Political freedoms are a basic tenet of democratisation and development. While some continue complaining about the lack of political freedoms in the kingdom and claim continuous curbs on freedom, here is a look at why the situation in Bahrain is different and more complex than the simple notion that the country is politically oppressive and political freedoms are absent.
Parliament is a key tool for practicing freedom of speech, expressing and addressing concerns about the government’s performance. The proactive role taken by MPs since the start of the new parliamentary term in December 2022 is evidence to the political openness in Bahrain. During the past two months several MPs successfully called out government entities and raised concerns about economic standards, unemployment and other key issues that serve the Bahraini society collectively and reflect the weak performance of certain government organisations.
The National Action Charter established the parliament as one of the platforms to practice political freedoms and despite some concerns about the power of the parliament and the performance of MPs in the past, the parliamentary institution still remains to be a reflection of positive political development in the country.
The absence of certain political opposition groups and individuals and their self-imposed isolation from the democratic process does not mean that parliament is not successful as a democratic tool. Parliamentary debates are ongoing, all communities are represented in the parliament and the elections are continuously successful.
Social media criticism
It is certainly true that in the past and during the peak of sectarian and political tensions, social media activity often proved divisive and polarising.
However, things have changed and finding evidence of this change simply requires a quick look at twitter and Instagram feeds of Bahraini users. Criticism of government performance is quite acceptable, users are not harmed for being critical and open about their political opinions.
There are tens of open social media accounts run by political opposition activists, with hundreds of daily comments criticising government decisions. Therefore, the notion that a harsh curb on media freedoms exists is an exaggeration. Although it is also important to mention that Bahrain does not witness the level of press freedom practiced in countries with centuries of democracy and a completely different culture. This is a young Arab Gulf Middle Eastern democracy in the process.
Therefore, it is bound to be different and to face its own challenges. Countries should not be expected to be replicas of one another without putting consideration for the principles and social values of their people.
Freedom of speech
Freedom of speech and press is practiced in Bahrain within cultural and religious boundaries. Bahrain remains to be an Arab Muslims society where a tribal culture prevails. And to understand the claimed limitations on freedom one should understand the cultural characteristics of society.
Respect for political leaders, religious leaders and the elderly bring about certain limitations to the concept of freedom of press and speech as defined by western democratic societies. Here in the Middle East, political and religious figures are highly respected, certain criticisms are disliked and can cause both sectarian and political tensions.
Hence, what is viewed as a curb by the west is viewed as basic measure of preventing conflict in highly sensitive environments.
The National Charter
Bahrain is a country where any simple criticism of the government was completely frowned upon and troublesome up to the turn of the century when King Hamad came to power. The National Charter or the constitutional referendum of 2001 brough about drastic changes to political freedoms in Bahrain starting with parliamentary elections, establishment of civil society organisations, women empowerment, just to name a few. It is true that Bahrain is not a perfect example of democracy, however the country is still in the process of shaping its own form of democracy that is suitable to the cultural, social and religious dynamics of the society.
Change is a long process and Bahrainis have for long worked hand in hand to create change and move forward. We live in a country where leaders and society as a whole is willing to listen. Doors of communication between different sides of the political spectrum should be open despite existing challenges. Bahrain is also a country where youth are taking a leading role in the decision-making process and are hence the key to understanding the dynamics of the society and the levels of political freedom.
Some Bahrainis believe that challenges exist. However, while we take a look around us in this region, the level of political freedoms is incomparable to other countries, as we have witnessed a positive democratization process and have come a long way since 2001. Our country is not a war zone caused by brutal dictators, we can openly criticise within the rule of law and social norms, we live in a safe and secure environment and practice our daily lives with freedom. The issue of political freedoms is certainly one that comes with its own complexities and change is once again a long process.