Bahrain’s movement enters electoral politics

Through all the dynamic and dramatic progress of the Arab Spring, the pro-democracy campaign in the tiny island nation of Bahrain has tended to be sidelined. It has struggled to attract the world’s sympathy and attention due to a lack of foreign reporters on the ground and little good information circulating in news sources. Additionally, the Bahraini government has silenced local journalists, employed public-relations and lobbying firms to discredit the protesters, even while it regularly pays lip service to delivering reform.

Nada Alwadi, a Bahraini journalist (and Waging Nonviolence contributor), recently delivered a webinar talk from the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict in Washington, D.C., discussing the current challenges faced by the movement. She was formerly a reporter for Alwasat, a popular newspaper in Bahrain, and was detained in April by security forces for covering the protests in the capital of Manama. Nada left Bahrain earlier this year over concerns for her personal safety. She is currently working in the United States to spread awareness about the situation in her country.

According to her, while the movement is popular amongst citizens, it has been unable to target the pillars of support of the monarchy. “Bahrain operates under a system of tribal politics, where the military, finance and judicial departments are run by a closely knit circle of Sunni elites,” she said. She argued, furthermore, that external pressure is currently the most pragmatic means for success, through international support galvanized by Bahraini and international advocacy groups and media.

Alwadi herself, for instance, is the co-founder of the Bahrain Press Association, an organisation which seeks to defend journalists from government repression. The group calls on the Bahraini government to ensure the safety of local and foreign media professionals, as well as to investigate cases of violence against them. She highlighted other advocacy groups like the Bahrain Mirror, a news and opinion website started by a Bahraini journalist based outside the country, and the Freedom for Bahraini Doctors campaign, which seeks the release of doctors and nurses sentenced to jail by the monarchy.

It can be argued that part of the reason Bahrain’s movement hasn’t captured the imagination of the global community is that it still lacks an emotional resonance as compared to other movements in the Middle East. Tunisia, after all, kicked off with a dramatic act of self-immolation, followed by a fervent uprising among citizens. The Egyptian revolution became iconic for the acts of prayer in front of tanks and Christian-Muslim solidarity in Tahrir Square. The bravery of Syrian protesters still demonstrating in the face of violent state repression has granted their pro-democracy movement supportive and sympathetic media narratives. In the case of Bahrain, scenes like the crackdown at the Pearl Roundabout and solidarity between Sunnis and Shias against the monarchy have been somehow less relatable to global audiences.

Nonetheless, the past few weeks in Bahrain have seen the movement take a new strategic turn. Alwadi explained that a new political movement has begun, running in parallel to the demonstrations. A coalition of opposition political parties recently released the Manama Document, a draft constitution for democratic governance in Bahrain. The Document argues that change in Bahrain can only be delivered through “dialogue between the authorities and opposition forces” with “international guarantees.” It calls for an elected government; fair electoral districts guaranteeing political equality for Sunnis and Shias and the principle of one person, one vote; a single chamber parliament with sole legislative and regulatory powers; a trustworthy and independent judicial system; and security for all of Bahrain’s residents. At the same time, the document envisions the reforms to deliver a constitutional monarchy, “retaining the royal family in terms of ruling and governing without powers.”

These moves have brought some measure of success and support to the Bahraini struggle. The Obama administration recently postponed a $53 million arms deal with the monarchy pending a review of an official inquiry into the state crackdown on protesters. Moreover, the crown prince of Bahrain, Salman Al-Khalifa, has supported the need for reforms in his country. In March this year he declared his own “seven principles of reform,” which ultimately became part of the Manama Document.

There is still tremendous uncertainty in the country. Alwadi highlighted how the politicization of the struggle has led to divisions in the movement. Some political elements, for instance, are calling for an end to monarchy altogether and a complete overhaul of the system. Additionally, critics of the pro-democracy movement suspect that a transition to democracy would lead to a fall in crucial international investments, as seen in Egypt. They argue that fears of political turmoil will send the global business community seeking deals elsewhere.

Alwadi also argued that global powers are reluctant to support the movement partly because they enjoy cozy diplomatic and strategic relationships with the monarchy. Bahrain is of course vital to perceived U.S. security interests in the Middle East, serving as the current headquarters of the navy’s Fifth Fleet. Closer to home, Saudi Arabia has made clear its commitment to maintaining the status quo amongst the Gulf nations, especially after sending troops into Bahrain earlier this year to violently suppress the protesters in Manama.

Still, Alwadi continues to be optimistic that popular sentiment will eventually bring democracy to her country. “The political movement in Bahrain is in its nascent stage, and the strategy is still being developed,” she said.

The challenges are great, yet the will of citizens is committed towards democracy. With the Manama Document, that will now has words and a voice. Political advocacy groups must sustain their campaigning on the ground, court international support, and develop ties between Sunni and Shia organizations. It is crucial that the movement does not lose its momentum.

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