Dr. Abdulhadi Khalaf: Outcome of 20 Years of Reform Ruse in Bahrain: Years of Lies (Part 2)

2019-07-26 - 6:05 p

Dr. Abdulhadi Khalaf *

On October 14, 2002, under the new Royal Constitution, the country's first parliamentary elections took place in the country, since the dissolution of the 1973 parliament. In a clear violation of the opinion of the country's dignitaries, including influential popular clerics, opposition organizations, spearheaded by the Shiite Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society and the leftist National Democratic Action Society "Wa'ad", called for boycotting those elections. Meanwhile, the authorities made great efforts to thwart the boycott campaign. These efforts included threatening the boycotters by depriving them of state services. The Royal Court also financed the election campaigns of a number of candidates, including some affiliated with one of the leftist organizations. Despite these efforts, the boycott campaign led to decreasing the voter turnout in the parliamentary elections to 53.4%. A very low percentage when compared to the participation rate of more than 90% during the referendum on the National Action Charter 18 months prior.

The low participation rate in the 2002 elections also reflected the disappointment among the citizens of Hamad backing down from his reform promises, as well as the strong unified position of the opposition organizations opposing the royal constitution. As a result of the rejection of these organizations to present candidates for the elections, the composition of the House of Representatives was below the required level. The 2002 parliament, despite its media promotion locally and externally, has not succeeded in giving the "constitutional Hamad monarchy" a credible parliamentary front. For their part, the constitutional and legal restrictions imposed on the parliament have limited its powers. This led to strengthening the opposition narrative, which is summarized in what the late national figure and one of the most prominent leaders of the 1990 uprising, Sheikh Abdulameer Al-Jamri, said before announcing his retirement from politics: "This is not the parliament we fought for".

Despite the laws restricting their activities, opposition organizations continued to organize various parallel activities at home and abroad to express their rejection of the new constitution and its outcomes. At the time, there was growing evidence of the strength of the opposition coalition's unity as well as its agreement on the importance of maintaining that unity and confirming its consensus on the rejection of the royal constitution and its outcomes. Since it insisted on the rejection of the royal constitution, opposition organizations denied the king the chance to brag in the media about his constitutional monarchy. Meanwhile, the unified opposition stance pushed Western forces, especially the United States and Britain to play their roles in exerting pressure for the purpose of reaching satisfying understandings between all sides in Bahrain.

At that period of time, the opposition intensified its activities that included organizing marches, mass rallies, forums and sending delegations outside the country. In response, the efforts of the king and his allies inside and outside Bahrain continued to back opposition organizations into a corner and convince them, namely Al-Wefaq Society, the largest opposition party, to reconsider their opposing stance to the 2002 constitution and back down from its boycott of participation in the parliamentary game. These efforts included a large number of government actions that coincided with tightening the grip of security services. Among the most important of these procedures was the issuance of a number of decrees and laws, including the Law on Political Societies and the Family Law Bill (Personal Status).

These actions, in addition to the king personally making a number of reassuring promises, contributed to undermining the position of opposition organizations rejecting the 2002 constitution. Little by little, the king and other sources of pressure managed to cause serious and deep divisions within these opposition organizations. In order to avoid being prevented from practicing its political activity publicly and to prevent its liquidation by the force of the new law, the leaders of most opposition groups accepted the terms of the new law and submitted applications for registration at the Ministry of Justice. The first was the acceptance of the 2002 constitution. The first of these conditions was the acceptance of the 2002 constitution. On the other hand, the unspoken understandings between the king and senior Shiite clerics contributed to a solution that satisfied both parties and ended the crisis between them by exempting the Shiites in Bahrain from the implementation of the Family Law.

These understandings gave further momentum to the slogan "politics is the art of the possible" to emphasize the importance of positive communication with the king and the ruling family. At the time, talks emerged about the legal cover of the opposition organizations' decision to participate in the parliament, which would pave the way for participation in state governance. In the prevailing climate of optimism, it was not sensible to recall similar understandings that, in 1974, led to the declaration of the State Security Decree, which placed Bahrain under tyranny for more than twenty-eight years. On the eve of the 2006 elections, the influence of the optimistic discourse increased, and among the licensed organizations, senior leadership members spoke of the removal of certain senior members of the ruling Al Khalifa family from their positions.

With this legitimate ambition, many opposition leaders known for their humility, sacrifice and patriotic history were unable to see what was actually happening on the ground, i.e. the goal of the "reform project," as the king sees it, was not turning Bahrain into a democratic constitutional monarchy as promoted by the state media. It was rather aimed at reshaping the relationship of the ruling family with sectarian, tribal and regional alliances that ensured the stability of the government since the British endorsed the general rules governing the relationship.

