February 16, 2013
After the Arab spring
The ruling Al-Khalifa family of Bahrain has offered hope of democratisation to the nation, but repeatedly failed to deliver, and intensified its dictatorship, certain that it will not be censured internationally.
by Marc Pellas
Twice in a decade Bahrain's ruling Al-Khalifa family allowed the tiny archipelago nation a brief hope of democratic change, only to dash those hopes with a return to absolutism. More than 98% of the population ratified a National Action Charter in February 2001, which set out terms (some of them negotiated) for establishing a democratic framework for the political system, the separation of powers and the supremacy of popular sovereignty. The new emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, seemed to have ended 25 leaden years of political exile, torture and repression.
The way appeared clear for the election of a representative parliament with full powers. But a year on, the emir quashed those hopes by declaring himself king and (unconstitutionally) imposing a new constitution, under which parliament had almost no powers and half of its 80 members were appointed by the monarch (1).
Gradually Bahrainis faced ever-greater political, social, professional, media and online controls. More and more people disapproved of the government, for allowing corruption to go unchecked and granting known torturers impunity; encouraging discrimination against the Shia majority; and fast-tracking the naturalisation of Pakistanis, Yemenis and Jordanians — all Sunnis, like the ruling dynasty — including many recruits to the police, intelligence service, army and the submissive judiciary.
Over time, after successive denials of democracy by a government most of whose ministers are from the Al-Khalifa family, a more radical alternative opposition with a republican agenda developed alongside the "legal" opposition, which allows its activities to be circumscribed within the framework of constitutional monarchy.
This split weakens the opposition by giving greater room for manoeuvre for the Al-Khalifa family and the Sunni community, which still believes it has more to gain by defending privilege and sectarian discrimination (2) than by embracing compromise. But it also highlights just what a tiny minority the regime represents, since the only major "legally declared" opposition party, Al Wefaq, won 64% of the popular vote in the last elections in October 2010, despite the registration of newly naturalised citizens and Saudi Sunnis who had rediscovered their Bahraini roots. This overwhelming victory translated into just 18 out of 40 seats because of gerrymandering, which Al Wefaq says obliges its candidates to secure up to six times more votes to be elected than a representative from the southern Sunni regions.
On 14 February 2011, the pro-democracy movement marked the tenth anniversary of the National Charter by joining the Arab Spring. The response was brutal: police and mercenaries fired live rounds at demonstrators and resumed torture. The deaths of seven demonstrators, the increase in republican slogans, the permanent rallying-point set up by demonstrators in Pearl Square, the New York Times (3) that blamed both oppressors and oppressed. It provided a useful chronology of events and described how detainees were hooded, whipped, beaten, raped (and threatened with rape), tortured with electricity and forced to sign confessions. It condemned the demolition of 30 Shia mosques and places of prayer and identified "at least" five deaths as a result of torture. It also concluded there was no evidence of Iranian interference.
After the Commission presented its findings in November 2011, King Hamad undertook to follow its recommendations. A year later, an assessment by the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and the NGO Project on Middle East Democracy found only three out of 26 had been carried through (4).
This January the Court of Appeal rejected appeals by 13 imprisoned protestors, including Aldulhadi al-Khawaja and Ibrahim Sharif, the Sunni secretary general of the legal leftwing Waad Party, who had been sentenced by military courts to between five and 25 years for "belonging to terrorist groups which aim to overthrow the system of government".
'Dialogue' without negotiation
Press releases sent to the media and foreign embassies by the government and its representatives have claimed that the current regime is the lesser evil and is not opposed to change, even if it is moving slowly. But every option put forward to the majority opposition continues the repressive status quo: there are offers of "dialogue" in which nothing is up for negotiation; "peace", understood to mean a ban on all peaceful demonstrations except in poor Shia districts, so as not to "damage the country's image abroad". "Stability", claimed to be a prerequisite for progress, remains the permanent mask behind which absolutism continues to hide.
Bahrain's monarchy is able to ignore the 176 human rights recommendations presented by the UN in Geneva last September without worrying the Security Council will impose any binding resolutions. Bahrain's rulers enjoy exceptional indulgence from the three permanent western members of the Security Council. The UK praises the king's efforts to democratise (he was invited to the queen's jubilee); France discreetly receives him (he has bought the most expensive private residence in Paris (5)) and seems reluctant to end a cooperation policy which includes "French savoir-faire" in maintaining order. In the Obama era, the US alternates between declaring support for the democratisation process and wholeheartedly backing a regime that hosts the forward headquarters of Centcom (US Central Command) and the general staff of the Fifth Fleet. The State Department, which insists that the opposition participate in "dialogue", also welcomed the Declaration of Principles of Non-Violence signed by the six main legal political organisations last November.
