The “National Encounter”: a new way forward to rebuild the political centre in Bahrain?

I heard of the “National Encounter” initiative through “Mahmood’s Den”:

http://mahmood.tv/2012/01/28/a-glimmer-of-light-at-the-end-of-a-rather-dark-tunnel/

Dr. Ali Fakhro, who has held ministerial portfolios in Health and Education, announced the “National Encounter” (or “Meeting”) grouping at Bahrain’s Al Uruba  (“Arabism”) Club on 28th January 2012.

The National Grouping seeks to bring together Bahrainis of all political perspectives into dialogue based on the Crown Prince’s seven principles, first articulated in February 2011. These were:

    1. A fully representative parliament with exclusive legislative authority
    2. An elected and representative cabinet
    3. Equitable electoral districts
    4. Review of Naturalisation Laws
    5. Address administrative and financial corruption
    6. Review sovereign wealth
    7. Address the sectarian impasse

Addressing an audience of some 200 intellectuals, business people, cultural figures and politicians of good standing and anti-sectarian reputation in Bahrain, Dr. Fakhro suggests these as a “reasonable ground for discussion”, but stresses the grouping if free to amend or modify these as they see fit in the light of contemporary political realities.

Commentators on Mahmood’s Den noted that this is a grouping “that the government cannot ignore”, and that it represented “a hand in the face to divide and rule”, stressing that “…now, you have some very different voices [from the protestors] speaking up and putting their weight behind the call for a solution. Mostly the kind of voices that the governement must have counted as supporters…The Royal family may actually sit up and listen. Actually, no, the Royal family will sit up and listen, as they can’t afford not to listen to some very prominent citizens.”

Significantly, the opposition groups’ joint “Manama Document” issued in October 2011 is based on five points which are quite close in spirit and letter to the seven given above. These are:

1) An elected government representing will of the people rather than an appointed government….

2) Fair electoral districts guaranteeing political equality amongst the people and meeting the universal principle of one person, one vote….

3) A parliament comprising of a single chamber having sole legislative and regulatory powers, replacing the current bi-cameral arrangement, one elected and the other appointed.

4) A trustworthy judicial system independent from the executive branch both financially and administratively.

5) Security for all via participation of all walks of life in the country in formation of the army and other security apparatus on the basis of providing security for all….

http://alwefaq.net/index.php?show=news&action=article&id=5934

At a time when Bahraini politics is becoming dangerously polarized, this is a welcome initiative, as it holds out the possibility of new bid to rebuild the centre ground that can be shared by both the main opposition groups and the Bahraini “great and good” whose support the regime had taken for granted.  The founding statement was signed by Dr. Ali Fakhro, Jassim Murad, Hameed Ali Abdulla, Radhi Al-Mousawi, Ubaidly Alubaidly, Shawqi Alalawi, Mariam Alruai’ie, Abdulmonem Alshirawi, Yousif Zainal, Dr. Mohammed Isa Alkuwaiti, Jameel Alalawi, Ali Rabi’ea, Saeed Alasbool, Abdulla Mutawiee’, Esmat Almousawi, Dr. Wedad Kaiksow, Dr. Hasan Madan, Dr. Hasan Alaali, and Abdulhasan Alhasan.

Post BICI Bahrain lacks a credible centre. The BICI notwithstanding, King Hamad is too compromised a figure for the opposition to negotiate with, and the Crown Prince remains marginalized by reactionary elements within the regime clustered around the figure of the Prime Minister. This reactionary grouping has taken the lead in defining what “loyalism” means in crisis-ridden Bahrain, causing a political vacuum where a loyalist centre should be.

The National Encounter initiative has the potential to formulate a new loyalist centre that is acceptable to and can do business with the reformist opposition, thereby marginalizing the loyalist ultras and pro-Saudi elements, and putting into check those elements of the opposition who increasingly see violent confrontation with the state as the only viable change agent.

According to some commentators, core people involved in this initiative have been meeting for the past two or three months. The first anniversary of the 14th February Revolution approaches rapidly, and with it the possibility that a further violent crackdown will be met not simply by civil disobedience, but by violent confrontation. This possibility has, apparently, focused some loyalist minds on the necessity of rebuilding a credible centre that can work with the reformist opposition.

