------

16.(C) Despite often withering criticism from the radical Shia flank and from Sunni political blocs, Wifaq has stood its ground. It has advocated quietly, though not always as successfully as its constituents would like, for core Shia demands and has proven that it can effectively oppose government proposals such as the budget and the draft Family Law. It has done so while negotiating a difficult path between those Sunnis who argue that Shia loyalties are by default divided between the Bahraini state and foreign religious referents and those Shia who have grown impatient for change. Through it all, the party leadership remains committed to continued participation in the political process, even though it believes the deck is stacked against it. Wifaq General Secretary Ali Salman has told Ambassador and poloffs repeatedly that he believes Bahrain's Shia have more to gain from Wifaq's participation than from a boycott. ERELI