- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2011

SAAR, BAHRAIN A well-known pro-government Shiite cleric plans to launch a new party in an uphill battle against the tiny island kingdom’s opposition establishment.

Sheik Mohsin Al-Asfoor attacked the Wefaq National Islamic Society, the main Shiite bloc, saying it had a destructive agenda and was led by religious lightweights.

Sheik al-Asfoor comes from a long line of Bahraini Shiite clerics and is still respected by many for his scholarship.

But his pro-government political views have alienated most of Bahrain’s Shiite majority, which has grown increasingly anti-government since the Sunni royal family crushed a month-long uprising with the help of troops from the Gulf states.

“What people call a revolution wasn’t really a revolution,” he told The Washington Times at his home in the affluent village of Saar.

“It was mimicking what happened in Tunis and Cairo, but for a revolution you need the agreement of the entire population when that wasn’t the case here.”

More than 30 were killed after protests began on Feb. 14, but Sheik al-Asfoor blames their deaths on Wefaq.

“Nobody had to die, but they created the environment in which people were killed and then used the blood of the dead to their advantage,” he said.

“Every step of the way where they could have been positive or constructive, they chose another direction.”

He said that the sectarian polarization that resulted from the unrest compelled him to establish his own political movement.

Sheik al-Asfoor said his yet-to-be-named movement would be exclusively Shiite and would have as its prominent figures “academics, doctors, people of caliber.”

He called it “a multiphased project,” saying that it would begin by targeting selected constituencies in next month’s by-elections.

That vote will replace the 18 seats held by Wefaq, which walked out of parliament in protest of the regime’s crackdown and says it will not return without serious concessions on political reform.

The sheik said that he was not against reform in principle, but he argued that it needed to be achieved gradually and peacefully.

“The question is what would happen if Wefaq came to power, especially acting on a foreign agenda,” he said.

“The answer is that we would end up somewhere along the lines of Lebanon. Bahrain would enter into a dark phase.”

Sheik al-Asfoor called Wefaq’s leader, Ali Salman, a religious lightweight.

“He went to Qom [the Iranian holy city] for seven years and worked as an office boy. He was regarded as a joke there,” Sheik al-Asfoor claimed.

“He wears the turban in Bahrain, but he used to wear pants and a shirt. He’s garbage.”

He also criticized Sheik Issa Qassem, Wefaq’s spiritual guide.

“What has he given to society other than inflaming the situation?” he asked.

The sheik rejected the argument that he was too closely aligned with the Sunni-dominated regime to appeal to the Shiite community, saying that he represented the “silent majority.”

“To Wefaq, anybody who says, ‘Don’t burn, Don’t destroy,’ is a government stooge,” he said.

Khalil Marzooq, a Wefaq leader, told The Washington Times that he refused to dignify Sheik al-Asfoor’s attacks.

“My response is not to respond,” he said.

Toby Jones, a professor of Middle East history at Rutgers University and a former Bahrain-based consultant for the International Crisis Group, said that despite his religious credentials, Sheik al-Asfoor’s political support remained minimal among Bahraini Shiites, confined to the socially upscale and religiously moderate.

In a typical election for Bahrain’s 40-member Council of Representatives, a party led by Sheik al-Asfoor would be lucky to get one or two seats and would be more likely to take votes away from pro-government Sunni candidates than from opposition Shiite ones, he said.

On closely divided votes, though, Mr. Jones said that a couple seats could alter the equation, possibly allowing a cross-sectarian coalition of secular independents and moderate Islamists to pass progressive social legislation.

“The government would jump for joy, if he became a mainstream alternative to Wefaq,” he said.