Towards Democracy in Bahrain: In an Occasional Feature in Which the Middle East Invites the Opinion of Guest Columnists, Dr Ahmad Ajaj, a British Educated Lawyer and Media Consultant Airs His Opinion

Article excerpt

IT WAS THE SPARK THAT SET THE political landscape on fire in Bahrain. Abdulhadi Khawaja, a political activist and human rights defendant, bitterly attacked the government's record and went on to accuse it of corruption.

His claim infuriated the government and pushed it to arrest the activist and freeze dialogue with opposition parties on constitutional amendments.

Is this the end of the nascent experiment of democracy in Bahrain? In my opinion, no. All signs point to the continuation of reforms and the march towards democracy. What is needed is more understanding from both the opposition and government alike.

It is naive to expect Bahrain to become a fully-fledged democracy overnight. The opposition must be astute and show statesmanship and not allow emotions to run the show. Over last summer, just two months before the current impasse, the Bahraini opposition and human rights activists, in a seminar held in London, commemorating Independence Day, complained about their new democracy and were quick to denounce the experiment as being a facade. They levelled many charges against the government and called on representatives from the British government to step in and convince the government in Manama to concede their demands.

The government retaliated by accusing the opposition of having links with foreign governments, which it insisted must be severed as a condition of its re-engagement in the political process.

In all democracies opposition parties will accuse the ruling government of behaving badly or bending the rules. It is the time honoured method of fighting (and often winning) elections. But in Bahrain the opposition must tread very carefully. What has happened in that country is a political miracle. And miracles are quite rare these days, particularly in the Middle East.

The ruling elites of Bahrain decided, to their credit, that the time has come to loosen their grip on power and accede to the demands of the people. Of course, concessions on the part of the government were not entirely motivated by charity rather than political calculation.

The emir of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, came to power on the death of his father. Faced with a changing international landscape and repeated demands for increased democracy, his acumen and statesmanship led him to begin to open up the political process in Bahrain and change the course of governing. He declared his intention to break with the past and steer his country towards democratic shores.

On 22 November 2000 a decree was issued which was to form the Supreme National Committee for drafting a national charter. The Emir abolished the state of security law and the security court, released all political detainees and permitted the return of political exiles. …