The second in the series of protests demanding constitutional reform was held today, in the empty ground next to Dana Mall (read about the first protest here). When the plan to hold the protest was announced a couple weeks back, it seemed as though the government would once again deem it illegal. However, a few days the Interior Ministry gave the go-ahead for the demonstration, so everything went smoothly today without any trouble.
Today's protest definitely felt smaller than the first one, but it was still very big. I'm no good at guessing numbers anyway, but it was especially difficult today because the venue was a perfectly flat open ground, with very few vantage points to make a decent estimate. If I were to hazard a guess I might say around 10 or 12 thousand, but don't quote me on it. It would be better to wait a couple hours for the news agencies to publish their reports. I've made another one of those panorama images to give you a sense of the scale, but I wasn't high enough to capture the full depth of the crowd. Click on the icon below to see it:
What was very significant about this protest though was that it was not a one-party show dominated entirely by Al-Wefaq, like the first one. As I suspected might happen, all of the four boycotting political societies made their presence known this time. At last. This was the first major protest in a long time that did not have a sectarian feel to it. So even though today's demonstration was smaller than the last one, for me it was more significant because it was so much more representative of the population. I do hope this will continue to be the case throughout the rest of the campaign. Below you can see a cluster of, I believe, NDAS supporters:
Incidentally, the International Crisis Group today released a report (hat tip to Mahmood) that contains an excellent overview of the political situation Bahrain, as well as urgent recommendations to all parties about what needs to be done to defuse the situation. Among the recommendations to the government is to reduce the legislative authority of the parliament's appointed chamber (the key demand of today's protest). I really hope that both the government and the opposition take the recommendations of this report seriously and show some courage.
Before the protest started a cop issued parking tickets to some of the demonstrators for parking their cars on the road island, so a small argument ensued. (Take a good look, because this is one of the rare chances you'll get to witness traffic cops in Bahrain actually doing something).
This protest had a very Woodstock-ish feel to it (not that I've ever been to Woodstock). As you can see in the photo below the protest took place in a big open ground, and people came walking in from all directions. Rather than an agry march, today many people came and sat down on the ground or a chair, and listened to the speeches and talked amongst themselves. The weather was great and the kids especially seemed to enjoy the opportunity to run around in the big open space or build castles in the sand.
In the cartoon below, on the right side it say "The Nineties" and shows a person trapped in a bottle (The height of the civil uprising in Bahrain tooke place during the 1990s). In the left panel it says "The days of reform" and shows a person in a bottle with the 2002 Consitution blocking the opening.
NDAS president Ibrahim Shareef being interviewed by a reporter from Al Jazeera television:
Speakers at the podium:
This entry was posted
on Friday, May 06, 2005 at 5/06/2005 07:41:00 pm. Permalink
They want to scrap the 2002 Constitutional amendments specifically the establishment of the appointed upper chamber of parliament - and make the 1973 constitution the staring point.
They argue that the former unichamber parliament comprised of elected MPs and some appointed ministers was more democratic than today's UK style wholly elected lower chamber and appointed upper chamber.
The government indicates the upper chambers necessary to give technical experts, minorities and women a say in the legislative process - which is especially important given that the lower chamber and oppositions dominated by Islamists - while the opposition says that its a tool for blocking legislation the government doesn't like.
The practicalities of the choice was best illustrated a couple of weeks ago when the elected lower house voted to send Saudi style religious police to patrol Bahrain's streets. Under a single chamber system this bill would automatically become law, under the current system the Islamists in the lower house know they can't get it through the upper chamber and have to send it to the government as a 'proposal' who'll automatically reject it.
So the constitutional issues are crucial not just to how the Kingdom is governed, but to the sort of society Bahrain wants to be.
But half the senators represent what are in effect rotten boroughs - how is that Vermont or Rhode Island have the same number of senators as California or Texas? Bit like the presidential elections rules: archaic.
Let me provide a bit of the history though (the abbreviated version). In 1973 a constitution was promulgated which mandated a parliament with 40 members, all of whom would be elected. In 1975 the then Amir (father of the current King) dissolved the parliament and did not call any elections thereafter.
After the current King came to power in 1999, he held a referendum in 2001 to endorse a document called the "National Action Charter" which would be a blueprint for reform. The referendum was accepted with a 98% vote of support. Indications were that the 1973 Constitution would be used as a basis, with mutually agreed amendments.
However in 2002 the King promulgated a new constitution, without having consulted the opposition. Among the changes was that the Parliament would consist of two chambers, 40 members each, one elected by universal suffrage, and the other directly appointed by the King. This is the main point that the opposition has been protesting about.
odd a: For sure, many of the protesters don't seem to know the details of the constitutions and are just following "their leaders". Many of the people are just angry with the government and will use any opportunity to protest against it. But I think everyone at the protest is well aware that half of the parliament seats mandated by the 2002 constitution are appointed by the King.
Moreover, from my interactions with people, I think they are very disappointed with the way the reforms have been handled in general. They don't like the way the King changed things overnight in 2002. More than the actual issues, people seem to feel a sense of betrayal after all the talk of reconciliation in 2001. At one point the King had made himself a hero, but now he refuses to discuss or even accept a petition. These issues of trust is what seems to anger the protesters more than anything else. So I don't think it would do justice to attribute these protests to entirely to mere sheep behaviour.
Is Bahrain ready to have one elected chamber? I'm not sure. But that is not necessarily what is being campaigned for. The opposition wants, above all, dialogue with the King. It is obvious that the opposition will probably be willing to make compromises, but right now they just want to be able to discuss these issues with the King.
Personally I agree with the opposition on the specific issue of dialogue. I think there is room for maneuvre on both sides. While I see the need for an appointed chamber right now, I don't think it should stay forever. There need to be instruments to allow for transition to a fully elected parliament over time. Maybe gradually phasing out the Shura's powers over a fixed number of years.
But the main point I think is the desperate need for dialogue and a sense of trust.
Regarding the US Senate, the historical reason each State gets two Senators, regardless of population, was to balance the power of States where slavery was illegal and those where it was not legal. Whether the end of slavery makes this feature of the Senate archaic may be debated. US election results show that people in less populated areas vote differently than those in big cities. The Senate ensures that the interests of each are represented. The US Constitution has many features that are not democratic -- they are designed to protect the rights of people who are in the minority at any given time.