Bahrain: The Regime Is Being Bullheaded, While the Opposition Is Determined
By Latifa al-Husseini
Those who have kept pace with Bahrain’s pro-democracy uprising, which started in February 2011, may be under the mistaken impression that the movement is letting up or perhaps that it died out. And while it’s true that its leading figures are unjustly and arbitrarily imprisoned, the demands remain unchanged.
These demands are yet to be achieved. Political rights, social justice, and economic transparency are what Bahrainis are calling for. But these calls are falling on the regime's deaf ears as the struggle continues.
Eleven years of domestic and international appeals demonstrate that the passage of time didn’t turn the page on the conflict. The Al Khalifa regime is proving that it is resistant to change and development. Despite all the changes in the world, the regime maintains its arrogance. It does not think about development and taking the initiative to solve the severe crisis. The people lack confidence in the government, and there is no solution looming on the horizon. Talking today about a positive step toward a comprehensive political solution is unrealistic, as common ground on key issues is inexistent. The people have not yet obtained guarantees that reassure them that tomorrow will indeed be better.
The former deputy for Bahrain’s Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society and prominent opposition leader Ali Al-Aswad tackles the details of the deepening crisis in a comprehensive interview with al-Ahed News.
Al-Aswad argues that the main reason for the crisis is the authorities’ lack of awareness regarding the unmet demands of the people, who want to be part of the political and economic decision-making process.
Meanwhile, the ongoing imprisonment of Al-Wefaq’s Secretary General Sheikh Ali Salman, remains a key focus for the opposition group. Al-Aswad claims that Al-Wefaq has options that might help close this file.
Regarding Manama’s normalization with “Israel”, Al-Aswad offers assurances that the move won’t be embraced in Bahrain, as the people completely reject the idea of occupation.
Below is the full text of Al-Aswad’s interview:
* Can the opposition abroad relate to the concerns of the citizens at home?
The opposition abroad has become a fait accompli. After Al-Wefaq was dissolved in Bahrain, it had to work abroad. We started working in London in 2011, and this has continued in many Arab capitals, Europe, and America. All the efforts made by the opposition, whether political or in the field of human rights, are in the interest of our people at home, and we are their voice after they had their voices stifled.
* In light of the growing tyranny: suppressing opposition voices and imprisoning their leaders, citizenship revocations, rising unemployment and the hiring of foreigners, and normalization, how will reform be achieved? How is the regime responding to the demands of the people?
I do not think that the authorities in Bahrain are aware of the nature of these demands. They believe that these demands are directed against the survival of the ruling family, while the people of Bahrain see that they are in the interest and future of the country. There is a misunderstanding between the two sides. There is concern on the part of the ruling family that if these demands were fulfilled, their existence will weaken or disappear. The main idea of these demands is for us to be partners in the homeland.
* The opposition today is completely absent from the political and economic decision-making process. Is its presence, at the very least, in the legislative authority necessary, or should it remain outside this system?
The presence of the opposition in the legislative authority without any political project or any dialogue or settlements does not serve the political process. Rather, it will be a sham or a silent role, as is the case with the current parliament or the Shura Council.
* The budget deficit in Bahrain is substantial, and there is constant talk of corruption and unconvincing state revenues. To what extent can we say that the regime is corrupt? What is the extent of this corruption?
The public debt is 15 billion dinars [$40 billion], which is too huge for oil imports or revenues. A country that depends mainly on more than 80% on oil cannot achieve sustainable development or a free and fair economy without transparency. The stealing is ongoing and being done in one way or another. The money is going to influential figures in the state. The issue of the stolen lands that the opposition talked about in the 2006 parliament remains unresolved and the lands have not been returned to their owners. All the state property mentioned in the famous report in parliament has not been recovered. Rather, there are more lands that are being seized by those in power. The country’s resources are also being taken and the Bahraini environment is being destroyed, without any deterrent to these actions. The presence of a strong parliament and an effective opposition on the ground may open such files.
* On the opposite side of deficit, we often hear about percentages of non-oil revenues. For example, the growth rate of the non-oil economy reached 2.8%. Are these numbers really correct?
Non-oil growth does not depend on taxes imposed by the state on citizens, but the Bahraini regime calculates this growth from tax revenues on citizens. There is no clear economic plan in Bahrain that pushes the wheel of development forward and increases the rate of growth that can only be achieved in a fair and free economy, in parallel with transparency, accountability, political stability, and human rights that make this country a haven for investors. This increases the internal growth rates. There is no external money being pumped into the country now. Bahrain depends on oil money and aid. We have not heard of any major investors who brought billions to Bahrain for a number of reasons, the most important of which is the political instability and the country's exposure to many shocks. Not achieving this is in the interest of the authorities in terms of obtaining Gulf aid without any trouble, aid for armaments, and others relating to the royal court. Everything is under the pretext that we are exposed to dangers from neighboring countries.
* Does Al-Wefaq affect in some way the decisions taken by the authorities?
We have no doubts about this. There is a very clear effect of Al-Wefaq. Even if the association, registered and licensed by the Ministry of Justice, was absent, the authorities know that the majority of the Bahraini people who voted in the 2006 and 2011 elections are from Al-Wefaq.
Even at the present stage, if Al-Wefaq is not represented in Parliament, it has wide support that has influence on the ground, whether it rejects the state's internal or external policies.
