When international writers criticize events in Bahrain, they often take it for granted that because Bahrain is a Monarchy the situation must be ripe for revolution. Monarchy is equated with dictatorship, despotism and oppression.
However, these presumptions deserve to be questioned.
Firstly Bahrain is a Constitutional – not Absolute – Monarchy. When King Hamad came to the throne, his new Constitution – the National Action Charter, which gained 98.4% of the votes in a public referendum, clearly delimited the powers of the Monarchy and established an elected Parliament. The powers of that Parliament were further enhanced in constitutional amendments in 2012.
This puts Bahrain in the category of Constitutional Monarchies like Morocco, Denmark, Jordan and Great Britain; where the rule of law, elected representatives, and the popular will limit and check the powers of the King.
Events in Iraq and Lebanon have shown the dangers of introducing untested models of democracy in sectarian societies. Rule of the ballot box and tyranny of the majority tends to polarize and divide societies. A Monarchial system provides for an office that can stand outside sectarian, tribal and class divides and arbitrates between the different segments of society.
Few outside commentators on Bahrain acknowledge that the figures appointed by the King represent a very diverse cross-section of the key parts of society. The King of Bahrain has always ensured the presence of Shia, for example, in key Government and political posts. A system based on the ballot box either allows a majority to capture all the key positions; or like in Lebanon; it establishes a highly rigid sectarian-based division of power, which ensures that particular parties or even families permanently come to dominate the political scene.
The Parliamentary system in many Middle Eastern countries routinely brings Islamist and extremist figures into key positions and Bahrain is no exception. Without some kind of check on the powers of elected Parliamentarians, the result is inevitably a series of laws that reduce the rights of religious minorities and women and restrict cultural and media freedoms.
In a region not known for its culture of tolerance and freedoms; the King can be a final arbiter in ensuring that freedoms and rights aren’t rolled back by an Islamist coalition that has captured the majority of positions.
In Bahrain, we see the King and Crown Prince actively playing this role of unifying society and guaranteeing tolerance and freedoms. It has consistently been the Crown Prince who has pursued the path of National Dialogue and Reconciliation; recently causing a stir by being one of the first senior figures to sit with leaders of the opposition in three years.
A ruling system gains its legitimacy both through just and effective rule; and by inheriting well-established political traditions. One of the reasons why the post-revolutionary situation in Egypt has been so unsettled is that revolution tears up the rulebook. Suddenly anybody’s theory of governance is as good as anybody else’s and the only source of authority is whoever can establish their rule by force.
Constitutional Monarchies like Great Britain, Sweden, Morocco and Bahrain, derive a portion of their legitimacy from deeply rooted historical political traditions, where the political system has acclimatized to the specific needs and features of the state. These Constitutional Monarchies enjoy a whole series of checks and balances to ensure that the Monarch enjoys popular legitimacy and is responsive to the wishes of the people.
No political system is perfect and no political system pleases everyone; but the reality is that the Constitutional Monarchy system has proven to be very effective and durable in certain societies. It is not an alternative to democracy, but is compatible with democracy.
The King is the arbiter of a system where the people choose their representatives. The King protects that system and guards against those who abuse the system; but the rule of law also prevents the Monarch from abusing that system.
King Hamad’s 2001 National Action Charter put Bahrain on the path of progressive reforms. We are by no means at the end of that path: The 2012 Constitutional Amendments take Bahrain a step further and the National Dialogue process is also intended to set out a vision for continuing reform of the political system.
Constitutional Monarchy provides a framework for that reform process. No reform process is completely un-traumatic; the King fulfills the role of guaranteeing the continuation of those reforms and ensuring that vested interests do not stand in the way.
The appointment of the Crown Prince in early 2012 as the Deputy Prime Minister with the role for expediting executive reform is a further indicator of how the Monarchy can use its leverage to move the political system in a progressive direction. The Crown Prince has recently been using this role to prioritize the anti-corruption agenda and go after senior officials who have abused their posts.
It was King Hamad who called for an independent commission to investigate events of early 2011. He accepted the many tough criticisms of that report in full and undertook to implement all the BICI’s recommendations.
By prioritizing the reform process, Bahrain is implicitly acknowledging that its political system is not perfect, but no political system is. Rather, Bahrain’s Constitutional Monarchy should be seen on its own merits, in comparison with other Constitutional Monarchies.
Commentators show their own political immaturity when they imply that anything that doesn’t correspond perfectly to a system of US-style presidential democracy is a historic abnormality that deserves to be wiped from the face of history. There should be little need to waste time here setting out the very obvious dysfunctions of the US Congressional system that have been on open display to us all in recent years.
The Bahrain February 2011 protests – before they were hijacked by militants – were about reform, not revolution. All Bahrainis believe in reform.
In contradiction to the propaganda spouted by opposition-affiliated Bahraini exiles; most Bahrainis are proud of their King and their Monarchy. Bahrain can reform itself, not in spite of being a Monarchy, but because we are a Constitutional Monarchy that allows for progressive reforms, without allowing our system to be hijacked by extremists, and ensuring the representation of all segments of society.
At the end of the day any political system stands or falls based on its ability to respond to contemporary realities and maintain the support of moderate and right-thinking citizens.
The fact that the Bahraini political system has succeeded in weathering the political storms of recent years and has responded with reforms, dialogue and reconciliation – not Al Assad of Qadhafi-style repression – is testament to the ability of Bahrain’s Constitutional Monarchy to remain relevant and responsive.