Why Bahrain’s opposition is boycotting poll

BAHRAIN SADA

Credit: Sada

Bahrain’s opposition is boycotting upcoming parliamentary elections, reasoning that the state’s power structures, including the parliament and the electoral process, are at the core of the country’s long-running political disputes, notes Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House.

For decades, opposition movements have sought to place checks on the power of the monarchy and obtain more power for elected representatives, she writes for Carnegie’s Sada Journal:

For its part, the government has hoped that by offering a space in which elected representatives can influence legislation, it would be able to contain demands for more radical political change. But the current parliamentary set-up lacks credibility with a large proportion—likely the majority—of the population. The upcoming elections are therefore likely to prompt more opposition protests, rather than provide a means of channeling and containing opposition activity. 

The last time Bahrain faced an uprising, in the 1990s, a large-scale protest movement called on the ruler to reinstate the country’s short-lived post-independence parliament, which was established in 1973 and abolished two years later. …

Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, the main opposition movement, and several other opposition groups have already tried boycotting the parliament, in 2002, and have also tried participating in it, in 2006 and 2010. But neither approach has brought about major political change, compared with the more dramatic effects of the political succession in 1999 or the mass uprising in 2011.

“The country’s various opposition groups are seeking something else that could once again change the game and break the political impasse, whether this is a negotiated transition (potentially empowering the country’s crown prince and weakening the more conservative power holders in the royal family), a decisive change to international policy toward Bahrain, or a fresh internal revolutionary upsurge,” she writes.  

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Paradigms Lost: Middle East’s Trends and Drivers

Salem 2014_0Four years after the uprisings that broke the mold of the old Middle East, 2015 promises to be another year of tumultuous change, notes Paul Salem, the Middle East Institute’s Vice President for Policy and Research. The eruptions of 2011 unleashed decades of pent-up tensions and dysfunction in the political, socioeconomic, and cultural spheres; these dynamics will take many years, if not decades, to play themselves out and settle into new paradigms and equilibriums.

In 2014, four Arab countries—Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen—sank decisively into the ranks of failed states with no longer any effective central authority over the expanse of national territory, he notes:

ISIS arose as the largest radical threat in the region’s modern history, challenging political borders and order and proposing political identities and governance paradigms. Sunni-Shi’i conflict intensified throughout the Levant and reached Yemen; an intra-Sunni conflict also pitted supporters and opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood.

arab reformEgypt rebuked its previously ruling Islamists and elected a military officer as president who has prioritized security and economics and cracked down heavily on dissent. Tunisia’s secular nationalists and Islamists found a way forward with a new constitution and inclusive national elections. Jordan and Lebanon have managed to maintain stability despite massive refugee inflows. A cautious Algeria maintained its status quo, reelecting an aging president to a fourth term. And Morocco continued its experiment in accommodation between a powerful monarchy and a government led by the moderate Islamist PJD party….

2015 promises to be no less turbulent than 2014, as domestic and regional dynamics continue to play out, says Salem:

The Battles of the Youth Bulge

Prime among these is a demographic youth bulge of historic proportions that burst the precarious piping of the old political and socioeconomic structures and will continue to overwhelm the social and institutional orders of the region for some time. Two thirds of the population is under the age of 30 and their search for jobs, identity, and empowerment will fuel the tumult of the region for many years. …

Power Shift toward the Populace

Advances in technology and communication have led to a power shift from once all-dominant states to an increasingly informed, powerful, and demanding populace, both as communities and individuals. They have access to the global web of information and communication; they can build virtual societies and communities of identity and interest; and they can mobilize and coordinate. …

Failing and Resurging States

ARAB BAROMETER LOGOTwenty percent of Arab states have failed in the past few years, others are teetering, some have adapted, and still others have regrouped to reassert old power. The failed states—Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen—have in common conditions of low national unity, but they have failed for different reasons. .….

