3 – 9 March 2016
The Shura Council’s session this week focused on legislation for addressing domestic disputes, along with discussion of the need to implement the Family Law for Shia communities – a move previously blocked by Islamist societies like Al-Wefaq.
Once again, all the major newspapers ganged-up against elected MPs this week; ridiculing them for spending most of their weekly session arguing over whether citizens should be fined for using a hose to wash their cars, along with other proposed penalties for littering, spitting and other indecent behaviours!
During the weekly Cabinet meeting, the Crown Prince was mandated to establish a committee of inquiry into a number of stalled projects and the Housing Ministry was mandated to look into new housing projects for the Al-Hillah area.
The week also began with Information and Parliament Minister Isa al-Hammadi being removed from his post, to be replaced by Ali al-Rumaihi as Information Minister and Ghanim al-Buaynayn returning to his former Parliament Minister role.
The below reporting looks at the trade unions election process; and the emergence of new parliamentary blocs. The resignation of two-thirds of Bahrain’s female MPs from the Women’s Committee has also given rise to renewed questions about the influence of Islamists.
Calls for legal protection for Shia women
The Shura Council spent much of its weekly session this Sunday debating amendments to the law regarding family disputes; with the aim of facilitating and accelerating the process and widening the right of appeal.
Within the context of this debate, several MPs raised the issue of implementation of the Family Law for the Shia community. The segment of the Law for Sunnis has been in place since 2009. However, Shia Islamist groups like Al-Wefaq used their influence in Parliament to repeatedly block proposed legislation prepared by experts in Shia Jaafari law, claiming the absolute right of local clerics to resolve domestic disputes.
Shia MP Sayyid Dhiya al-Mousawi said that there was nothing in the Jaafari draft that could be said to contradict Islamic law “despite the efforts of some to amend segments and block legislation by mobilizing the masses in particular ways… Many cases are currently log-jammed in courts because of the whim of a cleric or judge, which wouldn’t happen if there was a clear law for personal issues”.
Al-Mousawi said that if many of those who had been incited against the draft had actually read it, they would realize that it actually serves their interests.
On women’s day Al-Ayam also published an investigation into the case of numerous Shia women who were forced to seek justice in Sunni courts, because of the lack of opportunities for recourse to justice in their own community. Many of these individuals had spent years trying to address domestic issues under the traditional Jaafari system. In several cases women had been refused the right to divorce, despite unfaithful and violent husbands.
The Bahrain Women’s Union likewise put out a 8 March women’s day statement calling for implementation of Jaafari family law, as well as urging the parliamentary Women’s Committee to waive its objections to CEDAW (the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women – see below) and calling for urgent reform of nationalization laws for the offspring of Bahraini women.
New super-bloc in Parliament
Just six months after parliamentary blocs first began to emerge following the 2015 summer parliamentary recess, the composition of these blocs is changing yet again. On 5 March it was reported that four smaller blocs and societies (the National Bloc, the National Accord Bloc, Al-Asalah and Al-Minbar) would merge into a single bloc composed of around 18 members, along with a few independent MPs.
This means that parliamentary politics are likely to be dominated by the interactions of two major blocs: This as-yet unnamed new entity and the nine-member National Participation Bloc, which had until now been the largest entity in the 40-member elected Parliament, known as the Council of Representatives.
The constituent blocs of this new entity have already voted together on several occasions, notably during a failed attempt to achieve a two-thirds majority in support of interrogating two ministers in relation to the subsidies issue (the National Participation Bloc successfully opposed the motion, claiming that there was insufficient justifications for an interrogation).
There have been strong indications that the views of these MPs are coalescing around certain positions. In particular, a desire for tougher use for parliamentary powers, with greater powers for interrogating ministers having become a symbolically-important issue.
Chairman of the National Accord Bloc, Isa Turki, said that the new bloc would oppose the removal of subsidies on petrol, while recognizing the need for subsidy reform. He also noted the tough positions affiliated MPs had taken on the need to limit the size of the national debt.
The new coalition includes the two Islamic societies, Al-Asalah and Al-Minbar and most of the other members can be described as socially conservative. All MPs are Sunnis, apart from two independent Shia MPs: Businesswoman Rua al-Haiki and lawyer Mohammed Milad; both of whom have also tended to be socially conservative in their parliamentary activity.
The 18 MPs understood to be participating in this new coalition include the following:
Members of the National Bloc: Abdulrahman Bumjaid (Chairman), Ahmed Qaratah, Mohammed al-Jowder, Mohammed al-Ahmed, Ali Bufarsan and Ibrahim al-Hammadi.
Members of the National Accord Bloc: Isa Turki (Chairman), Osama al-Khajah, Mohammed al-Maarifi, Muhsin al-Bakri and Dhiyab al-Noaimi.
