10 – 16 March 2016
The activities of two parliamentary committees have attracted controversy this week: The petition by the “Unregistered Workers Committee” to extend its mandate attracted accusations that such a move was unconstitutional; and the recommendations submitted by the “Quranic Verses Committee” prompted many MPs and officials to suggest that the whole process had been a waste of time. Below we look at the wider context of the work of such investigative committees and differing views as to their effectiveness.
Another major issue this week was the deportation of around ten Lebanese citizens accused of links with Hezbollah. Meanwhile, the National Unity Gathering political society reported a potentially catastrophic 90% fall in received donations, discussed below.
The Bahraini media this week reported the deportation of a number of Lebanese nationals accused of having links with the banned terrorist organization Hezbollah. According to media reports, this move encompassed around ten families who were given between 24 and 72 hours to leave the country.
This comes in the context of tightening GCC moves against Hezbollah, in order to dry up all possible sources of revenue and support in the region. In recent weeks the Bahrain Interior Minister has also announced a number of related measures to obstruct young Bahrainis from associating themselves with extremist groups, as well as for preventing Iran from further interference in Bahraini affairs.
Committees of inquiry have been a useful means for MPs to draw attention to an important issue and to submit recommendations to the Government in the hope of addressing the issue of public concern.
However, such committees have raised a number of controversies. During the current Parliament a number of these newly-set up committees have on more than one occasion requested extensions to their four-month mandated term, after which they should submit recommendations for approval by Parliament and then dissolve themselves.
There are disagreements about whether these committees are allowed to extend their original time period, as a result of ambiguities in the Parliamentary code vis-à-vis the wording of the Constitution. This has led to some MPs and Al-Watan newspaper to claim that these extended committees are null and void. However, some MPs have argued that they have no choice but to continue their investigations if they have not yet received necessary information from Government departments and other public sector entities.
This discussion began once again this week when the Committee for Investigating Unregistered Workers requested a one month extension to its work, with Chairman Adel al-Asoumi claiming that the committee had completed “99.9%” of its mandate but needed a small amount more time to collect outstanding information. This Committee has been looking into the so-called free-visa system, which has allowed foreign workers to leave their original Bahraini sponsor and seek other jobs, without registering themselves or normalizing their status.
This triggered renewed discussion of the legality of such an extension, prompting Parliament Chairman Ahmed al-Mulla to exasperatedly question whether this issue was to be discussed every week! Legal expert, MP Mohammed Milad cited the apparent contradictions between the Constitution and the Parliamentary Code and recommended that the issue be submitted to the Constitutional Court, a motion which was supported by Al-Asoumi.
A further issue of controversy is the subject matter selected for these committees. Critics have pointed out that rather than take a strategic approach to establishing committees to study issues of major consequence for Bahrain, parliamentary committees have been set up on an ad-hoc basis according to the whims of individual MPs. In particular, the committee set up by Jamal Buhassan to investigate allegations that the tendering process for a lamppost advertising contract was unfairly awarded; and the investigation into the alleged singing of Quranic verses during a school talent contest.
Major committees of investigation during the current Parliament
- Investigative Committee on Unregistered Foreign Workers (established March 2015)
- Committee for Investigating Improper Recitation of Quranic Verses (established March 2015)
- Mumtalakat Investigation Committee (established April 2015)
- Rotten Meat Investigation Committee (established Feb 2015)
- Sub-Committee for Reviewing Subsidy Reform (established July 2015)
- Committee for Investigating Commercial Advertising (established Jan 2016)
Quranic Verses Committee
A year after it was first constituted, the Committee for Investigating Improper Recitation of Quranic Verses this week finally submitted its recommendations for approval by Parliament, prior to submission to the Ministry of Education – amidst wide-ranging criticism.
The Ministry of Education quickly submitted a very detailed critique of the recommendations and the work of the Committee itself. Firstly the Ministry pointed out that many of the recommendations had already been implemented within a few days of the original incident. Furthermore, the Ministry questioned the very name of the Committee, saying that the incident hadn’t actually involved Quranic verses at all, but simply a prayer set to music.
Other MPs were critical of the Committee’s efforts which they said had wasted a lot of Parliament’s time. Khaled al-Shaer said that the issue had been “taken out of proportion”. Ali al-Atish said that he had resigned from the Committee, adding: “This was an incident which should have been put in context. Why did the Committee go on this long? What advancements did the Committee make over all this time?” Other MPs questioned the negative effect on the student concerned.
Arguably the most devastating criticism came from Islamist MP Abdulhalim Murad who said that the Committee had been a waste of time concerning an issue which was over and done with.
Political societies in crisis
Over recent weeks Citizens for Bahrain has been documenting the difficult challenges facing political societies in Bahrain, including the sharp drop in active public support and the non-payment of funding. This week saw several new reports which cast a light on this difficult situation.