Paradigms Lost

The Arab uprisings of 2011 heralded that the past paradigms had broken, but this created a scramble for new paradigms, and to date no new paradigm has emerged as paramount. The old paradigm of repressive authoritarianism and quiescent populations, in exchange for socioeconomic development, broke down in the face of slow and unequal economic growth, growing popular empowerment, and worsening government corruption and repression. The initial uprisings inarticulately threw up outlines of a paradigm of democratic, pluralistic, and socially just government. The Muslim Brotherhood proposed a paradigm of Islamist government. The military in Egypt is proposing a neo-nationalist paradigm in which order and economic growth are paramount. The Moroccan king might be on the road to evolving a constitutional monarchy. Lebanon and Tunisia are managing precarious but pluralistic and power sharing political systems. ….

Three years ago, Arab public opinion was resonant with a loose paradigm of popular empowerment and accountable and inclusive government; today it is a bickering Babel of competing paradigms. Until the region settles on a governance paradigm—as Western Europe did, albeit after centuries of conflict—this cacophony of visions and ideologies will continue to bedevil the region.  In the long run as this century develops, democratic and inclusive government—whether as constitutional monarchy or republican democracy—will probably be the only sustainable paradigm.

Political Islam and Secular Nationalism

islamists nytThese have been the best of years and the worst of years for political Islam. ….. Although nationalism has lost much of the ideological clarity it had several decades ago, in the face of strong Islamist narratives that seek to rearrange community and society along religious lines, there has been a resurgence in some countries of attachment to the broad outlines of nationalism that base community on attachment to the nation-state and the constitutions, institutions, and laws that it promulgates.

State and Civil Society

Civil society remains a key deficit in the Arab world. It played a key role in pushing back against an Islamist hegemony and pushing forward a political transition in Tunisia. It is essential in keeping the complex Lebanese social system together and inching forward. It played a key role in Egypt and other countries in 2011, demanding a new way forward. But in countries where civil society was weak, it was either overtaken by better organized Islamist movements, more powerful sectarian divisions, or a resurging state. In the attempt to rebuild national stability, whether in Egypt or elsewhere, it is important to realize that civil society is an ally in reclaiming public space and social power from divisive Islamist or sectarian narratives, and is a key factor in creating stable and sustainable state structures. Both the Mubarak regime in Egypt and the Assad regime in Syria were deeply skeptical of civil society and preferred Islamist organizations to fill up social space. This ultimately weakened the state and weakened state-society cohesion. In the long run, a healthy civil and political society provides the living link between state and society and provides the bedrock for state stability and the main antidote for radical movements….

Looking for White Swans

The region will continue to furnish the world with well more than its fair share of crises. The West took about five centuries to transition from medieval to “modern,” working through its wars of religion and battles to establish national identities and state borders, transform worldviews, try out radical ideologies, and eventually evolve toward stability, coexistence, and liberal democracy. This only occurred after two devastating world wars and genocide in the twentieth century. The Middle East started its profound transformation roughly a century and a half ago. It will take more than a few years to work itself out.

In the short term, extrapolating into 2015, the time horizon might be close enough to venture a few estimates. First, I do not mean to imply that the Middle East will be defined only by crisis. The majority of countries in the region, from Morocco to Iran, will likely maintain basic stability while working through various political, social, and economic challenges. Only a minority, including at least Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya, will predictably continue in deep crisis….

Iran’s regional policy, led by the Revolutionary Guards, continues to expand and founder at the same time. In the past three years, Iran’s proxies in Baghdad and Damascus have lost control of their countries and control now only rump states. In Syria, Iran had to send Hezbollah and its own commanders, trainers, and valuable resources to save the Assad regime from collapse; this effort has stretched Hezbollah and Iran, but Iran has shown no serious interest in real political change in Damascus as a way out of the crisis. …The trouble for Iran—and indeed its neighbors—is while its influence is expanding in the region, its policies are leading to the collapse of once-functioning states and to explosive sectarian tensions.

