Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bahrain Politician Warns of Civil War

Exiled member of Al-Wefaq party speaks of growing sectarianism amongst Sunni and Shia.
By Ali al-Aswad
  • Al-Wefaq politician Ali al-Aswad.
    Al-Wefaq politician Ali al-Aswad.

People in Bahrain continue to demonstrate, and we won’t give up until we achieve our goals – democracy. And all the protesters agree on the same demands – an elected government, a new constitution and electoral reform.

There is a still a weekly rally being held in Manama by Al-Wefaq, the political party I belong to, which has been held every Friday since June 1 when martial law was lifted. Elsewhere, in the villages, people continue to protest. Last week, I heard there were all-night demonstrations in 15 different villages which continued until morning prayers. The police followed and tried to catch the protesters, but they continued marching in the streets.

If the situation in Bahrain continues, we might face a civil war. For both sides, Sunni and Shia, the sectarian issue is growing. It wasn’t an issue when I was growing up - I am Shia but I have Sunnis in my family too. Now, Ramadan, was always a time when Sunnis and Shia would visit each other. The protesters have said many times that they are not demonstrating as Sunni or Shia, but as people who want a civilised society. We need to build trust again, before it is too late.

I became a member of the al-Wefaq opposition party in November 2001. I felt it to be a moderate party, and I wanted to see the founding of new democratic institutions, so that’s why I joined. Between 2006 and 2010, I worked as part of the team that supported al-Wefaq lawmakers. I finally became a member of parliament myself in October 2010. I felt that the Bahraini people needed real change, but I soon discovered that many other lawmakers were unfortunately not that serious. After a few months of trying to work, I found out that most of the pro-government politicians acted as if they were half asleep. I wanted to see economic, political, and human rights reforms.

I focused particular attention on the economic side of government and I do feel that I managed to achieve some small things. For instance, when the budget for 2011-2012 was being discussed, it appeared that we were producing 32,000 barrels of oil a day. But the al-Wefaq financial committee, of which I was a part, found out it was actually 45,000 a day, so that meant the profits were going somewhere else and not into the treasury.

I was planning more work along the same lines but the time I had as a member of parliament was too short.

The 18 Al-Wefaq members of parliament resigned en masse in February in protest over the regime’s reaction to the mass demonstrations.

Protesting is their right, so we had to support them. We tried to make changes in parliament, but we achieved little.

After our resignations were accepted in March, the authorities asked us to surrender our passports.

Then, on March 14, two black jeeps came to my house at about midnight and parked outside. Gunmen started shooting in the air. My wife and children were alone at home and she called me crying. But on my way home I was stopped by police and held by them for half an hour, until a friend of mine managed to call the ministry of interior and intervene on my behalf. By the time I got home, the cars had gone, but there was a helicopter hovering above my house.

It was an attempt to intimidate me. And since that night I made sure not to return to the house. We stayed with relatives and as soon as I got my passport back I left and my family joined me a month later. I was worried they would not be allowed to leave, and I still fear for the safety of my parents and brothers and sisters who are still in Bahrain.

I fear it will be difficult now for me to go home. Yet what did I do wrong? I was told that I had been spoiling Bahrain’s image by giving interviews to the foreign media. But I love my country and would never do anything to harm it. What I want to do is make it more democratic. It is the regime and its actions which are harming the image of Bahrain.

Ali al-Aswad is a Bahraini politician now living in London.

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