Below is the original Arabic text of Dr. Fakhro’s 28th January speech, followed by my translation from Arabic to English:

 

كلمة الدكتور علي فخرو في اجتماع اللقاء الوطني بنادي العروبة

 

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

ايها الاخوة والاخوات

اهلا بكم في هذا الاجتماع الوطني الجامع ، باسم الوطن كله ، ومن اجل كل شعبه ، بل من اجل كل فرد فيه ، دون منة ودون شروط ، واسمحوا لي ان اقدم خلفية ومقترحات ،ارجو ان تعيننا على اجراء مداولات ايجابية ناجحة هذا الصباح

اولا : لسنا بحزب ولا بجمعية سياسية ولا حتى تكتل سياسي وانما نحن مواطنون نحضر بصفتنا الشخصية البحتة ولا نمثل اي جهة قد ننتمي اليها ، لقد دفعنا الى هذا الاجتماع خوفنا على هذا الوطن الذي يعيش محنة الانقسام بكل انواعه ، ومشاعر التعصب الاعمى غير المنضبط بدين سمح او اخلاق انسانية رفيعة بكل انواعها وكذلك الممحاكات السياسية الت يؤججها اعداء

البحرين وتغذيها جهات انتهازية او نفعية او جاهلة .

ثانيا : لقد تدارست مجموعة من اخوانكم واخواتكم المجتمعين معكم اليوم الاوضاع المأساوية التي ذكرتها اعلاه عبر اسابيع طويلة ، وقد ارتأوا ضرورة وجود صوت عاقل جامع ليقترح على اطراف المجتمع المختلفة فيما بينها ، وعلى الاخص السياسية منها ، يقترح عليهم الجلوس مع بعضهم البعض وبحضور ممثلين عنكم ان وافق جمعيهم على ذلك ، من اجل ان يتدارسوا امكانية الاتفاق على مطالب ومقترحات وطنية مشتركة في حدها الادنى المشترك على الاقل ولينقلوها بدورهم الى جهات السلطة المعنية في الدولة من اجل مناقشتها مع تلك الجهات والاتفاق ان امكن على حدود دينا يقبل بها الجميع ( المجتمع والدولة ) للخروج من الازمة الحالية الى رحاب استكمال المسيرة الاصلاحية الديموقراطية الدستورية البرلمانية الهادفة لخير الجميع العادلة مع الجميع ، الآخذة بعين الاعتبار مصالح الجميع

ثالثا : ولان هناك ضرورة لوجود ورقة ينطلق منها النقاش اثناء اجتماع القوى السياسية المجتمعية التي نرجو ان توافق على الاجتماع ، فإننا رأينا ان نقترح عليكم ان توافقوا معنا – مع حريتكم التامة في الرفض او التعديل – ان ينطلق النقاش من النقاط السبع التي اطلقها سمو ولي العهد في فبراير 2011 ، وبالطبع فإن المجتمعين سيكون لهم الحق التام في تعديل تلك المبادرة ،اضافة او انتقاصا او فهما مشتركا لمحتويات بنودها التفصيلية طالماان ذلك التعديل سيكون حصيلة مناقشات المجتمعين واتفاقهم

لقد اعتمد مقترحنا هذا على ان مبادرة سمو الشيخ سلمان هي ارضية معقولة ومقبولة من الكثير وصالحة للاخذ والعطاء وتعبر في مجملها عن قبول كثير من جهات اتخاذ القرار في الدولة على الاقل لغالب ما تقوله وتقترحه .

