Constitution celebrations: A week in politics
This week political events and the newspapers were consumed by commemorations of Bahrain’s Constitution, the National Action Charter, which was approved by 98.4% of Bahrainis in a 14 February 2001 referendum. In a speech marking the event, the Prime Minister stressed the need for national unity and banishing sectarianism. Meanwhile the entire Shura Council session was devoted to remembering the NAC.
While the weekly Cabinet session emphasized the importance of initiatives for enhancing GCC economic integration; the Council of Representatives was busy with legislation for increasing punishments for crimes which undermined the elections process. Meanwhile, Parliament’s Women’s Committee has continued to oppose legislation for implementing the UN’s CEDAW convention on women’s rights.
A major story this week was the unveiling of a $1.1bn project for upgrading the airport. Many commentators also raised questions about the brief detention of four Americans who were apparently journalists covering rioting by youths in Sitra.
Increased punishments for elections crimes
During the weekly Parliament session, a majority of MPs voted in favour of stiffer punishments for elections-related crimes, including publishing false information regarding candidacies, defacing elections publicity and engaging in acts of violence and threats against candidates and voters. Punishments could include a one thousand dinar fine or a maximum prison term of two years.
Two MPs from pro-opposition areas whose properties and families were subject to attacks during the last elections – Majid al-Asfour and Jalal al-Mahfoudh – aired concerns about the possibility of stiff punishments for relatively minor acts of vandalism. However, the Minister of Justice stressed the need for punishments which acted as a deterrent, saying that his officials were also looking at other options in line with measures used by other countries around the world.
MPs opposed to CEDAW women’s rights law
Chairwoman of the Women’s Committee, Rua al-Haiki, on 15 February reaffirmed that she would go ahead with recommending that MPs reject the draft bill, removing reservations concerning the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
This is despite strong support for the Convention from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Supreme Council for Women, the Women’s Union and other prominent bodies. Bahrain’s Cabinet last year ruled that the Convention was in harmony with the principles of Islamic law and Bahrain’s Constitution.
In previous statements, Al-Haiki had claimed: “A Muslim cannot agree to sign the provisions of CEDAW because it conflicts with many of the tenets of the Shari’ah. It seeks to change the culture of nations and tear them away from their past, their history and their faith.”
However, her more recent justifications for rejecting CEDAW are primarily based on legal technicalities. In a 15 February statement Al-Haiki clarified: “According to the CEDAW convention, reservations can only be made during the signing, ratification or entry to the convention. The only step that the participant state (Bahrain) can currently undertake is withdrawing the reservations according to article 28 of the convention, which makes it clear that ‘redrafting’ amounts to full withdrawal of the reservations”.
When the CEDAW draft last went to Parliament on , it was clear that a majority of MPs intended to vote against the draft; particularly MPs from the Islamist, National Accord and National Blocs. Their opposition was mainly based on the recommendation of the Women’s Committee and the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs. However, the 11 members of the National Participation Bloc appeared favourable. As a result, it looks almost certain that when the CEDAW draft returns to Parliament, a majority of MPs will reject it. This would send a very negative signal about Bahrain’s commitment to women’s rights and international conventions.
$1.1bn expansion of Bahrain Airport underway
On 17 February the Prime Minister laid the foundation stone for a massive expansion of the international airport, scheduled to increase capacity to 14 million passengers. The expansion includes a new passenger terminal, increased landing slots and widened service facilities, creating hundreds of new job opportunities. The funding comes in part from a $2.5bn grant from the UAE to Bahrain for development assistance.
Highlighting the advantages of the project, the Transport Minister said: "Being Bahrain's gateway to the world, the expansion of Bahrain International Airport will give a strong boost to the economy of Bahrain, by enhancing its competitiveness and building a world-class aviation infrastructure."
Tensions between two houses of Parliament
Council of Representatives MPs this week widely criticized the Shura Council for hosting a workshop with the controversial German NGO, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which was previously thrown out of the UAE and Egypt for its political activities. MP Mohammed al-Jowder described the Shura Council’s move as “treason against the nation”, while other MPs accused the NGO of having acted against Bahrain.
The Shura Council subsequently issued a statement defending its contacts with the NGO as being open and with official sanction. The statement said that MPs should avoid “taking excessive positions against their colleagues as we are all concerned with the welfare and reputation of the nation”.
