16th December 2011 – Al Wefaq General Speaker, Sheikh Ali Salman, spoke to around 200 students and members of the public at University College London on Friday night.
He spoke for around 45 minutes before taking questions from the audience. He covered many topics and laid out his view of the current situation in Bahrain and what the next steps to democracy should be.
Below is the text of his speech, translated into English:
In the name of Allah, most Gracious most Merciful
The Manama Document, outlining the manifesto held by the political opposition in Bahrain, can be considered a complementary paper to this speech, and a reference to interpret points mentioned here.
Bahrain before 14th February 2011
Bahrain is under the mercy of a political system that is outdated by three hundred years. It is ruled by one family who inherits all power, all authority, and who alone divides influence amongst its members. The rest of the nation lives on the margin, both politically and economically. Oil-wealth allows the regime to buy legitimacy, and herein we find people who advocate the continuation of a repressive status quo, amongst intellectuals, politicians and media personnel. Indeed, even democratic countries form alliances with such repressive regimes, for they also benefit from this wealth.
Despite a few exceptions, absolute dictatorships in the Arab World are the norm. Bahrain is no exception. Having said that, Bahrain is still the only country with an unelected prime minister; one who has been in power for more than half a century. The current Prime Minister was head of the executive power for 10 years prior to independence in 1971, and for forty years afterwards.
With a few cosmetic exceptions, all powers lie in the hands of the royal, ruling family. This family dominates the legislature, the judiciary and all aspects of daily life through an appointed executive authority, the head of which is not subject to any form of accountability.
The current cabinet is formed of 24 members, half of whom are from the Al-Khalifa family. They are in charge of the ministries of defense, foreign affairs, interior, finance, information, and even culture. The supreme judicial council is headed by the King, and his deputy is another member of the royal family, Sheikh Khalifa bin Rashid Al-Khalifa. The security affairs of the country are run by the Supreme Defence Council, a 14-member committee, all from the royal family.
In terms of corruption, members of the royal family and its entourage have taken control over 80% of public land in Bahrain and turned it into their private property. That is not to mention the percentage of public coastline appropriated, which is even higher. To prevent accountability for all these transgressions, the law has been designed in such a way that it can be used by the royal family to act with impunity. Indeed, the law is a mechanism such that the royal family uses to silence its opposition, often under the guise of national security, or anti-terrorism laws.
In conclusion, Bahrain is a state in little more than name only. The reality is that it is still ruled by a tribe who has full control over all matters. What Bahrain needs is to move from a tribal system of absolute monarchy to a real modern state.
What happened on the 14th of February 2011
In keeping with the Arab spring, and inspired by Tunisia and Egypt, Bahraini youth started a movement calling for democracy and freedom. They went out into the streets as a peaceful movement, to which the regime responded with a brutal crackdown, unprecedented in its extent. A crackdown that targeted people from all walks of life, from doctors to academics, engineers to teachers, athletes to students, workers to laborers, males and females, children and the elderly. Through the use of excessive force, the regime killed more than 45 citizens, and wounded countless more. Thousands were tortured in the country’s prisons and jails. The significance of these numbers cannot be overestimated considering Bahrain’s small size. The intention behind the brutality of the aforementioned tactics was to spread fear. All this is documented in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report.
Committees were set up in all ministries and state companies, to investigate the extent of loyalty employees had to the royal family, and to punish them on the basis of their sect. As a result, more than 4400 employees, both male and female, were either charged with participating in the protests or were accused of a number of other things including; not loving the Prime Minister, attending peaceful demonstrations, or going to the Lulu Roundabout (despite the fact that the Crown Prince affirmed their right to protest there).
The judiciary was also exploited politically by the regime. Hundreds of citizens were taken to court for exercising their most basic human right in expressing their opinions, such as Fadheela Al-Mubarak, who was sentenced after she was arrested with the crime of – ‘having an audio cassette with songs on’. Many citizens were brutally tortured, and then were taken to court on charges such as ‘illegally gathering’, and inciting hatred against the regime. The court proceedings were described by the BICI report as lacking fairness and violating due process.
The regime divided society on the premise that anybody who was not with it, was against it. It targeted the opposition, destroyed their mosques and places of worship, and gave itself and its forces the right to seize their money and property at checkpoints or when storming houses. A faction of society truly felt that they were experiencing a real war, one being carried out by the government that was meant to represent them and reflect their will.
How the opposition dealt with the crisis.
The opposition supported the peaceful youth movement, and was also an important part of it. It worked on consolidating speeches and agendas, while stressing the importance of using peaceful methods and rejecting any resort to violence. The opposition succeeded greatly in this, and it had a great effect in keeping the movement peaceful, despite the brutality and repression, which could have led to violent retaliation.
