The Emir of Bahrain, Shaykh Hamad bin ‘Issa al-Khalifah, announced in a speech marking the country’s National Day on December 16 that he will be taking the country another step towards democracy. But, like everything about politics in the Gulf Arab states, the Emir’s notion of political reform is of a controlled process in which freedom and participation are not rights of the citizenry but rather favours granted by the ruler.
A high-level ‘Supreme National Committee’, presided over by justice and Islamic affairs minister Shaykh ‘Abdallah bin Khaled al-Khalifah and handpicked by the Emir, on December 19 “unanimously approved” a national charter as part of the promised reforms. The charter establishes a bicameral parliament consisting of a directly elected assembly, in which the cabinet ministers will be ex officio members, and an appointed, upper shura (consultative) council. Royal self-aggrandizement also lurked behind the twinkling gloss of reform: the plan seeks to “transform the state into constitutional monarchy,” thus affording the Emir the opportunity to crown himself king.
Other goals of the reforms, identified by the Emir in his National Day speech, were “further economic development and higher living standards for Bahrainis, under a thriving national economy.” He explained that “liberalization of the economy from all obstacles and red tape and opening the path for investments, without having them delayed by a political or administrative decision, are the main requirements for economic growth.” The emir ordered a one-month salary grant to state employees, a reduction of instalments on government housing, and a reduction of up to 50 percent in electricity charges for some users. He also promised to cut custom duties on imported cars from 20 percent to 15 percent.
The charter is part of a much-touted modernization programme ostensibly designed to adapt reform to the country’s “principles, foundations and values.” It will be put to popular referendum in February or March. It is made up of a preamble, setting out the broad parameters of the modernization, followed by seven chapters. These deal respectively with Bahrain’s history and identity, the basic pillars of society, the economic foundations of society, the system of government, parliamentary life, relations with other Gulf states, and foreign relations.
Some passages are a crude amalgam of contradictions, collapsing together the vocabulary of democracy and human rights rhetoric with medieval conceptions of feudal rule. Take for example the chapter dealing with the system of government: it pays homage to the “will of the people,” “democratic government,” and the exercise of sovereignty “by the people.” It also upholds the rule of law, human rights and the separation of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. Yet the document describes the political system as “hereditary in accordance with the constitution.” It states clearly that the emir, in addition to being head of state, heads all three branches of government. He is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces. His person is “inviolable” and he is the “symbol of stability” and the “mainstay of the system of government.”
But the national charter is not going through smoothly. Six of the 46 members of the emir’s handpicked drafting committee resigned in protest over its lack of independence and governmental interference in its work and deliberations. According to the London-based Bahrain Freedom Movement, the resignations came after members of the committee were asked to rubber-stamp the draft document of the charter that was presented to them by the government. The charter also fell short of satisfying the demands of the opposition, which include a process of national reconciliation, the release of all political prisoners and the return of thousands of exiles. It also does not guarantee freedom of association by extending the right to form political parties and trades unions. These are banned in Bahrain, which is considered a key commercial and financial hub in the Gulf.
Lest some foolhardy and romantic optimist misconstrue the national charter as a relaxation of al-Khalifah’s repressive apparatus, riot police fired teargas and rubber bullets at a peaceful mass demonstration marking Quds Day on December 22. Dozens of marchers were arrested outside the Ras al-Rumman mosque in the capital, Manama, where they were chanting pro-Palestinian slogans and calling for an end to zionist aggression and occupation. On December 27, the security forces prevented people from holding Eid prayers in the mosque of the village of Duraz and interrogated people, including the mosque’s imam, after pamphlets in support of the Palestinian intifada were distributed in the village.
In many ways, the proposed charter constitutes an effort on the part of the ruling family to camouflage Al-Khalifah’s autocratic rule with a facade of democracy. The most serious flaw in the charter is that it stands on thin constitutional ice. According to the country’s constitution, upon which the dynasty anchors its claim to legitimacy (Article 1), only parliament is entitled to make changes to the country’s constitution and system of government. There are no provisions in the constitution for an upper house. Article 2 stipulates that the legislative branch is composed of an elected unicameral parliament. Establishing a bicameral parliament or a monarchy amounts to amending the constitution, which according to Article 104 “shall be passed by a majority vote of two-thirds of the members constituting the Assembly (parliament) and ratified by the Emir.” As such, an appointed committee has no constitutional authority to make changes to the provisions of the constitution. The national charter is effectively an attempt to change the constitution by unconstitutional means.
The bicameral formula is a poisoned potion concocted with the aim of reducing the elected chamber to a toothless talking shop. In a representative system of government, citizens are supposed to be able to set the parameters of policy through their elected representatives. But autocratic governments usually introduce a bicameral system of parliament to exclude the people from the process of policy-making and to ensure that they retain control of the legislative branch and process, regardless of the will of the people, and of their values and preferences. Within such a scheme, the upper chamber serves to block and override any moves made by the lower house that run counter to the interests of the rulers.
Bahrain introduced an elected parliament in 1973. But the parliamentary process was aborted by the late Shaykh ‘Issa bin Salman, Shaykh Hamad’s father, who dissolved the assembly in August 1975, claiming that it was “obstructing the work of government.” The mainly Islamist and leftist opposition has campaigned ever since for the restoration of parliament. The campaign culminated in an Islamist-led uprising that lasted from 1994 and 1999, in which some 38 people were killed by government repression. The government’s draconian measures are carried out mainly by the country’s intelligence services, established by the notorious former British officer Ian Henderson, and now managed and manned largely by mercenaries from Britain and elsewhere.
In 1992, Shaykh ‘Issa moved to circumvent calls for the elected parliament to be restored by appointing a 40-member consultative assembly which has no legislative powers. It merely advises the government on draft laws before they are sent to the emir for approval. Last September, a new list was introduced, including for the first time a Jew, four women, one of whom is a Christian, and a businessman of Indian origin.
Seven ulama were arrested in January 1996 on charges of fomenting violence and spearheading unrest in the country, after three leading opposition figures were deported and sought refuge in Britain. Shaykh ‘Abd al-Amir al-Jamri, one of Bahrain’s most prominent ulama, was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment on charges of inciting the troubles, but was released and placed put under house arrest under a ‘pardon’ from the emir in July 1999. His request to be allowed to attend a memorial service on December 19 for his deceased sister was denied.
Apart from the release of a handful of political prisoners and the return of a small number of political exiles, Bahrain has had no real political change since Shaykh Hamad acceded to the throne after the death of his father in 1998. The few cosmetic moves were half-hearted, shown by the fact that the detainees were only released after signing documents in which they forfeit their right to take part in political and religious activities. According to the Bahrain Freedom Movement, security forces on December 20 detained Shaykh Hussein al-Akraf, a local alim, and tortured him. His offence was violating a pledge not to take part in religious and political activities, which he signed upon his release a few months earlier, by attending a religious gathering.
The sudden interest of Bahrain’s rulers in reform does not indicate a genuine change of heart. Following similar ventures into controlled reform in other Gulf countries, most notably Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, this interest reflects a growing realization among the autocratic governments in the region that they are becoming increasingly anachronistic. It exposes the brittleness of dynastic regimes that stake their claims to legitimacy on a formula combining repression with economic performance, in order to mask a vacuum resulting from the severance of virtually all associational links between the people and the government. The regimes’ problem is that whatever they are willing to concede (or can afford to concede) is almost bound to be too little, as well as to late.