Cyber activists in Bahrain have declared Valentine’s Day a “day of wrath” in the kingdom. It is also the 10th anniversary of a referendum in which Bahrainis approved a national charter promising a new political era after decades of political unrest.
Organisers chose this date to signal their belief that the authorities had reneged on the charter’s promise. Taking a cue from the protests in the wider Arab world, their stated aim is to press the authorities on their political and economic grievances.
The day of wrath’s Facebook page passed 10,000 supporters within a few days, and a declaration in the name of Bahraini Youth for Freedom is being widely circulated online. The authorities have already moved to counter any possible repercussions from the tumultuous events in region. The leadership held talks with President Hosni Mubarak shortly after the overthrow of Ben Ali in Tunisia, and plans to pump in hundreds of millions of dollars in food subsidies have been announced. Many web forums and Facebook pages have been blocked, and the British embassy has issued a notice to UK citizens regarding 14 February.
With a landmass about the size of Malta and citizens barely numbering half a million, Bahrain is not usually a centre of attention in the Arab world. Its regional significance, however, outweighs its small size. A former British colony, it is only a 15-minute drive from Saudi Arabia, and Iranian claims to the island date back centuries. Its history of activism makes it one of the most politically vibrant countries in the region, with developments on the island seen as precursors to changes in other Gulf Arab states.
Thousands attend regular political rallies on issues ranging from unemployment to Palestinian solidarity, with pundits joking that Bahrain holds the world record in demonstrations per capita.
The political situation has been simmering since last summer. The authorities, shortly before parliamentary elections, began a crackdown on those it accused of being involved in a plot to overthrow the regime and planning acts of terrorism. The count of detainees has reached 300, and allegations of torture have been widespread.
Add to that a cocktail of grievances that have been aired more and more forcefully over the past decade, and observers are wondering whether Bahrain might be the first of the Arab Gulf states to see protests in the wake of Tunisia and Egypt.
Many complain that the oil boom spoils of the past decade have not trickled down the social chain, with the poor increasingly feeling the bite of higher inflation. The expropriation of public land and coastlines worth billions of dollars for private gains has been a particular flashpoint, with the accusations directed to individuals high up the ruling ladder. More than a 10th of the island’s land mass is on reclaimed sea, with the vast majority going towards private developments.
Accusations are rife that the government has brought in hundreds of thousands of carefully selected foreigners and fast-tracked their citizenship, with the aim of changing the demographic makeup of the country. Most of these work in the security forces, increasing the perception that they have been brought in to contain locals.
It is has become fashionable to state that Tunisia (and now Egypt) is “different” and “unique”, but many of the same grievances aired in the two resonate widely in Bahrain.
The current political structure is seen by many as a cosmetic facade, intended to give the illusion of democracy for an unrepresentative system. The formally recognised political parties, mainly Islamist and leftist groupings, are increasingly seen as irrelevant and out of tune with people’s demands. Disillusionment with both the existing political structure and the formally recognised political parities is palpable.
There are significant differences, however, that incline most observers to discount mass action similar to Tunisia and Egypt. Despite high inequality, Bahrain has the fourth highest income per capita in the Arab world, and rising oil revenues give the state considerable leeway in containing economic grievances.
Sectarian and religious leanings still play the dominant role in Bahraini politics, raising questions regarding the possibility of a nationally cohesive movement similar to its North African counterparts. So far the “day of wrath” has been confined to the cyber sphere, and it is yet to be seen whether it will translate into reality. Most pundits expect that although some disturbances might occur, they will not differ markedly from previous episodes, focusing on sporadic clashes between the security forces and disaffected youth.
However, if Tunisia and Egypt have proven anything, it is to expect the unexpected. One group to watch out for is the so-called “nido generation“: youth of the upper-middle class, mostly educated in private schools and universities abroad. They prefer English as their first language of communication, showing a strong preference for American-made movies and music. They have the highest level of education and a significant part of the country’s wealth, and sectarian issues play a very minimal role within their circles. They are also the most tech savvy, with Facebook and Twitter already staple social tools within their circles.
Traditionally this group has shunned domestic politics, preferring instead to focus on cultivating their business careers and enjoying the luxuries offered by an oil-rich and socially liberal country. Indeed, most indications show that they are heavily invested in the current status quo.
However, as more of them witness the recent seismic shifts in the region, a few have started to signal their frustration with the political situation at home while showing a yearning for a lost Arab identity. It is unlikely that they will take to the streets on 14 February, preferring to exchange roses on Valentine’s Day instead. However, if the day’s events and those in the wider Arab world become a spark for the development of a political consciousness within the “nido” circles, Cupid’s arrow might just have a bit more sting in the Gulf Arab states.
By Omar Al-Shehabi, a Bahraini citizen and director of the Gulf centre for policy studies.