It is a curb on freedom of expression to temporarily refuse to grant licenses for public demonstrations. However, freedom of expression in an absolute sense is also curbed when a magazine refuses to publish cartoons highly offensive to millions of Muslims; or when a prominent Holocaust-denier and anti-Semite who incites hatred is banned from entering the U.S.; or when a regulator rules that a particular media report is defamatory and endangers the lives of the people it mentions.
Freedom of expression is not an absolute license to say or do whatever you want regardless of the lives you put at risk, the livelihoods you destroy, or the offense you cause. A responsible government must protect freedom of expression, but this must be balanced with the responsibility to protect the public, to promote the nation’s economic well-being, and to allow civilians to live without fear or constraints.
Many people are surprised to find that the government of Bahrain was licensing anti-government protests at all. In fact, in 2012, there have been on average over two licensed anti-government protests per week in Bahrain. Although these protests are attended by peaceful demonstrators, the events are often seized by militant youths wielding firebombs and weapons, which they use to attack the police. And for every licensed protest, there are tens of riots and public disturbances.
There are few Bahrainis who have not witnessed such fearsome events in recent months. In many cases, youths are accompanied by black-clad women carrying large crates full of Molotov cocktails, which are then showered down on the police until the ground is covered in flames. It is not uncommon to see the clothes of police officers catching fire and moments of panic as their colleagues rush to assist.
Continual attacks against the police have taken their predictable toll. Dozens of officers have required treatment for serious injuries in recent months. Two of them died just days ago. For a tiny island like Bahrain, this is not sustainable. It is unpleasant to see tear gas being regularly used by the police, but without such means of protecting themselves and restoring order, dozens of officers would be killed.
“[R]ight now Bahrain needs breathing space. We need to create а climate for dialogue and reconciliation without daily incitement, escalation, and rioting.” – Mohammed Al Sayed
In the most populated areas of Bahrain, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of businesses that have shut their doors for the final time or are on the brink of closure. It is not government ministers and big businessmen who are being forced to suffer, but small and medium-sized businesses that support large families and numerous dependents. The protest movement that was originally about rights, justice, and equality has impoverished many of the most vulnerable parts of society.
Some of the worst affected areas are the Shia majority localities, where the daily rioting has been most severe. Thousands of families are suffering as their livelihoods have been destroyed by disturbances. In private, they will tell you how desperate they are to return to normality, bitterly regretting the militant path that the protest movement has taken. However, it is dangerous to publically speak out against the clerics steering the protests. Masked youths have attacked businesses believed to be out of line with the opposition’s aims. To criticize or question the words of Ayatollah Isa Qassim, who calls to oppose the “oppressors” and “crush” the police, is to betray your community and your faith, and “traitors” suffer the consequences.
When the protests began, few Bahrainis rejected calls for reform, social justice, and fighting corruption, which is the reason so many people flocked to Pearl Roundabout in February 2011. However, the vast majority of Bahrainis deserted the opposition movement as they saw its sectarianism, extremism, and the damage it was doing to the interests of Bahrainis. Bahrainis do not want a bloody and anarchic revolution steered by a handful of clerics who neither understand nor desire genuine democracy.
Bahrain’s governing system is far from perfect, but we have a Constitutional Monarchy which, since the accession of King Hamad over a decade ago, has introduced progressive reforms and greater freedoms. The latest package of reforms re-balances political power in favor of elected parliamentarians, allowing them to question and even expel the most powerful government ministers, or to strike down unfair or poorly planned government policies.
The last thing Bahrain needs is a political system based on sectarian parties and interests, as is found in Iraq and Lebanon. We want politicians who serve the interests of Bahrain, rather than a particular sect or religious agenda. The opposition party Al-Wefaq held around half of the 40 parliamentary seats until it decided to withdraw from parliamentary politics and pursue the path of street agitation. Despite continual invitations to national dialogue and political consensus, the opposition – under the influence of Ayatollah Isa Qassim and Ali Salman – has become increasingly rejectionist and militant.
No one has any objection to Al-Wefaq or other opposition groups taking to the streets to expose particular issues to the political agenda. However, when this takes place several times a week in the most obstructive and destructive manner for nearly two years, bringing to a halt the lives of thousands of those who reject Al-Wefaq’s agenda, then the government is acting in Bahrain’s national interest by taking action.
Bahrain’s authorities are right to stress that the pause in granting licensing for demonstrations is temporary, but right now Bahrain needs breathing space. We need to create а climate for dialogue and reconciliation without daily incitement, escalation, and rioting. We need to bring down the political temperature and avoid actions that inflame dangerous sectarian tensions. Everyone knows the opposition’s position on the issues that matter, and further public demonstrations will neither raise awareness nor solve the challenges facing Bahraini citizens.
If Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society and other political groups want to work to promote reform, address the social and economic challenges we face, and mend the wounds of the last two years, then they will find large numbers of Bahrainis who will support them and sympathize with their agenda. However, if they continue to agitate for the revolutionary path of bringing down the monarchy from outside the parliamentary system in pursuit of sectarian and militant aims, then a day will come soon when the only Bahrainis following their lead will be the Molotov-throwers, rioters, and extremists. Is that really what they want?
The decision by the Ministry of Interior to temporarily ban all rallies protects both protesters and policemen from the cycle of violence. While many Bahrainis are concerned that this decision may trigger an even more violent reaction from radical sections of the opposition, let’s hope that after nearly two years of political stalemate and confrontation, leaders on both sides choose this juncture to take the wise and brave step of burying their differences and agreeing on a shared vision for Bahrain’s future.
This post was originally published under a similar headline on FikraForum.org
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Mohammed Al Sayed heads Citizens for Bahrain.