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Brian Dooley: No Applause for Bahrain’s Sham Election

2018-11-24 - 5:32 am

Bahrain Mirror: The POMED website published a study by Human Rights First's Brian Dooley, entitled "No Applause for Bahrain's Sham Election," in which he analyzed the Bahraini elections to be held on November 24, 2018.

In his study, Dooley highlighted that the November 24 parliamentary election in Bahrain, home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, will be a sham, since this deeply flawed election is being held in "a political environment today even more constrained than in 2014. The basic ingredients needed for a free and fair process are simply absent."

"The vote will be held in an environment of intense repression that has been ongoing since the Bahraini regime, aided by troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, brutally crushed a pro-democracy uprising in March 2011," he noted.

Dooley pointed out that since 2014, laws have been passed dissolving the main opposition societies, al-Wefaq, Wa'ad, and Amal, adding that in May 2018, a law banned leaders or members of those groups from standing for election and prohibits anyone who has ever been sentenced to six months or longer in prison from running for office. "This rule effectively prevents nearly all opposition activists from running for parliament as most have been jailed at one time or another."

Regarding the integrity of the elections, Dooley says that "there is no independent election commission or other mechanism for the impartial management of the process. No domestic or international monitoring of the election will be allowed. The government will restrict international media coverage, and all independent local media has been stifled. The November 24 vote will be largely meaningless for the majority of the population."

He; however, goes on to say that the election offers the only chance for Bahrainis to select any political leaders, and some from the Sunni community might use the process to express disquiet at recent price hikes, occurring amidst an alarming downturn in the economy.

"The parliament elected in 2014 has largely acted as a rubber stamp for the government's economic policies, however, and the new body is expected to play the same role."

Options for the Opposition

According to Dooley, while the opposition conceivably could use the election campaign to organize mass displays of discontent, large-scale civil disobedience or disruption is highly unlikely. Organizing even the softest mobilization (traffic jams, the turning on and off of household lights at a particular time as a coordinated protest) is likely to result in arrest, torture, a sham trial, and prison. Most protests will be limited to boycotting, painting anti-government graffiti, or expressing tempered exasperation on social media. (Posting on social media can be dangerous in Bahrain-on November 13, prosecutors charged a former al-Wefaq MP with "obstructing the electoral process" for a tweet about boycotting).

He also explains that although the opposition's options to use the election to draw attention to its cause are limited, they are not nonexistent. If the jailed opposition leaders (most of whom are held in the same part of Jau Prison south of the capital Manama) could agree on a statement to release to coincide with the election, it would likely bring widespread negative international media attention to the sham electoral process. It would remind international audiences that legitimate peaceful political figures were once again prevented from standing for office while the ruling family uses the election to pretend it allows some meaningful political participation.

"There will also be a limited presence of international media in the kingdom around election time, which offers a rare, if risky, opportunity for dissidents to meet international reporters."

"But the easiest way for Bahrainis to register their discontent is simply not to vote. Turnout is the most important factor in this election. The greater the participation, the greater the government claims that the process has credibility. The lower the turnout, the better for the opposition, who will want to emphasize that they are ruled by a small elite backed by only a minority of the country."

Why Should the United States Care?

Dooley highlights that Bahrain is important to the United States because of its geostrategic location and role in U.S. defense policy. Bahraini stability matters because of significant U.S. investment, including the headquarters of the Fifth Fleet, and as part of the broader regional competition with Iran, which seeks to exploit Shi'a discontent there. "The United States remains a key influencer in Manama, supplying and training Bahrain's military and affording the government considerable international political legitimacy."

"Bahrain's appearance of "stability through repression" is misleading," he says. By refusing to reform, by closing off peaceful channels for citizens to express legitimate political grievances and freely select representatives, the government is raising the chance of increased violence or other new eruptions of unrest. Whether the probability of large-scale strife is high or low, whether it looks likely to happen soon or in the relatively distant future, the stakes for the United States are too high to just close its eyes, ignore the fomenting anger just under the surface of repression, and hope for the best. Legitimization of fake elections will further damage Washington's reputation in Bahrain and across the Middle East, reinforcing the perception that the United States is happy with, or at least tolerant of, repression, and that its interests are in supporting and engaging with an authoritarian elite rather than with Bahrain's people.

In May 2011, President Barack Obama said of Bahrain, "The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail."[17] That analysis remains true today, and some degree of political liberalization, including the release of political prisoners, would increase international confidence in Bahrain's stability by offering a safety valve for simmering dissent. A planned transition to an inclusive political system would be a safer option for Bahrain and its allies than the unpredictability of continuing rule by fear. International rating agencies cite ongoing political tension in their explanations of downgrading Bahrain's financial outlook, which suggests that political reforms would improve the kingdom's international ratings and attract needed economic investment.

