Dr. Abdulhadi Khalaf: Outcome of 20 Years of Reform Ruse in Bahrain: The Beginnings (Part 1)

2019-06-01 - 9:59 p

Dr. Abdulhadi Khalaf*

At the beginning of February 2005, on the anniversary of the National Action Charter vote, the state media published an article bearing the signature of the King of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, entitled "I dreamt of a homeland that embraces all its people," in which he referred to some details of his autobiography and its impact on shaping his national consciousness and political vision of his project of reform and comprehensive modernization. Since his childhood, the king says, he was aware of how the foreign presence has curtailed the independence of the nation and how it has worked consistently and stubbornly to drive senior leaders who have clung to independence out of the country. The king noted that his sense of the pain of being expelled from his homeland spanned from his childhood years when he realized that his mother, who was born in exile in Qatar, "far from the family." The pain of the memories of his childhood has planted in the king's heart "the strong seed of rejecting deportation procedures from the homeland ... And so, when the moment came to make the decision to take on the first responsibility in the country, the first thing we initiated was the return of all Bahrainis, who were politically deported, to their country and people whatever the political and legal considerations and circumstances that led to their expulsion were." (February 8, 2005).

Seven years after the article was published, the king completely got rid of his childhood memories and forgot the suffering of his mother, which sowed in him a powerful seed of aversion to deportation. In November 2012, the king ordered revoking the Bahraini nationalities of 31 citizens. None of them were provided with an opportunity to know the grounds behind the decision, let alone refute it. With a pen stroke and in flagrant violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, most of those stripped of their nationalities were rendered "stateless" whether they resided in Bahrain or abroad. These measures have not yet stopped. Since November 2012, more than 840 citizens have been stripped of their Bahraini citizenship. There are indications that stripping of citizenship will become a "common penalty". Last year (2018) alone, the number of people stripped of their Bahraini nationality amounted to 298.

Human rights violations [committed in the country] are not limited to arbitrary withdrawal of nationality. Since he took power on March 6, 1999, Bahrain has witnessed human rights abuses that have not been seen for decades. In the six decades prior to his reign, a far smaller number of people have died at the hands of security forces or under torture than the number of citizens who have been shot dead by rubber or live bullets or died from torture under the banner of the constitutional monarchy. Even those who died as a result of security forces firing tear gas canisters since the crackdown on the Pearl uprising in mid-March 2011 outnumber those who have fallen victims in Bahrain throughout the 35 years during which the British bloodthirsty Ian Henderson took over the leadership of the security apparatus in Bahrain. Yes, human rights violations did not stop during the days of British hegemony; but their courts did not sentence to death any dissident, or even sentence to death or life imprisonment the national leaders whom they accused in 1956 of plotting "to carry out bombings and the assassination of the governor." During the reign of Hamad; however, the courts of Bahrain in one year only (2018) sentenced 26 citizens to death.

The record of the royal reign is black; we need to document and keep it in the memory of the homeland to hold the king and his henchmen accountable for their human rights violations. The worst thing about this black record is that its events took place under the banner of the "reform project".

Beginning of the Reform Ruse

On March 6, 2000, on the anniversary of Shaikh Hamad Al Khalifa taking power in Bahrain, left-wing leader Abdul Rahman Al-Nuaimi wrote an article entitled "A Letter to the Emir of Bahrain on the First Anniversary of His Rule." In that article, Al-Nuaimi noted that the year passed without serious action towards political breakthroughs, but was marked by a large number of promises, a great deal of propaganda, little work and little implementation. For this reason, Shaikh Hamad, in his first year of rule and for a period of time, looked more keen on spreading promises that sometimes seemed contradictory to appease the different parties.

The first year comprised hinting at political reform without specifying what that reform was. Despite the hustle and bustle of media hype, Hamad's administration did not bring anything new in the first year. Because of his limited political experience, he was forced to remain in his father's place and move only within the narrow confines drawn by his uncle, the prime minister. It was no secret that Hamad was not qualified to challenge his uncle and that he was unable to scale him down without a popular base to support his moves. Due to all of this, the steps of the new Emir throughout his first year remained confined to the path his father followed. 

In spite of the official media's praise and exaggerations about the prince's new reform intentions, the prince tried to prevent the wave of optimism that spread across the country from resulting in the belief that he was about to make a serious change in the nature of his family's relationship with the people. He rather maintained even the formalities of that relationship and rituals as we knew them in the era of his grandfather and father, including royal grants and individual meetings with representatives of community groups and dignitaries of the country, including clerics of the two religious communities. However, the new Emir added to the legacy of his grandfather and father individual meetings with representatives of political movements.

It was not in vain that Hamad avoided group meetings with representatives of social groups and focused on individual meetings with representatives of each faction. This is part of the rituals that were established in the past, especially in the era of his grandfather, and were nurtured with painstaking efforts made by his father and uncle for more than five decades. These rituals contributed to maintaining the vertical division of Bahraini society and preventing long-term political and social cooperation between social components.

