Bahrain experimenting with hollow democracy the West advocates for Arab countries

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Shaykh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifah, Bahrain’s emir, proclaimed himself king on February 14, declaring the emirate the Kingdom of Bahrain and adding a crown to its flag. At the same time, he also conferred assent on constitutional amendments, and called for municipal and legislative elections in May and October respectively.

Hamad said that he was bringing democracy to Bahrain, but there is good reason for scepticism. The process of reform has itself been anything but democratic. It unfolded as an act of ‘political magnanimity’, starting as an emiri initiative and then proceeding as a series of hand-outs. Hamad made little effort to consult political groups. The constitutional changes, introduced without an elected parliament in office, also stand on thin constitutional ice. The constitution stipulates that such amendments ‘shall be passed by a majority vote of two-thirds of the members constituting the [legislative] Assembly and ratified by the Amir’ (Article 104). The country’s parliament was dissolved in 1975 because it refused to pass a law allowing arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. It has never been restored.

Like his peers, such as Abdullah II of Jordan and Muhammad VI of Morocco, Hamad has tried to use reform to overcome a crisis of political legitimacy that is also compounded by economic difficulties. ‘Reform’ has become these regimes’ pre-emptive move to increase participation in the routine business of government, while retaining control of the most important matters. Thus, upon succeeding to power in March 1999, Hamad pledged to install a fully elected parliament. He has since released hundreds of political prisoners and allowed hundreds of political exiles to return to the country.

A committee that Hamad appointed in November 2000, headed by justice minister Shaykh Abdallah bin Khalid al-Khalifah, drafted a National Action Charter that proposed constitutional changes. It called for an elected assembly and a constitutional monarchy. In the referendum last year, 98.4 percent of Bahrainis voted in favour of it. The Charter was a carefully calculated stratagem. By linking a hereditary monarchy to the call for an elected assembly, Hamad sought to secure a popular endorsement, albeit indirect, for the Khalifah dynasty’s rule. Although the Charter claims to promote a system of government based on checks and balances, with separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches, and also independence of the judiciary, it puts the king in charge of all branches, including the appointment and dismissal of the prime minister and cabinet.

For most of the 1990s Bahrain suffered serious unrest, in which some 40 people died, thousands were arrested, and entire neighbourhoods and villages were besieged for extended periods. The unrest, which came to be known as an intifada (uprising), was caused by demands for the restoration of parliament, which had been established by the constitution of 1972. A general amnesty, paving the way for the return of exiles and the release of prisoners, was also on the protesters’ agenda. The intifada of Bahrain erupted after repeated efforts to petition the government peacefully on matters of political reform failed.

Political manoeuvring within the ‘royal’ family has also driven the reform process indirectly. Shaykh Khalifah bin Salman, the emir’s uncle, who has been prime minister for three decades and has great influence, is a strong opponent of political reform. He and his family are considered to have the most to lose in any serious inquiry into sleaze and influence peddling. Hamad is believed to have used the reform process to establish his authority against his uncle, who had favoured his own son for the throne.

The Charter is silent on a number of issues. It says nothing about the State Security Law, a decree that allowed for arbitrary detention and trials for vaguely defined ‘acts’ or ‘statements’ that allegedly pose a threat to ‘state security.’ The law, which also established the notorious State Security Court, was recently abolished by royal decree, thus leaving the door open for its re-enactment. The Charter also says nothing about the Penal Code amendments of 1976, which have been used to prevent Bahraini citizens from exercising their freedom of assembly, association and expression. Security bodies with a long history of abuses of human rights, including torture and forced exile, such as the Special Branch, the Criminal Investigative Directorate and the Public Security Force, also remain operational under interior minister Shaykh Muhammad bin Khalifah al-Khalifah, who is close to the prime minister.

The Charter establishes a bicameral legislature, with a lower chamber elected by ‘direct and free elections’ and an upper, a consultative council of ‘experts and scholars,’ appointed by the government ‘to offer their advice and knowledge when needed.’ Elections for the lower chamber will be held October 24. All men and women over the age of 20 will be eligible to vote and run for office in both parliamentary and municipal elections.

