MANAMA, Bahrain — A leading member of the Sunni Muslim ruling class says the king’s uncle should consider resigning as prime minister after a sectarian conflict that erupted in February with massive anti-government protests subsides.
His comments could open a rift within the political establishment and embolden rival Shiites, who outnumber Sunnis in this tiny but strategic U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf.
Sheik Abdullatif al-Mahmoud told The Washington Times that Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, prime minister since 1971, should stay in office until the crisis is over and then step down.
“The crisis needs management and [Prince Khalifa] is seen as a main party in managing the crisis,” said Mr. Mahmoud, a former opposition figure but now a strong supporter of King Hamad’s. “If the crisis is over, we might feel comfortable telling him, ‘Thank you, you have done what you needed to do, and we need a fresh face.’”
Mr. Mahmoud heads the National Unity Gathering, a coalition of mostly Sunni political blocs that united to counter the largely Shiite anti-government protests that erupted on Feb. 14, following the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions.
“We believe that the constitution gave a lot of room for the king to choose whatever prime minister he wants,” he said. “It did not say the prime minister has to be from the ruling family. It did not even designate the sect of the prime minister.”
With 40 years in office, Prince Khalifa, 75, is the world’s longest-serving prime minister. His image appears on billboards throughout Bahrain, always alongside those of King Hamad and Crown Prince Salman.
U.S. officials believe that Bahrain’s recent sectarian polarization has bolstered the hard-line prime minister within the monarchy and among Sunnis while weakening the more reform-minded crown prince, whom the U.S. sees as key to any long-term political settlement.
Crown Prince Salman held unsuccessful back-channel talks with opposition leaders before March 15, when a Saudi-led force entered Bahrain to help quell the nascent uprising.
The main opposition Wefaq National Islamic Society has long demanded the premier’s removal, calling him an obstacle to reform, while insisting that his successor be chosen democratically, which would practically ensure the election of a Shiite. Shiites comprise the majority of Bahrain’s citizenry, though exact figures are elusive because the kingdom’s census does not count sect.
According to top Wefaq leader Khalil Marzooq, he and bloc head Ali Salman privately softened their demand to assuage Sunni fears that democracy would result in Shiite tyranny, telling the crown prince they would accept “any independent Sunni, a national figure that has wide respect from Sunni and Shia,” as an interim prime minister.
Mr. Mahmoud said that while he believes Bahrain is “not ready” for a democratically elected premier, he supports the idea in the future. “It’s desirable,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be for the better.”