CIVICUS speaks about the election being held today in Bahrain with Jawad Fairooz, founder and director of Salam for Democracy and Human Rights (Salam DHR).
Salam DHR is a human rights civil society organisation (CSO) founded in 2012 to undertake research and advocacy for the advancement of democracy and human rights, mainly in relation to Bahrain, but also in the wider Gulf and Middle East and North Africa regions.
Jawad Fairooz is a former Bahraini parliamentarian. In the 2010 election his political group, al-Wefaq, won 18 out of 40 seats, becoming the largest group in the Council of Representatives. They all resigned in repudiation of the repression of protests in 2011, and Jawad and another parliamentarian were arrested, tortured and ill-treated in detention. In November 2012, while he was visiting the UK, the government withdrew his citizenship, making him stateless. He became a campaigner against statelessness and for the rights of the stateless and founded Salam DHR in 2013.
What is the significance of today’s election?
Elections matter, or at least they should. In Bahrain, elections for municipal councils and the 40-seat parliament, the Council of Representatives, are held every four years, with possible runoffs where no candidate obtains a majority.
Between 2002 and 2010, these elections were carried out in a context where civil society had become relatively more vibrant. They continued – even if only just – to carry the promise that parliament would take an increasingly larger and more responsible role in deepening democracy and freedoms and ensuring the continuing existence of civil society.
Far more than now, they showed elections are a pivotal moment for social and political renewal – for those who will shape society to engage with civil society and to accommodate differing social and political views. Elections can create a sense of shared ownership, and in a context of tolerance and acceptance they can foster a vibrant and responsible civil society. They can help build a culture of human rights.
But that is not the case with today’s election.
This one reflects an ever-shrinking civic space. Parliamentarians’ institutional power has weakened, as they too operate under limited civic space. The government is inclined to seek less qualified parliamentarians whose conduct it will be able to control. To further weaken and subordinate parliament to the government’s will, the King recently issued a decree giving more power to parliament’s chair, a government loyalist, to determine the body’s workings. This will further extend government writ and further chill civic space.
This election, like those of 2014 and 2018, is controlled or stage managed in a way that makes it clear that its only role is to provide a veneer of democracy. It’s make-believe.
But let’s be clear: it is also an opportunity for us to get back to work on our own renewal, to locate openings and fissures and pry them open, and to chip away at walls enclosing us, in Bahrain, in the Gulf and across the region. An opportunity to look forward.
Flaws notwithstanding, we need to engage with the new parliamentarians. Will the government let them engage with independent civil society? It looks unlikely, but we will try, both through bilateral parliamentary visits and in the context of the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s General Assembly, which will be held in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, in March 2023. We need to start organising now so that global parliamentarians can help carry our voices and those of international civil society to the heart of Manama.
We also need to plant the seeds for civil society activism around COP28, which will take place a year from now in neighbouring United Arab Emirates, where civic space is non-existent. We just can’t stop now, however bleak the situation of Bahrain or the Gulf may seem. This cycle of unfair elections is done, but our task to continue to look for avenues of engagement and activism continues apace. We are looking forward.
Have further restrictions been imposed on civic space in the run-up to the election?
Not really, as most of the damage was already done.
In December 2014, the authorities imprisoned Ali Salman, the leader of al-Wefaq, the largest political association. He was arrested for protesting against the parliamentary elections, which al-Wefaq boycotted because promised reforms had not been implemented. In 2015 he was sentenced to four years in prison on charges such as inciting hatred, disturbing the peace and insulting public institutions, but he was acquitted of the most serious charge, of inciting political change, which could carry a life sentence.
He appealed, but so did the prosecutor, who demanded a stricter sentence, and in 2016 his prison sentence was increased to nine years. Further charges were subsequently added and in 2017 he was accused and tried for the crime of ‘spying for Qatar’. For having tried to mediate in Bahrain’s conflict with Qatar, the authorities handed him a life sentence.
In July 2016, a court in Bahrain dissolved and banned Al-Wefaq after accusing it of fostering violence and ‘terrorism’. In May 2017, the main non-sectarian political association, Wa’d, was shut down as well, also under accusations of advocating violence, supporting terrorism and inciting crimes.
In advance of the 2018 parliamentary election, the government amended the NGO law, extending restrictions on who could establish or be on a CSO board, irrespective of the organisation’s nature – this applies even to organisations working on sports, working with the community or providing charitable services. It also forbade all those linked to banned political parties from engaging with CSOs.
