Civil Society Experience in Bahrain

Hasan Moosa Shafaei

A strong civil society, in any country, serves not only as a useful tool for creating positive change, but more importantly, as a force to achieve two vital targets:

1/ Protection of the democratic change, whether comprehensive or gradual, against the elements of extremism and terrorism; safeguarding the nascent state and preserving democratic values;

2/ Abortion and besiege of any extremist alternative that may arise.

At least this is the lesson learned, for instance, from the experience of the strong and mature civil society in Tunisia in the face of the fundamentalist stream which later grew into an extension of Al-Qaeda and ISIS by feeding on errors, partial administrative failure, as well as political and security vacuum. In spite of the strength of the fundamentalist stream, as evidenced after the revolution, the strong civil society was able to maintain its influence over the young masses, hence safeguarding them ?against extremist orientations, as well as mobilising youth efforts towards curbing the expansion of Al-Qaeda and extremist ideology. On the other hand, Tunisia’s civil society has managed to prevent Al-Qaeda’s incursion from developing into a substitute for civilian political parties.

In Bahrain, as was the case in Tunisia and other Arab states, the civil society presence has played a role in the events of 2011. While it is acknowledged that, despite the challenges and difficulties, the Government of Bahrain has since then paved the way for the establishment of a civil society in various fields, and has given room for the freedoms of expression, opinion and the press; nonetheless it could be said that the Bahraini civil society has not been given sufficient time to mature. The development of the Bahraini civil society is belated compared to that in other Arab states, though it is still ahead of its counterparts in GCC states where civil society institutions exist in only some of them. Moreover, the Bahraini civil society has not been allowed the sufficient space to express itself, engage in capacity building and to launch mature initiatives, which often left much to be desired in its performance.

Among the shortcomings of the Bahraini civil society, was the fact that there was barely any partition separating it from political currents, including parties, blocs and other formations, which posed a serious risk to the civil society’s independence, while leaving its youth prone to being sucked into the escalating political situation. Thus, the Bahraini civil society has lost its balance because of the 2011 events, and was unable to assume the role it was supposed to undertake in similitude to the role of the more mature Tunisian civil society.

Founders of Bahrain Center for Human Rights in a meeting with the King

In other words, the Bahraini civil society, unlike its Tunisian counterpart, was unable to rally together the political players when that was needed, especially after losing some elements of its strength to political polarization.

To be fair, the totality of Bahraini political players, had no respect or appreciation for the Bahraini civil society, but rather saw it as a political tool for manipulation in political conflicts and disputes.

Furthermore, there were, and still are, those who regard the strength of the civil society in Bahrain as a potential threat to the authorities, perhaps as a competitor, or at least a burdensome nuisance. The reality, however, is that the lack of a civil society and failure or fear of developing a strong and active civil society is detrimental to political stability. Governments actually stand to lose from the absence of civil society because it could shoulder some of their burdens. More important still is ?he fact that a weak civil society will not be able to assist the state in times of crises. The strength of the civil society, although a nuisance to most governments, is valuable in a way that can only be appreciated at times of crises and adversity. This has been amply demonstrated in Tunisia, where the civil society has not only shown a superior ability in healing the fragmented political situation, but also in preserving the backbone of the state structure from total collapse and disintegration (e.g. through collapse of the foundations of the state; disintegration of the unity of the community; control of the remains of the state and the society by forces of violence; predominance of regionalism etc.)

Civil society in Bahrain is a victim of political conflicts, in the sense that it has been deprived of an ample amount of time to accumulate and build a rational and independent experience. However, Bahrain’s civil society is still partially responsible for the failure, in its inability to develop political and social initiatives, whether at the level of confronting sectarianism, facing and warning against violence or attracting young people away from the currents of intellectual and political militancy.

In other words, the immaturity of the Bahraini civil society is due, in large part, to the immaturity of the political players themselves. For, had these political players been sufficiently mature and conscious of the civil society’s role and future, they would not have resorted to using it as a tool in their own rivalries, and would have instead allowed it sufficient space to expand and to rationalize its practices and activities.