Only a few leading opposition figures and undeclared activist networks remained outside those understandings. They insisted on rejecting the 2002 Constitution and its consequences, including the Political Societies Act. With this "schism", a line was drawn between the "licensed" and the "unlicensed opposition".

In the beginning, the unlicensed opposition was represented by Al-Wafa Islamic Movement led by Mr. Abdelwahab Hussain and the Freedoms and Democracy Movement (Haq) led by Mr. Hassan Mushaima (The two men are now serving life sentences. They and many of their comrades have a history of struggle in which they have been imprisoned for long periods of time, and both have a religious and popular status among various groups, including supporters of the Al-Wefaq Society and other licensed opposition groups). In the midst of subsequent political disputes, the dividing line between licensed and unlicensed societies was to be transformed into a dividing line between the "appeasing side" and the opposition. These disputes, though often rough, have contributed to the diversification of political discourse and the expansion of the public sphere. They also posed questions about the role of legal covers that can be enjoyed by each political party.

At first, since they were small, no one expected that the rise of Haq and Al-Wafa would affect the balance of power in the country. Apart from the leaders of these two groups and their supporters, all the other parties seemed satisfied with the understandings and the results that had been achieved. The king, clerics and licensed opposition organizations have made gains that give each of them enough to reassure their audience and convince them of the importance of continued cooperation between them. Yes, these understandings did not convince the king and those around him to abide by the provisions of the National Action Charter, but they paved the way for alleviating the tension in the country.

Road to the Pearl Roundabout

In October 2006, parliamentary and municipal elections were held in which all licensed political organizations (which adhered to the Constitution of 2002 and were registered under the law at the Ministry of Justice) participated. Al-Wefaq achieved remarkable success both in terms of the number of votes obtained by its electoral lists and in terms of the number of its representatives in parliament who formed the largest parliamentary bloc in the 2006 Council and in the municipal councils. Al-Wefaqs achievements were repeated in the 2010 parliamentary and municipal elections. Other licensed opposition organizations did not succeed in getting any of their candidates to parliament in either of the two election sessions.

Al-Wefaq bloc was the largest parliamentary bloc in 2006 and 2010, but remained constrained by the restrictions imposed by the 2002 Constitution and the decrees promulgated by the king that year. These decrees do not allow any parliamentary bloc of any size to change a letter in a legislative text, no matter how marginal it may be, except with the approval of the majority of the elected parliament and the Shura Council appointed by the king. After that, the King himself must ratify the proposed change. This is why many were not surprised by the pessimistic remarks made by the Secretary-General of Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society and head of its parliamentary bloc, Sheikh Ali Salman (now serving a life sentence). Less than a year after his election to parliament, the Sheikh spoke of his remorse for running for the House of Representatives and raised the possibility of his bloc's withdrawal from the Parliament. However, as the Sheikh later explained (October 9, 2007), these hints were aimed at sending a message to several parties: "to the government for not being responsive, to political forces for lack of cooperation and some popular sectors."

Al-Wefaq parliamentary bloc made considerable efforts throughout its parliamentary activity. But it has not been able to exceed the limits of the role assigned to it, nor overcome the constitutional and legal impediments that render the Parliament unable to carry out its legislative and supervisory role. Therefore, despite good intentions, and despite tireless attempts, it was impossible to prevent the 2006 parliament from becoming a facade about which the king brags, as he had previously done with the 2002 parliament, and as he will do later with the 2010 parliament.

For their part, the security services did not stop placing obstacles in the face of political activity in the public space. Decisions were issued to prevent citizens, including elected representatives, from attending "meetings, conferences or seminars abroad or discuss local situations and affairs with representatives of foreign states, organizations or bodies" without prior authorization. Decisions were also issued banning the organization of rallies and marches in Manama, the capital of the country and the most densely populated city. Security services did not cease to prosecute human rights activists and trade unionists, including members of the Al-Wefaq and its supporters. Here lies a striking paradox. On the one hand, there was no interruption of communication between the king personally, his crown prince or officials of the royal court and influential Sunni and Shiite clerics. The king kept his pledge exempting the Shiite community from the implementation of the personal status law. However on the other hand, the king did not leave the participants in the parliament an opportunity to allow their supporters to see them as partners in the political decision-making process.

