However, it would be a mistake to ignore what has been taking place there since the unrest that rocked the kingdom in 2011. Amid continuing protests (albeit on a much smaller scale) and demands for reform, the government initiated a National Dialogue among representatives of various political parties (including the opposition), the government, and parliament to discuss reforms and the various issues facing Bahrain.
As the process enters its second year, Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Khalid Bin Ali Bin Abdullah Al-Khalifa, a member of the ruling Al Khalifa dynasty and Bahrain’s Minister of Justice, about the progress of the dialogue, the criticisms expressed by the opposition, and what he hopes it will achieve in the future.
The following interview has been edited for length.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Over the past four months, it seems that the National Dialogue has been caught in a vicious circle, with discussions focusing on marginal issues and not getting to the core of the problem, political reform. Opposition organizations insist that some procedural measures are a precondition for discussing political issues, whereas representatives of the Ten Societies Coalition, parliament, and the government argue that issues related to fair representation and the referendum must be put off. This makes the opposition appear completely at odds with the other three groups.
Khalid Bin Ali Bin Abdullah Al-Khalifa: In fact, the differences you indicated necessarily reflect multiple viewpoints, ideas and political schools to which each political organization belongs. However, this is something normal in politics. Thus, the image being put on the negotiating table—an image of interactions as well as intellectual and political diversities—must reflect the political milieu in Bahrain with all its intellectual and political variations. However, definitely, such a difference is not categorical or total, as there are also intersections in many aspects, especially those appertaining fundamentals that everyone is unanimous on. This is part of the Bahraini people’s long history of coexistence, harmony and tolerance.
I am fully convinced that the dialogue will eventually reach a consensus that is satisfactory to all parties and which can maintain the balances within the state and the society. It is no secret that a major characteristic of Bahrain is that it is a society with varied social, political, sectarian and cultural components in a manner that makes it practically impossible for any part to dominate the other. Rather, it is everyone’s destiny to coexist.
The second remark is related to some parties’ claims that they represent the people (as well as the public and popular will), aiming at justifying their persistence to impose a specific political agenda that must be fully and instantly responded to. . . . This is unacceptable, particularly because the Bahraini people had been decisive about essential issues manifested in the National Action Charter of Bahrain. Therefore, the reality at the negotiating table is as it is on the ground—we are a diverse society with multiple and different opinions. As representatives of the government, our role is to push towards more consensus, and of course towards maintaining common ground.
Q: How can such a dialogue break the impasse?
Personally, I disagree with the view that the dialogue has reached an impasse. There are difficulties that could be overcome gradually by means of dialogue, as manifested by the experiences of nations in modern history. We must be patient and persistent. In the past few months, we made some progress in our discussion of several agreed points such as the mechanisms of managing sessions, and our agreement that the results of sessions must be definitive. Furthermore, the draft agenda and mechanisms of implementing the results were all drawn up.
Q: A document from opposition organizations that was posted on the Internet spoke about what they termed “balanced representation” and the necessity of changing the political representation equation at the negotiating table by replacing the representatives of the legislative authority with independent individuals. How do you see this particular issue?
Such a discourse arouses two significant points: First, it is unreasonable that now that four months of prolonged sessions and negotiations have passed, one of the sides suddenly attempts to impose a change on the structure of the negotiations without any convincing legal or political reason. This raises significant questions about the goal of such a discourse, which in my assessment seems to be an obstacle to progress towards the objectives of the dialogue.
Second, accepting such a discourse regarding a major component of national dialogue—independent representatives of the legislative authority, who perform a vital role in the present and the future in smoothing the process to consensus and dialogue—would be an insult to the legislative authority and to the individuals who represent it, as well as to the role it is performing in Bahrain’s political arena. This must be clear, particularly as MPs, for example, are elected individuals whose legitimacy is unquestioned. The current parliament represents 52 percent of eligible voters, hence it is clear that such a discourse does not serve national consensus.
Q: We have recently read some analyses that try to draw a comparison between the experience of dialogue in Yemen and that of Bahrain. Do you think such a comparison is correct? Does the Bahraini case actually resemble the Yemeni one?
The talk of the Yemeni experience, as an example of actual independent figures, was included in the document submitted by the Bahraini opposition organizations as an attempt to imitate the Yemeni experience. Yet the comparison was unsound, unacceptable and illogical. This is because a comparison cannot be drawn between two dissimilar cases. The dialogue experience in Yemen is a special one in terms of nature of the society and type of the problem. The issue in Bahrain is related to some parties who seek to impose a specific solution on the state and society, sometimes by means of pressure, sometimes by blackmail, and sometimes by using external support.
