Bahrain’s Road to Democracy
By Nigel Thorpe
Senior English Editor
Albawaba.com - Amman
Bahrain takes its first steps down the road to democracy on Wednesday and Thursday when it holds a referendum to restore parliament and transform this Gulf island state into a constitutional monarchy after spending years in the social and political doldrums.
The political winds began to blow strongly a decade ago and reached hurricane force when the Shiite-led opposition spearheaded protests against the ruling elite in a turbulent period from 1994 to 1999. On May 15th, 1996, for example, the Los Angeles Times reported that “Just outside the US 5th Fleet headquarters in this Persian Gulf oil emirate, teenagers throwing rocks recently clashed with police armed with tear gas and rubber bullets. The disturbances and police roundups lasted for days. But throughout it all, not one brick was hurled in the direction of the American base. That is among the incongruities in this small but strategic country. It has been shaken by 17 months of anti-government protests led by militant Islamic clerics. The Shiite community is demanding greater democracy and the restoration of the parliament dissolved by the emir in 1975.”
The decade of political unrest has its roots in a deep tribal and religious divide in the population of Bahrain. As in other parts of the Middle East, tensions between the Shiite and Sunni Muslim fractions have simmered below the surface. The Shiites, who represent approximately 60 percent of the population, are ruled by a Sunni dynastic monarchy. As the Sunni population swells, the ruling Sunni minority are becoming increasingly fearful for their political future. The ruling Khalifa family was close links with the rulers of neighboring Saudi Arabia and Bahrain has become a playground for rich Saudis. "This is the Las Vegas of the Middle East," one diplomat was quoted as saying.
The unrest was also been fuelled, paradoxically, by growing economic problems. Despite its fabled oil wealth and high per capita income, the oil well geese that lay the black gold eggs are showing clear signs of “old age”. According to the Los Angeles Times, the island state, barely half the size of Los Angeles city, is fast running out of the oil that underpins its economy. That reality is the heart of the problem. It is predicted that Bahrain will be the first Gulf producer to exhaust its oil supply. Its output of 2,000 barrel a day is a fraction of percent of the world's production. But by 2006, Bahrain’s oil supply will be depleted. Like other Gulf states, Bahrain is desperate to diversify its economy. Unemployment is also rising and anti-foreigner sentiment in Bahrain is directed mainly at the 190,000 laborers from the Indian subcontinent and the Philippines who hold two out of three jobs while up to a third of the native Shiite population is out of work. Shrinking oil revenues have nearly halved per capita earnings since the early 1980s, hitting hardest at the Shiite underclass, hungry for jobs and political influence denied by the Khalifa dynasty that has ruled the island for 213 years. Young Shiite protesters have seized on the demand for a return of the parliament dissolved after only one year in existence, and they will fight to the end.
"We call it a new intifada," said Ibrahim, referring to the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation. An American correspondent graphically summed up his view on the pre-referendum state by saying “Bahrain more and more looks like a crumbling house in a tough neighborhood.”
Oil is also involved in the American’s keen interest in preserving political stability in Bahrain. The opposition believes that the United States can pressure the Khalifa regime to accept reforms. Bahrain's strategic importance is obvious. It is midway up the gulf from the Strait of Hormuz, the doorway for much of the oil fueling the West.
The violent demonstrations in the mid 90s left at least 38 dead and heralded the need for political reform. Under the personal direction of the emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa, the careful wording of the reforms included in the national charter have begun to heal the wounds of bitter political conflict and sow the seeds for national reconciliation even before a single vote has been cast.
The opposition groups hostile to the emir and the political status quo had promised to sabotage the referendum. From its base in London, the Bahrain Freedom Movement reversed its call for a “no” and urged Bahrainis to participate in the election. Opposition parties within Bahrain made a similar appeal almost certainly guaranteeing a resounding “yes” vote for the proposed constitutional changes which call for the establishment of a second “consultative” chamber of experts to be appointed by the emir. According to a statement issued by the Bahrain Freedom Movement, “it had received assurances that parliament would retain full legislative powers, the charter would not replace the constitution and a hated state security court would be abolished.”
Political analysts in Bahrain point to the wide spectrum of opposition support for the referendum as a harbinger of successful for political reform. A popular committee that defied the authorities by collecting 20,000 signatures in 1994 for the restoration of parliament has also backed the reforms. So also did the Shiite opposition leader Sheikh Abdul Amir Al-Jamri who was among the four religious dignitaries who declared total support for the charter after meeting the emir. Giving his first Friday sermon since his arrest in 1996, the Sheikh called the referendum document a "turning point,” and called on his compatriots to "join fully the process of construction and develop to achieve national unity."
According to Crown Prince Salman, the political reforms are “designed to ensure prosperity and freedom for all’ and have effectively put the opposition “out of a job.” “The referendum,“ he continued “marks the culmination of a liberalization process the emir launched after the death of his father, Sheikh Issa, in March 1999.
The run up to the referendum has seen unparalleled moves towards political and religious reconciliation. The Emir and Crown Prince decreed a political amnesty and hundreds of dissidents held for their role in a decade of unrest were released in small groups. In a deft political move, the Emir has held discussions with many leaders of the Shiite opposition. The ruling family also extended its hand of reconciliation overseas to the large number of Bahrainis living in exile in both the United States and Europe. Overseas Bahraini embassies have been ordered to make special arrangements to facilitate the return of exiled nationals who have been also been promised a political amnesty on their return to their island home.
Some 217,000 Bahrainis over the age of 21, or about half the indigenous population are eligible to vote in the two-day ballot whose outcome is vital to the political and economic future of the island state.
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