Middle East


Democratic Drive

“People lined up in the streets...to express their love to a man who dared to dream with them and usher in a new period of greater opportunities for democracy and development,” declared the English-language Bahrain Tribune (March 1).

“I cannot recall ever witnessing such joy and jubilation in Bahrain,” wrote Saleh Montasser in Cairo’s semi-official Al-Ahram (Feb. 19). “[He] was driving through the streets of Bahrain during a parade in an open car greeting the crowds of well-wishers. The scene is unprecedented in Bahrain.”

Emir Sheik Hamed bin Issa al-Khalifa, described so glowingly, earned Bahrainis’ praise with a recent spate of reforms in this tiny Persian Gulf nation plagued for the past six years by political unrest and social tension.

In a referendum on Feb. 14 and 15, Bahraini citizens voted unanimously in favor of a proposed national charter to create a constitutional monarchy, with an elected legislature and a government based on the separation of powers. The charter established the right for women as well as men to participate in political life and to vote. According to press reports, 98.4 percent of the 200,000 or so voters approved the measures that are expected to take effect by 2004.

The English-language Gulf Daily News (Feb. 19) quoted Prime Minister Sheik Khalifa bin Sulman al-Khalifah as saying the charter “would guarantee a new era of accountability, control, transparency, equality, and equal opportunity.”

On Feb. 18, the emir abolished the Decree Law on State Security Laws, which allowed the Interior Ministry to detain individuals without charge for up to three years. He also scrapped the security courts used to prosecute dissidents. Those forced into exile during the political strife can now return. Some 10,000 bidoon—a class of stateless residents—will gain citizenship.

The Saudi-owned newsmagazine Al-Wasat of London noted (Feb. 19) that Bahrain’s political liberalization is unusual in a region dominated by autocratic regimes. It implied that Bahrain’s reforms may make some of its neighbors uneasy.

Bahraini analyst Abdel Hadi Khalaf, writing in Palestinian expatriate Al-Quds al-Arabi of London struck a cautionary note (March 1) despite what he conceded are the reforms’ many salutary aspects. He expressed concern about the official media’s portrayal of the reforms as the emir’s largesse rather than citizens’ legitimate rights. “Generosity does not build a nation,” he observed.

He also questioned whether members of the royal family will be held to the same standards of accountability as ordinary citizens and whether the political opposition will be able to function. And he asked whether the politically and economically excluded Shiite majority will benefit from the reforms.

Municipal elections slated for later this year will give an indication of progress. “The coming period until the promised legislative elections in 2004 will be a litmus test,” a Bahraini political observer told Al-Wasat (Feb. 19), “and the municipal elections that take place this year...will prove the extent of political maturity of all forces.”