However four months after the Dialogue was first convened, with representatives of Bahrain’s executive branch, legislature and representatives of various political groups, it has yet to make any significant breakthroughs regarding coming to a consensus for political reform. A divide still exists between the Shi’ite dominated opposition, dubbed the “Association of Five,” and the predominantly Sunni, government-backed Al-Fateh coalition.
Asharq Al-Awsat met with Education Minister Majid Ali Al-Naimi, one of the ministers representing the government in the National Dialogue, in his office in Manama, to discuss the process, the obstacles it faces, and allegations of external interference in the kingdom’s affairs.
Asharq Al-Awsat: The National Consensus Dialogue was convened by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa more than four months ago, however it seems that the Dialogue has slowed to a standstill. It seems ill-equipped to produce tangible results capable of ending the crisis that has loomed over Bahrain since February 2011. Today the political opposition groups went so far as to describe the Dialogue as “clinically dead.” What is your assessment of the current situation in your capacity as the government delegate in the most recent Dialogue sessions?
Dr. Majid bin Ali Al-Naimi: First, it must be clarified that the current dialogue which His Majesty the King convened is the second installment of the initial National Consensus Dialogue, which brought together various parties in July 2011.
The Dialogue today, which began on February 10, 2013, is a continuation of what transpired before it. It focuses on discussing many political aspects. The issue of political reform is not new in Bahrain. His Excellency the King has been nothing if not welcoming to reform starting with the reform project of 2001, which he launched on his own accord before any demands for democratic reforms had been made.
His Majesty laid out his vision for a comprehensive political project which a popular referendum overwhelmingly endorsed when 98.4 percent of the Bahraini people voted in favor of the National Action Charter: an unprecedented political achievement in Bahrain’s history. This ushered in a series of reform measures that manifested themselves in the constitutional amendments of 2002 and the establishment of the bicameral Legislative Council (the Council of Representatives and the Consultative Council). In addition a number of laws followed that pave the way for political participation, including laws regarding political rights, political associations, and full citizenship status for Bahraini women. There were many other structural, social, and educational breakthroughs that we do not need to discuss, the details of which can be found in international reports, such as the Human Development Report issued by the United Nations, the Education for All report issued by UNESCO, and elsewhere.
Moreover, the events that transpired in Bahrain during February and March of 2011 did not result, in my personal opinion, from a sound political logic, but rather they erupted spontaneously. Reforms were in full swing at all levels, and the state dealt with this sudden shift with much forbearance and circumspection. The goal was to see the country through the crisis while suffering as few losses possible. The first and second National Consensus Dialogues are a serious attempt to build consensus and protect the gains made in past years. And as you already know, the recommendations from the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (the Bassiouni Commission) have been highly effective in remedying the issues at hand, with the state committing itself to implementing these recommendations, something it has already begun carry out.
Q: What do you think is impeding the Dialogue?
First it must be recognized that any solution to a political problem must be brought about through multilateral dialogue inclusive of all parties and actors in the political community so as to bring about consensus. This Dialogue is not empty rhetoric. These are values to which all Bahrainis subscribe and that have been present throughout Bahrain’s history: coexistence, national unity, and political consensus. In my opinion the Dialogue’s success is contingent upon all sides agreeing to a declaration of joint values and principles upon which a more comprehensive agreement might be based. It may have been the case that the focus of previous meetings on procedural aspects was unhelpful in that they missed the fundamentals of the debate; an emphasis on the procedural aspects avoids the topics that should be engaged directly and promptly. During the first sessions, two key principles were agreed upon: that the decisions are to be taken by consensus, not by voting, and that what is agreed upon during the Dialogue represents the final agreement which the minister of justice, Islamic affairs, and awqaf will present to His Majesty the King.
In my opinion, after coming to an agreement in this regard, talks could have proceeded directly to discussing the main points on the agenda, such as the executive, the legislature, the judiciary, human rights, etc., but unfortunately politics, fragmentation, and the reluctance among some parties to join the Dialogue has impeded progress.
Given the realities laid out above, the Dialogue should be based on joint principles and values that will form the basis for the society and the state. These principles were endorsed by the Bahraini people when the National Action Charter passed by near consensus. We cannot allow these gains to be undone, and perhaps most important of these values is reaffirming the identity of Bahrain as an Arab-Islamic country, along with other values laid out in the National Action Charter, such as freedom of religion for all faiths and creeds, a civilian state, equal citizenship, and legitimate rule. Likewise certain things must be denounced such as a culture of hatred and violence, sectarianism, and foreign intervention in national problems. We must reaffirm our commitment to the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, human rights, equality before the law, and respect for the constitutional institutions.
