A Serious Challenge Faces Bahrain

Hasan Shafaei

Bahrain can be described as 'an emerging democracy' as it has been engaging in a rapid process of democratization. As with all new democracies in transitional periods, it is a country which faces serious challenges that could either hamper its progress, or could successfully yield a stable state with well established laws and accepted norms. The challenges which have confronted Bahrain recently are the most serious challenges faced by the process of democratization since the beginning of the reforms eight years ago

The Kingdom's initial political reforms were based on reconciliation between the government and the people, during which the country was expected to move gradually towards democracy, practise freedom of expression and regulate government bodies and their practises according to human rights standards and clear legal bases.

However, this move did not at first satisfy all political parties, and was criticised by some as a tiny step which does not meet the minimum aspirations of Bahraini citizens. Others saw it as a generous initiative on the King's part that should be built upon and developed, whilst a third group alternated between these two views before finally deciding to take part in the political process.

As a result, legislative and council elections took place, the margin of freedom of expression has widened in all its forms, civil society organizations have increased in number, existing laws have been developed and new ones adopted, attempts were made to enforce control and accountability laws as well as many attempts to develop public services, strengthen the country's economy and combat unemployment, and so on.

But the experience has also uncovered the following:

1- Some active political parties do not want the experience of democracy to continue and succeed, either because they are below the required level, or they lack faith in democracy and its results

2- Government performances were below the required level particularly regarding public services and the economy.

3- The hard-line current of opposition has raised its demands, calling for the abolition of the political process, and was able to cause tensions on the street through continuous rioting, which not only disturbed the regime, but also reinforced the position of the opponents of reform.

4- Because of turmoil in the street, the reform process has lost some momentum and has tended to slow down at the political level in particular, perhaps due to the apprehension that accelerating the reform process might lead to chaos with unexpected consequences.

5- Some economic and political factors such as the Council of Representatives' failure to achieve major achievements to meet the aspirations of citizens, all combined to increase tensions in the street and then to transfer them to the Parliament itself. These tensions reached to its peak level last December after the government announced the discovery of a plot to overthrow the regime, in addition to the provocative speeches of last January which called for the overturning of the political system, and finally the arrest of some political activists who were charged with extremism and inciting violence, which in turn sparked a series of riots and protests.

Obviously, we are faced with a serious split that threatens the reform process, and is a cause for concern among political parties who are participating in the reforms and the government alike.

Writers, journalists and politicians are raising questions as to whether this constitutes a return to the previous security situation. Or can this political split transform into a split in the society itself due to the polarizing ideological and sectarian discourses? And does the government intend to overturn the reform project? And will the 'dark period' of the State Security Courts return?

On the other hand, the government is now questioning the purpose of freedoms and compromises if these did not provide security, and cannot remain handcuffed, unable to enforce its own laws in order to restrain those who breach them and call publicly for the overthrow of the royal family and the regime.

Undoubtedly, the ongoing rioting and breach of the law do not serve the advocates of reform or develop the current political process, particularly at the legislative level. Reformists will pay dearly if the current crisis is not contained, which can only benefit those hostile to reform and stability. The crisis has caused a split in opinions, for some say the reforms have undermined the country's security and weakened the political system, whilst others say that the political system is not serious enough about reforms and should be uprooted.

The inevitable result of this kind of logic is a great loss to both country and society, and will draw all those involved into an endless conflict, benefiting no one. So Advocates of reform and those who are great believers in political reform on both sides, official and public, are in need of a new reconciliation and also need to reconsider their relationship, emphasising national fundamentals, and giving new life to the political process. Moreover, it is a need to exercise restraint in accordance with the law and to also respect citizens' rights in order to preserve the gains achieved, without any abandonment of the strict application of the law on violators.