رابعا : اذا اتفق المجتمعون في ذلك القاء حول مطالب سياسية صالحة لهذه المرحلة من مسيرة البحرين الديموقراطية ، ولنتذكر ان الديموقراطية هس سرورة لها بداية وليس لها نهاية ، فإنهم يستطيعون تكوين وفد ليتقدم بتلك المطالب للجهات المعينة في نظامنا السياسي من اجل مناقشتها ومحاولة اقناعها بتبني تلك المطالب وتنفيذها ضمن جدول زمني وخطوات تراكمية لا تراجع عنها قط

خامسا : نقترح على الاخوة الحاضرين ان ينتخبوا عددا يتراح بين عشرين وثلاثين شخصا ليكونوا لجنة تنسيق ومتابعة تقوم بالاتصالات بكل القوى السياسية والجهات الوطنية المعنية من اجل اقناعها بكل ما ذكر سابقا ومن اجل حضور اعضائها كممثلين عنكم ان تمت الاجتماعات المشتركة

وستكون اللجنة مطالبة بأن تبقى على صلة وثيقة بكم كجمعية عمومية وان صحت التسمية بدعوتكم للاجتماع اذا لزم الامر لاعلامكم بنتائج ما تقوم به وللحصول على موافقتكم ان احتاجت الى وظائف جديدة تقوم بها باسمكم .

سادسا : ان لم نوفق في هذا المسعى فإن الامر سيرجع لكم : تغييرا للاهداف والوسائل او الاكتفاء بما تم وترك الامور للآخرين ،وعند ذاك نكون قد قمنا بواجبنا كمواطنين حتى لا يسجل التاريخ علينا اننا رأينا الوطن وهو يحترق دون ان نحاول ان نقوم بواجبنا لاخراجه من محنته

سابعا : واخيرا رجاء حار ان نبتعد هذا الصباح عن شتم او تحقير ايا كان واي جهة كانت وان نركز على الموضوع الذي جئنا من اجله ، اننا لسنا في مهرجان خطابة وانما في اجتماع لايجاد وسائل وحلول ، فاعينونا على ذلك ، ولنتذكر اننا يجب ان نرتفع فوق الانقسامات ونبتعد عن المهاترات ويكفي الوطن ما يفعهله به بعض المتورين والجهلة والانتهازيين .وبعبارة موجزة نحن معنيين في هذه المرحلة بالاتصال بكل الجمعيات المعنية لحثها على التواصل والاتفاق على مطالب مشتركة ولسنا معنييين حاليا بالاتصال بالجهات الرسمية فقد يأتي ذلك في وقت لاحق مع الآخرين ان امكن او بدونهم ان رغبتم في ذلك في اجتماعات قادمة

لكم التحية ، لكم محبة وطنكم وشعبكم ، والله ندعوه ان يجزيكم الف خير

والسلام عليكم ورحمة الله وبركاته
د . على محمد فخرو
اللقاء الوطني
نادي العروبة
28 / 1 / 2012

 

The Speech of Dr. Ali Fakhro at a Meeting of the “National Encounter” Group Held at the Al Uruba Club

In the name of God the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful

Oh Brothers and Sisters,

Welcome to this comprehensive National Encounter, held in the name of the entire nation, for the sake of all its people, and for every individual without favour, without preconditions. Allow me present the background to this meeting and its recommendations. Kindly assist us by ensuring that our deliberations this morning proceed in a positive and successful manner.

Firstly, we are not a political party or association, nor are we even political grouping. Rather, we here purely as private citizens are preparing we do not represent any viewpoint to which we might have allegiance. What has motivated us to call this meeting is our fear for our nation which is suffering from every kind of tribulation, division, and fanatical sentiment and blind bigotry unmitigated by any consideration of tolerance or higher human ethics, and political intrigue promoted by the enemies of Bahrain, fed by opportunism and ignorant self-interest.

Secondly, the brothers and sisters gathered here today have carefully studied the tragic conditions mentioned over long and arduous weeks. They have perceived the necessity of a comprehensively acceptable Voice of Reason that can propose to parties from the various communities, in particular political groupings, to sit together in the presence of trusted representatives in order to frame a set of minimum national demands and proposals that are commonly agreed. These in turn can be presented to the relevant state authorities in order to discuss them with the parties concerned, and reach agreement on them if possible along lines acceptable to all stakeholders from both state and society. This is so we may find a way out of the current crisis, magnanimously completing the forward march of parliamentary democracy and constitutional reform aimed at the fair for the good of everyone in the interests of all.