Q: The opposition groups made their aspirations for the Dialogue publicly known on several occasions. Their demands include that the sovereign ruler be present at the Dialogue table, not merely represented by the government delegation; that the various political parties receive equal representation; and that an agreed upon popular referendum take place. What is the official stance regarding these demands, especially since it seems that not meeting these demands has played a role in impeding the Dialogue’s progress?
The Dialogue is being held amongst brothers, whether they know it or not, so that views may be exchanged and compromises found. Therefore the Dialogue cannot be conducted as would negotiations or political haggling: negotiation is conducted between opponents. The problems the Dialogue seeks to address revolve around how to overcome diverging viewpoints regarding the limits and scope of political reform. The touchstone in such talks is complete consensus, and therefore all the issues and topics are on the table, provided that they have been approved by consensus. I believe that some of the topics on the table should not be there, especially if they have already been settled in the past, effectively reneging on past agreements, and this is a problem.
For example, take the demand upon which our brothers in the opposition insist that the King be present at the table. This matter has been resolved insofar as the government is present at the table. This is simply because His Majesty represents everyone and thus cannot have a seat at the table as if he were just another party to the Dialogue. It is unfortunate that our brothers in the opposition chose to release a statement saying the Dialogue brings together, “two conflicting parties.” Differing with one another is human nature, but conflict is another matter. This will only lead to more feuding and will leave the goals of the Dialogue unmet. Compatibility and consensus building are necessary for emerging from the recent unpleasantness Bahrain has experienced. Saying that the ruler is outside the scope of the differences encompassed in the Dialogue is inaccurate; the King is overseeing the Dialogue and is committed to seeing it succeed. He attentively follows all that is said and proposed; the leadership of this country is open to everyone and listens to all sides.
Consider also the attempts to disrupt the Dialogue. After four months they are just now demanding that the composition of the Dialogue be changed, demanding the legislative representatives be excluded, which is unacceptable. Representatives of the legislature are already independent voices representing different spectrums of Bahraini society. Furthermore, the presence of a bloc of people which represents the point of view of an important constitutional institution is necessary, because any legislative or constitutional amendment requires the approval of this institution, otherwise how will the constitution or laws be amended? These independents from the National Council represent the point of view of a large segment of society and are void of any political association, and they have every right to be at the Dialogue.
Moreover rule-by-consensus renders their calls for equal representation meaningless seeing how one person can veto any decision.
Q: In addition to government and opposition representatives, there are other parties and national representatives present in the Dialogue, such as Al Fateh coalition and independent representatives from the Legislative Council. Do you think that the composition of the Dialogue at present is fair and balanced, especially in light of the opposition’s insistence upon altering it?
In my view all of the components of the political community are at the table, their numbers are not of any importance as long as consensus is the mechanism for issuing decisions. Executive representation is present, and saying that the independent representatives of the Legislative Council should be excluded is baseless. They are part of the political community; the members of the Council of Representatives are independents elected directly by the people and represent a broad spectrum of the citizenry. Representation of the political community has a legitimate place at the table, and their exclusion illogical.
Therefore I believe that it is best that the Dialogue move directly to discussing the agenda, so that political reform may proceed and the harmful state of polarization can be overcome.
Q: What does the Dialogue hope to achieve? In what ways do you feel it is limited?
It is possible to achieve positive results if everyone’s intentions are pure. That is not so surprising for a society such as Bahrain’s, which is by nature an open, diverse, and tolerant society whose citizens seek to live with dignity, stability, freedom, and a political participation characterized by rationality and national unity. We have had great success with past attempts at reform. The gains we have made can be reinforced and further built upon. We were acutely aware of the importance of initiating a political reform movement that focuses on political development and building a democratic society. Participation is a pivotal element in this regard, and individuals are increasingly contributing to the collective effort. It is a society that engages with its individuals directly; a society that provides a modern communication network for the exchange of opinions; a society most able to absorb democratic institutions and most committed to protecting and establishing democracy. Radical changes were always avoided, with a gradual development encompassing political, economic, and social rights being preferred. This evolution was quiet and consistent. It has been able to introduce reforms according to a timetable according to the national context at any given time. It has eschewed taking the risk of jumping into the unknown and sliding into trap of tradition or utopian models. The reforms undertaken at His Majesty’s behest were a “National Call to Duty” and showed his willingness to always heed the aspirations of the people.
Q: Wednesday is the last day of the Dialogue. Do you believe the Dialogue will resume after two months or do you expect developments that may supersede the Dialogue and render it obsolete? Or do you expect that the government or the opposition will abandon the principle of sitting at the same table?
