25 Feb – 2 Mar 2016
With the Shura Council cancelling its session (for the first time ever) because of a lack of draft bills to review, and elected MPs largely concerned with the decline in traditional handicrafts, this was not a week for important new legislation!
The below reporting looks at the ongoing difficulties encountered by both opposition and loyalist political societies, in the face of crumbling public support. The report also discusses Bahraini reactions to an Al-Arabiya documentary featuring testimonies about Iranian support for the opposition. Finally, there is a discussion about the background to several recent allegations made against MPs.
Leading figure decries “pointless” Al-Fateh meetings
Between 2011 and 2013, the Al-Fateh Coalition was seen as the main Sunni loyalist political and social movement, channeling public resentment against the opposition and acting as a major participant in the National Dialogue.
However, following the almost total failure of Al-Fateh organizations to win seats during the 2014 parliamentary elections, this Coalition has gone through something of an existential crisis, with little public activity by Al-Fateh or its constituent groupings and few mentions in the media.
This week, the Secretary-General of the Islamic Shura Council, Shaikh Abdulrahman Abdulsalam admitted that his organization had failed to take the initiative during its cyclical leadership of the Coalition. Abdulsalam said that he did not see the point of meetings at a time of “almost complete cessation of activity”, noting that the Coalition and political societies were going through a period of “complete exhaustion”.
He said that most political societies were currently demoralized and inactive, with little response from members even when they were invited to events: “The collapse of activity by political societies and the Coalition is unprecedented. Even meetings of the political offices and secretariat-generals hardly ever have the requisite number of attendees”. Abdulsalam added that many societies had actually pulled out of the Al-Fateh Coalition altogether.
In previous weeks, Citizens for Bahrain has already focused on the numerous difficulties faced by political societies, including funding shortages, lack of strategy and the decline in political support.
On the opposition side, the situation appears to be just as bad, with organizations like Al-Wefaq and Waad undergoing fundamental divisions about whether to boycott or rejoin the political process, combined with a general feeling of exhaustion following five years of continued mobilization with nothing to show for it.
Opposition detainees renounce “republic” & discuss Hezbollah ties
Many Bahrainis seemed interested in an Al-Arabiya documentary this week, which had exclusive access to several of the well-known detained figures behind the unrest. In open and candid discussions, the leader of the Haqq Movement, Hassan Mushaima, detailed his contacts with Hezbollah and meetings with Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon, immediately before flying back to Bahrain from London in February 2011.
Mushaima revealed that he and other opposition leaders had coordinated extensively with the Iran-sponsored Da’wah organization in London. Other speakers admitted to close coordination with pro-Iranian and Hezbollah entities in Kuwait, who offered weapons and support.
Mushaima acknowledged that the declaration of a Bahrain “republic” by several opposition movements was a catastrophic mistake. Likewise, the leadership figure Abdulwahab Hussain said that the opposition had thoughtlessly adopted the “down with the regime” slogans from Egypt and Tunisia without properly considering the implications.
With a big smile on his face, Mohammed al-Miqdad criticized “supposedly experienced” political figures like Ibrahim Sharif and Ali Salman for “riding the wave” of protests and encouraging people to take to the streets with no thought for the consequences.
Most of this information was not new and transcripts of similar testimonies surfaced when these figures went on trial back in 2011. However, it was certainly new for Bahrainis to see these figures talk about these events in a relaxed manner on a major TV channel.
There was a lot of speculation about the significance of the broadcast; whether a deal had been done and the extent to which this represented major strategic divisions within the opposition over mistakes made in 2011; aligning with Iran and seeking revolution, not reform.
In recent weeks, the newspaper Al-Watan has spearheaded a series of campaigns ridiculing MPs and accusing them of underperformance and even corruption.
There have been two significant allegations with an implication of corruption. The first was that an MP has used his legislative position to establish around 12 companies; implying that he benefitted from his role for long-term commercial gain. A series of Al-Watan reports and commentaries repeated and amplified this claim. These allegations were widely discussed in social media.
Although the newspaper didn’t name the MP concerned, it appears that the allegations referred to Manama MP Ahmed Qaratah. At an event on 1 March, Qaratah presented a detailed rebuttal of the allegations with documentary evidence. He said that it was a “pure lie” that he owned 12 companies. However, he noted that he had nine company registrations which dated back to the 1990s and his time as a tradesman, five of which have long been inactive. Qaratah stated that he had never made a single company registration during any of his two terms as an MP.
The second set of allegations was published by Al-Watan at the beginning of this week. This claimed that a group of MPs owned property in Busaiteen and that they had used their influence to change the designation of the local street (residential to commercial) in order to greatly increase the value of the property. According to the allegations, local authorities then altered the designation back to residential, but MPs once again used their influence to reinstate the commercial classification.
It is not clear what Al-Watan’s sources were for these claims, but once again, the story was heavily amplified by social media discussion and opinion pieces by Al-Watan commentators.
Two MPs whose names became associated with these allegations – Abdulhalim Murad and Abdulrahman Bumjaid – have strongly denied owning any property in this area. Ahmed Qaratah acknowledged owning a plot of land in the locality in relation to a housing request going back to 1992, but denied having any involvement in seeking to alter the designation of the area.
The past few months have seen a growing amount of criticism against the performance of MPs, with Parliament widely having been judged to have been ineffective in addressing issues of subsidy reform and economic challenges.
However, Al-Watan newspaper has been particularly strident in its criticism of MPs, in its commentary articles and in the editorial direction of its reporting. For example, during the autumn Al-Watan nearly every day featured a cartoon character in Arab dress satirizing statements and activities by MPs, creating a sense that Al-Watan was trying to focus public frustrations against parliamentarians.
What should we make of this?
Arguably, the powers, procedures and composition of Parliament have made MPs ill-equipped for having a central role in the rapid decisions which have had to be taken resulting from the plunge in oil revenues. The lack of available budgets also meant that most proposals for benefitting local constituents were vetoed, leading the public to vent its frustrations against MPs for the deterioration in living standards.
However, Parliament is a central pillar of the reform and democratization process and this is in danger of being undermined, both by hostile attacks against MPs and by the failure of these MPs to take the initiative in setting out a roadmap for taking Bahrain forward and performing their core role of ensuring good governance.
Certainly some MPs have fallen short of their obligation to serve the nation, but this does not mean that we are right to dismiss all MPs as a waste of space.
It is right and necessary to criticize Parliament and any allegations of impropriety must be properly investigated – not just leaving social media commentators to make up their own minds. But criticism should be constructive with a view to how we can improve Parliament’s performance.
We are all working for the good of Bahrain and when the going gets tough it is even more important that we stand together and work alongside each other for the goals of prosperity, unity and stability for our nation.
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