Thirdly, we hope to call a meeting of political and community groups. There must therefore be a document upon which discussion can proceed. Accordingly, it is our suggestion — and you are fully free to agree with us on this suggestion, or reject or amend it — that the discussion commences with discussion of the seven proposals put forward by His Highness the Crown Prince in February 2011. Naturally, the meeting will have the absolute right to amend this initiative, or add to it or subtract from it, or to formulate a common understanding as to its contents, so that the detailed amendments would be the outcome of the discussions the two communities and subject to their agreement. The principles put forward by His Highness Sheikh Salman form the basis of our proposal as they are a reasonable ground for discussion, acceptable to many, and subject to some give and take should render most of what we propose acceptable to many of the state’s decision-makers.

Fourthly, should those gathered at that meeting reach agreement on a set of political demands that are appropriate to this stage in Bahrain’s progress toward democracy, we should remember that while democracy is blessed with a beginning it has in fact no final outcome. Therefore, those gathered should be able to form delegation to present those demands of the appropriate parts of our political system in order to discuss the demands with them and try to persuade them to adopt these demands, implementing them within an agreed timescale, according to a cumulative timeframe which is absolutely irreversible.

Fifthly, we suggest the brothers here present elect a number between twenty and thirty persons to be a coordinating committee following up contacts with all political forces and national stakeholders in order to convince them regarding all that has been mentioned above, and to ensure that its members, as your representatives, conduct joint meetings. It is demanded that the committee will need to remain in close association with you as a general grouping to arrange the public naming of the group, and  to invite you to meetings as necessary and to inform you of the outcomes of our activities and to obtain your consent for new roles undertaken on your behalf.

Sixthly, should we be unable to reach any agreement this endeavor, the matter will return to you: this could mean a change of goals or methods, or leaving the matter to others. However, what is essential is that we do our duty as citizens, so that history cannot record against us that we saw our nation aflame, but did nothing to relieve our country from its tribulation.

Seventh, and finally, it is our ardent hope this morning that we disregard slurs and insults from whatever any party they may arise, so that we may focus on the matter in hand. We are not attending a festival of rhetoric, but are meeting in order to find ways forward and solutions. Let us fix our sight on that. Let us remember that we must rise above all that divides us, we must banish the vituperation, wrangling and bickering that are harming our nation, we must save our nation from what some hypocrites, ignoramuses and opportunists are putting it through.

In short, we are at this stage concerned to communicate with all groupings, urging them to communicate with one another and agree on common demands. We are not at this stage concerned with communicating with official parties, although this may come about at a later date, possibly involving others, or without them, according to you wishes at further meetings.

Greetings to you all, you are all patriotic and have love for your people. God reward you a thousand-fold.

May peace and God’s mercy and blessings be upon you.

Dr. Ali Mohammed Fakhro
The National Encounter
Al Uruba Club
28th January 2012 

At first reading, Dr. Fakhro’s speech reads like more of the same: a speech calling for a meeting to select a committee to form a delegation to present some as yet unformulated proposals to as yet unknown representatives of the state. Mention of “the enemies of Bahrain” and “opportunists” reek of pro-regime propaganda. To understand its significance, one has to take into account the context, including the identities of its audience and signatories, and its important overlaps with the Manama Document.

My suspicion is that this is too little, too late. I find it hard to imagine that the revolutionary youth out on the streets of Bahrain’s battered and carpet-gassed villages will find much to relate to in this document. I personally understand perfectly why angry youth are now physically defending their communities against a ‘police’ force that behaves not like a real law enforcement service, but like a gang in uniform or a private security force for Al Khalifa interests.

Centreless “hollowed out” polities provide centrifugal forces that in the world’s most persistent civil conflicts and most unstable failed states propel otherwise reasonable people towards irreconcilable extremes. There are disturbing signs of this happening in Bahrain. For most of 2011 the agenda in Bahrain was led by the faction of the regime that has a vested interest in continuing uncertainty and instability. Shamefully, the US State Department and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office have been indulgent of this tendency, in stark contrast to their attitude towards equivalent “loyalist’ tendencies in Egypt, Libya and Syria.

