I don’t know a single Bahraini who wouldn’t agree that the Bahraini government is in great need of reform. We need a governing system that is more representative and more responsive. However, it is only a very vocal and militant minority who believe this means that Bahrain needs a revolution – particularly as we watch the developing catastrophe of post-revolutionary Egypt.
Since the unrest broke out in Bahrain during the Arab Spring, some outside observers have shrouded the truth behind the uprisings with a web of misconceptions. While many of the criticisms of Bahrain’s ruling system contain elements of truth, I would like to argue that things are not as straightforward as they may appear.
Since King Hamad came to power just over a decade ago, Bahrainis voted overwhelmingly for a new constitution which brought with it a number of reforms; it also put our Kingdom on a slow – but steady – path to becoming a fully representative constitutional monarchy.
We have seen a number of further amendments for empowering the elected parliament to challenge the government and its policies. So far, many of these new reforms remain partly untested, particularly after the opposition Al-Wefaq Islamic Society walked out of parliament two years ago (with 18 MPs, Al-Wefaq had occupied nearly half of the 40 seats).
Regarding the portrayals of Bahrain as a virtual war zone, these days one has to actively seek out some of the worst corners of the country to find the few troublesome neighborhoods where roads are blocked with burning tires and rioters pelt policemen with Molotov cocktails. I myself live close to an area considered a hotspot for trouble, but even there life mostly goes on as normal.
“Bahrain needs international solidarity in helping us continue down a path of reform…” – Ali Fathalla
The use of burning tires is a particularly clever tactic. From a distance, one tire can give off enough black smoke to make it seem as though the entire neighborhood is burning down. However, it is also an extremely dangerous practice. Tire burning results in the release of dioxin as well as several other small particles, which settle deep in the lungs.
Dioxin has been identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the most potent man-made carcinogen; even low levels of dioxin exposure may cause several long-term side effects and health risks. However, protesters have used tire burning as a means of disrupting traffic since the 1980s; old habits die hard.
Unrest in Bahrain dates back to 1979, when the Islamic Revolution in Iran inspired and supported several homegrown revolutionary groups like the Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, which staged several coup attempts in the 1980s. The Front also nurtured the next generation of dissidents who came of age by regularly clashing with police and wreaking havoc on the country in the mid-1990s.
Many protesters who were at the forefront of the movement were exiled for their involvement, later to be pardoned by the king after his inauguration in 2002. Upon their return to Bahrain, these now seasoned and more mature dissidents eventually began establishing political organizations and occupying key positions in government institutions.
Consequently, this has resulted in the development of a more radicalized and sectarian opposition leadership in Bahrain, which tends to use religious figures to incentivize and mobilize its supporters.
A lack of religious support would yield disappointing results for protesters. When religious leaders have chosen not to participate in protests, the turnouts have been trifling, as witnessed during the August 14 Tamarod rallies. Only when Ali Salman, secretary general of Al-Wefaq, is standing in the front row, hundreds are inclined to show up.
What is the problem with this, one may ask? Bahrain – originating as an island trading nation – has always enjoyed an open-minded and tolerant society that harmoniously combines conservative Islamic traditions with increasingly popular libertarian values.
Women in Bahrain enjoy prominent roles in society; we are generally free to dress and behave as we choose; and we don’t want religious figures acting to change this. Most Bahrainis are just as nervous about overly vocal Salafist MPs as they are about radical Shia clerics.
The government and the opposition blame each other for letting the sectarian genie out the bottle. However, it is fair to say that both sides share some responsibility and that the unrest has polarized society to a degree never before seen by my generation.
Although many Sunnis originally joined the protests, one would have great difficulty nowadays finding any Sunni who is sympathetic to the continuing unrest and rioting. This division of society is very dangerous and I can’t say with certainty where this will take Bahrain.
Nobody expects the unrest to end completely any time soon, but a great deal of heat and danger that was present in the early days of the protests seems to have diffused and for most of us life is back to normal, with the economy once again relatively buoyant.
Bahrain is not a microcosm of Egypt or Syria; and so prescribing similar forms of treatment for our country would likely bring undesirable results. Bahrain needs international solidarity in helping us continue down a path of reform that would allow us to consolidate our liberal and conservative customs. But the last thing we need is to be coerced into revolution by radicals and outside observers who are ignorant of Bahrain’s culture and history.
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Ali Fathalla is a member of Citizens for Bahrain, a group describing itself as dedicated to facilitating reconciliation in the kingdom.