MANAMA — As the U.N. General Assembly opens in New York, the world's attention may be focused on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute -- but tensions are still running high in a disputed strip of land further east. In the island kingdom of Bahrain, the struggle between Sunni and Shiite Muslims -- and their respective patrons, Saudi Arabia and Iran -- enters a new phase with the Sept. 24 by-elections to the country's parliament.
Bahrain is where, in March, Saudi Arabia drew a proverbial line in the sand against the advance of the Arab Spring, leading a Saudi/United Arab Emirates coalition that sent 1,600 riot-trained paramilitary members and more than 20 tanks across the causeway that connects the two countries to put down a Shiite-led uprising. The crackdown led the Shiite opposition party al-Wefaq to resign its 18 seats in the 40-seat parliament in protest; the by-elections, scheduled by the ruling monarchy, are meant to fill those vacant seats. Al-Wefaq is boycotting the ballot but Shiite independent candidates are standing. Al-Wefaq's local spiritual leader, Sheikh Issa Qassim, known by his Sunni detractors as "the ayatollah," dubbed Bahrain "a fake democracy" in a fiery sermon on Friday, Sept. 23.
The elections threaten to upset the nervous stability that now reigns in the country. The Pearl Monument, which dominated a traffic circle around which demonstrators had gathered earlier this year, may have been demolished, but Shiite activists have promised to reoccupy the area this weekend. Such a coup will be a challenge -- the junction is guarded by fleets of internal security vehicles, and down the road groups of Bahraini army Humvees also sit, waiting.
"Bahrain is going to boil this weekend," read an email from a friend who lives in Manama. I don't think he was referring to the weather, though noon temperatures are consistently over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The U.S. Embassy in the Bahraini capital issued a similarly sober warning, urging Americans to stay away from "a potentially violent demonstration" near the Pearl Roundabout, now renamed al-Farooq Junction by the government, though known as Martyrs' Square by the Shiite opposition.
Whether the demonstrations come to pass remains to be seen, but the outcome of the by-elections is clear. The government will see the new members -- all the districts concerned are primarily Shiite-populated -- as support for its cautious steps toward a more representative democracy. Filling the seats will enable the national assembly to function again, even though the government may be tempted to reduce the number of Shiites in it (voter absenteeism and ballot rigging could reduce Shiite members from 18 to 12). A revived political system will enable the government to implement modest political suggestions made during the course of the summer by a national dialogue, which discussed the background to the troubles of February and March.
Al-Wefaq and the hard-line Shiite party al-Haq (which has always seen political participation as a waste of time) will depict the result as a fig-leaf covering the open wound of a Sunni-ruled, majority-Shiite country, where, despite promises of reform, the al-Khalifa royal family has no intention of losing either its political or commercial grip.