A renewed, credible centre will oblige the USA and the UK to adjust their Bahrain policy. A pragmatic, reformist opposition, working collaboratively with a renewed reformist-loyalist centre, supported by outside powers through constructive engagement may be able to lead Bahrain out of the crisis.

However determined and well-organised the opposition might be, the monarchical dictatorships of the other GCC states, and their Western backers are unlikely to allow one of their own to be seen to have fallen in a revolutionary struggle. Likewise, the opposition has seen too much bloodshed, too much oppression simply to pack up and go home. And the youth would never allow it.

Yet the prospect of an unwinnable, simmering, decades-long Northern Ireland or Lebanon style conflict slap bang in the middle of the Gulf is surely to be avoided. Thus, every attempt to rebuild a credible centre is to be applauded, whether it comes from Al Wefaq, or from people like Dr. Ali Fakhro. This would allow real meaningful reform along the lines of the Manama Document’s five key points or the National Encounter’s/Crown Prince’s seven.

This would bring change, not the tatty PR favoured by the current regime: genuine one-person-one-vote democratic system with redrawn constituency boundaries headed by constitutional monarchy with a new, ceremonial King. The regional monarchical dictatorships would not have seen one of their own “fall”, because such a king would be a Khalifa.

But in a very real sense Bahrain would have seen “isqat an-nidhaam”, since the old, post-colonial, indeed neo-colonial system that has ruled Bahrain on behalf of foreign interests since the formal British withdrawal in 1971 would have fallen. This would be nothing short of a revolution, the revolution Bahrainis have been marching and dying for, whoever the figurehead. It could lead to fundamental, positive and progressive change on both sides of the Persian-Arabian Gulf.

None of this may come to pass, but any initiative that rebuilds a credible centre is to be welcomed. The alternatives are too horrible to contemplate. Each passing day of bloodshed makes compromise less likely.

3 thoughts on “The “National Encounter”: a new way forward to rebuild the political centre in Bahrain?

  1. I believe it’s a welcome move, though I am still hearing from a lot of people who see any form of engagement as futile or disingenuous. In terms of staving off violence, it is those who are acting most violently that will be the hardest to convince. I feat appeasing them will only occur once the actual demands are met.

    • I have extensive contacts among the opposition, including revolutionary youth in the villages. My feeling is that words like “national encounter” are becoming risible. As someone who was a witness to the 1980s uprisings in inner-London, I more than understand why: “All we doin’ is defending”, as the lyric goes. If I were a young man in a similar position I’d HAVE to fight back.

      Nor do I buy the abuse of language that states that all use of physical force against state forces of dubious or compromised legitimacy is “terrorism”, or whatever. The FCO are particularly hypocritical in this regard: the anti-regime forces in Libya and Syria, even Egypt that the FCO and the US State Department very rapidly aligned themselves with resorted to much more extreme violence much earlier on in their struggles. In this regard, the militant Bahrain opposition has been a model of restraint.

      That said, I have to state that although I acknowledge circumstances in which “community defence” necessitates violent confrontation with state forces, the issue of the cycle of violence has to be addressed. “Revolution” is an easy word to use, but the reality of most of the world’s revolutions teaches us that political evolution os almost always a better alternative. By “cycle of violence” I mean the process by which one intensification of violence justifies more violent acts still by the state, which in turn justifies more violent responses from those fighting the state. In Northern Ireland and elsewhere this has led to situations where civil rights marches are fired upon, so the militant opposition resorts to guns and bombs, so that the state resorts to torture, massacre and assassination, so the armed opposition resorts to yet more shootings and bombings. I can see the beginnings of this in Bahrain.

      Therefore, any reasonable person should support any sincere measures to establish and further a real political centre with which all parties can engage. I supported this with the opposition groups joint “Manama Document”, and I support it now with the “National Encounter”. This is the tendency with which the UK FCO should begin to engage, not the fake PR-led reforms that organisations like the BNA like to promote. The world must realise that there is not just one Bahrain ‘government’, ‘regime’, ‘ruling family’ or ‘system’, but competing loci of power, some of which have a vested interest in instablility. The revolutionary youth should understand this too, and outflank these tendencies by supporting a viable political centre, however much some of the compromises involved in this process might hurt.

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