The opposition took the initiative in proposing ideas that formed a roadmap to solve the crisis. These were given orally to the King two days before the movement started, on the 12th of February, and also after the movement started, on the 16th of February. The opposition also put forward its vision and written proposals to the Crown Prince between the 19th of February and the 15th of March 2011. The only response from the regime was a vague call for dialogue, reflecting an intention to take advantage of the time factor, and to avoid responding to legitimate popular demands.
The regime refused to present any written proposal, and contented itself with general promises for reform, without a clear manifesto that gave credibility to these promises. In light of the recent and historical experience of the regime going back on its promises to the people, these new promises were met with discontent and suspicion.
On the 13th of March, the Crown Prince announced seven core principles on which national dialogue should be based. Twelve hours after this announcement, the opposition responded positively, and in support of these principles as a platform to build a political solution. Yet before even one day had passed since the announcement of these principles, the extremists in the regime, and with the support of the Peninsula Shield Forces, killed this initiative with their tanks and armies.
Al-Wefaq also participated in what was called the National Consensus Dialogue. It became clear that the regime was not looking for real partners in dialogue, but rather for those who would blindly agree and/or applaud its projects and policies. Al-Wefaq did not accept this, both on principle and for the sake of the people.
When the opposition insists on the necessity of democratic reform, and calls for the popular peaceful movement to continue, this is due to a strong conviction that the continuity of dictatorship and family rule as a form of governance has cost the country, and will continue to cost the country, its ability to advance and progress. Furthermore, violations of human rights will continue under a dictatorship and will not stop. Indeed we have witnessed the strengthening of tribalism and sectarianism at the expense of a civil state. Many observers have stated that the regime in Bahrain has, since 14th February, aggravated sectarianism and racism. This is unacceptable in an era where democracy and freedom are sweeping through the world.
How the regime dealt with the events of February 14th and the consequent events
The regime denied people their right to democracy, and described them indirectly as a nation that is not ready for democracy. The regime seems to believe that our people must be ruled by a system of masters and slaves; a system in which only the regime can decide the extent to which people can participate in running public affairs. The regime denied people’s right to elect a popular government, imposing on them an appointed government; a government which has long expired, in terms of the suitability of its cabinet members and also the relevance of its program. The regime claimed that the current system is suitable for Bahrain, which is diverse in its sects, relying on the unlimited support of the great dictatorships in the region.
The regime decided not to respond to demands for democracy, but instead reacted in a political and military manner, such as to suppress the civil rights movement rather than answer it. To achieve this policy, the regime attacked the popular movement and the opposition. After the brutal crackdown failed to silence protesters, the regime utilised three themes in an attempt to discredit the movement:
The first theme: accusing the popular movement of being linked to Iran
The regime exhausted its energy in accusing the opposition that it is following orders from Iran, and used all its ability to enforce this myth as a reality. Yet it failed in providing even one piece of evidence that convinces the international community of this claim, for the simple reason that this interference is absent. Many high officials from the US and from Europe, including the UK, stated that their intelligence shows that Iran is not involved in the movement in Bahrain. The report of the BICI – which was formed by the King – confirmed this very fact
It is interesting to note that the opposition refused any foreign interference in Bahrain from any country, in reference to Iran and Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, the government invited foreign troops into Bahrain to support the suppression of a local popular civil movement. This military intervention from Saudi Arabia aggravated and internationalised the political crisis.
The regime also sought, and continues to seek, the aid of foreigners to work in the repressive security forces. We still receive news of the contracting of thousands of military personnel from Pakistan to repress the civil movement in Bahrain
The second theme: accusing the movement of sectarianism
The regime used all its media powers to instill unreal fear in the hearts of a faction of society, supported by the claims of some politicians and religious clerics, in Bahrain and the region, who are loyal to the government and who were given access to the inciting state media. Rumors were also created by intelligence units, spreading information about fake events such as cutting the tongue of a muezzin, killing a taxi-driver, ttacking the house of a girl in Busaiteen, and kidnapping a girl in Hamad Town. These events which were all shown by the BICI report to be imaginary and untrue. Normal events which happen in any country were also exaggerated and given sectarian interpretations.
The regime also tried to distort the political reality in Bahrain, and picture the majority of Bahrainis as being against the popular movement. It did this through creating political societies and civil GONGOs, whose main aim was to attack the opposition and defend the dictatorial status quo.
