Photo credit: Wattani.net
So King Hamad decided to play the wild card of the Royal Pardon and saved the day. Yesterday afternoon I thought it would be unlikely that he would step in, but now in hindsight it seems as though it had to happen. Here are a few possible reasons that might have pushed the King to make his decision. (i) Amnesty International sent a representative to observe the trial. (ii) The King will be visiting the US next week. (iii) It allows him to further enhance his "Good Cop" image versus the "Bad Cop" image of the Prime Minister. (iv) It sends the strongest signal yet from the King (the Newbie) to the Prime Minister (the Veteran) and his supporters letting them know who is the boss. (v) And God forbid, maybe the King actually has a conscience and a sense of justice.
I imagine that this outcome had been decided a long time ago, but the King couldn't just order Al-Khawaja's release before the verdict was given since that would be too big a loss of face for his uncle the PM. By pardoning Al-Khawaja's remaining prison sentence after a guilty verdict the message is toned down somewhat. It says: "Yes Al-Khawaja is guilty, but We have forgiven him out of Our benevolence and magnanimity." It does not say: "Okay, you were right, we were wrong, and for that we're sorry." Don't forget that Al-Khawaja sat in prison for almost two months for the duration of his trial for which (I assume) he will not receive any compensation.
So then what's next? Well this whole affair has raised several important issues in Bahrain that need to be dealt with sooner or later:
- Most importantly, the 1976 Penal Code, under which Al-Khawaja was charged, must be reviewed and amended immediately to bring it in line with the new constitution. Although the King saved the day this time, it is ridiculous to expect the people to rely on Royal clemency for every similar case in the future.
- In light of all of the recent protests and demonstrations, there needs to be some rules and regulations clearly defining what the rights and limits are for both the demonstrators and the police. These rules must be in the spirit of the new constitution, so obviously that eliminates the proposed Draconian law drafted by the government and being pushed by the joker MPs.
- We need to look in to why the local media failed so miserably to report honestly about the Al-Khawaja Affair. (The coverage by the papers has been getting relatively better recently though). Obviously, it has to do with the Press Laws and the very worrying relationships that the government has with the managers/owners of most of the local papers. We should also be very concerned about why the local broadcast media was completely silent about the whole affair. Once again, it is obviously because all of the local TV and radio stations are run by the government. So we should actually be asking why we have no alternatives to the government run stations.
- And of course, lest we forget, we can finally get back to solving the poverty issue and labour law reforms that kicked off this whole affair.
But there's still the question of the Prime Minister left. It was after all Al-Khawaja's demand for the PM's resignation that got him arrested. According to a report from Reuters (via Arab News), Al-Khawaja has vowed to continue his campaign against the PM:
He said he would continue to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa ibn Salman Al-Khalifa, whom he blamed for “deep-rooted corruption” and whose criticism landed him in jail.
“The king and the crown prince are both on the side of reforms but the prime minister is a major hurdle,” he said. (Continued)
In several of my previous posts I have argued that the Opposition should continue to demand the right to be able to publicly criticize the PM (or anyone else), but they should drop the demand for his actual resignation. The former demand is a human rights issue that is difficult to argue againse, whereas the latter is a purely political issue. I argued that it's more important to focus on correcting the state's policies rather than its personalities. Once the policies are fixed, the personalities will have to either correct themselves, or be replaced altogether.
I still stand by that argument of mine, but I will admit that opposing arguments cannot be entirely discounted either. Al-Khawaja and the opposition seem to believe that the dynamics of change will act in the opposite direction. Their argument is that it won't be possible to make any real implementable policy changes while the current PM and his government remain in power. I don't entirely agree with this view, but I can understand why some people hold this opinion. This is after all a chicken and egg problem, so either side can be debated.
Although I disagree with those who think that getting rid of the Prime Minister will solve all of the country's problems, I do think it's time for him to go. Not necessarily because I blame him for all of Bahrain's social and economic woes, but simply because he has been the head of government for over 30 years now. I don't think it's too much for citizens to ask for a new head of government once in three decades. A change would do good.
And I suspect that the King and Crown Prince would be happy to see him off also. It seems that they are beginning to recognize the benefit of political stability that they might gain by transforming into a real constitutional monarchy. Even though they won't maintain the political control they currently have, they will have secured their position within the system, and will be able to live quite comfortably. After all, the Queen of England and her family don't seem to be doing too bad for themselves. The Prime Minister however does have a lot to lose. Over the years he has amassed a huge amount of wealth and business interests because of his political position. Once he loses his office all of this could come under threat. Although he would still be able to rely on his nephew the King to take good care of him, the relative loss for him personally would be so large that it is very unlikely that he would step down of his own will.
Furthermore, I suspect that the opposition has been making it more difficult for the King and Crown Prince to pressure the PM out of office. I've mentioned before that saving face is of huge importance in this part of the world. I very much doubt that the PM would leave under public demands for his resignation, since it would look as though he is submitting to their will, and that would be too big a loss of face. I would think that it would actually strengthen his resolve to stay in power. In order for him to step down an avenue must be created which allows him to exit "respectfully". This would mean creating the conditions under which he could publicly say "I am stepping down out of my love for this country and my great benevolence, and I also want to devote more time to my family and personal interests". Of course, the real reason would be due to pressure, or even a sacking, from the King and Crown Prince (as Mahmood hinted towards). Such conditions can not arise while people are lining the streets holding placards that say "PM, we are sick and tired of you. Leave now".
Well let's see what happens next. Things are getting very interested and changes are on their way.
Disclaimer: Much of what I have said above is pure speculation. I don't have any hard evidence or inside info to back up all of my claims. It's just my assessment as an observer.