Bahrain skyline at sunset. Shutterstock/Ajay Kumar Singh. All rights resereved.`
The lack of platforms for political debate in Bahrain has been a recurring problem throughout the island’s history. Whether during the time Bahrain was a British protectorate or in its brief forty years since independence, the lack of space for fruitful debate between political actors has characterised the country’s dense history. This has been particularly projected in the events following the political upheavals of 2011.
During the month long sit-in at the Pearl Roundabout, formal political bodies entered negotiations with the country’s Crown Prince, from which youth movements were excluded. The talks yielded the famous seven core principles for national dialogue championed by the Crown Prince, a discourse which offered a platform to 'opposition political societies' (see Manama document). However, the entrance of the GCC military forces into Bahrain and the declaration of a de facto state of emergency on March 15 cut these talks short. Narratives as to the failure of dialogue remains widely debated, as each camp points the finger of blame at the other.
Ever since, state-sponsored dialogues have been inadequate in finding common ground and unable to prescribe meaningful solutions. The opposition has heavily ridiculed the National Dialogue of July 2011 and the National Consensus Dialogue in 2013, questioning the seriousness of the state and its commitment to meaningful reform.
Dialogue has since dwindled into a series of back-channel negotiations between political groups and elements of the ruling family aligned with the moderate camp. The Crown Prince declared that the political process should continue in parliament, but since political bodies have boycotted the elections, any debate there will take a much more exclusionary turn.
In February 2012, a group of independent youth, myself included, organised a political debate that brought actors from across the political spectrum to discuss the conflict. The event, titled the Bahrain Debate, was live streamed and later made available for public access and consideration.
As mentioned in a report by Chatham House, the “debate was praised by Bahrainis from across the political spectrum as a rare example of civil-society dialogue.” This highlights the widespread sentiment among civil society that it is an effective political actor. Since 2011, however, it has been not only largely excluded, but also cornered and given very limited space to act.
Today, with the conflict nearing its fourth year, the need for political imagination and debate is striking. In response, the SOAS MENA Society is organising an event titled ‘The Bahrain Debate: rethinking the conflict’ in early December. The event takes an academic approach and is attempting to arrive at a more articulate understanding of the nature of the conflict and perhaps suggest practical solutions.
The debate will be comprised of a politics and economics segment, followed by a history and society segment, with question and answers at the end to get the audience involved, both in person and through social media. The politics and economic segment focuses on a number of issues, such as the root causes of the conflict, adapting the political economy to arrive at needed structural reforms, the dip in oil prices and its implications for the rentier state model, and the shifting boundaries of national identity.
In the second segment, special focus will be placed on the country’s colonial–and arguably neo-colonial–history, human rights and the rule of law, the empowerment of women and the interaction between the many sects and ethnicities and so on. The rather ambitious goal of this debate is to fundamentally rethink the conflict, allowing for more sustainable solutions to arise.
With no clear prospects for an end to the political crisis crippling the country, the Bahrain Debate is inspired by and hopes to recreate a historical moment for civil society participation and action–much like that of the National Union Committee of the 1950s, or the constitutional movement of the 1970s which drew support from various societal elements. We in the organisational body hope next to decentralise “The Bahrain Debate”, and to encourage independent bodies to host events under the same umbrella.