This is what happened in Tunisia, where a clear separation exists between civil society and political parties. Both sides demonstrated the clarity and maturity of vision, as well as an understanding of their respective roles, in addition to the appreciation of the civil society and its role. Such maturity on both sides, could not have led to any outcome other than the acceptance of the essential mediatory role of these independent, non-politically ambitious bodies, in resolving the political crisis there.

Personal Experience

In this context, I recall my personal experience regarding the independence of the Bahraini civil society.

In early 2000, we, the veteran human rights defenders (myself, Abdulhadi Al - Khawaja, Nabeel Rajab) were availed of the opportunity to operate within Bahrain, when His Majesty the King announced the initiation of a gradual democratic and human rights reform project, which later included general amnesty, the return of exiles, compensations and other similar items.

We came to Bahrain and decided to move our overseas-based human rights work to the inside. However, our application to establish a human rights centre (Bahrain Center for Human Rights), was initially rejected by the government which argued that such a centre was not needed, since a human rights society, (Bahrain Human Rights Society), had already been established. Nonetheless, we submitted to His Majesty the King, a letter in which we explained the nature of the Centre’s work, objectives and working mechanisms and sought his assistance in approving official registration of the Centre. Consequently, His Majesty invited us to meet him at his palace on May 13, 2002, where he gave us a warm welcome and listened to us. His Majesty decided to support the project subject to two conditions:

Firstly, that the activity of Bahrain Center for Human Rights shall be confined to the affairs of Bahrain, to avoid causing problems with neighbouring countries; and

Secondly, to approach the issue of human rights at a gradual pace, through cooperation rather than confrontation with the Government, because both sides were involved in a new experience, in terms of its concepts and approaches. His Majesty emphasized that we both have to tolerate each other.

We understood and accepted what His Majesty had said, as we were aware of the nature of Bahrain’s position in its regional environment. We also realized that the reform project was a novelty and that the human rights culture was entirely new to the whole system.

Then, His Majesty, the King, directed the Ministry concerned with civil society (the Ministry of labour and social affairs) to officially register the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), and that was done on July 6, 2002. To my surprise, a few days after the registration, I found myself, together with a founding member, in a session with a political opposition leader whose speech addressed us as if BCHR was affiliated to his political organisation. He considered it our responsibility to confront the Government with past dossiers. On that day, I objected, and asked my colleague: “What has BCHR to do with that man or his ideas?”

BCHR’s effectiveness did not last for long. After two years filled with irregularities on BCHR’s part and warnings by the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, the latter decided to dissolve BCHR on September 28, 2004.

The Confrontation with the government started rather early and we had been warned about the irregularities committed by BCHR. But when one of BCHR’s founders (Abdulhadi Al – Khawaja) delivered an acrimonious speech of a personal nature attacking the Prime Minister with vulgar words and even invoked death and doom against the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs finally issued its decision to dissolve BCHR.

By that time, however, I had already taken the decision to resign, which I did one year before BCHR’s dissolution, precisely on October 11, 2003. It had become clear that BCHR was behaving like a political party, contrary to its statute and contrary to what HM the King had warned us against. Thus, the BCHR did not engage in any human rights work, then, but rather allowed itself to be a tool in the political opposition work.

My BCHR colleagues did not accept our cooperation with the authorities in human rights dossiers. We have not even conducted a single human rights event to serve BCHR’s objectives of training, dissemination of human rights culture, and the release of studies and researches.

Thus, my resignation was clearly justified as follows:

1/ Failure to adopt the objectives BCHR was established to achieve.

2/ Rushing towards achieving the agendas and programmes of other entities with no relation to BCHR’s strategy and activities.

3/ Confrontation with the Government and acting like a political opposition.

After everything that happened so far, it has become clear today, that we have sacrificed the independence of the civil society. We have renounced independent human rights work in favour of engaging in political activities under a human rights label, rather than doing human rights work for the benefit of human rights.

Accordingly, we, the human rights defenders, the public and the community at large, have lost an essential opportunity which could have been used for the advancement of human rights and the development of the nascent democratic experience. Matters deteriorated and further complications have led to the situation we know today.