The two chambers will share legislative power. The elected body will watch over the government; the appointed council is likely to wield a veto power, enabling the government to interfere in the legislative process. The Charter shies away from spelling out the exact roles and powers of the two chambers. Nor does it contain prescriptions for resolving differences between them. Bicameral parliaments sharing legislative powers are usually popularly elected; when the upper chamber is not elected, as in Britain, it usually has limited and well-defined powers.

Despite its limitations, these developments put Bahrain ahead of any other member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Kuwait is the only other GCC state to have public input into the policy-making process through an elected legislature. But only a small minority of ‘first-class’ Kuwaitis, men who can trace their roots in the country to before 1926, can vote or stand for election; Kuwaiti women may not do either. The other GCC states (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and the UAE) all have only appointed consultative councils.

Since the process of reform started, Bahrain has been having relatively open debate about various issues, with opposition members able, for the first time in the country’s modern history, to speak their minds without being arrested. This is a notable departure from the Bahraini government’s traditional intolerance of criticism. The government has also licensed two new newspapers. Civil society has been rejuvenated, as shown by the vigorous activity of a host of new social and political associations. There is a new human rights society, a committee opposed to normalization with Israel, and even a cat-protection group. A number of women’s organizations have announced their intention to form a Bahrain Women’s Union.

But the burgeoning number of political groups, in a small country of less than half a million citizens, undermines the possibility of effective opposition. The announcement that parliamentary elections will be held in October 2002 has also thrown the opposition into disarray. Originally the government said, mainly through leaked press reports, that elections will be held in 2004. Caught off guard, the opposition groups find themselves scrambling to draft their electoral platforms in time. Other groups are still debating whether or not to take part in the elections on these terms.

The government continues to harass the opposition, although not as badly as before. Ramla Jawad, a woman from the village of Sitra who was arrested and tortured in the 1990s, told the BBC recently that a senior member of the security forces continues to harass her and that ‘he threatened her life… after she spoke to the media about her time in prison’ (February 15, 2002).

Last month the authorities warned more than a dozen opposition activists not to travel outside the country, claiming that their names appear on a US terrorist blacklist. The activists said that the officials told them that they are safe only in Bahrain, and that they risk being held on international arrest warrants related to ‘terrorism’ charges while travelling abroad. The government’s bluff was exposed when word of its warning leaked to the press, prompting the US embassy in Bahrain to issue a denial on February 7: ‘There are currently no Bahraini institutions or citizens on either of these lists.’

Although it is tiny, Bahrain’s political stability is important to the West. The country is a close US ally and base to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Bahrain is also the GCC’s regional and commercial hub. So far the Bahraini opposition has not objected to the US’s military presence in the country, but this could change as anti-American feeling continues to sweep the region. The parliament will also increase the space available for dissent.

So far the political reforms have not been combined with meaningful economic reform. Bahrain’s oil-poor economy is still dependent on GCC subsidies, mainly from Saudi Arabia but also from the UAE and Kuwait, for about one-fifth of its revenue. The Bahraini government has not changed its discriminatory employment policy against the country’s majority Shi’ah population. Overall unemployment in Bahrain is about 30 percent. The government has shown no willingness to change its spending patterns to favour social services, job-training and the private sector, especially the development of small businesses. Instead, the focus is still on the non-labour-intensive sectors of construction, tourism and banking. Nor has there been any effort to control the ruling family’s spending of public funds. The peaceful demonstrations in January that pressed the government for jobs point to the alarming implications of joblessness if it is left untackled.

It remains uncertain whether the new system, in which the monarch has the final say on most matters, can bring Bahrain any benefits of genuine political reform. The current euphoria will pass sooner or later. But raised expectations may fuel more frustrations, dissent and unrest, thus aggravating tensions with the government. Eventually the stability of the monarchy may well be undermined, not shored up.

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