Is the Bahraini Muslim Brotherhood's 'special status' over?

Is the Bahraini Muslim Brotherhood's 'special status' over?
Comment: Bahrain's government, under pressure from its Sunni Arab allies, may be drastically changing its attitude towards the Muslim Brotherhood, write Dr Courtney Freer and Giorgio Cafiero.
7 min read
For Bahrain's Al-Khalifa royals, Islamic Minbar has served as an important support base [AFP]
Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) - known collectively as the anti-Qatar quartet - severed diplomatic and economic ties with Doha in June due to an amalgamation of factors that led these four Arab states to view the gas-rich Arabian emirate as a destabilising actor and a "state sponsor of terrorism". 

For Cairo and Abu Dhabi, and arguably Riyadh too, Qatar's relationship with Muslim Brotherhood (MB) offshoots across the Arab world from Morocco to Yemen was a major grievance that spurred this rift within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). 

In 2014, after Riyadh classified the Sunni Islamist movement as a terrorist group, Bahrain's foreign minister affirmed that the Bahraini MB - Islamic Minbar - maintained a "special status" in the island kingdom and contributed to the al-Khalifa royals' efforts to preserve domestic stability amid the tumultuous unrest of 2011.

Whereas Bahrain, a close ally of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, generally backs Riyadh and Abu Dhabi's counter-terrorism policies, the archipelago sheikdom's sectarian demographics explain why Manama did not follow Riyadh and Abu Dhabi's lead in terms of designating the MB a terrorist organisation in 2014.

Put simply, given that Bahrain's Sunni minority rules the country, consolidating support from Sunni Islamists and secularists has been an important pillar of the regime's survival strategy since 2011, especially since these groups vocally supported the GCC-backed crackdown on Shia protesters.

Members of Islamic Minbar hold power in Bahrain's parliament, education system, security apparatus, and judiciary. In addition, powerful factions within the royal family have strong ties to the Bahraini MB. 

In defense of Manama's decision to not designate Islamic Minbar a terrorist organisation, Bahrain's foreign minister stated in 2014 that "we do not see [the Muslim Brotherhood] as a global movement", making a distinction between Bahrain's MB branch and others elsewhere in the region.

He maintained that Islamic Minbar obeyed Bahrain's laws and never undermined the island sheikdom's national security. For its part, Islamic Minbar has been outspoken in its insistence that it is not part of any international Brotherhood, since the group's connections abroad have fuelled considerable suspicion about it.

Amid the GCC's diplomatic spat of 2014, Islamic Minbar's leader Ali Ahmed explained that "[a]ll eyes of the voters are on us as they say we are the Muslim Brotherhood, which is not right. It is the ideology that we follow, but we do not have the organisation in Bahrain - neither do we support it." He went on to say that due to negative attention on the group Islamic Minbar must maintain "a low profile."

Amid this ongoing Qatar crisis, however, there is an indication that Bahrain's government, under pressure from its Sunni Arab allies, may be drastically changing its attitude regarding the MB, perhaps making Islamic Minbar's reassurances insufficient to justify its protection.

Consolidating support from Sunni Islamists and secularists has been an important pillar of the Bahraini regime's survival strategy since 2011

Four weeks after Manama and the rest of the quartet cut off ties with Qatar, Bahrain's Foreign Minister declared: "We consider the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group and anyone who shows sympathy with them will be tried on this basis." He also accused the MB of spilling blood in Egypt and conspiring against the member states of the Saudi/UAE-led bloc.

For Bahrain's Al-Khalifa royals, Islamic Minbar has served as an important component of the ruling family's Sunni support base amid Shia activism of the past six and-a-half years. A shared fear of Bahrain's Iranian-backed Shia opposition gave the Bahraini royals and the local MB a mutual interest in preserving Sunni rule in the country.

Read more: Banning the Brotherhood

To consolidate Sunni backing for the Manama regime in the face of Shia activism, Bahrain's Royal Court and Islamic banking sector have financed the archipelago kingdom's local MB wing, which not only supported the crackdown on the Shia opposition but went as far as criticizing the Al Khalifas for not doing more to punish Shia dissenters.

Minbar, along with al-Asala, Bahrain's foremost Salafi society, even issued a statement on 3 June reiterating their support for "the strenuous efforts led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to unify the stances of all Islamic states that attended the Riyadh summit, which isolated the Iranian regime and laid bare its terrorist and sectarian-tainted tactics in the international arena," while also affirming their commitment to moderate Islamic thought.

This show of loyalty, however, was not enough to prevent the foreign minister from dubbing the MB a terrorist organisation weeks later.

Bahrain's Royal Court and Islamic banking sector have financed the archipelago kingdom's local MB wing

To what extent is the Bahraini government's newly stated position on the MB genuine and how will it impact the country's Sunni Islamists and their ties with the Al Khalifa royals? If Manama designates the MB a terrorist organisation and targets the movement's affiliates in the government on terrorism charges, how will that affect Bahrain's political landscape?

Ultimately, the answers to these questions remain unclear at this juncture. There is perhaps reason to conclude that the foreign minister's recent statement about the MB as a terrorist organisation was likely about sending strong messages to the press and Manama's backers in Abu Dhabi, Cairo, and Riyadh and Bahrain's MB members will face no legal consequences.

Indeed, the fact that the foreign minister, rather than interior minister, made the statement suggests that the state's concern about the MB is international, rather than domestic.

To be sure, if Bahrain follows Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE's lead in terms of officially designating the MB a terrorist organisation and puts Islamic Minbar members on trial, the island sheikdom's ongoing political crisis could escalate. The regime is facing growing Sunni Islamist opposition at a time when sectarian temperatures are rising. The crackdown on Shia dissent is intensifying, most recently underscored by the cancelling of more Bahrainis' citizenship thus far in 2017 than in all of 2016, as well as the unsettling trend toward more Shia militancy amid the narrowing political space in the archipelago kingdom.

It seems unlikely that the Bahraini MB will take a confrontational stance against the government

Whether the Bahraini government chooses to crack down on its local MB branch, however, depends a great deal on how Islamic Minbar reacts to the foreign minister's recent statements.

At this point, it seems unlikely that the Bahraini MB will take a confrontational stance against the government, but it may face internal divisions about an appropriate response. An Al Jazeera report in July claimed that the weekly Al-Nabaa newspaper, which is linked to Islamic Minbar, rejected the foreign minister's statements, saying "[n]ations are only concerned with inciting segments of society, and describing them in an unacceptable way […] The attacks refer to patriotic segments of the Bahraini society."

Meanwhile Minbar's official Twitter feed's first post after the foreign minister's declaration was a re-tweet of an article in which Islamic Minbar's Secretary General criticized Al Jazeera for publishing "fraudulent stories" and voiced support for the state's efforts to provide security and stability while reiterating that Islamic Minbar is a "national institution [….] not subject to any external dictates."

This statement was the first made by the Secretary General after the foreign minister's proclamation, but it remains to be seen whether it will be sufficient to prevent further escalation.

Bahrain has - since the introduction of a law in May 2016 banning any preacher from being a member in any political society or engage in political activities - very clearly endeavoured to separate religion and politics.

These efforts have been linked to international work to root out terrorism and Iranian meddling in the region, as agreed upon in the Riyadh Summit in May of this year. Using the statements made at that summit as a blueprint, Bahrain may have to make good on its statements about the MB and risk losing an important domestic ally in the process.

Dr Courtney Freer is a senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics and a research officer for the Kuwait Programme at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Follow her on Twitter: @CourtneyFreer

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.