Hamad focused his efforts in his first year on attempts to strengthen his relationship with the local and foreign forces on which the "legitimacy" of the regime he inherited was based. On the local level, Hamad's priority was to provide what he could to reassure two local forces: first, his family, Al Khalifa, and its tribal supporters, and second, the religious establishment with both its Shiite and Sunni branches. Despite his lack of political experience, he was not unaware of the fact that his authority depended on the support of both forces. Over many decades under British hegemony, and later, these two forces contributed to the success of the regime's efforts to perpetuate the division of society into competing rivalries. They have also been the bigger beneficiaries of this division in its various sectarian, tribal or regionalistic forms.

Increase in Allocations

With regard to the Al Khalifa family, Hamad focused on strengthening his influence by increasing the monthly allocations for all members of the family according to a specific hierarchy, by restructuring the ruling family council and appointing those close to him in the council. The family council, which was founded in 1932, is particularly important in controlling the official relationship between the ruler and the rest of his family. It also settles civil disputes among family members. In accordance with an Emiri decree issued in 1973, the Al Khalifa Family council became an official organ of the state. The Emir/King appoints its members as recognized representatives of the various branches of the family.

The Council is headed by a member of the Al Khalifa family with the rank of Minister, who has an executive body, administrative offices and full-time staff. As for the Shiite and Sunni religious establishment, it had no reason to be concerned about the privileges it enjoys because of its closeness to the ruling family and its authority to supervise the religious affairs of the two religious communities, including the organization of personal status and inheritance issues through Sunni and Ja'afari courts, as well as the management of endowments and supervision of religious education and appointment of clerics and others in various religious institutions.

Despite the great importance of these measures in consolidating the new Emir's rule, they did not influence the prevention of the continuing political/security crisis that has existed since the eruption of the 1990s uprising, demanding the restoration of the 1973 Constitution and the cessation of violation of freedoms and human rights. The new Emir had to find a way out of what he called the "bottleneck" in which he found his power. Hamad announced that he would launch a new era "based on guaranteeing national unity and internal security through the solidarity of Bahraini citizens without discrimination regardless of their origins and sects." This was followed by a series of actions that were later dubbed the "Reform Project". The main elements of that project were the National Action Charter, which was presented in a referendum in February 2001.

The overwhelming support of the draft charter was a real reflection of the expectations of the elites and of the popular hopes that Shaikh Hamad would abide by his promises of reform, including easing restrictions on freedom of expression and association, revoking the travel bans on dissidents, annulling the State Security Law, and giving women their full rights as citizens. For a short time at first, things were going well. Hamad had already undertaken several reform initiatives, including granting women their political rights, issuing a general amnesty decree that led to the return of political deportees to the country and the release of political prisoners. However, subsequent developments in Bahrain after the 2001 referendum soon dispelled the optimism that prevailed on the night of the referendum.

One year after the referendum, it seemed that Shaikh Hamad was not keeping his reform commitments. On February 14, 2002, the Shaikh declared himself king and issued- unilaterally- a new constitution for his monarchy. According to the new constitution, the king is "the head of state, and supreme representative of the nation, and his person is inviolate. He is the loyal protector of the religion and the homeland, and the symbol of national unity." He is the only one competent to appoint the prime minister, ministers, ambassadors, governors, judges, members of the Shura Council, members of the Constitutional Court, and commanders of the Armed Forces, Security and National Guard. He alone has the power to dismiss them from their posts. The king may amend the Constitution, propose laws, and is the authority for their ratification and promulgation. He has the right to conclude treaties with other states without the need for parliamentary approval. Above all of that, the king according to his constitution has the final say in any legislative dispute or among other authorities in the kingdom.

The referendum on the National Action Charter did not, in the eyes of the king and the ruling family, lead to a new era based on the principles of modern constitutional monarchies. It rather gave him, as the king himself and a number of his senior family members had declared, absolute authority. This is what the King reaffirmed in his speeches, subsequent statements and articles published in his name. In one of them (2005), the king wrote that "intensity following intensity of the popular vote on the Charter" showed that "it is not only a contractual formula but a renewed pledge, and a national mandate for us to lead the march to its new horizons."

Many, led by opposition leaders, objected to this interpretation. No one imagined that a yes vote on the referendum on the National Action Charter meant allegiance to the king and mandate given to him to do whatever he wanted. However, these objections were not enough to change the direction of the king and his supporters. On the one hand, the dominant opinion among the leaders of the opposition organizations leaned towards warning of the danger of burning stages and to beware of embarrassing the king as he faces the old guard in the Al Khalifa family. On the other hand, a few opposition activists considered that the announcement of the royal constitution was a practical declaration that the king had begun to abandon his "reform project". 

The King introduced his new constitution with a series of decrees and additional laws aimed at fortifying and protecting the executive authority from future accountability. Among those decrees is royal pardon no. 56/2002 in favor of state employees, especially security officers, accused of human rights crimes and violations. The King thus denied thousands of political prisoners, hundreds of political deportees and victims of torture the right to pursue those who violated their rights in court and also denied them the right to adequate material and non-material compensation. Naturally, the pardon eliminated all hope of national reconciliation based on accountability of the past and those responsible for the crimes and violations committed, including the demise of dozens of martyrs.

* Bahraini writer and professor of sociology at Lund University, Sweden


Arabic Version



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