- "The presence of ministers will be required when MPs debate issues related to their respective ministries"; and
- "MPs will be able to question ministers during the parliamentary sessions rather than in specific committees. The Parliament will be entitled to initiate discussions on any theme in addition to the agenda."
All of which revisions are very nice; but unfortunately none of them even approaches the heart of Bahrain's political impasse, which revolves around the opposition's demands for an elected government, electoral redistricting, and empowerment of the lower house vis-a-vis the Shura Council. If these sound familiar, it is because al-Wifaq has invoked these demands explicitly in the names given to its weekend "festivals." One was a rally for "Fair Districts" and one was for "An Elected Government":
Yet, as the BNA notes, "Delegates did not reach consensus on a number of further suggestions, including whether the Shura Council should be granted the same powers as the Parliament, and whether the responsibility for law-making and oversight should be restricted to the elected chamber." Imagine that. In the end, then, whether or under what circumstances parliament can question ministers is a secondary matter compared to the method of selection of those ministers; the process by which the parliament itself is elected; and whether or not any parliamentary decision regarding the ministers can simply be overturned by the appointed upper house.
Moreover, as discussed previously, the most far-reaching "recommendation" to emerge from the National Dialogue is not even any of these newest ones cited above, but an earlier one. Nearly a week ago the Gulf News reported that "[p]articipants agreed that the king should choose the prime minister who will select his ministers, a change from the current situation where the monarch appoints the prime minister and the ministers." That is to say, more fundamental than the modalities of questioning ministers is the appointment of ministers in the first place, which delegates have suggested be moved from the king's prerogative into the domain of the prime minister.
It is at this point that we would do well to recall the next stage in the National Dialogue, which is codification of some or all--or none--of these suggestions by royal decree from King Hamad. Does anyone want to bet how he will deal with the suggestion to transfer the appointment of ministers to his uncle? (On the other hand, I think it goes without saying that, should he indeed agree to such a concession, one would have to conclude that his intra-family position is even more vulnerable than is now assumed.)
In order to punctuate just how far the National Dialogue failed to resolve any of Bahrain's problems, al-Wifaq and the National Unity Gathering held yet another set of dueling rallies over the past few days. Al-Wifaq's took place on both Friday and Saturday. The former was the latest edition of al-Wifaq's "Our National Demands" festival. Lebanon's Daily Star quotes 'Ali Salman as saying, "Our demands remain the same. An elected government, elected parliament, one vote for each citizen and independent judiciary." The Saturday event featured the heavyweight combo of Sh. 'Isa Qasim and S. 'Abdallah al-Ghurayfi, speaking about the destruction of Shi'i mosques as part of the post-February crackdown.
The counter-rally of the National Unity Gathering, on the other hand, happened Monday night in 'Arad, with organizers claiming a 50,000-strong turnout. The purpose of the meeting, according to one of its organizers in a statement to Al-Watan, was "the issue of the National Dialogue and the positions the Gathering adopted with respect to its overall vision for comprehensive reform in the Kingdom, in addition to its vision for the future." A more cynical view from the Bahrain Mirror is that the gathering aimed to "intimidate other national constituents [i.e., al-Wifaq] who are demanding an elected government." As evidence of this is offered the conspicuous presence of 'Adel Flaifel, a once-feared colonel in the Bahraini state security service relieved of his duties in 2002 after pressure from human rights organizations accusing him of torture.
An intrepid photographer has uploaded some shots from the rally here. While it does not seem to have featured anything as striking as a 20-foot banner with the flags of the U.S., al-Wifaq, Iran, and Hizballah (such as that of two weeks ago in Busaiteen), judging by the posters held by some of the participants, there must have been a healthy dose of U.S.-bashing. We have this guy, for example, with his imaginative and colorful "No to the [U.S.'s] New Middle East" sign.
There also seemed to be a healthy contingent of Saudi flags, as well as a reporter from Al-Arabiyyah. I wonder if anyone from the opposition is decrying this blatant Saudi interference in Bahrain's sovereign affairs?
I for one would have liked to see a nice-sized flag made from the following graphic floating around on pro-government forums and Facebook pages, showing the al-Wifaq logo along with that of the Third Reich. This photoshop, which gives new meaning to the already-terrible term "Islamo-fascism," is part of a new pro-government series with the slogan, "ash-sha'ab yurid isqat al-wifaq." Which is catchy.
