19-24 February 2016

Once again, many of the key domestic developments in Bahrain were closely linked to regional affairs. Bahrain has joined other GCC nations in warning against travel to Lebanon; and new measures have been announced with the aim of curtailing Iranian meddling.

Legislative issues have been somewhat overshadowed by the alarming growth in tensions between the two chambers of Parliament, after the appointed Shura Council cancelled next week’s session – by implication putting the blame on the elected Chamber of Representatives for not expediting the processing of draft legislation.

This week’s summary also looks at the influence which Islamist MPs wield in the context of several recent draft proposals for Islamic-flavoured legislation.

Measures to counter foreign interference

King Hamad on Tuesday drew attention to “foreign ambitions seeking to undermine the security and stability of the region”. He affirmed that such interference would strengthen efforts towards establishing a Gulf Union and cementing ties between Arab regional states.

The Interior Minister on Sunday announced a series of measures aiming to restrict Iran’s ability to interfere in Bahraini affairs. This includes a committee to monitor financial transactions and foreign donations, with a view to combatting the financing of terrorism.

Travel restrictions have been imposed on citizens, particularly those between 14 and 18, who travel to countries designated as posing a security risk. Shaikh Rashid said the authorities would also take measures to “protect religious discourse against religious and political extremism as well as incitement.” This will also address attempts to politicize religious rituals and processions.

Bahrain on Wednesday joined Saudi Arabia and other GCC states in calling on nationals to avoid travelling to Lebanon. Bahrain told those already present in Lebanon to “to promptly leave and to exercise extreme caution at all times”.

Bahraini politicians during the week have also been strongly supportive of Saudi Arabia’s decision to halt the $4bn aid package to the Lebanese security forces, following growing concerns that Iran was exercising undue influence in the political process through entities like Hezbollah 

Parliament this week

During the Tuesday weekly Parliament session, proposals were approved for empowering banks to impose fines on those who disclosed confidential banking information.

Parliament also debated proposals for removing restrictions on concurrent membership of clubs and societies. They eventually voted to allow citizens to be simultaneously members of sports clubs and civil society organizations, but decided to keep a ban in place on joint membership of political societies and clubs.

Abdulrahman Bumjaid and Muhsin al-Bakri warned of the dangers of political societies infiltrating sports clubs and other organizations. However, MPs Mohammed Milad, Majid al-Asfour and Adel Bin-Hamid said that maintaining such restrictions limited personal freedoms.

Tensions between two chambers of Parliament

The Shura Council during their weekly session on Sunday voted in favour of giving the Fatwa and Legislation Authority the responsibility for taking the final decision when there are differences between the appointed Shura Council and the elected Council of Representatives over interpretation of legal texts.

Such ambiguity over who has the final say often leads to laws being pushed around between the two bodies. The 2012 constitutional amendments were supposed to give the Council of Representatives nominal supremacy. However, in practice on many issues, both houses need to be in agreement for draft laws to pass. In most cases, the Council of Representatives is the first chamber to scrutinize draft legislation, before being passed to the Shura Council.

One of the key issues in the recent disputes between the two chambers is the allegation from the Shura Council that legislation is being held up by the elected chamber. However, elected MPs have countered that many drafts have recently been passed on to the Shura Council which is itself delaying progress.

This issue took a further turn this week when the head of the Shura Council announced that the following week’s session would be cancelled because of a lack of draft bills ready to be discussed. This was widely seen as criticism of the Council of Representatives’ performance in passing drafts to the Shura Council, and therefore predictably drew an angry response from some MPs. Khaled al-Shaer questioned the Shura Council’s motives, noting that such a move was unprecedented. 

MP Jalal al-Mahfoudh meanwhile asked why so few proposed legal amendments emerged from Shura members, in contrast to their elected colleagues, while Adel al-Asoumi said that the Parliament Chairman Ahmed al-Mulla should be more assertive in standing up to the Shura Council. Jamal Buhassan claimed that the CoR had been “stabbed in the back”.

However, other MPs like Ahmed Qaratah argued that the CoR shared responsibility for addressing these issues and warned that the two chambers should not be at odds.

Municipal councilors also angry with MPs!

A proposal being discussed by the Council of Representatives to abolish the municipal councils and replace them with a centralized entity drew a furious reaction from municipal councilors themselves. Some councilors accused MPs of having “private agendas”, while others warned that MPs lived in “glass houses” and that measures they took could rebound against them.

In particular, councilors took exception to implied criticisms of their performance in statements made about the possible changes by MP Abdulrahman Bu-Ali.

Investigation: Are Islamist MPs exploiting their influence in Parliament?

This week Salafist MP Abdulhalim Murad stated that there were proposals for establishing a committee of inquiry investigating the existence of prostitution in Bahrain. This may sound like a strange subject for a parliamentary committee of inquiry, but no stranger than the committee which was established last year to investigate the alleged improper recitation of Quranic verses at a school talent contest!