This declaration builds on the Manama Document, adopted a year earlier, and sketches a political platform based on the democratic principles in the National Charter of 2001. These impose a strict separation of powers, end religious segregation, and seek to guarantee the rule of law (including the right to demonstrate, and freedom of expression and of the press) as well as fair electoral divisions that would create both government and a single-chamber parliament.
The authorities project the conflict as a clash between Shia and Sunnis, a vision largely propagated by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates. In Bahrain, Sheikh Abdelatif al-Mahmud, leader of the Sunni National Unity Bloc, regards calls for democracy as a Shia plot with "hysterical proposals" that go beyond material demands into "the constitution, the organisation of the state and other political areas" (6), ambitions tantamount to a coup. He believes Bahrain's Shia can be divided into the hostile who "want to destroy, or at least weaken the Sunnis in order to usurp their citizenship"; a small fringe of opportunists who are waiting to see who wins; and the remaining 20%, who are "loyal to the sovereign". This has been used to justify the creation of citizens' associations of those who "fear for their wealth and honour", who have mobilised to "spread civil peace and cooperation and avoid disorder".
Hardline policies are the response of most of Bahrain's ruling families (and the privileged classes who support them) to the spread and radicalisation of demands for democracy. They can only worsen political tensions within the Gulf monarchies.
More by Marc Pellas
Marc Pellas is a Gulf and Arabian peninsula security specialist.
(1) See "Bahrain: the royals rule", Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, March 2005.
(2) A very full assessment, Bahrain's sectarian challenge, was produced in May 2005 by the International Crisis Group,
(3) "Protests in Bahrain Become Test of Wills] report on 100,000 demonstrators "in a nation of only 500,000 citizens": all these convinced King Hamad to release some demonstrators who had been arrested, deplore "the death of precious sons" and give Crown Prince Salman, who has a reputation as a moderate, the task of dialogue with the legalised opposition.
On 3 March the palace and "civil society representatives" agreed to a dialogue, whose procedures and outcomes the opposition wanted to be subject to international guarantees. Prince Salman published a "dialogue agenda" on 13 March, including an elected parliament with full powers, a government that represented the will of the people, fair constituency boundaries, a fight against corruption, a complete overhaul of naturalisation policy and the use of state assets, and a search for ways of easing sectarian tensions. But the crucial issue remained the opposition's wish that dialogue should lead to the appointment of an interim government, the election of a constituent assembly and a democratic constitution.
A 'Gulf shield'
At this point, an order from Saudi Arabia, infuriated by democratic unrest on its doorstep, and the Sunni elite's outright rejection of any challenge to their position of dominance, came together. A state of emergency was suddenly declared, and on 14 March police and military forces were reinforced by long columns of Saudi-Emirati armoured vehicles and 4,000 soldiers, supposed to be a "Gulf shield" intervention force against a so-called "Iranian plot".
Since then, human rights violations have increased: in November the opposition reported 82 deaths, including nine children, as a result of shootings, beatings and torture. It also reported protestors being suffocated in their homes during night raids. For the first time, women have been detained, tortured, condemned, sexually abused and even killed.
Serious allegations of torture have been made against King Hamad's fourth and fifth sons, Nasser and Khaled Al-Khalifa. Nasser is president of the Bahrain Olympic Committee and was appointed commander of the royal guard at 24. He warned on television: "Bahrain is an island. There's nowhere to run. And everyone will be called to account." He is accused of having hung prisoners by their feet, and torturing at least three opposition figures.
Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, Middle East director of Front Line Defenders, is a prominent international symbol of resistance to Bahraini absolutism. Cherif Bassiouni, the president appointed by the king to lead the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), classes Al-Khawaja as a prisoner of conscience. Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahraini Centre for Human Rights, was also arrested in July 2012 and jailed for two years on 12 December.
The BICI, which has been criticised by the opposition, produced a detailed report [[ «Report of the Bahrain independent commission of inquiry» (PDF), december 2011
(4) On the Pomed site, November 2012.
(5) In Paris's seventh arrondissement for €66m ($88m).
(6) On Asharq Alawsat online, 20 March 2011, quoted by the BBC.
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