The real reason for this article, though, and the inspiration for its title, is speculation--originally reported in CNN Arabic but now given longer treatment at the Bahrain Mirror--that King Hamad is already mulling "a new initiative to solve Bahrain's crisis," hopefully one with a non-zero chance of succeeding. (Of course, aside from any new public "initiative," there are almost certainly discussions ongoing behind closed doors, likely including representatives of al-Wifaq.)
The CNN Arabic story cites
reports that [the king] plans to issue a message to the people of Bahrain before the end of this July that will probably include a new initiative for a new phase of reform.It continues,
With no clear details of the new political initiative, observers say there are indications that it will include the return of all fired from their jobs without exception, as well as the release of a number of prisoners.
Members of the opposition, however, do not seem sanguine about the chances that the king's address in the run-up to Ramadan is likely to go beyond the "visions" (i.e., recommendations) resulting from the just-completed dialogue. The Bahrain Mirror quotes former al-Wifaq MP 'Ali al-'Ashiri as saying in response to the reports,
The visions are obvious things, and probably the king's speech will just include some ready-made points known to them [al-Wifaq] beforehand, like the things agreed to at the Dialogue, such as a review of the electoral districts.He continues:
The call for dialogue doesn't correspond to the situation in reality and on the street. There needs to be progress toward the political and security situation in the country before the [dialogue] initiative. No initiative can succeed without these preliminary steps, which were absent from the first version of the dialogue.Whether or not the speculations of CNN Arabic are correct that the king will announce a new dialogue initiative, it is clear that the regime will attempt to persuade observers that the just-commenced Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) into the post-February crackdown is yet another step down the road toward political and societal reconciliation. Indeed, the Gulf Daily News reports today (in all caps no less) that "ALL WILL BE REVEALED," this according to the prime minister. And the BICI even has its own website, so you know it's really going to get to the bottom of things.
If I may be so bold as to predict the outcome of the investigation, it goes something like this:
- The government did X, Y, and Z wrong.
- But the protesters did A, B, and C wrong.
- So really both sides were partially at fault, and what Bahrain needs is some sort of process to reconcile the two wronged parties (proceed to National Dialogue #2!).
Update: for those who have questioned (in the comments) my closing predictions with the argument that the BICI's mission does not extend to violations by protesters, you may wish to see the Bahrain New Agency's coverage of the National Unity Gathering's 'Arad rally, which it uses as an opportunity to not-so-subtly hint at exactly this point. Indeed, the entire coverage of the demonstration highlights only the need for an inquiry into demonstrators' behavior:
Thousands of people braved the heat last night to attend a massive rally in Arad called by the National Unity Assembly.So, are we still convinced that my prediction is so off?
Its chairman Dr Abdullatif Al Mahmood used the event to welcome an independent inquiry into Bahrain's unrest and urged participants to report any rights violations to its own fact-finding panel, to be submitted to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry.
An independent inquiry into Bahrain’s unrest has been urged to probe alleged violations by political movements.
That was one of the key messages to out of a rally attended by thousands in Muharraq last night.
It was organized by National Unity Assembly and its chairman Dr. Abdullatif Al Mahmoud said any investigation must look into claims that certain political groups were involved in disrupting health and education system denying key rights to citizens.
Update 2: The king has just given his anticipated pre-Ramadan speech about the Dialogue, the (English) text of which is here. In true Arab Gulf fashion, the only operative paragraph seems to be the following, which announces new economic benefits for public sector employees (rather than, say, political reform):
As we are aware of the economic challenges we have to live with, and as we are keen on upgrading the citizens' standards of living, we ordered the government to take the necessary actions regarding increasing salaries of civil, military and retired government employees and to expedite the other matters pertaining to all citizens' living that have been included within the National Dialogue views.He also seems to imply that the "reforms" agreed at the Dialogue will indeed be undertaken: "In order for the national consensus views to materialize by activation through our constitutional institutions, we have ordered the executive and legislative authorities to take the necessary actions." But this statement seems somewhat vague perhaps due to translation.
Update 3: The Bahrain Mirror has a good analysis of the implications of the new "reforms"--namely the transfer of the power to appoint ministers to the prime minister from the king. It essentially makes the same point we've been making here.