Dialogue is the only option for Bahrain and Bahrainis. We must build a national consensus as Bahrain has always done throughout its political history. I think everyone unanimously agrees on this. There is no doubt that after the recess, which coincides with the holy month of Ramadan, the representatives will return to the table and, God willing, reach the desired consensus and bring Bahrain the stability needed to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.
Q: Many believe that in Bahrain not everything is as it appears, i.e., that a desire for political and social change is not the true driving force behind the demonstrations, but instead that the West and Iran are pulling the strings as they contend for influence over a country they see as a gateway to a vital region. To what extent is this viewpoint valid?
To be sure, what happened in Bahrain has no justifiable political, social, or economic pretext. Prior to the outbreak, concrete developmental steps had been made regarding political participation, building a state of law, government institutions, and equal citizenship. The Bahrain Economic Vision 2030 promised a new phase of growth, and I do not think anyone can deny the achievements made in this regard. The events erupted suddenly and the agreeable state of the country at that time gave no indication that demonstrations would breakout. It may have been that the political movements sweeping the Arab region enticed some to political activism, which did not eschew the disruptive and violent measures that have tarnished the image of Bahrain at home and abroad.
Certainly some of the official statements issued by a number of Iranian officials have not been friendly towards Bahrain, and on occasion have been slanderous and have incited activities disruptive to our internal affair; this is well-known and recorded in media archives. However, we look forward to improving these relations for the benefit of the two peoples, especially with the election of the new Iranian president, President Rouhani. We believe that respect for sovereignty and non-interference in the affairs of others is the basis for any solution. Bahrainis are one people, regardless of their differences. They are a people capable of overcoming their differences and finding a peaceful and fraternal resolution.
Q: Over the past two years, there have been reports of repeated attacks on educational institutions. As education minister, what is the truth behind this strange phenomenon unprecedented in Bahrain’s peaceful history? What groups are responsible for vandalizing the schools? What do they hope to achieve? And how do you plan to address this situation?
You know that the Kingdom of Bahrain has been a pioneer in the field of education. In the annals of history there is one country that has produced men and women, since the establishment of the first school for boys in 1919 and for girls in 1928, that have elevated their country on so many levels. We will forever be proud of our educational achievements, and for the same reason we also suffer.
We are taken aback by this strange phenomenon afflicting Bahrain, its people, and its history. The attacks on schools, which began with the unfortunate events of February 2011 and continue still to this day, often coincide with political activities and the current tally of these attacks stands at 198 acts of vandalism. These attacks take a variety of forms, ranging from arson, breaking windows, and damaging property, to throwing Molotov cocktail, sometimes even while the students are present within the schools. These violent acts of vandalism have reached unprecedented levels, and in a society known for its peaceful and civilized conduct and revered for its academic and scientific achievements. Considerable material damage has been done to schools, and much money that would have been better spent on development must now repair the mess the vandals left behind. International conventions stipulate that these institutions be protected even in times of war. Depriving students of their right to education by preventing thousands of teachers from providing educational services, a value enshrined in the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bahrain, for purely political reasons violates these conventions.
Dragging schoolchildren into political and sectarian conflict with their peers and teachers within schools stands to threaten all the values, human rights, and peaceful coexistence that we have worked to instill for years and years. It has even reached the point that some have refused to sell food and water to the students inside the school just because they belong to another sect or ethnicity.
Another offshoot of the recurring violence, which sadly some choose to justify or even encourage, is the closure of schools with chains and padlocks, the closure of roads leading to schools, and pouring oil in the entrance ways, all in a desperate attempt to prevent the teachers and students from accessing their educational institutions and further their political and sectarian agendas. Some even boast that they have accomplished some great, revolutionary achievement by preventing 12 schools from opening on Thursday, February 14, 2013. What words can describe those who would actively deprive children of their right to education? Who prevent teachers from educating? Who close roads leading to schools and throw barrages of Molotov cocktails? Are these not peaceful, civilian institutions? Do they not provide free educational services to the children of Bahrain, and children of Arab expatriates? By what rights do they deserve this treatment?! The children in our schools have suffered during the crisis both physically and psychologically. The ministry has overseen the treatment of more than 5,200 students who have suffered from the grim effects physical violence and psychological abuse, and their treatment is still ongoing. However, praise be to God Almighty, and to the wisdom of the leadership of our dear country, to the honorable educators, and to Bahraini society, with all its sects and components, the ministry has managed to confront this hateful violence that runs counter to basic human values, and has kept schools in operation throughout this crisis. This is due to the great national outpouring of thousands of volunteers who refuse to let the school bells, which announce the light of learning, be silenced.
This interview was conducted in Arabic and can be read here.