Citizens, Not Subjects: Debunking the Sectarian Narrative of Bahrain’s Pro-Democracy Movement

Aug. 22, 2011, 8:13 p.m.

The paper by ISPU titled Citizens, Not Subjects: Debunking the Sectarian Narrative of Bahrain’s Pro-Democracy Movement written by Sahar Aziz and Abdullah Musalem addresses the recent pro-democracy demonstrations seen in Bahrain.  The ruling family claims that the demonstrations are sectarian, however the paper states that there is strong proof showing they are not sectarian but demand economic opportunities, political freedom, less corruption, and less authoritarianism.  The paper lays the claim that the US response has to the demonstrations have been muted allowing the ruling family to retaliate without negative international repercussions. 

The demonstrations consisted of a mix of Sunni and Shi’a, rich and poor, men and women.  There is a growing desire among the Bahrain population to be citizens, not subjects.  The paper provides a description of Bahrain, states  the ethnic and religious makeup of the state, the existing patronage structure, the role of the ruling family on the state, the role of the Arab Spring in 2011 and the exploitation of the sectarian narrative to repress the ensuing demonstrations.  The authors conclude by providing recommendations to promote democracy while preserving US interests.

Strikingly absent from the discourse about the country’s ongoing pro-democracy movement are the non-sectarian grounds upon which the calls for democracy are based. A closer look at the recent demonstrations indicates that the movement’s impetus is the Bahrainis’ desire for universal social, economic, and political rights irrespective of religious sect.  A growing sense of political disenfranchisement is spreading among both Sunni and Shi’a citizens who have been excluded from political and business opportunities. Bahrain’s culture of nepotism and cronyism benefits a select few. As the quality of life for the majority declines among all sectarian affiliations, the government leverages the beneficiaries of its patronage system to counter all calls for an equitable distribution of wealth, political freedom, and equal employment opportunity based on merit. As tempting as it may be to reduce all of these factors to mere sectarian rivalry, accepting that particular narrative has grave consequences on American strategic interests in Bahrain and the wider Middle East.

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