Inviolable Sheikhs and Radical Subjects: Bahrain''s Cyclical Sovereignty Crisis

By Shehabi, Ala'a | Arab Studies Journal, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Inviolable Sheikhs and Radical Subjects: Bahrain''s Cyclical Sovereignty Crisis


Shehabi, Ala'a, Arab Studies Journal


The King is Head of State, and its nominal representative, and his person is inviolate.

Constitution of the Kingdom of Bahrain (2002), article 33a

The system of government in the Kingdom of Bahrain is democratic, sovereignty being in the hands of the people, the source of all powers.

Constitution of the Kingdom of Bahrain (2002), article 1d

Reaching the shores of Bahrain on 14 February 2011, the wave of Arab uprisings that began in Tunisia in late 2010 challenged forms of exclusionary absolutist sovereignty by demonstrating how popular will could produce paradigmatic shifts in the conception of sovereignty itself. Foreign armies' interventions in Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain also highlighted the shortcomings of state-centered sovereignty for understanding contemporary world politics. The Bahraini uprising, which continues to this day, is the largest and most enduring in a series of uprisings and protests over the past century. This recurring sovereignty crisis is the result of a powerful social history of distinct and innovative social mobilizations to overthrow the familial, security, labor, and sectarian foundations of Bahrain's royal sovereignty. This article traces Bahrain's history of uprising through its alternative models of protest that reveal the particularly dependent and neocolonial character of royal sovereignty. I highlight the alternatives to traditional sovereignty theory generated by Bahraini thinkers and activists. Furthermore, I argue that these Bahrainis provide a model for radical transformative and participatory sovereignty that departs from the models of sectarianism, polarization, labor exploitation, and militarism that dominate the region today.

On 25 January 2011, as Tunisian protesters celebrated the 14 January ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egyptian protesters were battling with police to secure their hold on Tahrir Square in Cairo. Online commentators in Bahrain were already calling for protests to mark their own "day of rage." With the eventual fall of Egyptian President Husni Mubarak on 11 February, the calls for Bahraini protests gained strength. On 14 February, protests began in most of the island's villages, initially calling for constitutional reform (islah al-nidham), but promptly escalating, after police murdered some of the protesters, to target the presumed apex of power: Sheikh Hamad, the king and head of state. Protesters occupied the Pearl Roundabout in the capital city of Manama for three weeks. They attempted to transform it into a model settlement of the free and democratic society they demanded. Though the occupation of the Pearl Roundabout lasted only three weeks, it was an "event" that in Alain Badiou's words did not create a new reality but "a myriad of new possibilities."1 It was here that a group called the Alliance for a Republic restated the idea of a "republic," conceiving of a political order without the ubiquitous hegemonic power of the "inviolable sheikh." It was a deeply radical idea in the context of the Gulf, one that demonstrated the core of popular sovereignty: the enduring power of ideas outside the boundaries set by royal sovereignty.

This scene challenged the model of benevolent royal sovereignty in Bahrain. It also demonstrated the tensions within Bahrain's constitution. After taking power in 1999, Sheikh Hamad promoted an image of himself as a benevolent malik al-qulub, or "king of hearts." This moniker appeared on billboards across Bahrain depicting Hamad as a liberalizing reformist leader loved by his subjects. By 2011, however, the new sound of protesters chanting, "yasqut Hamad" (down with Hamad) replaced obsequious ritual. The government charged scores of protesters with insulting the ruler, since, according to the law, "his person is inviolate."2 But because Bahrain's constitution holds the citizenry to be the source of state authority, the uprisings claimed legitimacy on the grounds of popular sovereignty. The streets echoed with the pan-Arab chant of "the people demand. …

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