15 January 2001
Baharin: Into Democracy
The tiny Gulf island of Bahrain is taking a giant step towards democracy
By Adel Darwish
 

People of the small Gulf nation of Bahrain prepare to go to quietly the polls on 14th February  to vote in a referendum on the what  believed to be a draft for a new constitution.
They are so quite about it that the world is hardly  taking any notice, despite, in the words of a veteran western diplomat in Manama, '' the huge implications it has for Bahrain and the region as a whole.''

The referendum on the ' National Charter' drafted by a committee selected to represent the tribal, ethnic and religious diversity of Bahrain's population - set to reach 700,000 this year - is designed to pave the way for the first parliamentarian election in almost thirty years.

The charter, announced around the time of Bahrain's national day in December, is under continuous review, discussions and studies in endless seminars, public meeting and debates. All views, according to Journalist Abdel Monem Ebrahim  from Akhbar eel-Khalij daily, are helping those who will be in charge of drafting the new constitution.

However the publication of the charter  - during the holy fasting month of Ramadhan where the whole of the Gulf region nods off for about five weeks - was also overshadowed by a bigger event. The Emir of Bahrain Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa shuttled back and forward to Bahrain's modern airport ten times in two days to receive the heads of the other five Arab Gulf states - Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirate's - as Manama played host to the gulf Cooperation Council summit 29-31 December last year.

Despite an impressive press centre with batteries of fast connection Internet terminals, direct line phones and endless number of fax machines, only three western Journalists were present among the pack: CNN, the Belgic De Standard and your  reporter-. It is still a mystery as why the GCC General secretariat insist on holding their annual summit between Christmas and New Year when the whole of world media has no interest in news, unless it is - god forbid - a  disaster of a biblical proportion!

The timing was a double wammy from a PR point of view. Not only did the focus move away from the constitutional reforms, it seems that they were also discussed - behind closed doors-  between GCC ministers as leaders, since conservative members of GCC were reported to be not too keen in seeing a fully directly elected parliament in Bahrain, which might spread its infectious ideas beyond the shores of the island.

''The west has been too slow to recognise the giant leap that this small nation with limited resources  has taken towards democracy and modernisation.'' said one European diplomats based in Manama at a reception held to great Richard Caborn, Britain's UK's Minister for Trade during his brief  official visit last month. ( Jan 9)

The diplomat's comment went beyond the recognition of Bahrain's role as a friend of Britain and the Free world, or her role in security and defence of the Gulf, or even her economic prosperity in what Mr Cabron ''Bahrain is a country which is managing change in a very productive way and the UK wants to partner Bahrain in this process.''

Ironically it took Britain, which is Bahrain's closest friend and ally in the west, nearly a full month to give an official encouragement to the unprecedented constitutional changes about to be take place.

It wasn't until Jan 9 that  Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who, on behalf of the British government,  congratulated Bahrain on the leap it has taken towards democracy and modernisation.

the statement was delivered by Peter Ford, British Ambassador in Manama to Sheikh Salman Bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, the Crown Prince of Bahrain and the Chief of Staff of her defence forces, a  message from Britain's

Sheikh Salman, a joyful, western educated and down to earth chap with a charming smile, and a great sense of humour, is believed to be one of the major architects of the new reforms.

A dozen of hardened cynical  British journalists were very impressed by his approach, grasp of world affairs and his frankness when they met up with him for the first time during a briefing last February at the Dorchester hotel in London.

Those who started the meeting in a hostile mode - thanks to London based Bahraini opposition at the time bombarding them with allegations about torture claims and human rights violation in Bahrain- shock the Princes's hand in warm admiration by the end of the meeting.

During his last year visit to London the Crown prince assured journalists that Bahrain's Judiciary was actively investigating al claims of humanrights  violations.

Within weeks of his visit, his father, the Emir Sheikh Hamad, sped up continued the pardoning of prisoners whose indictments and crimes were linked to political activities, and activists abroad. Most opposition figures abroad returned on his invitation to participate in the new reforms. The best known Shia opposition leader Sheikh Abdel Amir Al-Jamri- who was found guilty and given a long sentence in 1998 by a Manama court for incitement to violence and a dozen other charges - was released.  His movement is restricted, according to his son Mansoor - one of the leaders of the opposition group Bahrain Freedom movement BFM. Government supporters say the Sheikh is permitted to hold meetings and receive visitors and discussions.
 
The new reforms, if as expected, were to be endorsed by a popular vote, could  have a far reaching effects in a region, mainly ruled by conservative  monarchies.

Several journalists in Bahrain - like sayyed Zahra of Alkhalij News, say that decision to hold a  referendum on the national charter and reforms bypasses the London based opposition calls to reinstate the old constitution - suspended by the Emir's father the late Sheikh Isa in 1976.

'' A referendum is a direct endorsement by the nation and befits the young majority who were born after 1976.''

A Palestinian/American banker believes that the Bahrainis were genuine in their reforms, since they are merchants and trader. '' they have a healthy freemarket and capitalist mentality, said the  banker '' they  want to prosper, you need to reform, modernise and democratise if you want to gain in the era of Globalisation.''

Last month, Mr Caborn linked the development in economy and the rush by western investors - representing  two dozen big British companies visited Bahrain   last week ( 22nd January) - to the latest bold leap to democracy.

''  Bahrain's establishment of a National Charter showed that the country was progressing on its path to democratisation and lauded the efforts of the government in this regard.'' said one British official visiting Bahrain last , month.

The national Charter, once stripped off the rhetoric characteristic to  Arabic documents of that nature, deals with all aspects of Bahrain's political, social and cultural life. '' It is a nucleus of a new constitution.'' according to Nabil Al- Hummor, editor of Bahrain Tribune.