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Arab Democracy Index finds ‘buds of democracy growing in region’

arab reformDespite setbacks, reversals and disappointments of the Arab Spring, the latest edition of the Arab Democracy Index identifies an overall positive impact on the nine countries covered by its in-depth survey carried out by Arab social scientists.

Ranking of the 9 countries surveyed:

  • The top country registering overall positive changes and reforms is Morocco, followed by Jordan and Algeria. The fact that Morocco and Jordan have not witnessed uprisings shows that gradual change through reform is less costly. Algeria’s significant progress is the nervous response of a defensive regime spending billions in social and economic benefits to silence political demands.
  • The surprise is that Egypt and Tunisia (in 4th and 6th place) which experienced major revolutions – saw no change in ranking since 2011. This is because though real progress in freedoms was registered, these were countered by poorer living conditions and rising insecurity.
  • Bahrain came last, reflecting the most negative scenario, where a popular uprising – as in Libya, Syria and Yemen – was met with a harsh response in order to restore the government instead of allowing change.

“The good news is that in spite of the turbulence, the buds of democracy are growing in the Arab region,” said Bassma Kodmani, Director of the Arab Reform Initiative. “Our latest Index reveals that the seeds of change have propagated. Even more exciting is the fact that the countries’ rulers are responding to demands – in order to survive.”

Results confirm the good news that:

  • while growth is slow, the signals of continuing progress in democratic reforms are there;
  • public protest is the most effective compared to other means of pressure;
  • governments that didn’t want to give in on civic and political rights have developed emergency social and economic welfare plans to silence political demands. Thus the people have benefitted in one way or another.

The countries surveyed in ADI IV can be categorized into three types:

1. Countries that underwent revolutions

2. Countries affected by the uprisings in neighboring states

3. Countries that have taken a slow reform approach.

Recommendations for each country are offered on policy reform in order to encourage democratization, constitutional reforms and greater transparency. They range from granting greater freedom of expression in Algeria; to giving legal protection to those who denounce corruption in Lebanon; to allowing free establishment of political parties and associations in Kuwait.

Conclusion: the ruling Arab elites have realized that they must bring in reforms in order to survive. The current popular pressure will not be diffused through the old strategies of undemocratic co-option and cosmetic reforms.

*The Summary in English and the full report in Arabic are available on www.arab-reform.net or click below. A podcast interview with Bassma Kodmani discussing the ADI IV is available to access here.

Bahrain reform plan prompts protests, as court upholds activists’ jail terms

Maryam al-KhawajaOn September 18, Bahrain media reported that Crown Prince Salman, perceived as a conciliator, had sent a letter to his father, King Hamad, outlining areas of “common ground” in talks on political reforms, writes Simon Henderson, a Gulf specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy:

Five core elements were listed: redistricting to ensure greater representation; legislative changes to allow parliament to question ministers, including the prime minister; parliamentary approval of the cabinet; improvement in judicial standards and judiciary independence; and security-sector changes, including new codes of conduct for the security forces. In the absence of actual reforms, the crown prince’s efforts to clarify the issues could simply exacerbate the country’s divisions, Henderson suggests:

On September 19, Sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of the main al-Wefaq opposition faction, told a large group of demonstrators that the proposals did not represent “the will of the people” and the elections would be “illegitimate.” … The opposition is no doubt frustrated at being offered the prospect of political reform but only after elections in which their hope of victory is nil. A large-scale boycott would be embarrassing for the government, yet delaying the vote until reforms are enacted is probably not a realistic option. Under the constitution, polls have to be held before December 15 unless the king extends the terms of current members of parliament by two years. Perhaps the ominous presence of the “Islamic State”/ISIS in Syria and Iraq — which is a danger to Bahrain’s Shiites and ruling family alike — will avert a major crisis at home.

