Something extraordinary happened in Bahrain in November, but most observers missed it. As the president of the Bahrain American Council, perhaps my perspective is unique.
What most of the world saw is indisputable: The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) reported its findings about abuses committed by the Bahraini government in response to this year’s protests and rioting. The report was damning for the government: It identified instances where police used “excessive force,” credible reports of torture of prisoners, and harassment of citizens and neighborhoods because of sectarian differences.
None of those findings made any Bahraini proud. We have lived together in peace, mostly, for centuries, and we are unhappy to see that peace marred by partisan and sectarian strife. We fear strife and division as much as we fear the insidious influence of our neighbor, Iran.
What was not obvious, though, is extraordinary, and will have an effect for centuries. The king and crown prince requested this investigation, and they made a very powerful statement by sitting before the world to hear the report and acknowledging the need to reform their society. In the part of the world where I was born, for a leader — a king, president, emir, or comrade-leader — to acknowledge to the people and the world that his country is governed by the rule of law, not by the rule of man, is unprecedented.
Encouraging democracy in the Middle East has been fashionable in Western circles for over two decades, but we learned in the early nineties that democracy is more complex than just elections. Algeria’s FIS (the Islamist party) was poised to win a supermajority of the Algerian legislature in the 1992 elections and promised to amend the Algerian constitution to abolish democracy. God’s law, they said, trumped any flawed human law. They stood for one man, one vote, one time.
Western countries were relieved when the Algerian military canceled the elections rather than allowing them to be hijacked by anti-democratic forces. Some Arab observers cried foul, pointing out the hypocrisy of claiming to protect democracy by refusing to hold democratic elections. Hezbollah’s dominance in Lebanon via democratic elections raises similar concerns.
What those arguments fail to recognize, and Western diplomats fail to articulate, is the importance of the rule of law. Democracy without the rule of law may veer close to mob rule, as the Founding Fathers of my adopted country, America, understood very well.
James Madison wrote of “the violence of majority faction,” which Alexis de Tocqueville later called “the tyranny of the majority.” Madison recognized that majority rule could impose tyranny on an individual or small group as easily as had a king. He prescribed a system of competing and overlapping interests, and a strong constitutional bedrock of laws to govern the passions of the majority and manage competing factions.
In the 200 years since Bahrain’s hereditary monarchy was established, Bahrain has gone from being a small island nation dependent on pearls and commerce to being a financial powerhouse. The Al Khalifa family recognized years ago that fossil fuels would not last, so they built a modern state and attracted modern investments by creating a free-market economy, allowing more personal freedom than any other Arab country allows, and keeping the government out of the way of investors and entrepreneurs. Because of its modern economy, which is built on a foundation of law, Bahrain earned far more in 2010 from investments than it did from selling oil.
By recognizing the supreme position of law over ruler, King Hamad will do for Bahrain’s polity what was done for its economy. His very public commitment to implementing the BICI recommendations — naming a national commission to propose legislation and regulations, and promising executive action — will ensure that Bahrain does not devolve into a permanent cycle of violence and protest (as we may be seeing in Egypt today) or a permanent post-revolutionary dictatorship (like Iran). In those cases, majoritarian impulses overwhelmed the legal frameworks and educated voters necessary for truly successful, permanent rule by the people.
This prudent course of action will preserve what is the very essence of modern Bahrain: its freedom and tolerance, and its open welcome to business and investment. Once the wounds of this year have healed and an adequate framework of law is in place, Bahrainis will be able to return to the honest pursuit of their affairs without fear of excessive force from the state — or from the passions of a majority.
Dr. Al Khalafalla is the president of the Bahrain American Council, a trade council based in Washington, D.C.