The National Unity Gathering this week published documents showing its financial status, including revenues, expenditure and investments. The documents showed a 90% drop in donations between 2014 (BD 463,000) and 2015 (BD 44,610). Considering that this is the main segment of the NUG’s revenues; this must be considered to be a catastrophic fall; particularly as the organization only recorded BD 2,580 in membership subscription renewals for the period, along with a halving of the Ministry of Justice allowance to BD 10,500.
The National Unity Gathering emerged in 2011 in response to the 2011 protests. The NUG is a loyalist and predominantly-Sunni organization. It is one of the prominent members of the Al-Fateh Coalition, set up in opposition to the protest movement. At its height the NUG and Al-Fateh could count on the support of tens of thousands of members, leading to an expectation that they would perform well in the November 2014 parliamentary elections.
However, despite a well-funded campaign and prominent candidates, the NUG, as part of the Al-Fateh list, failed to win any seats in these elections; comparable with the poor performance of other political societies. This reflects a widespread sense of public dissatisfaction with political societies and with political mobilization more generally.
For example, Secretary-General of the Islamic Shura Council, Shaikh Abdulrahman Abdulsalam, whose organization currently holds the rotating presidency of the Al-Fateh Coalition, recently noted an “almost complete cessation” of political activity, adding that Al-Fateh and other political societies were going through a period of “complete exhaustion”.
Other segments of the Al-Fateh Coalition have been just as dormant. The Al-Mithaq and National Dialogue Society have been almost completely invisible; and this week Al-Wasat Society revealed that it was still struggling to replace its Secretary-General 18 months after the resignation of Ahmed al-Binali, prior to the parliamentary elections.
Interim Secretary-General Jassim al-Muhazza acknowledged widespread despondency with political societies. He noted that Al-Wasat had frozen its relationship with Al-Fateh since the last elections contest. He said that Al-Wasat had originally affiliated itself with the Al-Fateh groupings in the post-2011 period, on condition of it remaining non-sectarian. However, Al-Muhazza pointed to a growing influence of “nationalist trends,” as more young people realized that such an ideology wasn’t in contradiction with Islamic trends (Al-Ayam, 15 March).
Although Al-Minbar Society has been more successful than all of its other Al-Fateh colleagues in getting one MP into Parliament (Mohammed al-Ammadi), the society itself has been going through a difficult period, with its pro-Muslim Brotherhood ideology currently out of favour.
The only society which has been consistently active – the Salafist Al-Asalah Society – separated from Al-Fateh in 2013. Al-Asalah got two MPs into Parliament and has continued to issue prominent statements and act as a coherent entity; although apparently with markedly less vigour than during the height of its strength over a decade ago.
Many political societies are reporting that their monthly funding from official institutions has been temporarily halted since October 2015. The Finance Ministry attributed this to temporary shortage in funds due to the financial crisis. Some societies, like the National Constitution Assembly (also part of Al-Fateh) have resorted to public appeals for funding through the social media. Islamic Saff Society Secretary-General, Abdullah Bughammar, hinted that his society would have to close if the situation didn’t resolve itself.
Two political societies; the Justice and Development Society, and the recently-formed Democratic Nation Society this December announced that they were closing down, citing struggles in maintaining consistent support and activism from senior members.
Al-Fateh is a loose coalition of seven political societies which are broadly Sunni-loyalist in orientation:
- Al-Minbar al-Islami (Islamic League) – Society with links to the Muslim Brotherhood
- National Unity Gathering
- Mithaq al-Amal al-Watani (National Action Charter) – Society set up in 2002 in support of the King’s new constitution
- Al-Wasat al-Arabi – Centrist Arab nationalist society. Al-Fateh membership frozen since October 2014
- Islamic Shura Society – Political society of Islamic orientation
- National Dialogue Society – Set up in support of the post-2011 dialogue process
- Al-Tajammu al-Dusturi (Constitutional Assembly)
Politics in brief – 10-16 March
Weekly Shura Council meeting: 1961 trade registration law abolished & replaced with new law. Shura Council agrees to cancel segments of terrorism law after receiving assurances that this will not cause a legal vacuum. Council votes in favour of prison sentences for those who plant fake bombs.
Weekly Cabinet meeting: Prime Minister says statement by UN Human Rights Commissioner was non-objective interference in internal affairs. Cabinet praises success of joint military exercises in Saudi Arabia. Cabinet says that Bahrain successfully passed through economic and social challenges of 2011 events. Prime Minister calls for paved streets and rainwater infrastructure in Al-Eker.
Weekly Council of Representatives meeting: MPs finalize discussion of amended Public Cleanliness Law, after prolonged discussion on use of hose pipes for washing cars and fines for littering and spitting! Vote approves recommendations of Quranic Verses Committee, despite opposition from several MPs and officials (see below). Proposals submitted for limiting employment of foreigners in public sector. Agreement reached on bill allowing public sector workers to make payments for increasing their retirement bonuses.
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