1st Nov, 2012 –

It is a curb on freedom of expression to temporarily refuse to grant licenses to public demonstrations. However freedom of expression in an absolute sense is also being curbed when a magazine refuses to publish cartoons highly offensive to millions of Muslims; or when a prominent Holocaust-denier and anti-Semite is banned from entering the US to incite hatred; or when a regulator rules that a particular media report is defamatory and endangers the lives of people it mentions.

Freedom of expression is not an absolute license to say or do whatever you want no matter the lives you put at risk, the livelihoods you destroy or the offence you cause. A responsible Government must do its utmost to protect freedom of expression – but this must be balanced against the responsibility to protect the public, to promote the nation’s economic well-being, and allow civilians to go about their lives without fear or constraints.

Many people are surprised to find that the Bahraini Government was licensing anti-Government protests at all. In fact, throughout 2012 there have been an average of more than two licensed anti-Government protests per week in Bahrain. However, even when these are attended by demonstrators with peaceful intentions, these events are hijacked by militant youths wielding firebombs and weapons with which they have proceeded to attack the police. And for every licensed protest there are tens of riots and public disturbances.

There will be few Bahrainis who have not been caught up in such fearsome events in recent months. In many cases youths are accompanied by black-clad women carrying large crates full of Molotov Cocktails which the youths shower down on the police, until the ground is covered in flames. Often we’ll see the clothes of police officers catching fire and moments of panic as their colleagues rush to assist.

Continual attacks against police take their predictable toll. Dozens of officers have required treatment for serious injuries in recent months, culminating in two deaths of police just a few days ago. For a tiny island like Bahrain this is not sustainable. We may not like to see tear gas being regularly used; but make no mistake, without a minimal means of protecting themselves and restoring order we would have seen dozens of policemen killed.

When you visit substantial areas of Bahrain you’ll see hundreds, perhaps thousands of businesses which have shut their doors for the final time or are dying on their feet. It is not Government ministers and big businessmen who are being forced to suffer; it is small and medium-sized businesses, each supporting big families and numerous dependents. A protest movement which was once about rights, justice and equality has impoverished many of the most vulnerable parts of society.

Some of the most badly affected areas are the Shia-majority localities where the daily rioting has been most severe. Thousands of families are suffering where 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 took. However, to publically speak out against the clerics steering the protests is dangerous and even rash. We have seen cases of masked youth attacking businesses seen to be out of line with the opposition’s aims. To those who blindly follow the calls of Ayatollah Isa Qassim to oppose the “oppressors” and “crush” the police; to criticize or question is to betray your community and your faith – and “traitors” should suffer the consequences.

When the protests began, there are few of us who wouldn’t have supported calls for reform, social justice and fighting corruption – that is why so many people flocked to Pearl Roundabout in February 2011. However, the vast majority of Bahrainis have deserted the opposition movement as they saw its sectarianism, extremism and the damage it was doing to the interests of Bahrainis. Bahrainis don’t want a bloody and anarchic revolution steered by a handful of clerics who neither understand nor want 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 rebalances political power in favour of elected parliamentarians who are given the power to question and sack 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 we find in Iraq and Lebanon. We want politicians who serve the interests of Bahrain, not just a particular sect or religious agenda. The opposition party Al-Wefaq held around half of the 40 Parliamentary seats. However it decided to withdraw from parliamentary politics and pursue the path of street agitation. Despite continual invitations for returning 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 groupings taking to the streets to bring particular issues on to the political agenda. However when they do that several times a week in the most obstructive and destructive possible 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 just now we need breathing space. We need to create the 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. Everybody knows the opposition’s position on the issues which matter – 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.

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