This occurs in the context of escalating tensions between the two chambers on a number of issues. The Shura Council has complained several times that it is unable to do its business because key pieces of legislation are held up in Council of Representatives committees. Elected MPs retorted that Shura Council members should be taking the initiative with proposing their own legislative amendments, rather than just sitting back and waiting for everything to arrive from the other chamber.
There has also been conflicting views over packages of retirement benefits for MPs. The elected house wanted to see MPs who had served for less than a full four year term having an entitlement to full benefits – particularly in the case of MPs who had won in the 2011 by-election and served shorter terms. The Shura Council opposed this.
However, in the face of a growing public outcry about MPs seeking to increase their benefit entitlements at a time of national economic crisis; several MPs this week have put forward initiatives for a variety of somewhat-reduced benefit packages after MPs leave their posts, depending on length of service. This is an issue which can be expected to drag on and be shuttled between the two chambers for some time to come.
Political societies complain of halt to funding
Many political societies are reporting that their monthly funding from official institutions has been temporarily halted since October 2015. The Finance Ministry has attributed this to shortage in available funds due to the financial crisis, while stressing that this is only a temporary issue. It has been noted that some societies, like the National Constitution Assembly have resorted to public appeals for funding through the social media. The Assembly’s secretary-general in an open letter appealing for funds, said that this made it very difficult for such societies to continue when they couldn’t even pay rent and electricity bills.
Islamic Saff Society Secretary-General, Abdullah Bughammar, also hinted that his society and others would have to close if the situation didn’t resolve itself. Meanwhile, MP Ali al-Atish, who represents the Al-Rabitah Society, acknowledged that MPs had yet to take a clear position, but said that questions could be raised in Parliament.
This comes at a time when political societies are facing an uncertain future. All political societies performed badly during the November 2014 parliamentary elections, with three societies (Al-Asalah, Al-Minbar and Al-Rabitah) taking a mere four seats between them in the current Parliament. Prominent societies like the National Unity Gathering failed to win seats for any of their candidates.
In the face of this existential crisis, most societies have been unusually silent over recent months, licking their wounds and trying to figure out a strategy for moving forward. Indeed, two 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. It is possible that other smaller societies will go the same way over the coming months.
Prominent opposition societies like Al-Wefaq and Waad have been unusually inactive and dormant over the past 12 months. Their decision not to participate in elections left them without a clear way forward and cost them significant support.
Parliamentary blocs consolidate positions
Citizens for Bahrain has previously reported on the recent emergence of parliamentary blocs, after a year during which 90% of MPs acted as unaffiliated independents.
The parliamentary National Participation Bloc emerged during Autumn 2015, with Mohammed al-Dossary as its leader. The bloc has a diverse membership of Sunni and Shia politicians, including both clerics and secular figures, almost all of whom were new MPs in the 2014 Parliament. However, until now the grouping has never formally announced itself or declared its exact membership. Al-Dossary this week told the media that on there would be a formal unveiling of the bloc, along with a definitive announcement of its membership and strategy.
One key change may be the non-inclusion of prominent young MP Khaled al-Shaer who appears to have upset members with a confrontational approach to other blocs. Al-Shaer, during the previous week’s Parliament session, clashed with Salafist MP Anas Buhindi and a leaked recording of a telephone call was widely circulated on the social media, in which Al-Shaer belittled the other blocs. Al-Shaer had been slated to be the Participation Bloc’s spokesman, which creates a vacancy. In Al-Shaer’s absence, the bloc is set to be left with around ten members, still making it the largest bloc.
Several members have taken pains to stress that the Participation Bloc is “non-political”, which presumably allows for members to coordinate their position, while accommodating differing viewpoints. The bloc also emphasizes the importance of a constructive relationship with other blocs, and with the Government. It was notable that in a recent vote, Participation Bloc members differed from the other key blocs in opposing a proposal for the interrogation of two ministers.
Until recently, little had been heard from the National Bloc as a coherent entity. The bloc was first mentioned as early as Spring 2015 and more formally constituted in Autumn 2015, but also without ever formally confirming its membership or strategy. This bloc of around six members this week issued a couple of statements, one commemorating the National Action Charter and the other calling for stricter measures against Western journalists “sneaking” into Bahrain.
The five member National Accord Bloc has continued to be the most unified and coherent bloc, issuing periodic statements and speaking with one voice on parliamentary issues. The National and National Accord Blocs were recently the most hawkish segments of Parliament in backing interrogation of ministers on subsidy reform-related issues.
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