Bahrain: Must be election season
Toby Jones, Swarthmore College
Sectarianism, political fraud, and police brutality are on the rise in Bahrain. It must be election season.
In September 2006 US President George Bush cited Bahrain as an example of the “real” changes taking place in the Middle East and that the country was evidence that “as liberty flourishes, nations grow in tolerance and hope and peace.” The reality could not be more different. On the eve of new elections Bahrain’s political crisis appears as bad as ever.
Four years ago, Bahrain’s liberal experiment got off to a rocky start. Amidst allegations that the Sunni-controlled Bahraini government had gerrymandered voting districts to discriminate against the country’s Shi‘a majority, most Shi‘is – in alliance with a sizeable Sunni bloc -- boycotted the 2002 parliamentary elections. Critics also charged that by promulgating a new constitution without consulting leading activists, it had set up a weak legislative branch that was subordinate to the King and his Cabinet. The result was political gridlock, simmering tensions between the government and the opposition, and an ineffective legislative branch that passed few laws in its first four years, confirming the opposition's claim that the institution possessed little real authority.
The country is scheduled to hold its next round of parliamentary elections in late November. The good news is that al-Wefaq, a Shi‘a political society and the leading member of the opposition, has ended the boycott and is fielding as many as 22 candidates for the elections. The other main opposition societies, including the mixed Shi‘a-Sunni Democratic Action Society, as well as several prominent independent activists have also decided to compete for seats in parliament. In ending the boycott, the opposition has made clear that while they still oppose the current constitution and the (im)balance of power in Bahrain, they have decided to pursue changing from the inside. The bad news is that in spite of clamoring for four years for the country’s opposition societies and especially the Shi‘is to participate in the system, powerful members of the al-Khalifa government view such a prospect as a threat to their power.
The depth of the government’s paranoia and the steps royal family members have taken to shore up their authority was revealed in mid-September when the details of “Bandargate,” a political scandal that has shocked the island nation and cast serious doubts over the upcoming elections, began to unfold. Salah al-Bandar, a British citizen who had been working as a consultant to the Ministry of Cabinet Affairs, circulated a lengthy report [Arabic PDF] published by a London-based NGO called the Gulf Centre for Democratic Development alleging a secret plot on the part of Bahraini officials to foment sectarianism and rig the elections. He was subsequently deported and then formally charged with “illegally acquiring government documents.”
Bandar’s report contained documents that suggest the existence of a “secret organization” within the Central Informatics Office [Arabic] headed by royal family member Shaikh Ahmed bin Attiyatallah that sought to manipulate the outcome of the elections, deepen distrust between Sunnis and Shi‘is, and even promote the conversion of Shi‘is to Sunnism. According to the report Shaikh Ahmad paid over BD 1 million to government employees, journalists, members of both the appointed and elected houses of parliament (Faisal Foulad, Jamal Daoud, Jassim al-Saidi, and Salah Ali), Jordanian intelligence officials, and an Egyptian media outfit.
Even before the release of Bandar’s report Bahrainis had expressed anxiety about the elections and the potential for fraud. A chief concern was the possibility that the government would follow through on its plan to implement electronic voting. The Central Informatics Office, at the eye of the Bandargate storm, had also been responsible for managing what was to be Bahrain’s first experiment in e-voting. Most citizens were opposed to e-voting, citing its susceptibility to various levels of fraud, especially efforts by the government itself to alter the outcome. Bandar’s report served to confirm widespread suspicion that the government was up to no good. Mounting pressure as well as the appearance of guilt led the CIO to shelve plans to use e-voting until 2010.
Confronted with well-documented evidence that the CIO was complicit in efforts to exploit sectarian anxieties and cheat the electorate, the government has utterly failed to respond. Denials and recriminations from those implicated abound. But, for its part the government has done little to restore voter confidence or to dampen the fallout, particularly Shi‘a anger. In fact, the government is making matters worse and drawing attention to its guilt by attempting to silencing discussion of the issue altogether. On October 4, the Bahrain News Agency issued a release stating that “the senior criminal court issued a decision today preventing the publishing of any news, comments or information regarding the case of Salah Al Bander…The decision came after some newspapers had written about the case in a way that could harm national interests, sow sedition and sensitivity among members of the community and influence the court. The newspapers were writing about incidents that were neither supported by documents, nor presented to the public prosecution nor verified by any means.” So far, in spite of their protests, the local media has behaved, dutifully self-censoring. But the scandal has hardly run its course. In addition to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, vibrant and politically charged Arabic and English language Bahraini blogs have picked up the slack and keeping the story alive. While the government remains mostly immune to political pressure from the blogosphere, it is discomforted by it.
While Bandargate rages on, Bahrain’s government has sought other means to manipulate sectarianism. As they did in 2002, the government continues to unapologetically extend citizenship and voting rights to Sunnis from around the region (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, Pakistan) in order to tip the demographic balance of the country in their favor.
Where such manipulation falls short, Bahraini authorities also turn to outright thuggery and police brutality to intimidate its critics. Clashes between the Special Security Forces and Bahraini demonstrators have become a regular occurrence since the summer of 2005. On September 22, 2006 -- with a police helicopter orbiting overhead -- the SSF attacked a public seminar organized by the predominantly Shi‘a opposition society Haqq (Justice) in the village of Bilad al-Qadim with tear gas and rubber bullets. On September 29 a group opposed to the government’s policies of naturalizing thousands of foreigners cancelled a demonstration near the Seef Mall in order to avoid a similarly violent response.
There is little reason to believe that sectarian and political tensions will ameliorate any time soon. There is also little reason to believe that investigations into Bandargate will yield an honest accounting or lead to any systematic changes. What is certain is that frustration will continue to simmer, distrust will remain, and the Bahraini government will continue to exploit the country’s deep sectarian divides – hardly an island of tolerance, hope, and peace.
Toby Jones, formerly the Gulf Analyst with the International Crisis Group, is a Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Swarthmore College. He received a Ph.D. in Middle East history from Stanford University in 2006.