Massive Protest in Bahrain
Reuters is estimating that 80,000 demonstrators came out in Bahrain on Friday to demand a new constitution. The demonstration, which was peaceful, had been forbidden by Minister of Interior Sheikh Rashed bin Abdullah Al Khalifa, but he was ignored. He is now talking about trying to prosecute the leaders of the demonstration.
(His predecessor was dismissed last May for cracking down on a much smaller demonstration of Shiites against US military action in the Iraqi holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, so he should be careful.)
The ruler of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who came to power in 1999, declared himself a king in February of 2002 and high-handedly amended the constitution. He held elections for parliament in fall of 2002, but they were deeply flawed as an exercise in any real democracy.
1. The parliament has two chambers. Only the lower chamber was elected.
2. The king appoints the upper chamber.
3. The majority Shiite population boycotted the election and was poorly represented in the lower house. They were enraged about points number one and two above.
4. Sunni fundamentalists did remarkably well, and with allies probably have 21 of the 40 seats in the lower house, i.e. a majority. Bahrain is a Shiite-majority country (65% are Shiites), so having a parliament dominated by Sunni fundamentalists is highly unrepresentative.
5. The (Sunni) king appoints the prime minister rather than allowing him to be elected from the parliament.
6. The fundamentalist members of parliament have no respect for freedom of speech, and many of their deliberations have been about how to stop Bahrain newspapers from carrying criticism of the government and of the parliament. The fundamentalists led a campaign in parliament to stop a concert in Manama planned for the Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram, on the grounds that she wriggles when she sings. Bahraini Bloggers have been jailed, but subsequently released. (An outspoken Bahrain blog is Mahmood’s Den, by a Shiite who is critical of Shaikh Salman; other Bahrain blogs are listed here).
If democracy has anything to do with popular sovereignty and majority rule, then this situation is not very much like democracy.
Some of the background to the current problems is explained in this article from last year in MEI.
Shaikh Ali Salman, the clerical leader fo the rally, addressed the crowd and demanded that parliament be permitted to legislate on its own account and that there be a genuine separation of powers.
Ash-Sharq al-Awsat says that the demonstrators only carried Bahraini flags and placards politely asking for reform. Usually in Bahrain pictures of Iran’s supreme jurisprudent Ali Khamenei, and recently of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Najaf, are raised. Apparently these protesters wanted to make the point that their political context and demands were completely local and that they could not be dismissed as cat’s paws of Iran. (In fact, a majority of Bahrain’s Shiites don’t even follow a school of the religion that allows laypeople to give absolute allegiance to clerics like Khamenei).
Salman emphasized that the reform movement is peaceful and has the best interests of the nation at heart. He said it wants Bahrain to go ahead with hosting the Formula 1 race early in April, and will refrain from demonstrating during it.
The US has a naval base in Bahrain and its king has been a helpful ally. Will George W. Bush support Shaikh Salman or King Hamad? Bush spoke out forcefully against the Syrian presence in Lebanon and in favor of Lebanese democracy. Will he speak out in favor of majority rule and popular sovereignty in Bahrain?
And if he doesn’t, won’t the rest of the Middle East assume he is just hypocritically hiding behind catch phrases like “democracy” to make trouble for the countries in the region like Syria and Iran, which Bush does not like, and which are seen as threats by his expansionist friends in Israel’s Likud party?