The arrogance of power made the king feel that it was in his interest to show that the elected members of parliament, including opponents and loyalists, are unable to pass any bill or question any minister. In fact, the king's disregard for the representatives of the opposition in the parliament reached to the point of using some of them as tools to pass royal favors to their constituents. Instead of appreciating the political sacrifice of the licensed opposition organizations of turning its refusal of the 2002 constitution into commitment to the constitution and participation in the establishment of its institutions, the king and his agencies marginalized the opposition and tightened their grip on their activities.

Security services did not stop banning rallies and demonstrations, and prosecuting opposition activists, including Al-Wefaq activists. Government efforts to change the demographic makeup in Bahrain by mass naturalization, especially of individuals recruited from Yemen, Pakistan and Syria to serve in the security and military institutions, did not stop as well. Meanwhile, the king continued to use the state apparatus and his parliamentary, security and judicial tools to thwart all attempts by Al-Wefaq parliamentary bloc to make progress, no matter how formal. In the context of that atmosphere, the feelings of frustration deepened among people, including supporters and members of Al-Wefaq and other licensed opposition organizations. It was no longer possible to argue that participation in parliament under the constraints imposed by the Royal Constitution will lead to the establishment of a proper parliamentary system in the country, not to mention the claim that continued participation will put Bahrain on the path of democratic transformation and establishment of a constitutional state that protects all its citizens.

Break Point at Pearl Roundabout

Between 2005 and 2011, Bahrain witnessed parallel and sometimes simultaneous movements organized by the licensed and unlicensed opposition. Naturally, the latter were the most vulnerable to the repression of the security services because of the slogans they raised, which the authorities consider to be a challenge to its legitimacy. It was therefore not surprising that unrecognized political organizations and human rights networks embraced the call for the "National Day of Fury" on February 14, 2011. Since its establishment, these groups have worked towards organizing protest activities and providing a human rights and political cover for them.

On the eve of the Day of Fury, a circumstantial alliance arose between youth groups and unlicensed political organizations, Haq and Al-Wafa. The alliance was able to impose its slogans throughout the period of the Pearl Roundabout uprising. Moreover, they were able to attract supporters and leaders of licensed political groups to participate. The resignation of the 18 Al-Wefaq MPs from the parliament came as a recognition of the failure of the political ruse launched by the king at the beginning of his reign.

In the four weeks of the uprising of the Pearl Roundabout, people broke the wall of fear, and a historic battle erupted, which the ranks of most opposition factions joined, including those who only wanted to reform the regime, those who insisted on radically changing the regime turning it into a modern constitutional monarchy, and those who only saw a solution in returning to the solution proposed by the National Union Authority mid last century, i.e. the removal of the tribal system of governance, replacing it with a republican system.

On the way to Pearl Roundabout, martyrs Ali Mushaima and Fadel al-Matrouk were shot dead by security forces. That day shook Bahrain, all of Bahrain. People did not imagine that the king would call the security services to kill unarmed demonstrators who thought that with their cheers they would move the conscience of a tyrannical authority that ignored and marginalized them and trampled on their dignity for decades. Things were aggravated by what was known as Bloody Thursday (February 17), when four were killed and 250 others injured at the Pearl Roundabout. With so many casualties, martyrs and wounded, anger spread against the brutality of the security forces, and the king did not find any other way but to go on the media to calm down the people. The king called the casualties martyrs for the first time in his life. But then went directly to the Ministry of Interior and Defense Force to congratulate the officers of the ministries and their soldiers on performing their duties successfully and to assure them of his support and gratitude for what they do to maintain security.

Bloody Thursday formed a tragic end to the ruse that went on too long. After Bloody Thursday, it was no longer an issue that can be settled by constitutional amendments or by arguments over the expansion of the powers of the parliament or the redress of human rights violations. The authorities, meaning the king, the ruling family and government bodies, crossed all the lines. For many, including me, the issue is no longer a matter of reforming the structure of the authority, but rather changing and replacing it. That is why many at the Pearl Roundabout expressed their conviction that there is no way out towards the salvation of the country and its people but by the overthrow of the regime. Not many parts of the opposition have reached that slogan, and many have not had the opportunity to study it or take a stand either for or against it. Saudi and Emirati forces entered the country in mid-March 2011 after the king and senior members of his family called for help. Neither the king nor his family needed to continue with the ruse of reform. He believes that, by this military intervention and the continued political and financial support of his brothers the rulers of the Gulf, Bahrain has regained the spoils of conquest as was the era of his father and the rest of his predecessors since 1783.

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


Arabic Version