* After the former Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim’s statement regarding the issue of Al-Wefaq’s Secretary General Sheikh Ali Salman, did you sense any intention to move this file and free His Eminence?
We are trying to get Sheikh Ali out of prison. The case is malicious, and it is being proven everyday through the emergence of new evidence, the latest of which is the statement of the former Qatari foreign minister. He confirmed that what he discussed with Al-Wefaq’s Secretary General on the phone was done in the presence of the King. This is the most important point on which the authorities relied to say that Sheikh Salman and the two deputies, Sheikh Hassan Sultan and Ali Al-Aswad, were plotting against the authorities. The accusation has been discredited. From the beginning, it was not true. It was an idea within a Gulf initiative announced by Al-Wefaq and international and Gulf parties concerned with this matter at the request of Saudi Arabia.
Al-Wefaq welcomes any international or local effort, and it has been working since the announcement of the last interview in order to find correct, legal and political ways to help solve this file and close it.
* In your opinion, does the recent request of US President Joe Biden from the State Department to provide a report on political detainees in Bahrain have a serious impact in your opinion?
The media influence is perhaps stronger. There is a request from the US administration. We want more action than what the US administration, which is selling weapons to Bahrain at the same time, is saying.
It stopped punishing the Bahraini authorities for their human rights violations by allowing an arms deal recently! Bahrain does not need that. Perhaps the authorities are doing this as a price to buy America's silence about the dire political and legal reality.
* Here, we are asking about the goal of Manama’s permanent armament, sometimes through “Israeli” military systems and sometimes through American launchers?
There are no military benefits to Bahrain. The United States views the Gulf states as a market for selling weapons, and this is what former US President Donald Trump said in his talk about Bahrain's abundant money.
* What about the recent positions of the great national authority, Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassem, and him stressing on the importance of the opposition’s unity and the Islamic mentality’s rejection of the ongoing normalization? According to your assessment, is there a plan to breach the opposition’s ranks?
The opposition really needs to organize its relations, and I think it is capable of that. The division is not in its favor, and it is now in a much better situation than before. The demand Al-Wefaq and Waad are calling for is constitutional monarchy, while the unregistered political organizations are calling for other demands.
There are those who are talking about overthrowing the regime, about a republic, and other options. Some see them as unrealistic demands that cannot mature or be correct. It is the right of all the people to think about the form of the system, but we are talking about realistic matters. Bahrain, as a constitutional monarchy from the Al-Wefaq perspective, can serve as a successful model.
For us, implementing a constitutional monarchy is possible, but for the authority, it takes from its powers. The models that were promoted after the National Action Charter were European and far from logical. Perhaps, the authorities wanted to say we have a constitutional monarchy with an authoritarian regime above it. This problem that we objected to. We have repeatedly called for an amendment that would allow the people of Bahrain to implement the real articles of the constitution and that the people are the source of the authorities. This is what Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassem is talking about. As for the idea of splitting the ranks, there is no doubt that the authorities are trying to do so.
The real people of Bahrain have had a worry throughout history that the authorities are buying time and wasting it without any results. This is why we find different and high ceilings. Accordingly, we say that the opportunity for the authorities today is better than tomorrow to achieve the demand for a constitutional monarchy.
* The last attempt by the regime, at least in the media, was the meeting that brought together His Eminence Sayyed Abdullah Al-Ghuraifi with King Hamad bin Isa. Can we say that the political dialogue is completely frozen?
Undoubtedly, a number of local files and issues were discussed during this meeting. His Eminence Sayyed Abdullah Al-Ghuraifi’s desire for the authority to solve local political and humanitarian issues was very clear, but we did not see any positive development after the meeting or any initiatives to resolve the political crisis or even the human rights file.
* Will the upcoming parliamentary and municipal elections in October be a formalism or is it possible for Al-Wefaq to support candidates in some way?
Elections in the presence of a political isolation law do not mean anything. This law prevents associations that were dissolved by the authorities after the 2011 movement, such as Amal, Waad, and Al-Wefaq, from taking part. When the opposition is not represented in Parliament, the latter will be a formality. There is no opposition in the current parliament. It is completely silent and agrees with everything the authority is doing. It was unable to open a basic file after the Manama authorities decided to normalize with the Zionist entity. The Bahraini parliament was not allowed to speak as the “Israeli” Knesset did. Bahrain, basically, did not endorse the Abraham Accords through the councils. Rather, the authority made the decision unilaterally and warned those who would talk about the matter by questioning them. It limited the matter to the state and its higher authorities. The authority did not even allow any member of Parliament to wear anything that symbolizes Palestine or reminds people of the cause. It even took the initiative two days ago to condemn the heroic Tel Aviv operation, ignoring the right of the Palestinian people and all the violations they are subjected to.
* How does normalization affect the daily lives of Bahrainis?
Normalization did not enter any Bahraini home. The people completely reject the idea of normalization and the existence of the occupation. They cannot stand talking about "Israel". They take part in night rallies that have consistently rejected the authority's projects since the first Manama conference in 2019, which was a prelude to the normalization project. Normalization is clear between the authorities and the occupation. Bahrainis, Sunnis and Shiites, will not agree to normalization, and if there is an opportunity to express their opinion today, even if the demonstrations are unauthorized, they will be widely expressed. The people of Bahrain have been reviving the International Quds Day every year on the last Friday of the month of Ramadan, and they continue to mark it. We call on the people of the country to commemorate this great occasion that honors and expresses their mentality rejecting this Zionist occupation.