Bahrain’s Uncertain Future
By Alexandre Josef
King Hamad’s speech at the United Nation General Assembly last month was the ultimate evidence of the impasse the small Kingdom of Bahrain has reached with regards to its national dialogue. Indeed, since the waves of protests hit the kingdom in February, Bahrain has turned into what some have described as an ‘island of fear.’ Horror accounts of violence, baseless arrests, or even torture have shattered the peaceful and tolerant image of the kingdom into another Lebanon: a place where sectarianism prevails, where religious sects are pitted one against the other, and where a ruling minority has nothing else than contempt for its subjects.
King Hamad spoke of tolerance at this latest General Assembly, and reassured the international community of his support for the outcome of the national dialogue, as well as his hopes for an all inclusive society. This speech, as pleasant as it might sound, reflects of the Bahraini regime’s hypocrisy and clear delusion. It is all flowers and talks, and no real steps are being taken towards a real reconciliation of the different groups of Bahrain after these tense past few months.
Ten years ago, following the “National Action Charter” that was established in order to reconcile the people of Bahrain, the king released various political prisoners and detainees to show the extent he was willing to go to for a united Bahrain. A large number of Bahraini people, unhappy with the political atmosphere of the country, had been protesting heavily to express their political and social grievances. Similar use of force was used until the king stepped up to present this National Action Charter.
Today, it seems that the Kingdom of Bahrain has come full circle. The violent repression and protests are repeating itself, and just like ten years ago, the King has decided to show his benevolence by generously granting his pardon to few political prisoners that were detained following the protests (including the poet and student, Ayat Al-Gomerzi, who had criticized the rule of the Khalifa family.) However, this time, King Hamad does not have the people’s trust on his side.
Ten years ago, he may have had the image of a reformer, freshly inheriting the power from his father, and most important, offering what people thought would bring change to the country: the National Action Charter. However, following the protests and the response of his regime, the King’s credibility has been highly compromised. Coincidentally, the Crown Prince, who was also perceived as a reformer, has been noticeably absent from the political scene ever since his failed attempt to bring the different parties together for dialogue in March. A large portion of the population has lost the respect it once had for the royal family, and the release of a few political prisoners will not wipe Pearl Square out of people’s memories.
The King declared in his speech at the UN General Assembly that a decade ago, the Bahraini regime had recognized “the need to proceed towards greater reform and improvement, keeping in mind the supreme interest of [its]people, to satisfy their demands for freedom, democracy and political participation.” Ten years ago, King Hamad had made similar promises. But it is no coincidence that the protests started on the 14th of February: the protesters chose this day to coincide with the tenth anniversary of this very National Action Charter. There have been very outspoken critics that, despite the promises of reforms, things have not changed over the past decade.
Because of the resignation of 18 members of the parliament following the government’s response to the protests, partial parliamentary elections just took place to appoint new representatives. The regime has praised the electoral turnout and declared it to be around 50 percent in districts with open seats, while the opposition party, Al Wefaq has denied such statement, claiming it is closer to 15 percent.
Despite the government rhetoric, it is therefore very clear that the split between the communities in Bahrain is growing wider than ever. The situation unlikely to improve if the government continues in the direction it is headed. By refusing to leave any place for dialogue, and harshly sentencing doctors, opposition members, or protesters, the island is going back to where it was ten years ago and to the ‘intifada of the 1990’s’.
Without concrete signs of dialogue or reforms, and with the very little trust a number of citizens have in their leaders following the recent events, nothing can be achieved. Meanwhile, the international community stands idly. The U.S., the real Gulf leader, pretends to encourage the Bahraini regime to engage in talks. The U.N. Human rights office has not taken firm steps against the leadership. At the same time, the U.S. has agreed to sell the Bahraini government weapons that will be very likely used by the regime against its own citizens: the promise of a disaster for U.S. foreign policy.
Alexandre Josef is a policy analyst at the Institute for Gulf Affairs