GEORGIE ANNE GEYER Bahrain struggles with Democracy



WASHINGTON -- Last year about this time, I traveled to the Persian Gulf to see what President Bush's "democratization" in the region was all about. And when I visited Bahrain, an island city-state of fewer than a million people, I was pleasantly surprised.
The wife of the progressive young ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, was going from village to village to push women's rights -- an unheard-of action. The leader of the small country -- always torn between its Sunni royal family of some 3,500 members and its poor Shia, who generally sympathized with the more radically fundamentalist policies of Shiite Iran -- had, in 1999, established a national action charter that gave all Bahrainis the right to "political participation."
It seemed to get only better. Sheikh Hamad, a hereditary ruler in the Gulf tradition, in 2002 released all (mostly Shia) political prisoners, encouraged exiles to return, established a parliament of two houses, one appointed and one elected, and began an independent press. And then he changed his own title from the Eastern "emir" to the Western "king." This dramatic change symbolized that Bahrain could become, as it developed, a country where royal power would be constrained by elected bodies, where the prime minister would be elected rather than appointed.
Impulsive policies
President Bush, in his often impulsive policies to push immediate change in the region regardless of realities, enthusiastically gave Bahrain the official status of a "major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally." The American president had his "model."
"Now we call him the 'king,'" Dr. Muhammad Abdul Ghaffar Abdulla, the distinguished minister of state for foreign affairs, explained to me last year as we sat in his elegant office in Manama, the capital. "The main thing is that this means you have a parliament -- it gives people fundamental rights. Right now, the king has the authority to dissolve parliament, but I don't rule out someday also having an elected upper house. But we need some years to structure our democracy -- it is still an infant. Every day, we are learning democracy."
Yet others who were also enthusiastic about the changes, such as prominent newspaper editor Mansour Al-Jamri, an exile whom King Hamad personally encouraged to return, commented to me, "The king has the power of an elected president but the safeguards of an inviolable king."
But, he solemnly added, "Nobody can deny we are better off than we were -- nobody."
Very well. But only a year later, what is the status of that initial hope?
Sadly enough, it seems that the "Bahrain model" has, perhaps temporarily, gotten stuck in those interminable mental sands of the Middle East.
With the people demanding more -- now -- instead of putting up with a gradual, but smooth, transition, the king has re-arrested many people, halted further democratization with the parliament (which he already totally controlled), and hesitated at further press and Internet freedom.
What seems to have happened is what I have seen in so many developing countries: There is a "spring" of freedom, but when it comes to a ruling group (in the Middle East, these are usually minorities) giving up power, they can't, or won't, or don't.
At risk
It shouldn't seem surprising. In these countries there is no mechanism for an outgoing president or leader to be anyone of consequence, or even to be safe from prosecution or threats to himself and his family. As Habib Ben Yahia, the brilliant former foreign minister of Tunisia, said to me once, "Be patient with us -- we have no tradition of the winner respecting the loser."
The Wall Street Journal last week ran a comprehensive front-page story about Bahrain's dilemma by correspondent Andrew Higgins.
"Spooked and divided by popular pressures they helped uncork," he wrote, "Bahrain's rulers are now wrestling with opponents who want real power, not just an easing of repression."
In the end, Bahrain IS a model. Its conundrums are also those of Egypt, Tunisia, the Palestinians, Lebanon, Morocco and many more Arab/Muslim countries. Such are the complicated mazes that America's sunny and optimistic president cannot bear to contemplate.
Universal Press Syndicate