SHAFAQNA – The latest gambit by Bahrain’s ruling al-Khalifa family has all the markings of a classic game of cat and mouse.
Just hours after a Bahraini court banned the main opposition al-Wefaq movement for three months on 28 October, the country’s Justice and Islamic Affairs minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Rashid al-Khalifa announced a reprieve.
The suspension, the minister said, would not take effect until after the Wefaq general meeting slated for 4 December.
This is the same minister who brought the case before the court in July of this year, alleging procedural irregularities in how the political society was run.
These manoeuvres are happening three weeks before a parliamentary election Wefaq had already announced it would boycott.
And with every move the stakes are rising dangerously. This is a high risk game being played out in an already deeply divided society and in a region stalked by the threat of growing sectarian violence.
The Gulf island kingdom has been wracked by nearly four years of unrest that began when the government used force to crush a largely peaceful protest movement in 2011. The kingdom, which has a majority Shia Muslim population, has been ruled for more than 200 years by the Sunni Al Khalifas.
In the 2011 uprising, dozens were killed, thousands imprisoned and thousands more sacked from their jobs. Nearly all the victims were Shia.
There had been some hope that the participation of Al Wefaq in the elections scheduled for 22 November would have helped move the country toward reconciliation.
But Wefaq had made it clear in behind-the-scenes negotiations with Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, that their involvement came with a price: the government would have to show significant movement on power sharing and agree on the release of political prisoners. The Khalifas refused to budge.
However, the Crown Prince who also serves as first deputy prime minister, and is widely seen as a moderate, had put on the table security for all, a fair judiciary, parliamentary reform including some oversight of shura council (upper house) appointments, and the right to question ministers including the prime minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa who has been in post, unelected, since 1971.
The government has also reorganised the electoral districts, dropping the number of governorates from five to four which it says has addressed the long simmering issue of gerrymandering.
But Ali Alaswad a senior Wefaq leader living in exile in London told al-Araby al-Jadeed the offer was “not serious, it is window dressing.” Promises of security and reforming the judiciary were too vague to be taken seriously he argued, especially as senior Wefaq members have been repeatedly detained and brought before the courts on charges that most independent legal observers regard as specious.
And Alaswad said that the shura council, 40 members appointed by the king, will continue to reflect the wishes of the ruling family. He called parliament “little more than a rubber stamp.”
Regarding electoral reform, which has reduced the number of governorates from five to four, Mr Alaswad said the most seats his party could expect to win had dropped from 18 to 16 in the 40 member lower house. Holding ministers accountable in Parliament was unlikely to happen, especially as it would require a two thirds majority vote to do so.
“There is no opportunity for change. If you want to stop corruption, discrimination, reform the judiciary, you need the tools. We don’t have them. They did not offer them.”
The court decision to suspend Wefaq was described by Mr Alaswad as a “political attack on Wefaq and the wider opposition.” Even the United States, whose 5th Fleet is based in the capital Manama called the ruling a “move (that) runs contrary to fostering an environment of political inclusion”.
And Mr Alaswad said the decision “exposes the false nature of the authorities’ claims to want to engage with the opposition”.
“It shows that al-Wefaq is considered as an enemy, rather than a political partner in moving the country to a reform programme.”
None of this bodes well for moderates who want to see an end to a conflict that has damaged the economy and tarnished Bahrain’s international reputation. That point was underscored when Hamed Ali Mohamed Fakhro, a businessman and popular columnist with the local Gulf Daily News, withdrew his candidacy.
Mr Fakhro said that his decision had nothing to do with the boycott which he had earlier condemned. Rather he felt that running as an independent his voice would not be heard. He described himself as a strong supporter of Crown Prince Salman but his frustration at the ongoing political impasse was clear in a comment he gave to the Gulf Daily News: “We have strayed away from that moderate situation in the country and have lost that middle path, which needs to be restored.”
Wefaq has sought to portray itself as the party of moderation and had worked closely with the Crown Prince who, with his team, had spent months shuttling between the opposition and the Royal Court.
“We told him ‘we will talk openly with you, we would like you to lead the government’,” says Mr Alaswad.
But he claimed that initiatives by the Crown Prince aimed at breaking the impasse were blocked by the Royal Court minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, widely viewed as the most powerful member of the ruling family.
Mr Alaswad said that in an attempt to devolve some power away from the Khalifas – currently all senior cabinet posts are held by them – Crown Prince Salman had proposed that the cabinet consist of just four from the family with 16 posts being split evenly between Sunni and Shia.
“We accepted that proposal but the Royal Court minister said no. Why? Because it would have meant sharing power with the people.”
Responding to criticism that the decision to stay out only reinforced the government narrative that Wefaq is deliberately obstructionist, Mr Alaswad retorted: “If we had gone in, the government would have used us. By staying out we withhold legitimacy from an illegitimate system.”
Now that the Khalifas have postponed suspending Wefaq until after the 22 November election, will the society reconsider its boycott decision?
“This changes nothing,” says Ali Alaswad, “we will continue our boycott.
But he insists that this is not the end of the story, that even without sitting members in Parliament and with the threat of suspension hanging over it, Wefaq is still ready to continue talks.
“We can still play a role, it will be tough but we can do it.”
That may be so, but it is hard to see this as anything more than a victory for the hardliners within the ruling family and a further setback for the crown prince and the ‘middle ground’ moderates he is said to represent.
And with the likelihood that most Shia voters will join the boycott and stay at home, an election that was supposed to heal divisions looks set to make a bad situation worse .
The government of Bahrain did not respond to a request for an interview.
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