Both the regime and loyalists have called for the formation of militias under the pretext of “self-defence”. On that basis, the minister of interior trained groups of these militias, under the name of “Defenders of the Southern Province”. The opposition, however, called for the official state bodies to be the only authority to protect citizens.
When the regime could not provide even one proof that the movement was sectarian, it accused it of having a hidden agenda which differed from its official agenda.
The third theme: accusing the popular movement of being non-peaceful
The movement was accused of being non-peaceful, despite the fact that not a single police car or police station was burnt, no public or private property destroyed, and not a single bullet was shot. The only incidents the regime uses to support its claims are three incidents of security personnel being run over, in which ten youth have been charged and taken to court. Their testimonies were accepted despite the fact that they were taken under torture. Indeed this torture led to the death of one of those accused, the martyr Ali Saqer. When we compare the Bahrain movement to Arab revolutions, and compare the methods used, we see that the Bahraini revolution was by far the most peaceful.
Bahrain after the BICI report
What we went through was a dark stage in the history of Bahrain, in which the hands of the regime have been stained with the blood of our people, and in which gross human rights violations have been committed. We had hoped that the BICI report would put an end to this stage, however these violations continue, ignoring the clear recommendations of the report. Indeed the recommendations are being implemented in a distorted manner, to serve the aims of the regime, and to avoid the required democratic reforms. Instead of the logical step of the resignation of government officials responsible for these violations, the current government and the accused bodies were assigned the role of implementing the recommendations. This goes against clause 1715 of the BICI report that states: “to establish an independent and impartial national commission consisting of personalities of high standing representing both the Government of Bahrain, opposition political parties and civil society to follow up and implement recommendations of this Commission”. Instead of this commission, the regime unilaterally created a commission consisting of 20 people, 15 of whom are its apologists. Some of those appointed are also accused of inciting repression. To give the committee a veneer of credibility, the regime chose 5 opposition members. Due to their small number they would be unable to prevent any decision made by this commission. Furthermore the role of the commission formed by the government is to provide “observations and suggestions” only. This is in contrast to the role the BICI report attributes to the impartial national commission, which is to implement the recommendations of the BICI – a role under which the government would become subject to the national commission and obliged to follow its orders.
The regime also promoted some officials accused of the violations, such as Sheikh Khalifa bin Abdulla Al-Khalifa, from his previous position as the head of the National Security Apparatus, to a new role of both Chairman of the Supreme Defence Council and an advisor to the King on matters of national security. In fact, he should be brought court for a fair trial over the torture and killing of detainees in prisons.
The regime is also continuing its programme of political naturalisation of foreigners, seeking to increase the numbers of supporters of the regime, and to use some of them to repress our people, through employing them in the security forces and army. There is also a strategic dimension to this naturalisation, with the aim of changing the demographics of the country, which again implies that the regime is not serious about reform.
Despite the darkness of this situation, this does not stop us from working for a future, bright with freedom and democracy. We believe that the roadmap consists of the following:
1) The necessity of forming an international commission, under the UN Human Rights Council, to implement the recommendations of the BICI report. This would avoid accusations from both sides, the regime and the opposition, given that the shared aim claimed by both sides is to implement the recommendations.
2) The resignation or dismissal of the government that the BICI report proved was responsible for the violation of all principles of human rights, and which has been in power for forty years, through a system based on appointment, disconnected from the will of the Bahraini people. An interim national government must be formed, with half of its members from the opposition, and half of its members from loyalists, with an agreed head. They will lead an interim period, in which it acts as a caretaker government. In this period, negotiations must take place between two groups; a group that represents opposition demands for democracy and an elected executive authority; and a group that represents government opinion, and the opinions of its supporters, who refuse political reform, and support the status quo. This has to be under international supervision, to assist Bahrain in moving from its current dictatorship to a democratic regime.
3) Initiating a serious political dialogue between the regime and the opposition, as described by the American president Mr Barack Obama and other global leaders on more than one occasion.
The Future Bahrain
The opposition believes that the route to reform is already out there and needs to be utilised, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel. Civilisations around the world have accepted the importance of respecting basic universal human rights, and accepted democracy as a political system. This is what Al-Wefaq have been striving to achieve since its inception, and reiterated before the events started, when it announced that it does not aim to establish a system of “guardianship of the jurist” / “wilayat al-faqeeh”, or a theocracy. Rather, Al-Wefaq has been calling for a civil democratic state, with a true constitutional monarchy, in which the International Covenant on Civil and Human Rights is respected. A state in which the constitutional phrase “sovereignty is in the hands of the people, the source of all powers” is truly acted upon. This phrase which was endorsed in the National Action Charter, but is only present decoratively in the current constitution.