What Should the United States Do?

The human rights researcher stresses that any pretense by the U.S. government (and other allies of Bahrain) that the November 24 election is an exercise in democracy will only prolong Bahrain's political crisis. Instead, the United States should publicly call out the Bahraini government for its fake electoral process, and push for genuine political reform in an effort to encourage longer-term stability.

"The United States has various points of leverage to influence the behavior of the Bahraini government, if it chooses to use them."

He goes on to say that although the Trump administration has called for the release of Ali Salman and Nabeel Rajab, President Donald Trump has personally and publicly told King Hamad that Bahrain's relationship with the White House will be smoother than it was during the Obama administration, which intermittently raised concerns about human rights abuses and on occasion pressed for reforms.

Dooley sees that any effective policy to promote reform in Bahrain must reckon with the determination of neighboring Saudi Arabia and the UAE to protect the Al Khalifa monarchy and to oppose pro-democracy movements across the region. Both countries remain the guarantors of Bahraini domestic security through repression, and Bahrain also relies on them to keep its increasingly fragile economy afloat. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are among Washington's most repressive allies, with abysmal human rights records of their own.

"The Saudi regime's October 2 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has focused new attention on the nature of Washington's relationship with Riyadh, and there is now an opportunity to reassess the United States' wider engagement with Gulf dictatorships. Saudi Arabia and the UAE bear a great deal of responsibility for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and are proving increasingly problematic allies. Their external aggression and internal repression are promoting instability in the Persian Gulf."

As long as the Bahraini government believes that Saudi Arabia and the UAE will oppose even modest reforms, Dooley believes that the impact of U.S. pressure is likely to be attenuated. "To counter this, the United States should identify important initial reform steps for which to advocate with Bahrain, and mobilize international support for such reforms in order to raise the costs to Saudi Arabia and the UAE of defending the status quo. While such pressure is unlikely to yield a fundamental change in Saudi or Emirati policy toward Bahrain, it could make them less likely to obstruct reform."

Policy Recommendations

The HRF senior advisor says in his study that it is unlikely that the Trump administration will push hard for reform, despite it clearly being in America's national security interest to establish stability in the country that hosts its Fifth Fleet.

The recommendations he makes for the U.S. administration are as follows:

1- U.S. officials should not endorse the November 24 election, and should publicly acknowledge that the process is not free and fair.

2- U.S. officials should use the opportunity afforded by the election to restate the call for the release from prison of opposition leader Ali Salman, and to call for the release of other prominent opposition figures whose role in any peaceful process leading to inclusive politics will be crucial.

3- U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain Justin Siberell should offer to visit families of prominent political prisoners around the time of the election as a message that the U.S. government recognizes that legitimate opposition leaders are excluded from the process. He should also try to visit political and civil society leaders in prison around that time.

4- Ambassador Siberell should refrain from additional public appearances with senior officials in Bahrain's notorious Ministry of Interior (MOI). In August 2018, Siberell was photographed at an MOI event also attended by Colonel Bassam al-Muraj, identified by Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations as an alleged torturer.

As for his recommendations for the U.S. Congress, they are the following:

1- Members of Congress should issue public statements at the time of the election pointing out that the process is neither free nor fair and that the exercise is a sham and should not be welcomed as an indicator of stability, normality, or reform.

2- Members of Congress should push for access for international human rights organizations and international media during the election. U.S. lawmakers should also visit the kingdom for themselves to see what is happening (although McGovern was denied access to Bahrain in 2014).

3- Members of Congress should urge the U.S. ambassador to Bahrain to visit political opposition leadership and other activists in prison.

4- Members of Congress should not receive or recognize visiting members of Bahrain's parliament as legitimately elected representatives.

5-Congress should convene hearings on Bahrain, to include testimony by Trump administration officials explaining the longer-term strategy for bringing stability to Bahrain and what alternative venues are being considered should the Fifth Fleet be forced to relocate due to unrest.

As a conclusion, Brian Dooley stresses that Bahrain's November 24 election matters because it will be presented by the ruling family as evidence of a functioning political system, noting that the U.S. government reaction to the election and its results will be an important signal of approval or disapproval of how the Al Khalifa monarchy is addressing the grievances of its population.

He further indicates that Bahrain's opposition leaders-threatened, imprisoned, and exiled-are left with few cards to play, but U.S. policymakers can comment on the lack of a fair process, and explain why continuing repression will likely result in further volatility that will be bad for Bahrain and bad for the United States.


Arabic Version



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