By Adam Simpson for Gulf State Analytics
Nearly four years have passed since Bahraini activists began a concentrated campaign of non-violent protests aimed at achieving an array of structural changes to the country’s political system. Despite sharing the historical moment with Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen, where uprisings resulted in the ouster of long-standing authoritarian leaders and regimes, Bahrain’s presumptive revolutionaries have thus far failed to affect such a transition or achieve meaningful concessions from their government.
A Suppressed Awakening
The persistence of the protesters has been matched by the regime’s persistently oppressive security forces and intransigent ruling family. A national dialogue process that limped along for two years and recent parliamentary elections—among other initiatives—have all failed to satisfy demands for democratic reform and social equality between Sunnis and Shi’ites. How then has Bahrain remained in such stasis given this apparent tumult?
Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and other analysts continue to propagate the paradigm of a tense triumvirate leading Bahrain. With Prime Minister Sheikh Al Khalifa representing the regime’s so-called ‘hard-liners’ and Deputy Prime Minister and Crown Prince Salman Al Khalifa among the ‘reformers,’ King Hamad is said to be the “vacillating” force at the center that balances out these two apparently opposed forces.
However, this is the same scenario the Gulf Arab nation found itself during the 1990s when then-Crown Prince Hamad was said to be the reformer battling Sheikh Al Khalifa over Bahrain’s future. Sheikh Al Khalifa has been a source of tension between the regime and the opposition since he began his enduring tenure as Prime Minister in 1971. King Hamad’s re-appointment of Sheikh Al Khalifa should serve to complicate this narrative, as should the larger implications—or lack thereof—of Bahrain’s recent parliamentary elections, held in November 2014.
Beyond the actual composition of Bahrain’s parliament lies the body’s inherent impotence, the reform of which remains a primary demand of the country’s opposition. The eighty-member body is divided evenly into forty-member upper and lower houses; the parliamentarians in the upper house are all appointed by the king, while the lower house is elected by popular elections. The lower house’s general lack of political power is plainly expressed in the body’s inability to affect ministerial appointments whatsoever, which remain the exclusive purview of the king. Moreover, a lack of reform of Bahrain’s political districts—subject to long-running accusations of gerrymandering—has fueled the ire of the opposition. Criticism of the actual electoral process is difficult to determine as a result of the government’s refusal to allow foreign observers.
The previous 2010 elections resulted in eighteen seats for al-Wefaq, a Shi’ite political society that constitutes the largest component of the opposition. However, the group boycotted the most recent elections, as did Wa’ad, a predominantly Sunni secular leftist political society. The boycott was the result of disputes between opposition factions and the ruling Al Khalifa family.
Despite the government rescinding the various legal actions against the opposition’s political societies (political parties are banned in the kingdom), including a move to ban al-Wefaq, the ultimate reasons for the boycott came down to the aforementioned practical matters of parliamentary powers and gerrymandering. In various statements, al-Wefaq and others continued to refer to the elections as a sham. Acceding to elections in the face of these conditions could have resulted in Bahrain’s opposition losing credibility with constituents who are growing continually frustrated by the lack of progress. However, it remains to be seen how their constituents will come to view being exiled from what space for popular representation remains in the kingdom. On January 4, the head of al-Wefaq, Ali Salman, was formally charged with crimes related to speeches given since 2012, including statements made recently deriding the November elections.
Read the rest at Gulf State Analytics.