Reform in Bahrain: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?
About This Event

In February 2001, Bahrain introduced a series of reforms to open its political system. The following year, the government promulgated a new constitution, established a bicameral legislature, and issued calls for Sunni-Shiite equality. Western governments hailed the country as a beacon for democracy in the Middle East. But six years Listen to Audio


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and two parliamentary elections later, Bahrain’s liberal experiment has failed to meet expectations. Tensions are high. Will sectarian strife spur greater reform or will it cause retrenchment? What does Bahraini political reform mean for the United States?

These and other questions will be the subject of an AEI panel discussion with Salah al-Bandar, secretary general of the Gulf Centre for Democratic Development in London; Abdul Hadi Al-Khawaja, executive director of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights; and Toby Jones, a visiting assistant professor of history at Swarthmore College. Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at AEI, will moderate.

Agenda
9:45 a.m.
Registration
10:00
Panelists:
Salah al-Bandar, Gulf Centre for Democratic Development
Abdul Hadi Al-Khawaja, Bahrain Center for Human Rights
Toby Jones, Swarthmore College
Moderator:
Danielle Pletka, AEI
11:30
Adjournment
Event Summary

February 2007

Reform in Bahrain: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?

In February 2001, Bahrain introduced a series of reforms to open its political system. The following year, the government promulgated a new constitution, established a bicameral legislature, and issued calls for Sunni-Shiite equality. Western governments hailed the country as a beacon for democracy in the Middle East. But six years and two parliamentary elections later, Bahrain's liberal experiment has failed to meet expectations. Will sectarian strife spur greater reform or will it cause retrenchment? What does Bahraini political reform mean for the United States?

These questions were the subject of an AEI panel discussion with Salah al-Bandar, secretary general of the Gulf Centre for Democratic Development in London; Abdul Hadi Al-Khawaja, executive director of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights; and Toby Jones, a visiting assistant professor of history at Swarthmore College. Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at AEI, moderated the February 13 event.

Salah al-Bandar
Gulf Centre for Democratic Development

Bahrain's reform experiment has come a long way since the early 1990s. The parliamentary elections in November 2006 were a major step toward democracy in Bahrain. However, the implementation of additional reform faces substantial--and perhaps insurmountable--challenges. The immediate future will witness a slowdown and reversal of political reform.

The reform movement has reached a crisis point. The king has weakened civil society and subjugated the media and elected bodies to state control, leading to greater radicalization of democratic forces and increased resentment from the repressed population.

The Bahraini government portrays the opposition as Iranian stooges. By portraying pro-democracy forces as a threat to regional security, the regime seeks to crush the opposition, all with tacit U.S. approval. Despite its strategic alliance with Bahrain, Washington should not buy this gambit.

Reform requires U.S. engagement to strengthen civil society and increase government accountability. Democratization may be a gradual process, but it means more than free elections. It also requires civil liberties, rule of law, an independent judiciary, civilian control over the military, and a free media.

Toby Jones
Swarthmore College

Bahrain is a paradox. It stands on the cusp of democracy but continues to backslide on political reform. The regime exploits sectarian tensions and anxieties to maintain an iron grip on power.

The government has been reluctant to integrate the country's Shiite majority into the political system, especially since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. While Bahrain's Shiite community comprises roughly 65 percent of the population, it holds only eighteen of the forty seats in parliament. The government justifies this under-representation by accusing the Shiite community of subservience to Iran. But most Bahraini Shiites pursue a decidedly nationalist agenda and seek to ameliorate social and economic grievances through democratic reforms that will give them a voice in existing institutions.

The Bahraini government is much less concerned with political reform than it is with consolidating power. In the future, this will likely lead to episodic violence between the government and Shiite activists. Today, Bahrain stands at a crossroads; if reform efforts fail, it is possible that foreign influences may gain a foothold inside the kingdom.

Abdul Hadi Al-Khawaja
Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR)

As sectarian tensions roil Bahrain, the government has restricted civil liberties and violated human rights. The royal family has monopolized political power, created a patronage network for government positions, and has used gerrymandering and intimidation to ensure the under-representation of opposition groups. Poverty, unemployment, and lack of housing are problems for the majority of the population.

BCHR has continually addressed these issues and empowered citizens to press for genuine change. Due to its efforts, BCHR was closed in 2004. Despite the closure, it has helped organize peaceful protests to voice the people's frustration, and it will continue to struggle for freedom and human rights.

By supporting the current regime, the United States is losing the "hearts and minds" of the Bahraini population. Bahrain needs genuine reform to ensure stability and prosperity, but the government's empowerment of Sunni extremists at the expense of Shiites is a dangerous policy.

When peaceful change is blocked, suppressed people will resort to violence. To avoid violence, political and social equality must be guaranteed to all Bahraini citizens.

AEI intern Travis Weinger prepared this summary.

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