The Charter, drafted by an enlarged committee made of an elite selected from figures of different political, ethnic, religious and economic affiliation and former members of the dissolved parliament- including bitter opponents of the ruling Al-Khalifa family - emphasised equality of all citizens, rule of law, and enshrines the principles of one man one vote. It strengthens the principle of equality for women and the right to participate in political activities, right of assembly, trade unions and other organisations.

If the articles of the charter were to be implemented, many believe, it would put Bahrain ahead of the other five  GCC  and many other nations in the Arabic Speaking Middle East.

Although the charter refers to '' Personal freedoms are guaranteed, and equality between citizens, justice and equality of opportunities'' as ' principles sanctified by Islam,'' it recognises Islam as A source of legislation not ' THE '  source of Legislation.

Bahraini women and liberals and non Muslims regarded the phraseology as ' achievement' according to a woman teacher. She  congratulates the committee for not being intimidated by Islamists. Like many feminists in the region, she is horrified by the way  many secular Arab governments   reversing centuries' gains by women. They try to appease Islamists who  insist on applying Sharia ( Islamic law) as the only, even to non Muslim. Feminists and liberals in the Middle East in general re suspicious of attempts by Islamists to twist secular constitutions to fit their  political agenda when insisting on a monopoly of interpretation of the Muslim faith.

'' What is going on Bahrain now is a constitutional revolution,'' says Mr Al-Hummor, '' look at those participating in the debate to redraft the constitution: there are liberal independent people, and there are those who are not members of any government body, but they are the institution.'' he was referring to a large strata of bankers, professionals, investors and businessmen who obviously want to see more liberalisation and strengthening the hand of the private sector.
Such sector can only flourish in liberal western style tolerant society, not the one advocated by Isalmists, he said.

Journalists like Mr al-Hummor, Mr  Zahra , and his colleague Abdel Monem Ebrahim pointed out  rich diversity of trends of Bahrain society taking part in open seminars and public discussions on the Charter.

Since the national charter suggests a constitutional monarchy and a Westminster style parliament of two chambers, the directly elected and the seniour selected upper chamber, it seems, commented on diplomat, that the Emir was carefully placing the horse before the cart.

A few month earlier he reformed the shura council. The Council, created by the late Emir five years ago,  is the only public body that replaced the old elected parliament which was abolished by the late Sheikh Isa over twenty years ago following bitter feud and challenges led at the time by communists and left wing groups.

The majority of the old council were from the members of the old Parliament.

In a move, unprecedented in Arab world, the Emir Sheikh Hamad, who has been in power for less than 18 months, appointed five  women - including a Christian, an Indian and a Jew to the council.

While the Muslims in the 40 strong council are divided equally  between Suni and Shia ( Bahraini Islamic opposition in Europe accused the government of discriminating against the relatively poorer shia population), the Indian member belongs to the Ismaili sect. The sect is frowned upon by Musilms  both Shia and Suni in the region.

The ethnic balance is evident, even in the choice of five women, as two were sunni, two Shia and one Christian.

There are businessmen, lawyers, religious figures, academics and lawyers and members of the old dissolved parliament.

Passing, largely unreported by western media, the Shura council was rejected by Bahrain opposition, whose presence in Europe and Iran is more noticeable than inside the island. They accuse the Emir of carrying favours with the west by appointing a Jew and a Christian and a  violation of Bahrain's constitution. '' It is a step backward for Bahrain. Between 1973-75, Bahrain had an elected National Assembly with both legislative and monitoring powers, ''  the London based, Bahrain freedom movement said in a widely distributed e-mail.

Such objections are laughed off by Bahraini journalists .
'' The coming elections are more constitutional and more representative than the last parliament,'' argues Mr Al-Hummor. '' some old constituencies have disappeared, many  more have emerged, who, from the old parliament, will represent the new constituencies ?''
He believes that a fresh election not restoring the old Parliament as called for by the BFM, is what Bahrain needs.

'' Opposition is not just the activists among the shia against the government,'' said one Bahraini Journalist, '' but there opposition within the ranks of the al-Khalifa family and within the ranks of government.''

He concluded that an appointed council and a select committee were essential to guarantee a balance between the widest number possible of views  represented when drafting the charter.

The old Parliament was divided along tribal and, some time political trends, according to Mr Al-Hummor who says that there is no guarantee that candidates from very rich family and those with larger tribal influence can really affect the blocs in Parliament and influence the vote. He points to Kuwait as a case in point where the Islamic trend last year, reversed the Emir's decree giving half the population (Kuwaiti women ) the right to vote. He believes a carefully balanced selected upper chamber would be a safety valve putting nations interests before tribal trends.

Even by the opposition BFM account, the new shura council is more comprehensive wider in its diversity and representation.

''Ethnically, the distribution is: 7 Tribal Sunni, 8 Howallah (Sunni), 2 Sunni-Iranians, 2 Sunni-Arabs, 14 Baharnah (Shia-Arabs), 2 Shia-Iranians (Ajam), 2 other Shia-Arabs, 1 Indian-Ismaili, 1 Arab-Christian, 1 Iraqi-Jew. Sixteen members come from the business community.''
said  Mansoor Al-Jamri of BFM and son of Sheikh Abdel Amir Al-Jamri, in another posted email.

The idea of transferring the small  nation from an Emirate into a constitutional monarchy state, where the Emir is the head of the state, , Governments are appointed by election, seemed appealing to many liberal Bahrains who admire Westminster democracy.

As the proof of the pudding is in the referendum, the  experiment is watched anxiously by the rest of the Gulf.



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