Little optimism over promised Bahrain reforms

Opposition leaders say the king’s proposed constitutional changes will do little to satisfy anti-government protesters.

Screen grab of Bahraini king
King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa pledged to limit the power of the executive branch [Al Jazeera]

A new round of modest constitutional reforms proposed by the king of Bahrain will do little to stop the nearly year-old uprising in the island kingdom, activists and opposition leaders said on Sunday.

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa delivered a televised address on Sunday morning in which pledged to limit the power of the executive branch. Under the proposed reforms, members of parliament would have more power to question cabinet ministers, and more protection from dismissal by the king.

But the speech will not be a breakthrough for the Bahraini government as it tries to stop a nearly year-long uprising. Members of Al Wefaq, the country’s largest opposition party, quickly dismissed the changes as “cosmetic” and demanded much wider reforms.

“Nothing was new. The opposition was expecting something like this from 10 years before,” said Ali al-Aswad, a member of Al Wefaq. “This is not the demand of the street. The demand is different now, after what has happened in all the Arab countries.”

‘A better balance’

All of the proposed reforms are small in scale. The king promised “new safeguards” to limit his ability to dissolve the lower house of parliament, for example: He would have to “consult” with leaders of both houses, and the head of the constitutional court, before dismissing lawmakers, an action which right now requires only the approval of the king and the prime minister, who is also the king’s uncle.

Al Wefaq’s Khalil al-Marzooq says the changes King Hamad is calling for “can be done outside the constitution with bylaws”.

The proposed changes would also require the king to issue a “royal order” explaining the process for appointing members of the Shura Council, the 40-member upper house, which is entirely appointed by the king.

Parliament would also play a larger role in determining the state budget, and the lower house would have the right to “question and withdraw confidence from ministers,” who are also appointed by the king.

All of these changes are in proposed constitutional amendments, which Al Khalifa said will be transmitted to the parliament.

“The proposed amendments bring greater harmony in the relationship between the executive and legislative branches, in order to achieve a better balance between them,” the king said in his speech.

The changes outlined on Sunday would partly fulfill one of the core recommendations from the “national dialogue” conducted over the summer. Many others, including efforts to reduce corruption and “sectarian division,” remain unimplemented.

Al Wefaq withdrew from that dialogue, which it called “not serious,” though some other opposition representatives remained involved.

Activists admit that some of the proposed reforms are modest steps in the right direction, but complain the king is moving far too slowly.

“People very clearly wanted an elected government, they want parliament that has actual power,” said Nabeel Rajab, the head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights in Manama. “If we go into this detail, and go step by step… it’s going to be 100 years before an elected parliament has power.”

A ‘different direction now’

The king has delivered several high-profile addresses in recent weeks, one in December to mark Bahrain’s national day, another in November after an official commission released its report on abuses committed during this year’s unrest. None of them included major concessions sought by the opposition, like a general amnesty for prisoners.

Several activists and members of Al Wefaq described the speeches as “missed opportunities.”

“Even Assad issued an amnesty today,” said one Bahraini activist reached by telephone, referring to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who issued a “general amnesty” on Sunday. “Why couldn’t Khalifa do the same?”

The king’s speech instead included a few thinly-veiled swipes at members of the opposition. He promised, for example, to work with anyone who “has a genuine patriotic desire for further progress and reforms.” The government has often tried to portray protesters as obstructionist.

Al Wefaq has demanded much wider reforms than those offered on Sunday, including the creation of a fully elected legislature and an elected prime minister. Activists outside of Bahrain’s formal political parties, particularly among the youth, tend to go further, calling for the ouster of the Khalifa family which has ruled for two centuries.

Al Wefaq has tried to moderate those demands, but politicians warn that the king’s speech – which several called a “missed opportunity” – will only anger the opposition.

“If we accept this, we will have no power in the streets. We couldn’t control the streets,” al-Aswad said. “The youth might go in a different direction now.”

Source: Al Jazeera