Bahrain, a country known to be one of the most politically and socially progressive in the region, has faced many challenges in its continuous path towards reform. While Bahrain’s 2001 National Action Charter opened up the country to official and legal political activities, this led to the gradual emergence of civil society and greater political representation. However, we also experienced a growth in sectarian societies, which led the country into turmoil.
Bahrain’s Government and Parliament have recently taken a number of steps to separate religion from politics, culminating in the shut-down of Al-Wefaq Islamic Society, a main player of the country’s political opposition. A question that many Bahrainis may ask today is: Where does this leave Bahrain politically? And what is next concerning the current economic challenges?
Here we take a broad look at the priority areas required for progress in Bahrain to take our society forward and address the current challenges:
Non-sectarian political societies
We hope to see non-sectarian political societies that could act for the interest of the nation and put the Bahraini identity first, rather than working towards religious or sectarian agendas. These would be political societies that would revive the concept of nationalism in political life and the interest of all Bahrainis despite their sect, ethnicity or origins.
Moderate figures within Bahraini’s different communities should join forces to unite the country and work closely with the government towards further reforms and freedoms.
To date, moderate non-religious political societies have struggled to establish deep roots across society and have performed weakly in elections. Thus, encouraging greater public maturity towards political representation along non-ideological lines will require sustained efforts. There is a need through education and an enhanced civil society role to raise political awareness. This can help encourage more sophisticated public participation both through elections and interaction with their representatives, while creating space for moderate and experienced politicians with a clear vision for their nation.
In a society made up of various sects, political activity based on sectarian lines is inherently divisive. Therefore efforts to stimulate political activism and civil society must cut across sectarian divides and in an inclusive manner address the issues which concern ordinary Bahrainis from all communities.
The failure of the two official national dialogues in 2011 and 2013 does not necessarily mean that there is no room for dialogue. Some Bahrainis believe that with the absence of Al Wefaq as a political society, the sentencing of Al Wefaq’s Secretary General Ali Salman and travel bans on activists, no dialogue can take place.
On the contrary, a dialogue is required between the government, independent opposition figures, loyalist groups and others to raise concerns and try to address the issues facing the country in a way that could satisfy different elements of the society. A genuine dialogue which brings in representatives from across all segments of Bahrain’s society can help create a road map for a representative legislature and political activism on non-sectarian lines.
We need to encourage a new generation of prominent public figures who can reach agreement on political reform and bringing society together. This can help displace some of the more divisive figures on both sides who inflamed tensions over the 2011 period.
Bahrain should invest in its youth. A few youth movements have been successful during the past few years in promoting civic responsibility and awareness. Many more steps should be taken to empower youth and create a generation of future leaders who can work towards the good of the country within a non-sectarian sphere. This can help promote reconciliation efforts.
Awareness about the political process
Greater public awareness regarding the political process in Bahrain is a necessary step for greater public involvement in the political process. Both the government and civil society organizations have a responsibility towards making the public aware of the political process, parliamentary elections, the duties of citizens and residents and the duties and responsibilities of MPs.
Bahrain will be holding its next municipal and parliamentary elections in 2018. Hence we require more awareness to what the Parliament does and how we as Bahrainis should choose the right people to represent us in the legislative authority. The public should be empowered to make the best possible decisions for selecting its representatives and ensuring they fulfil their promises.
The annual Financial Audit Bureau report in recent years has been the starting point for combatting corruption and inefficiencies and improving performance of governmental departments. Parliament plays a key role in overseeing effective governance.
However, there is a need for greater professionalism and consistency from the legislature in undertaking this oversight role; as well as all public sector departments needing to have a clear vision for increasing efficiency, strengthening the performance of staff and ensuring promotion based on merit.
Reviving the economy
In addition government efforts to develop the economy, Bahrain needs to continuously diversify its economy to minimize the adverse effects of fluctuations in oil prices.
A vibrant and highly diverse economy creates more jobs and hence addresses the issue of unemployment, low incomes and counters violence and criminal behaviour among youth from certain communities.
Constructive engagement from our allies
Bahrain is a country that has always been a key player in international and regional affairs and hence looks to its main allies for encouragement and support, whether it is our GCC neighbours or our allies in the West such as the United Kingdom and the United States.
Many steps have been taken by our allies towards encouraging reform and developing a healthy political process in our country and we as Bahrainis hope that these steps will continue. Constructive engagement that can help the society move forward without the feeling of meddling in internal affairs is what many Bahrainis aspire to.
Rights and freedoms
In times of strife and instability citizens become unable to fully exercise their rights and freedoms. A strong, united and flourishing society is one where everybody can fully enjoy their rights.
The Constitution clearly enshrined the freedoms of all faiths and components of Bahrain’s society and it is important to ensure that we move forward within the spirit of the Constitution. The BICI reforms in the security and justice sector were an important step forward and this should continue to be consolidated.
By neutralizing sectarian political activity this also weakens those who seek to use these enshrined freedoms against Bahraini national unity and to damage Bahrain in the service of foreign interests. Therefore the strengthening of rights and freedoms must be pursued inline with efforts to strengthen national identity, citizenship and constructive political participation.