Members of Al-Asalah Society (Salafist): Abdulhalim Murad and Ali al-Muqla; along with MPs affiliated with Al-Asalah: Anas Buhindi and Jamal Dawoud. (It is unclear whether the affiliated Sunni cleric Nabil al-Balooshi will be joining).
Member of Al-Minbar Society (pro-Muslim Brotherhood): Mohammed al-Ammadi. (Affiliated MP Abdulhamid al-Najjar was not named as joining).
Two named independents: Rua al-Haiki, Mohammed Milad.
The National Participation Bloc meanwhile has formalized its membership with nine MPs, a mix of Sunnis and Shia, including clerics and younger secular figures.
Two members who had been cited as likely to join but were left off the final list were Isa al-Kooheji and Khaled al-Shaer. Al-Shaer had been designated as the Participation Bloc’s spokesman, but was reportedly left out after a number of confrontational incidents with MPs from other blocs.
The bloc has tended to stress that it is “non-political” in acknowledgement of the diverse positions of members, while seeking to build consensus both between its own members and with other blocs. In general, this bloc has tended to take less confrontational positions towards the Government, but has been vocal on issues of employing Bahrainis and improving social conditions and living standards.
The nine members are: Mohammed al-Dossary (Chairman), Jalal al-Mahfoudh, Ghazi Al Rahmah, Nasir al-Qaseer, Shaikh Majid al-Asfour, Shaikh Majid al-Majid, Jamila al-Sammak, Adel Bin-Hamid and Jamal Buhassan.
This leaves just MPs who reportedly remain unaffiliated, a disproportionate number of whom are in senior positions: The Parliament Chairman and his Deputy; Ahmed al-Mulla and Ali al-Aradi; along with Defence Committee Chairman Abdullah Bin-Huwail; Legal Committee Chairman Ali al-Atish; Services Committee Chairman Abbas al-Madhi; Public Utilities Committee Chairman Adel al-Asoumi; Finance Committee Chairman Abdulrahman Bu-Ali; along with Khalifa al-Ghanim, Isa al-Kooheji, Khaled al-Shaer, Abdulhamid al-Najjar, Nabil al-Balooshi and Fatima al-Asfour.
The fact that neither of the two major blocs have members who are chairpeople of the five permanent committees means that both groupings are currently excluded from the influential Parliamentary Administrative Bureau (hay’at al-maktab) which takes decisions about the agenda of parliamentary sessions, prioritizing of bills for debating and other issues. In fact, last week Mohammed al-Dossary demanded that in accordance with the relative size of his National Participation Bloc, they should be allotted two permanent chairpeople roles and two seats in the Administrative Bureau. According to such logic, the new bloc would thus deserve the other three positions – all of which currently seems unlikely. Such existing tensions means that this is unlikely to be the end of the story and that membership, bloc composition and committee positions may continue to remain fluid.
“Islamists” dominate trade union elections
A running story this week was the process of leadership elections for the influential General Federation of Bahrain’s Trade Unions; particularly after Secretary-General Salman al-Mahfoudh announced that he was stepping down from his post after eight years in the role. These elections are a complicated process involving 43 individual trade union organizations. With many senior figures standing down, several reports speculated that reformist and progressive figures were likely to become less prominent.
On Wednesday, Al-Wasat reported that the elections appeared to leave Al-Wefaq-affiliated Islamist figures in dominant positions, although discussions are still ongoing regarding the allocation of leadership positions. It was reported that nine Al-Wefaq affiliates were earmarked for Secretariat-General positions, along with two members of Waad National Democratic Action Society), one member of the Democratic Progressive Tribune and three independents. Al-Wasat quoted several delegates as voicing concerns over politicization of the process and the possible monopolization of decision-making by a single entity.
Parliamentary Women’s Committee
MP Khaled al-Shaer has criticized the resignation of two women from the Women and Children’s Committee. During the previous parliamentary year, Jamila al-Sammak was chairwoman and Fatima al-Asfour was her deputy. However, both have now resigned altogether after Islamist MPs secured the ascendency of new member Rua al-Haiki as chairwomen in November 2015.
Al-Shaer (who has been publically at odds with Al-Haiki on a number of issues) said that women MPs should be playing a decisive role in steering this committee and having their say on key issues related to women and families.
The resignation of Fatima and Jamila from this five-person committee left behind just Al-Haiki and Salafist MP Anas Buhindi and Conservative MP Muhsin al-Bakri; with conservative/Islamist MP Jamal Dawoud occasionally participating as a member. This has been reflected in the tenor of legislation passing through the Committee. Al-Haiki and her colleagues have been highly outspoken in their opposition to CEDAW (the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women). The Supreme Council for Women, the Bahrain Women’s Union and other organizations have criticized the positions of this Committee; arguing that such a committee should be an advocate for cause of women in Parliament, not an obstacle and source of regressive legislation.
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