Several newspaper reports have raised the question about the improper influence of Islamic MPs in Bahrain’s Parliament. Journalists note that despite Islamic MPs being a small minority, they have been instrumental in a raft of recent proposals, including a complete ban on the sale of pork; further restrictions on the sale of alcohol, ensuring that public sector entities use Islamic banking practices; and restrictions on “immodest” images published in the media.

Journalists echoed concerns that these measures amounted to a “wave of Islamicization of Bahraini society which is distinguished by its openness and moderation”.

A particular source of ridicule by journalists and social media users was the November proposal by Islamist MPs for outlawing tattoos. They claimed that the practice of tattooing was un-Islamic and encouraged “young people to distort their bodies with slogans and drawings which conflicted with the Islamic faith”. During the debate on the tattoos proposal, MP Jamal Dawoud rejected these criticisms, saying: “This is a dangerous threat to Bahrain as a whole. We shouldn’t belittle this as a trivial matter… This is against the Islamic faith and our Constitution”. The proposal was passed by a majority of MPs.

Looking at membership of parliamentary committees, Islamist MPs are thinly spread across most of these bodies and cannot claim to have any systematic influence. The one exception to this is the Women and Children’s Committee where Islamists are now an outright majority. This includes Anas Buhindi, Jamal Dawoud and Muhsin al-Bakri, who are all on the Islamic-conservative fringe; along with Fatimah al-Asfour (who rarely expresses her views, but appears to be socially conservative) and Chairwoman Rua al-Haiki.

Al-Haiki is a Shia businesswoman who has previously been relatively socially progressive in her views. However, during mid-2015, Islamist MPs lobbied heavily in her favour to replace previous Chairwoman Jamila al-Sammak. Since her appointment, Al-Haiki’s views have oddly been in harmony with her Salafist colleagues, particularly with regard to the new draft law regarding implementation of CEDAW, the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

In this context, Jamal Dawoud has also been pushing draft legislation proposing that unmarried women are compelled to choose between guardians of families for place of residence, which directly confronts some of the proposed amendments in the CEDAW draft.

Who are the Islamist MPs?

Only two members of the Salafist political society Al-Asalah made it into Parliament during the 2014 elections. These are Abdulhalim Murad and Ali al-Muqla. However, three other MPs are often highlighted as being part of a loose Asalah/Salafist/Islamist grouping, these are Jamal Dawoud and the two Sunni clerics, Nabil al-Balooshi and Anas Buhindi.

Furthermore, several members of the five-person Accord Bloc are close to the Islamists; in particular former municipal councilor Muhsin al-Bakri.

The two Shia clerics, Majid al-Asfour and Majid al-Majid are both members of the relatively-progressive National Participation Bloc, and have tended to distance themselves from specifically Islamic legislation.

Only one member of the pro-Muslim Brotherhood Al-Minbar Society is a sitting MP. This is Mohammed al-Ammadi. Although holding socially conservative views, he hasn’t tended to actively lobby in favour of Islamic legislation and he tends to be more active on economic, good governance and local services issues.

MP Abdulhamid al-Najjar is associated with Al-Islah society, which is close to Al-Minbar, meaning that sometimes journalists refer to him and Al-Ammadi as constituting a “Minbar bloc”. However, there are few public indications of systematic coordination between these two Hamad Town MPs.


The problem facing Bahrain is that Islamists tend to be very well organized and coordinated, while the liberals who represent a wide swathe of public sentiment have no organizational capacity.

Bahraini Islamists are well organized in the social media. This can frequently be seen following online content of a sensitive cultural or social nature. For example, in December online tweets promoted a forthcoming youth camp in Bahrain. Islamists hijacked the hash tag with hundreds of tweets warning of all the “abominable acts” which would result from boys and girls being allowed to mix and stressing how alien such an initiative was to Bahraini culture. 

Hash tags for events around Bahrain’s national day in December were similarly deluged with hundreds of comments by Islamist bloggers, condemning the mingling of men and women and critiquing the “non-Islamic” nature of these celebrations.

Perhaps the conclusion to be drawn from this is not so much that Islamists are too-well organized; but that the progressive segment of Bahrain’s society has failed to organize itself and find its own voice. Many of the progressive civil society organizations which appeared during the last decade died a quiet death during the 2011 unrest and there have been few vocal and active entities which have risen to take their place.

It is essential that Bahrain’s civil society finds for itself a more coherent voice and that progressive individuals and entities coordinate more closely together to enhance the liberal face of Bahrain.

In Parliament, as in the rest of society, Islamists only represent a narrow fringe – but the time is right for other demographics in Bahrain’s society to stand up and be counted.



Week in politics

Continued reform efforts:5 – 11 May 2016

Social media attacks: 20-27 April 2016

Shura Council rejects “Islamicization”: 7-13 April 2016

CEDAW victory: 31 March – 6 April 2016

MPs reject budget statement: 24 – 30 March 2016

Pensions dispute: 17 – 23 March 2016

Committees of inquiry: 10 – 16 March 2016

Protection for Shia families: 3 – 9 March 2016

Political societies in decline: 25 Feb – 2 Mar

Lebanon travel restrictions: 19-24 Feb

Constitution celebrations: 11-18 Feb

Russia State visit: 4-10 Feb

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *