Sorry guys I haven't posted for a while, but I've been suffering from the after-effects of post-exams partying. Anyway, let me not waste any more time, and start blogging away. It seems to me over the last week or so, there have been four main developments. There is obviously the sad and worrying events in Saudi Arabia, but this has been commented to death on and I don't think one needs to write a whole blog length to convince anyone who is willing to be convinced that the events are dangerous, wrong, and worrying. Then there is the new European constitution, which I actually think, from a theoretical point of view, is one of the most interesting and landmark events to happen. Of course, the main thing in Bahrain nowadays is the developing political situation between the government and the opposition. Finally, and not least importantly, there is the European championship. I will try to comment on all of the last three, and maybe even make a connection between them!
First of all, since this is a blog mainly concerned with Bahrain, let us turn to the political situation there. The main talk nowadays, I think (again, I'm not in Bahrain in the moment, so I can only guess-timate from what I read and from what people back home tell me!), is the upcoming confrontation between the opposition and the government. Well, confrontation maybe is a harsh word, since apparently there is a big chance of dialogue occuring. In any case, I don't think the dialogue will be a friendly one, and I don't think the meeting will be similar to the one Al Thahrani, for example, would have with the government. I think in this one there'll be less tea drinking and chatting about how good the ghouzi is and more substantive political talks. Both sides, I think will go in trying to get as many concessions and exploit weaknesses from the other. I doubt the atmosphere that is going to fill this meeting is going to be one of, "hey, we're all pals, how about we try to build together one common strategy?."
Anyway, it definitely seems like the scale favours the government's side at the moment. The government, to their credit, have turned out to be more sly and foxy and political-wise than many expected. They have used every legal trick in the book available without resorting to extreme violence (although there were abuses in a couple of incidents, but they are no where near in the 90s) to check the oppositions moves. Other than the obvious uses of governments powers in the media, they have also used the government's powers in the law. first, as is obvious and expected, the government utilized all its newspapers to show its stance is right and the opposition is wrong. They then used their "interpretations of the laws" powers to hinder anything the opposition would do. They first blocked GCC nationals and other foreign observers from entering for the constitutional meeting. They then threatened any venue that dares to stage it by severe repercussions. They were successful in convincing the opposition to postpone it from its original date so that it does not embarass Bahrain on the international media when the formula 1 is occuring.
Then came tactics to deal with the petition. Again, the government threatened the societies that it cannot be a national petition, since the it is somehow "illegal" for non-members to sign a piece of paper. The opposition groups somehow thought they were smart and decided to open the petition up only for member. The government responded by arresting 19 petition organizers on charges with punishment ranging up to life imprisonment. Now, maybe in pulic relation terms this was not the best move, but it definitely sapped the strength out of the petition. It seems the petition now is as good as buried. Not to leave any loose ends untied, the government shipped out the Minister of Labour Majeed Al Alawi to London to meet with the the human rights associations there, which are traditionally who the opposition would resort to, to present a case on how amazing the advances in Bahrain have been and what a great democracy we have that would even make the United Kingdom's system blush.
Finally, let us not forget how amazingly the government was able to turn the parliament (with a few notable exceptions), into a tool for its own use, where it has become more of a tool to fight against the opposition and show how wrong they are instead of worrying more with the people's grievances and needs.
Well, there are always two sides to each story, so what has the opposition been able to accomplish? Sadly, so far it seems the opposition is the clear loser in this struggle. I mean, you never know, things might change in the next few days, and they might have a surprising trick up their sleeves (I do hope so), but at the moment, I don't think anyone can say they have the upper hand. They have been put on the defensive. Their main impetus, the petition, has been nearly lost. More worryingly, though, there are cracks beginning to show now in the coalition. I mean, no one expected Islamists and leftists to get along so well, and kudos to them for holding it together, but it seems now the strains are showing, not just between the societies but within the societies themselves. The biggest example, of this, I think is the letter of eight political figures (english) that was sent to the G8 meeting (arabic)
So what was this letter all about? It's eight political figures that have had various sorts of impact for the last 30 years (some are more active and with a larger popular support than others) in the Bahraini political development. They are four shi3a and four sunni, and are supposed to represent the spectrum of those that are asking for reform in Bahrain. They include religious scholars, former MPs, engineers, businessmen, former political party leaders, and former leaders and founders of Bahrain's workers union's movement in the seventies. They do not include, however, any of the current presidents of the political parties. Althought some of them are founding members of certain current parties (Ali Rabeia and Hesham Al Shehabi of the NDA and Abdul Wahab Hussain of Al Wefaq) and some are even current members of the administration (Hassan Mshaima3 of Al Wefaq), this letter was sent so as to not represent their political parties. In fact, it was even sent without the consent of the four opposition parties, and it seems the four parties were completely against it. The eight who sent form together another viewpoint on the situation, called "aldistooreyeen" or the "constitutionalists", which have a different take on the situation from the other four political parties.
