In Bahrain, Democracy Activists Regret Easing of U.S. Pressure

By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 27, 2006

MANAMA, Bahrain, Nov. 26 -- Bahrain's government has touted parliamentary elections here as a model for regional reform and a milestone for democracy. But critics say the polls are similar to those in many Arab countries: designed to give the appearance of democracy while maintaining the government's tight grip on power.

Although many countries in the region have introduced various degrees of political participation, from limited municipal councils in Saudi Arabia to spirited parliaments in Kuwait and Yemen, the reforms have consistently fallen short of the freedoms democracy activists have sought.

The Bush administration, which said several years ago that greater democracy in the Middle East was a cornerstone of its foreign policy, has recently tempered its demands.

Democracy activists say that with the absence of strong grass-roots movements, Western pressure is the only remaining option that could force totalitarian governments to give up some of their power.

"The dictatorships in the region are the real winners of the shift in U.S. policy," said Sulaiman al-Hattlan, editor of Forbes Arabia. "They are not serious about reform and only respond to international pressure. They can easily repress their populations because they have total control of all state apparatuses."

Voters went to the polls Saturday in Bahrain, a tiny Gulf country ruled by the Sunni Muslim al-Khalifa family. Bahrain is the poorest oil-producing country in the region and the only one with a Shiite majority. Shiites make up 60 percent of the country's population of 700,000.

The government did not allow international observers to monitor the elections and appointed local government-affiliated groups for the job. Officials said 72 percent of the 300,000 eligible voters cast ballots.

Bahrain's main opposition groups boycotted the 2002 elections, the first in three decades, because political parties were banned and the power of the assembly had been diluted by the creation of a more powerful upper house appointed by the king.

When elections were announced again last year, activists said they had to choose between being left out of the political system or working within it.

"There are no democracies in the Arab world, apart from Iraq," said Sheik Ali Salman, a cleric and head of the largest opposition group, al-Wefaq National Islamic Society. But the runaway violence in Iraq has given Arab governments an excuse to scale back on political reform, he added.

"Authoritarian leaders will use any excuse not to give up power if they don't have to," said Salman, the country's most influential political leader and one of 16 al-Wefaq candidates to have won seats in the next assembly.

At a recent rally, Salman told the thousands of people who had come to hear him speak that his participation in the elections did not mean that he had disengaged from political activism. He promised that al-Wefaq would work to revoke laws, passed by the previous pro-government assembly, that curtail press freedoms and civil liberties.

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