Cablegate: Acrimony in Parliament Feeds Sectarian Ill-Will (C-Ne8-00961)

DE RUEHMK #0313/01 1401511
P 191511Z MAY 08

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 MANAMA 000313

E.O. 12958: DECL: 05/19/2018
REF: A. 06 MANAMA 1728 B. MANAMA 76 C. MANAMA 236

Classified By: CDA Christopher Henzel for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

1.(C) Summary: After an improvement this Spring in intercomunnal atmospherics, Bahrain's elected lower house of parliament closed down for the summer on a nasty sectarian note May 13 with the unraveling of a compromise over the questioning of ministers. End summary.

2.(C) Sectarian bad feeling seemed to be subsiding a bit throughout this Spring due to several developments. First, in March King Hamad met secretly in London with the leader of the hard-line Shi'a Haq Movement, which rejects participation in parliament. Most in Bahrain viewed the meeting as a surprisingly conciliatory move on the part of the King. The King reportedly secured Musheima's agreement to dissuade his admirers from the low-level, anti-government street violence that has plagued Bahrain for years. Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of the moderate Shi'a Wifaq party, told Ambassador April 30 that the government had consulted him before the King met with Musheima. Salman said he welcomed the move.

3.(C) Second, when a plainclothes policeman died April 9 during a clash between rock-throwing Shi'a youths and riot police (ref C), both the government and the Shi'a community seemed to take a deep breath, and redoubled efforts to restrain both Shi'a hooligans and the police response. The streets were noticeably quieter as a result. Mansour al-Jamri, the Shi'a editor of the liberal daily Al-Wasat, told CDA May 12 that Sunni-Shi'a tensions had cooled for the moment.

------------------------------------------ Struggle Over the Questioning of Ministers ------------------------------------------

4.(C) Meanwhile, in the Council of Representatives (COR), Bahrain's elected lower house of parliament, there was deadlock for much of this Spring's session because of sectarian debates over the COR's authority to compel ministers to appear before it. Wifaq insisted that Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs Ahmed bin Attiyatallah Al-Khalifa answer a parliamentary committee's questions about his alleged role in the so-called "Bandargate" vote-rigging scandal (ref A) and dodgy government population statistics (ref B). In March Sunni blocs marshaled a majority to back the ruling of the (Sunni) speaker of the house, Khalifa bin Ahmed Al-Dhahrani, that it was unconstitutional to question bin Attiyatallah over the Bandargate affair. The Sunni blocs then retaliated by summoning the (Shi'a) Minister of Municipalities and Agriculture, Mansour Bin Rajab, to answer for alleged corruption. The tit-for-tat demands paralyzed the chamber for six weeks.

------------ A Compromise ------------

5.(C) The stand-off was resolved in mid-April when Wifaq leader Ali Salman reached a quiet compromise with Sunni politicians. As Salman later explained to Ambassador, Wifaq agreed to drop its insistence on questioning bin Attiyatallah over Bandargate if he would agree to answer questions about the population statistics. At the same time, Wifaq would not oppose the Sunni MPs' summoning Bin Rajab. Other Wifaq MPs told poloffs the deal also provided for each Minister to face sympathetic committees, dominated by his own sect, which would report to the full house with recommendations against censuring either minister. The ministers at last appeared before the committees on April 24 and 28.

-------------------------- The Compromise Breaks Down --------------------------

6.(C) This tidy arrangement unraveled on a point of procedure. When parliament met May 13 for its last scheduled session before the summer recess, COR speaker Dhahrani ruled, to Wifaq's surprise, to permit debate on the report exonerating Bin Rajab. Incensed and realizing he would be outvoted, Ali Salman led Wifaq deputies out of the chamber, and the rump COR then voted to censure the Shi'a minister and ratifythe committee report exonerating bin Attiyatallah.

7.(C) Wifaq MPs told emboffs afterward that they had thought MANAMA 00000313 002 OF 002 parliament's rules prevented a vote for censure unless a committee recommended it. In the event, the speaker, operating with fuzzy rules and no precedent to refer to, chose to accept the recommendation of his (Sunni, Egyptian) legal advisor to permit debate and the vote censuring Bin Rajab. It is unclear whether Dhahrani and other Sunnis acted in bad faith, but many Shi'a believe so. After the session concluded, Wifaq MP Khalil Marzooq expressed his frustration, telling media that "they (the Sunni blocs) control the House, and our presence or absence does not matter much."

8.(SBU) Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman and the Cabinet reacted publicly on May 18, labeling the censure vote an apparent violation of the chamber's rules of procedure. While acknowledging the role of the COR in holding ministers accountable, the Cabinet criticized the vote against Bin Rajab.

---------- What Next? ----------

9.(C) Bin Rajab will survive the vote of censure, but Shi'a see it as a slap in the face to Wifaq. Shi'a voices calling for Wifaq to pull out of parliament will likely be louder now. However, Ali Salman and others in Wifaq have told us repeatedly that they remain committed to participation in the political process and that Wifaq will contest the 2010 elections. Wifaq's 60,000 members will vote during the last week of May to elect a new Shura Council and party leaders. We will be watching closely to see whether the rank and file will retain Ali Salman as Secretary General, or whether recent events may prompt them to make a change. Even if Salman is replaced or steps aside, we do not foresee a radical change of direction, as Salman's likely replacements, like him, say they are committed to staying in parliament. (Note: Several of these are from Persian-speaking families. End note.) Wifaq's moderate leadership will probably keep the party engaged in parliamentary politics, but Sunni politicians allied with the government are short-sighted if they think they've gained anything out of all this.

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