So how do they differ from the opposition. Well basically the gist of their argument is that the current problem is a result of a constitutional blunder and that the whole reform aspect of democracy has been sapped by the new constitution. There is no way under the new constitution and current democratic system and mechanisms (i.e. mainly the parliament) that any serious reform will occur. The only realistic reform that could occur is if the king or the government directly authorized it. Other than that, there have been too many changes in the constitution, and the new structure of parliament too weak, for any sort of reform to occur that the king does not authorize. Basically, that the main and sole player is still the government, and fundamental change will only come through their explicit consent.
So how does this differ from the other four political parties? After all, this seems also to be what they have been calling for as well. Well the main difference lies in two parts: the petition, and the involvement of religious figures as the main drivers of the reform. The two are obviously interconnected. The above eight or the "constitutionalists", wanted the petition to be public and national, and not just confined to four political parties. They wanted the results that came out of the constitutional meeting (back in the beginning of this year) to be followed closely. The results stated that a national popular petition is the way the issue should be approached. They felt that closing the doors to a wide national petition and only confining it to four socieities was a huge tactical blunder, and it would give the upper hand to the government. It would cease to be a national petition anymore. Furthermore, it would set a very dangerous precedent, as national petitions have been an important part of bahraini political movements for the last 70 years. Caving in to the government's interpretation that only members of a political party can sign a petition, and that it would be unlawful if anyone else signed it, bodes ill for future petitions, as now the government can use what happened in the current situation as a precedent to use against future petitions. Furthermore, playing legal games with the government is futile, as the government will always have the upperhand in such manouevres and it will lead to the fall of the whole project (and I have to say they have been vindicated with regards to this last point in the current petition.)
Furthermore, they were very weary of making the religious figures the main drivers of political petition and reform. They do admit that religious scholars have a main role to play, but to make them sole players is dangerous. The decision to limit the petition to members of the political parties was taken, at the end of the day, by Sheikh Al Ghuraifi. Although they thought the support and input of religious scholars was essential, having the show run by Sheikh Isa Qasim, Sheikh Al Ghuraifi, and Sheikh Ali Salman was not the best move.
These cracks extend within parties and between them. Hisham Al Shehabi and Ali Rabeia are not completely in line with the path NDA, and in fact Abdul Rahman Al Nuaimi has criticized the letter to the G8 in his most recent column. Both of the above two were signatories as well to a letter warning of the dangers of politicizing the recent unions that have developed in Bahrain (both have been previous founders of the bahrain union movement in the seventies), even though the main winners were from Al Wefaq and NDA. Hassan Mshaime3 and Abdulwahab Hussain have their differences with the main Al Wefaq strategy as well, even though Hassan Mshaime3 is vice president. No one needs to be told about the differences Abdulwahab Hussain has, as he has resigned from his position in Al Wefaq, saying we have different views as to which is the best way forward, and because of that, it wouldn't be best for Al Wefaq for me to continue to be one of the main players, but I will continue to support whatever they do.
Basically, the gist is that all of the eight above continue to be active in their parties and support them, but also have their own views on certain matters. Maybe this can be interpreted as democracy is very healthy and is flourishing within the opposition groups, as although everyone seems to follow the main line that the parties are going for, they still voice their alternative views when necessary. However, it can also be interpreted as cracks showing up within the opposition.
Anyway, this also has to be put into context. Of the signatories, although all of them are well known within the political circles, not many continue to have a popular support base or continue to weild influence on the masses on a large scale. The only three that can be excepted are Hassan Mshaima3, Abdul WahaB Hussain, and Sheikh Isa Al Jowdar, the sunni religious scholar from Al Hidd (which amazingly, although he is a religious scholar, is more in line with the "constitutionalists" and their demands and much further away than Al Asalah and co). Even them, however, do not yeild as much influence as other figures. Hassan Mshaima3 and Abdul Wahab Hussain, although they have considerable support, it does not reach the size of support Sheikh Ali Salman, Sheikh Isa Qassim, and Sheikh Al Ghuraifi yield. The same goes for Sheikh Isa Al Jowdar, who although still very popular, does seem to have lost a lot of his influence to Al Asalah and Al Menber.
Anyway, we shouldn't take a gloomy picture on everything. Apparently there are talks that are about to occur between the governemnt and the four boycotting parties. There have been hiccups on this issue, such as the non-boycotting other parties whining that they should be included (although they can meet the governement and ministers anytime they want in parliament, and can voice their constitutional demands through parliament, but this is a classic case of "moma I don't want to be left out, they will steal all the spotlight from me."). However, there isn't much one can do except point out problems, how to solve them and what is the way forward, and then remain optimistic. Whichever way the reforms come, be it parliament, the government, the king, the four opposition parties, or the "constitutionalists", let's hope we can reach something better than the torrid situation we have now.