Bahrain’s Political Crisis and the Prerequisite for Dialogue

Hasan Moosa Shafaei

Hasan Moosa Shafaei

The political reforms initiated in early 2001 have failed to meet the rising expectations of Bahraini citizens. These failures led many Bahrainis to organize demonstrations in order to express their need for greater reform. Many countries began with limited reforms, which encouraged their people to demand more. It is difficult to put limits on reforms or prevent citizens from aspiring for more change.

The calls for greater reform in Bahrain were initially met by fear from some parties in the Government and by street violence. These two obstacles gradually slowed the pace of the reform and tarnished its image.

It was clear that the Arab revolutions would have a big impact on Bahrain. Citizens of counties, which are undergoing reform and enjoy a wide margin of freedom, will generally be more able to express their aspirations than those living in absolute dictatorships. This was evident in Egypt, Morocco, Yemen, Iraq, Jordan and Bahrain.

The main effect of the Arab Revolutions on the four monarchies (Morocco, Jordan, Bahrain and Oman) was reformist in nature. There was an expectation that the political changes in these countries will take the form of reforms rather than revolution. Bahrain should have taken the same steps as Morocco. Citizens should have been allowed to demonstrate, air their political demands, and the Government should have met at least some of their demands. In this manner the protests would give greater momentum to the reform project and lead to the evolution of society and the political system in a peaceful, civilised and democratic manner.

What was expected, and what actually took place are two different things as we are all well aware. At the start of the protests the regime used excessive force, which resulted in many casualties. The Government apologised and promised to conduct an investigation but the opposition took an extreme stance, which was accompanied by some acts of vandalism. During this situation, calls for dialogue, which the Crown Prince initiated, had failed. Part of the opposition called for the overthrow of the regime, and to change the political system from monarchy to republic through civil disobedience. This resulted in clashes, the intervention of the Peninsula Shield Force and the declaration of the state of emergency. The situation has calmed down since the clashes, and life has gone back to normal despite continuing tension.

Some groups inside the Government wanted to break the will of the protesters by resorting to force, which ultimately failed. The Crown Prince tried to contain the public demands by calling for dialogue. But the opposition responded by persisting with their demands and continued to demonstrate. Once the security forces took control of the streets we returned back to square one, where the Government wants to enforce its will on the opposition.

It is safe to say that the Government and the opposition represented by Al Wefaq and its allies have failed to deal with this crisis. The moderates on both sides have lost tremendously. But the main loss lies in the emergence of sectarianism inside Bahrain’s social fabric.

At present there is a grave need to return back to square one. Dialogue between both the Government and the opposition should take place as soon as possible in order to regain stability and bring about a new reform project that would satisfy all parties. To achieve this, the following points need to be taken into consideration:

1- The security solution cannot succeed in dampening the desire for serious reforms that would develop the political system. The Government has proven its ability to restore security. But this solution is short lived and the situation could go out of control unless political solutions are reached which would defuse tension. Winning the hearts and minds of Bahrainis is more important than controlling the streets and public squares.

2 - It is difficult for dialogue to succeed when the moderate opposition is under pressure. This will weaken the moderate opposition and will pave the way for the emergence of new extreme oppositions. Dialogue will also fail if the opposition continues to use the street and set pre-conditions to pressurize the Government. The Government does not want to be seen as weak neither does the opposition. Setting pre-conditions for dialogue will complicate matters and will make dialogue meaningless.

3 – Under the street’s pressure, the moderate opposition was forced to raise their demands par vis–à–vis the radical group that demanded the overthrow of the regime and the establishment of a republic. The opposition should have led the protesters instead of giving way to their pressure, especially once they decided to boycott the dialogue which was against their interests. The opposition should have guided the street, reduced the tension, and spoken with wisdom in order to overcome this painful time.

4 - Bahrain does not need mediators to facilitate dialogue between the various political parties. What Bahrain needs is to build trust between the major political forces and find local sponsors for the dialogue. Some basic rules were violated, especially the call to overthrow the regime and the Royal Family, whose position and role were defined in two referendums: the 1971 Referendum on the eve of independence; and the 2001 National Action Charter Referendum. Both referendums emphasized the importance of maintaining the position of the Royal Family. On the other hand, the Government also violated human rights by using excessive force against protesters at the beginning of the demonstrations, which resulted in many casualties.

5 - For dialogue to succeed, forgiveness is very important in this difficult time. Dialogue needs a conducive atmosphere and political climate. Mistakes were made by all parties, human rights were violated but everyone should be treated equally in the eyes of the law. Indeed, there is need to reinforce the security and stability of the country, but retribution will only cause more pain and undermine dialogue. For example, the Government had stripped scholarships from students, sacked employees and imprisoned some protesters for their participation in demonstrations. In times of schism, such actions will only complicate matters further, especially the fierce sectarian debates taking place on State TV channels. If the objective of these actions was to restore normality, forgiveness is as important as implementing the law. Dialogue will open a new chapter in the history of the country, and close this painful episode.

6 - Dialogue should put an end to this crisis, which cannot be solved by implementing the law alone. The problem can only be solved through a political consensus, which is protected by the law and supported by the people. Dialogue must include all political parties, which the Crown Prince and others had stressed. It is worth noting that consensus should also include those who adopt an extreme position. We do not want to return to the same old problem where some political parties are actively engaged in the political process, whilst others are strongly against it. The only solution lies in having negotiators from both the Government and the moderate opposition that could persuade the extremists to participate in the political process. This should be done by enacting quick and attractive reforms. Also, extremists should be isolated in accordance with the law and with the agreement and support of all political parties. More importantly, they should be isolated through the enactment of a fast and successful political reform process. Extremism has gained ground at the expense of moderation due to the slow pace of the political reform, and the delay in providing public services.

Finally, the sectarian climate has prevented all parties from compromising or engaging in dialogue. Deep sectarian division has taken over Bahraini society and it is easy to provoke sectarian feelings and use them politically. Unfortunately, the damage caused by sectarianism is very deep and years are needed to restore national unity. Sectarianism is still playing a damaging role through the media. The time has come to silence sectarian voices whether they are local or foreign, in order to create an open atmosphere for political reconciliation. The negotiators are required to put forward practical steps to promote co-existence on the political, social, economic and cultural levels.

Bahrain is a diverse country and its political crisis can be solved just like any other country. Any solution for a consensual constitutional monarchy must include the Royal Family, the Shia and the Sunnis. No party can ignore the other or monopolize power or return the country back to its previous state. The country has undergone political changes since the start of the millennium which are irreversible.