While the British Foreign Office, the British ambassador and a British MEP have been tweeting enthusiastically about Bahrain's latest electoral window-dressing, the United States is maintaining a discreet silence. There have been no congratulatory messages about Bahrain's "democratic progress" on the US embassy's website or its Twitter feed. The only official comment on the elections from the US State Department, in answer to a question last week, was:
"Mm-hmm. I’ll have to look into that and get back to you."
Although the US has often been accused of having an over-friendly relationship with the Bahraini regime, it is at least being a lot more circumspect about the elections than Britain.
Last Saturday's elections – which will go to a run-off in some districts – were boycotted by the largest opposition group, al-Wefaq, along with several other groups, mainly on the grounds that the 40-seat parliament has too little power and that electoral districts have been adjusted to favour the Sunni minority (to which the ruling family belong). Even before the latest electoral jiggery-pokery, the system was weighted to deny the opposition a majority in parliament.
A diplomatic cable sent by the US embassy to the State Department way back in 1975 (and now de-classified) casts some light on the American position and also raises questions for members of the new parliament.
Bahrain's parliament, the National Assembly, was established in 1973 under the new constitution. But it clashed with the amir and he dissolved it two years later. Bahrain then continued to be ruled without a parliament until 2002.
The American diplomatic cable (reproduced here in full) discusses reactions to the 1975 dissolution:
Summary: Bahrain remains calm with the Al Khalifa and their ministers insisting their decision to do away with parliament has broad and enthusiastic popular support. While GOB [Government of Bahrain] insists on its continuing devotion to constitution and democratic government, the leadership obviously plans to concentrate on economic and administrative reforms rather than the resuscitation of democratic life over coming months. The cabinet reshuffle, while procedurally linked to regime's political moves, was essentially administrative measure to reorganise and enhance efficiency of economic ministries. GOB pleased by reaction of neighbours (except Kuwait) while displaying significant concern about US reaction to steps it has taken.
1. The party line. Since talk with foreign minister reported REFTEL, we have had opportunity to touch most key government bases at the somewhat turgid pace dictated by ramadan. From amir through key commoner ministers, GOB is sticking closely to "party line". It would have us believe its decision to dissolve National Assembly is popular with all right thinking Bahrainis. GOB ministers tell us people urgently want effective government by decree and administrative fiat to solve pressing economic/social problems, notably, housing and high prices.
While insisting to a man that GOB remains dedicated to constitution and democracy, amir and his ministers leave no doubt they are in no hurry to come up with alternative to allegedly unlamented National Assembly.
2. Significance of the change of government. The change of government was procedurally important in the political drama since it provided a mechanism to launch steps necessary to dissolve the parliament. The resultant cabinet reshuffle and reorganisation. however, were virtually devoid of political as opposed to administrative significance. the shifting of municipalities/agriculture minister to justice, the justice minister to labour and the labour minister to the new communications portfolio were simply efforts to find the most effective administrator for certain jobs. The most significant change was the restructuring of the economic ministries, with new ministries of public works and housing and commerce/economy/agriculture being formed under the leadership of the brightest second level talent of the over- burdened finance and development ministries.
There remains speculation whether the aging and ailing finance minister, shorn of much of his former responsibilities, will retire, to be replaced either by information minister Moayyed (the best economist in the government) or with his duties absorbed by development minister Shirawi who has been the key economic figure in the government for some time.
3. The political mood. Except for noting the streets are quiet and that Al Khalifa and their cabinet colleagues seem quite pleased with themselves, it is difficult, particularly in this season, and particularly for the American embassy which is locally accused of "masterminding" the demise of parliament, to get a firm grip on public reaction to the regime's crack-down. Members of the left are obviously unhappy if not incarcerated. We hear that the right wing shia religious faction is also displeased since it is being accused by the government of being a major contributor to the "failure" of the parliamentary experiment and, having little power base in the modernist bureaucracy, in losing the assembly has lost much of its leverage on the government.
The amir assures me merchants and "good Bahrainis" are delighted to see the assembly go; the prime minister says the village folk have assured him they could care less about the assembly so long as the government meets their pressing bread and butter needs; minister of state for cabinet affairs Urrayed (whom we understand the Al Khalifa suspected as a potential critic of their move but who in any event is now crowing the party line) would even have us believe that the moderate members of the assembly are delighted that their body has been dissolved.
Some influential ministers, notably Shaikh Abdulla Khalid (justice) and information minister Moayyed (who appears to hold private opinion that the GOB overreacted in dealing with the left) quietly stress the need to return promptly to some sort of representative democratic procedure. The amir, who obviously is feeling his oats after a long period of fretting about the national assembly, seems in no rush, preferring to focus on cracking down further on any government critics, such as former leftist deputy Marhun, who has just mouthed off in Kuwait.
4. Foreign reaction. GOB is delighted at support most Gulf neighbours have given it. The amir singles out Iran and Saudi Arabia, but is embarrassed by accusations (which we suspect are accurate) [that] Saudi Arabia exerted pressure on Bahrain to make this move and will pay for most of the bread and butter handouts the government will give the people in place of parliamentary democracy. The amir and prime minister express particular irritation at Kuwait's willingness to permit its newspapers to provide a forum for leftist Bahraini deputies critical of the government's move.
To a man, and with obvious concern, the amir and ministers with whom I have talked have asked the USG [US Government] reaction. I explained that we made no official public comment and are unlikely to do so; that we have been pleased to see Bahrain launch the constitutional and democratic experiment and were gratified at the government's stated intent to continue it; and that we have no advice on how precisely Bahrain should go about this and, as a matter of principle, have no intention to interfere in what is an internal Bahraini affair.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Tuesday, 25 November 2014