In addition, anyone sentenced to more than six months’ imprisonment, even if subsequently pardoned by the King, convicted in error or provided with a ‘no objection certificate’, is now deprived for life of voting rights and the right to stand for election. Likewise, all those who for whatever reason did not take part in the previous election have been banned from taking part in the next.
Having crushed civic space for years, in the run-up to the 2022 election the authorities only needed to ensure that calm persisted. To that effect, in September the Ministry of Municipalities Affairs issued vaguely worded regulations that appeared to link electioneering and religion. Among other things, these regulations banned the holding of meetings in public religious centres and other public places such as educational facilities. They appeared aimed at the majority Shi’a community for whom such centres have often become the only places where they – we – are allowed to gather.
What are the conditions for civil society like in Bahrain?
In Bahrain, the very existence of a civil society – let alone an independent one – depends on the political will and whim of the government: the Ministry of Labour and Social Development controls the licensing of all CSOs.
The newly amended NGO Law redefined who could establish and run a CSO and prohibited members of banned political bodies from setting up a CSO. These new rules were applied in January 2022 to forbid two peaceful women activists, Zainab al-Durazi and Safia al-Hasan, taking up the board positions to which they had been freely elected in a women-focused CSO. The two women had been linked to the banned group Wa’d.
Do some of the activities of CSOs whose directors are demonstrably loyal to the state help and support society’s needs? Of course they do. We need them and we commend such organisations. But they are not independent.
Those perceived as not personally loyal to the government and its leaders do not get licences to operate any CSO and are not allowed to be on supervisory boards, in any sector, in total contravention to international law and practice, and completely against the wishes of Bahraini people. A thorough vetting process ensures this remains the case.
All CSOs must obtain permission to engage in any way with non-Bahraini bodies such as foreign or international human rights groups or to meet with foreign Bahrain-based diplomats. If they get permission and the meeting takes place, the government requires the participation of a Foreign Ministry representative and the preparation of notes for the meeting, subject to approval. If this is not done, the representative of the CSO risks criminal charges or the closure of the organisation.
The absence of an independent civil society means that any consultation that does take place is performative – just for show. The authorities don’t typically take the limited civil society that is loyal to the government into account, so independent voices are simply not even in the picture.
If the government only consults those of whom they approve, and even then, only barely, how will that shape government policy? How can it capture the concerns and wishes of the wider population? How is this sustainable? Well, it isn’t. It is unwise and risks creating conditions similar to those that resulted in a national crisis in 2011.
What would it take to build democratic institutions in Bahrain?
Recent history has shown that democratic institutions are difficult to build and easy to lose. In Bahrain and the Gulf, the human rights movement does not call for removal of X so that they be replaced by Y. Instead, we build case studies from each country to show the inequities of laws and practices, and we campaign on that. The reform of specific practices, in certain areas – the administration of justice, the freedom of assembly – is achievable if the authorities in Bahrain and across the Gulf actually engage with human rights groups and United Nations human rights bodies.
We need the Bahraini authorities to provide some genuine representation of the people by the people. We are ready to have a real, genuine dialogue with the authorities, but there needs to be a level playing field. If, despite the restrictions placed on them, the parliamentarians elected in this election step up, then we will have a chance to make a difference going forward. But just as we dare to dream and act, they need to do so too.
What kind of support does Bahraini civil society need from the international community?
We need more engagement. We need states and friends in international civil society to step up and explain the character and vision of the democratic society that the majority of Bahrainis seek; to explain that it does not represent a threat but rather an unlocking of potential.
We need international civil society counterparts to engage in international fora, not only to reflect and project our voice but also to emphasise the role and inherent legitimacy of Bahraini civil society to the Bahraini authorities.
We need our international partners to put pressure on the government’s human rights oversight bodies – the Ombudsman’s office, the Special Investigative Unit and the National Institution for Human Rights – to provide real rather than cosmetic redress, accountability and reform. Some of these oversight bodies have helped migrant workers facing abuse, but even then, their scope has been limited as they have failed to address underlying unjust laws or practices.
We need help and expertise to collate evidence to mount realistic claims for accountability in jurisdictions that have provisions for sanctioning, such as the Global Magnitsky Act that the US government uses to sanction foreign government officials deemed to be human rights offenders,
We need international civil society to press the government of Bahrain to explain why it has failed to adhere to the international conventions to which it has acceded, or why it has not acceded to additional standards such as optional protocols, or been clearer about imposing a moratorium on the death penalty.
Civic space in Bahrain is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.