So whether this battle takes place in the streets or at the ballot box, it comes down to rival narratives, and you can take your pick. In the latest media salvo, a New York Times front-page article on Sept. 16 included allegations that Shiite detainees had been forced to eat excrement -- provoking a response by Bahrain's ambassador in Washington, who complained the report "overlooks the successes we have been achieving in uniting a majority of Bahrainis."
Perhaps surprisingly, some middle ground and cultural diversity has survived the political polarization. On Sept. 22, three winning candidates in four uncontested electoral districts spoke at a news conference. All Shiites, one was a turbaned cleric who could have been out of central casting for the part of an Iranian mullah. The second was a Moscow-trained engineer in a jacket and tie who runs a successful local contracting company. The third was a woman wearing a headscarf, though more loosely worn than the head coverings of many of the Sunni women at the event; she had formerly been a physical-fitness teacher.
Government officials would have been pleased that they were all on message about putting the country first, and because they had been pressured to one extent or another by people in the Shiite community not to stand, their story fit the government depiction of al-Wefaq as extremists. But the government might have been less happy that their comments revealed the island's considerable tensions: The businessman, who started his remarks with the line, "In the name of Allah, I am an engineer," spoke of the urgent need to tackle the problem of detained Shiites and those who had been fired for political activism.
However the by-elections play out, they will not alter the balance of power on the island. The national assembly is purely an advisory body -- the new parliamentarians will only have a little influence and certainly no power. The major factor affecting the country's future will continue to be its demographics. Bahrain's census asks people to identify themselves as Jewish (of whom there are less than 40, including the kingdom's envoy in Washington), Christian, Muslim, or "other." But there is no subdivision between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
The demographic breakdown between Shiite and Sunni Bahrainis is therefore a matter of bitter dispute. A more than usually loquacious government official, who was nevertheless reluctant to be quoted, conceded that the opposition "say[s] 70 [percent Shiite] and 30 [percent Sunni]. We say 50/50. The truth is somewhere in between."
The preoccupation of Bahrain's monarchy, therefore, has been to combat both international and domestic perceptions that it is just another minority regime in the Arab world clinging to power against the will of a hostile population. When King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa spoke at the United Nations on Sept. 22, the purpose -- perhaps the only purpose -- of his remarks was to show just enough willingness to reform to win continuing U.S. support for his government, the most obvious symbol of which is the base facility that houses the headquarters of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. The White House had to content itself with these words from the king: "We hereby reaffirm our support for the outcome of the [National] Dialogue." Less helpful perhaps was the king's dig at Tehran for its continuing to "occupy" three UAE islands.