A Bahraini appeals court Sunday confirmed five-year jail terms imposed on nine Shiites, among them a photojournalist and an online activist, for calling for the overthrow of the Sunni monarchy, AFP reports:

Dozens of Bahraini Shiites have been handed lengthy prison terms after being convicted of involvement in protests that have shaken the kingdom since February 2011. The court upheld an April ruling sentencing photographer Hussain Hubail and activist Jassim al-Nuaimi, along with seven other Shiites, to five years in prison, after convicting them of promoting the overthrow of the regime “through illegal means via media and social networks”.

bahrainThe Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint program of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), has been informed by the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) about the provisional release pending trial of Ms. Maryam Al-Khawaja (above left),GCHR Co-Director and a member of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR):  

According to the information received, on September 18, 2014, the public prosecution ordered the release of Ms. Maryam Al-Khawaja pending her trial on 1 October 2014, for allegedly assaulting a police officer at the airport. A travel ban has been imposed on her and a guarantee of her place of residence was required as a condition of her release. She is due to appear on October 1 2014 before the High Criminal Court. If convicted, she can face up to two years of imprisonment.

Today, the Shia political opposition looks to London and Washington for help, but if there is no effective help, and if  they remain effectively disenfranchised, the day will come when some among them begin to look instead to Tehran, warns Elliott Abrams, a Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies with the Council on Foreign Relations:

That will be a disaster for Bahrain and for the United States– a kind of “reverse Iraq,” for in Iraq it was the Shia-led government of prime minister Maliki that refused compromise and alienated the Sunni population.

The United States should not today be pressuring the Shia community, led by the al-Wefaq organization, to participate in the elections come what may. The ground rules and the terms of compromise count. Al-Wefaq participated in parliament from 2006 to 2010 under pressure to play the political game, produce change, and reap the benefits. But there were no benefits; the experiment failed. Bahrain is today less free than it was a decade ago.

Instead, the United States should be pressing both sides for a genuine and meaningful compromise, and should be urging the King to act now to save his country from strife that surely lies ahead unless he uses his influence and his power to guide change, argues Abrams, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Bahrain’s ‘movement behind bars’

Maryam al-KhawajaA SPELL in prison has become the rule rather than the exception for the Khawajas, The Economist notes:

On August 29th Maryam al-Khawaja, a prominent activist, became the third member of the family to be detained by Bahrain’s government in the past twelve months for campaigning for rights. Ms Khawaja (pictured), a dual Bahraini-Danish citizen and co-director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), which has offices in Beirut and Copenhagen, was picked up at Manama airport as she arrived to try to visit her father, veteran prisoner-of-conscience Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. He has been in prison since 2011 and is ill from his ongoing hunger strike.

Bahrain’s authorities are due to report to the Human Rights Council, a UN body in Geneva, on the progress they have made on recommendations for reform made in wake of 2011, when over 40 protesters were killed. Human Rights Watch, a New York-based lobby, says the tiny Gulf nation has increased its use of arbitrary detention, ill treatment and torture of dissidents, including juveniles, over the past year…..British and European companies have been criticised for doing PR and surveillance for Bahrain’s rulers.

At 26, Maryam is the sort of woman that dictators have nightmares about, Sara Yasin writes for the Guardian:

She is one of the most prominent voices condemning Bahrain’s ongoing human rights violations, which have only continued in the years following a brutal crackdown on popular protests in February 2011.

Maryam’s public face is straightforward, clear and calm, cutting through the regime’s attempts to whitewash its human rights records. The Maryam I know is adept at debating human rights and the ins and outs of Arabic pop music in the same conversation. It’s the qualities that I’ve seen through our friendship that have made me respect her the most: she’s principled, compassionate, tough and stubborn as hell.

Bahrain’s activists have lashed out at Britain in particular (unlike Denmark which is said to be working to release Ms Khawaja), The Economist adds:

Ms Khawaja accused the British government of cooperating with Bahrain when she was blocked from boarding a British Airways flight from Copenhagen to Bahrain in 2013. Mr Rajab likewise claims to have been treated “like a criminal” by British authorities when he was detained on arrival from Bahrain at Heathrow in May. Britain’s foreign service says on its Facebook page that it is monitoring the situation and trying to foster “best practice”.  

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