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
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
of Bahrain Center for Human Rights in a meeting with the
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
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
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.
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
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.