The results have galvanized Bahrain’s stagnant political system. The winners include three women – two who defeated male opponents for the first time in the country’s history – as well as businessmen and religious leaders. Despite being threatened by anti-government forces, they persisted in running. Voters were asked to boycott the election, warned by clerics they would go to Hell if they voted for the women and faced harassment at the polls. While the numbers of voters were lower than in the past, they did make choices.
One week after taking office some of these accidental new members formed the Bahrain Bloc -- the first ever legislative coalition of Sunni and Shia members. Think of it as their Blue Dog Coalition. That groundbreaking step shocked many in Bahrain. It came as the parliament started seriously pursuing some of the recommendations that emerged from the National Dialogue -- a process also boycotted by opponents and then mocked for its results. Even unbiased observers of Bahrain were skeptical of the Dialogue’s worth. By contrast, these new members see those recommendations as a starting point to reenergize a tepid democracy.
Glass half full or half empty? In Bahrain, the reality is the glass is broken. Today is the chance for many to be a gaffer in a budding democracy. And these Bahrainian Blue Dogs were eager to hear what their congressional counterparts could share.
Bahrain is out of the day-to-day media spotlight because of location, other events in the Middle East having more punch and a slowdown of bad news. Yet it is key for Congress as the U.S. withdraws from Iraq and shifts it relationships throughout the region.
The island is right across the water from Iran and, in fact, Iranians consider it their 14th province (shades of Kuwait and Saddam Hussein). Americans are welcome here and those who served in the Navy’s Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, love it being their home.
When America makes a suggestion – or a decision –Bahrain responds. With its own version of Arab Spring political unrest, Bahrain gives Congress a rare opportunity to lead by example to a foreign nation that looks to those on Capitol Hill as roll models.
Congress has already had a huge impact on Bahrain; some House and Senate members raised objections to a proposed weapons sale to the nation, and the White House put the sale on hold until after the results of an independent commission studying the demonstrations earlier this year releases its report. (That report was to be completed by October 31 but was pushed back until November 23.)
Now Congress has a chance to give lessons in democracy building, as opposed to just stopping an arms sale. Thus the importance of the recent CODEL visit.
Hostile and skeptical before arriving in Bahrain, the congressmen met with opposition members, independents, those newly elected members of the parliament, government leaders and members of the Royal family -- and members of the independent commission. They left Bahrain with a broader understand of what occurred during the demonsrations in February and March and the sometime harsh pushback that was unleashed. They also saw the nuances of the realpolitik on the island. In short, they took long walks in that gray area of reality.
The congressional attention may be just what Bahrain needs to stay on its democratic course – and what Congress needs to remind it that in many places of the world a little U.S. tough love and good advice is deeply appreciated.
Tom Squitieri is a journalist and is working with the Bahrain government on media awareness and access.