Bahrain’s democratic reforms are a charade

Steven Sotloff Contributor
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Last weekend’s parliamentary elections in Egypt once again highlighted the dismal state of democracy in the Arab world. The Mubarak regime pulled out all the stops to stymie the opposition and ensure that the ruling party captured 201 of the 209 seats up for grabs in the first round of elections.

Such false steps toward democracy are not limited to Egypt, but rather reflect general trends throughout the region. From Morocco to Kuwait, regimes have used elections to consolidate rather than dilute their power.

One country where the state has frustrated constituents’ hope for political liberalization is Bahrain. Last month’s elections there were the country’s third since democratic reforms were initiated a decade ago. Though Bahrain’s rulers sought to portray them as another step in the tiny island nation’s ongoing march toward democracy, they were more indicative of a system marching in place.

Bahrain boasts relatively free elections, but like Kuwait, Jordan and Morocco, it denies opposition figures any real political power no matter how well they do at the polls. These ugly realities should worry U.S. policymakers who believe political liberalization will reduce public frustrations in the Middle East.

Though Bahrain has a 70 percent Shi’i majority, its Sunni minority runs the government. The al-Khalifa regime has hamstrung the opposition by gerrymandering electoral districts to its advantage, creating sparsely populated Sunni districts to offset larger Shi’i ones. As a result, Shi’i districts have as many as 20,000 voters, while Sunni ones have as few as 2,000. This leaves the Shi’i areas, which support the opposition, only 18 of 40 seats in parliament, and ensures that Sunnis loyal to the regime hold the rest.

The regime has also defanged parliament itself, creating an upper house of regime loyalists to check the lower house’s legislative powers. Members of the upper house, known as the Shura Council, are appointed by the government, not elected by the people. To pass into law, bills must secure a two-thirds majority in both houses, an almost impossible feat.

The regime is playing with a stacked deck. “The king has the right to legislate, regardless of the Shura Council or parliament if he decides to,” one opposition candidate told me recently. “He is the head of the three government branches. He has the authority to order decrees in the presence of the parliament.”

The al-Wefaq party has been leading the charge against the regime. It is the largest opposition party with 18 out of 40 seats in the new parliament. Al-Wefaq blends social and political grievances under a Shi’i religious banner. But though its leadership is dominated by clerics, it has eschewed the religiously inspired positions that have made Iran the bane of the world.

Bahrain also enjoys little in the way of freedom of the press. Of the island’s six major newspapers, five are either affiliated with or owned outright by the royal family. Apart from an occasional smear, these dailies gave the opposition no coverage during the recent campaign. They ignored large opposition rallies such as an al-Wefaq gathering that drew almost 30,000 people and featured all of the party’s candidates.

Even Al-Wasat, Bahrain’s only independent paper, has been bullied into carrying water for the regime, which has forced it to run favorable stories or lose its license. From time to time, the regime has banned foreign media, including the satellite news channel al-Jazeera.

The monarchy has also targeted new media sources; in the run-up to elections in August, it arrested the popular blogger Ali Abdulman, who provided a forum for disgruntled Bahrainis. The regime arrested Abdulman as part of an “anti-terror” sweep that targeted outspoken opposition and human rights figures who were known to criticize the government. His site provided a forum for disgruntled Bahrainis to vent their frustrations with the regime. Political parties and human rights organizations circumvented government censorship by posting messages on his site.

Bahrain’s opposition has largely aired its grievances peacefully. Both the Shi’i religious parties and secular Sunnis seek an amended constitution that affords them greater political rights. Only after the regime loosens the reins, they believe, will the country be able to address pervasive unemployment, discrimination and the housing crisis that has crippled the island.

The opposition’s failure to secure any political gains has left many frustrated. Bahrainis had hoped that the liberalization program the monarchy embarked on in 1999 would produce tangible results. In the absence of reform, the younger generation is increasingly turning to violence. In Shi’i strongholds such as Sitra, unemployed youths and adolescents, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, have clashed with security forces in their neighborhoods and burned tires. The protests, which began in 2006, are one of the few ways these people can vent their frustrations in their freedom-deficient society.

A decade ago, Bahrain stood at the forefront of democratization in the Arab world. Now, some opposition leaders fear the country could descend back into the violence of the 1990s, when the regime exiled its political opponents, and fringe groups resorted to bombing hotels and restaurants. The August “terror crackdown” has only stoked these fears.

For its part, the regime worries that any gains could embolden the opposition to embark on campaigns to uncover official corruption and demand government transparency.

The U.S. policy of managing regional relations solely by engaging regimes that have been discredited in the eyes of their citizens has not worked. Washington must reach out to groups like al-Wefaq to demonstrate that America is not hostile to their programs so long as they respect the rule of law.

By connecting with groups that have widespread grassroots support and are in touch with constituents’ grievances, Washington can genuinely help nurture democratic processes, and reduce animosity toward the United States.

NOTE: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Egypt’s elections were held last month.

Steven Sotloff is a Yemen-based visiting fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.