We need a constitution which gives rise to legislative and executive institutions, on a national basis. Institutions that all factions of society participate in building, with the reference of a constitution which has the consensus of a high majority that ensures that everybody is involved in writing and approving it. This is precisely why we called for a constituent assembly, and we still believe that this is the best and most democratic route, to solve the current political crisis.
The majority of Bahrainis live in continuous fear and worry, from the moment they are born till they die. A citizen is born with the worries of his parents about his future, and grows up worried about being arrested due to being from a faction of society which opposes the regime. A faction of society, which most of its youth and men have entered prison one day or another. If he is arrested, he is then worried about being tortured, mistreated, and kept in custody for a prolonged period with no justification. Our youth, male and female, are worried that that their university education might be threatened by security procedures and by discrimination. If they graduate, they then worry about their opportunity to get a job suitable to their qualifications. Securing a job in Bahrain, whether in the public or private sector, has special discriminatory considerations, which make a citizen continuously worried about his salary and source of income. Furthermore, a wide faction of society lives in fear at airports and border controls; where the assumption is that they are criminals.
We aim for a future Bahrain, in which this fear is replaced with safety and security for all Bahrainis, such that nobody who dares oppose the corruption of the regime feels afraid for the sake of his life, family or job, and is not subject to detentions, torture and exile. Rather a Bahrain where the opposition are seen as a part of the system and a complement to its dynamics.
We aim in Bahrain to progress to a point which values the human being, one in which people are not condemned to slavery, nor made to feel like second or third class citizens because they are not one of the royal family.
The future Bahrain which the opposition seeks can be summarised in these points.
1. That Bahrain should be an advanced democratic state, on the basis of a constitutional monarchy, with the opposition committed to strengthening democracy. A state with the freedom of forming political parties, building and supporting civil institutions, and with respect for the rights of humans and their liberties. A state with space for freedom of speech for people and groups. The opposition will also work on protecting individual liberties and enforcing them, without instituting unnecessary restrictions in a democratic society, in accordance with international criteria set in international laws on human rights.
2. The interests of all Bahrainis must be protected and furthered, without any state discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sect or political affiliation.
3. All violations against foreign labour must be stopped, and the living and working conditions of non-Bahrainis must be improved, in line with international labour agreements.
4. Bahrain’s relationships within the GCC, Arab League and Islamic World must be strengthened and improved.
5. Bahrain’s relationships with other democratic states must be strengthened and developed, mutual interests implored, and relationships between nations strengthened, all on the basis of principles of international law and United Nations declarations.
6. Improving the economic climate, based on a market economy, which encourages and supports local and foreign investments. Legal environment and procedures that encourage trust in the local economy must be in place, such that Bahrain benefits from a competitive environment, under transparency, competition, and sustainability.
We, in the opposition, do not believe that the discussion in on whether democracy is suitable for Bahrain. Rather the true discussion concerns how to best move towards democracy.
The role of the international community in supporting Bahrain’s move to democracy
We would like to thank the global media, and particularly British media, for its important role in revealing the truth of what happened and is still happening in Bahrain. We appreciate the stance of international political and civil bodies that expressed its concerns about violations of basic human rights, and demanded true reform that responded to the aspirations of the Bahraini people who are longing for freedom and democracy.
We also look forward to participation from the international community, whether from the media, civil societies, or political bodies, in supporting Bahrain’s transformation to a democracy with real alternation of power. Such a transformation is in the interest of Bahrain, and also in the interest of the other countries in the region and the new Arab democracies. This transformation also guarantees the strong strategic relationships with the international community, on the basis of shared interests between free democratic nations.
The people of Bahrain deserve a better reality, and a future which is safer, and in which people feel secure about their political, economic, and civil rights. This will only happen under a democratic regime that respects basic human rights and individual liberties. Many Bahrainis look with disappointment at the double standards in which the international community deals with the Arab revolutions. Instead, they look forward to clear and unified stances towards similar situations. When forming alliances, the international community should consider the strategic importance of dealing with legitimate governments whose authority stems from the people, rather than an unelected elite.
We, the opposition, want a future democratic Bahrain to be a state for all its citizens; Sunnis and Shias, Muslims and Christians and Jews and all minorities. A state in which no group oppresses the other, and no citizen is sidelined under any circumstances or for any excuse. This is a call to all citizens to join hands for the sake of the advancement and progress of our country. We must all work together to ensure a bright future for our sons and daughters.
I extend my hand, and open my heart and mind, to all reformists, in the regime and amongst loyalists, to meet together, and draw a roadmap towards moving towards freedom and democracy in our country.