Therefore, we believe that the dialogue in Bahrain is an attempt to bypass the state of polarization by creating more political consensus and ensuring the best ways possible to promote the political reform process the country began 12 years ago. Thus, the Yemeni experience cannot be an example to copy, for it is totally different in form and substance from the Bahraini one. The dialogue in Bahrain is one of fraternity in one homeland, away from the impacts of regional or international issues.
Q: What are your ultimate ambitions for the dialogue?
Our main ambition as Bahraini citizens is to reach national consensus that protects the country’s existence, legitimacy and stability as well as the development of people and the state’s national security.
This is regardless of the details, concepts and mechanisms that interpret this. I think this is the ambition of the majority of citizens who seek stability, security, peace, coexistence and prosperity for themselves, as well as their children. Personally, I will remain optimistic that we will ultimately reach one agreeable solution because we are one nation in one boat and we have no solution but to reach a consensus. This will require more wisdom and rationality to reach compromises on political issues we disagree on.
Q: What progress has been made in implementing the reforms to the justice system in Bahrain decided upon in the first round of the National Consensus Dialogue in 2011, and in the Basiouni Committee’s recommendations?
Regarding the independence of the judicial authority in Bahrain, we are considering changes in the administration by creating a system for lawsuit management to expedite litigation. We are also working on new alternatives for litigation, such as arbitration and mediation.
Among the significant issues undertaken by the ministry is training in freedom of expression and freedom of association, the principles of fair trial, and the promotion of rules of inspection of judicial institutions and places of detention. It is important that the concept of impartial justice is conveyed to the public and that the role of the Supreme Judiciary Council is consolidated.
Q: How do you reply to the opposition’s demands for the establishment of “genuine democracy”? Are the political and constitutional reforms undertaken in Bahrain some twelve years ago not considered democratic?
Democracy is a domestic process accomplished through history. During this process, principles of democracy are formulated, active institutions established and freedom of expression achieved. Democracy does not come out of the blue; rather, it can only be established by adhering to a number of rules integral to the democratic process. This includes the presence of a democratic culture and democratic political thinking: laying down the principles of intellectual and organizational pluralism, rejecting extreme ideologies, and seeking to consolidate citizenship, prosperity and economic stability.
The problem is that some have veered off the track and adopted revolutionary ideologies that contradict the concepts of progress and cooperation. Such concepts are often based on authoritarian and exclusive mentality, a thing which will definitely create divisions and instability. It goes without saying that each country has its unique experience; therefore, Arab countries must have their own experience. Yet, this is not to suggest that democracy be undermined. What matters most is that each society must have its own manner of development in accordance with its circumstances and needs, and maintain its own balances.
In Bahrain’s case, the reformative project of His Majesty the King was introduced in 2001 as a part of a move to lay the foundations of reform, democracy and participation. This is something that will achieve balance in a diverse society. By achieving national reconciliation and a consensus on the list of priorities things will go well. This must be achieved gradually to ensure that the new-born democracy does not shift into a state of chaos or exclusion.
Political pluralism has once again made actual progress with the initiation of the reform program which came to stress people’s right to live under a democratic system based on a multi-party system and popular organizations. The shift to political pluralism has been governed by a number of regulations and rules that should ensure and guarantee its success and continuity. However, the challenge that faced such a shift was how to ensure that the multi-party system is not abused in a way that could harm the rights of individuals or the state, thwart the accomplishments being achieved, or jeopardize principles of national unity. During such catastrophic occurrences, it was clear that some have abused and exploited political pluralism by using it as an approach to undermine democracy and foundations of the state, aiming at demolishing pillars of society.
What is more dangerous is that some have slid into the maze of sectarianism. Thus, since the first day of such occurrences in Bahrain and until today, there has been a call for dialogue in light of the principles of the National Action Charter of Bahrain, which the Bahraini people voted for unanimously on February 11, 2001. There have actually been calls for dialogue through the Crown Prince’s initiative and then through the National Consensus Dialogue in February 2011. Since February 2013, we have been resuming the National Consensus dialogue in order to reach consensus on political development.
This interview was conducted in Arabic and can be read here