The arbitrary decision of the authorities in Bahrain to suspend Al Wefaq National Islamic Society is a firm message to the international community that it has failed to successfully advocate peace and stability in the Kingdom.
Since mass calls for democratic change began in 2011 international governments have called for dialogue and reconciliation but failed to provide any accountability against the authorities for failing to do so and for continuing to trample on human rights and reject calls for reform.
This failure has led to the current situation, in which the main moderate opposition society is being forcibly closed down. Today, following an official request from the Minister of Justice, a court hastily rushed rubber stamped the decision and suspended Al Wefaq, pending full dissolution on 8th October. Armed personnel surrounded the headquarters of the society and raided the building, terrifying those working inside. Their assets have been frozen and website blocked.
The official justifications have accused Al Wefaq of inciting violence and supporting terrorism. A claim that is without a single shred of evidence and contrary to Al Wefaq establishing the non-violence declaration of the opposition, as well as their condemnation of every single act of violence committed by those claiming to act in the name of the opposition.
The move was completely unexpected, although it comes one day following the arrest of Nabeel Rajab and a couple of weeks after Sheikh Ali Salman, Secretary General of Al Wefaq, was sentenced to 9 years in prison. The shutting down of Al Wefaq is very much the final frontier of Bahrain’s oppression, a move that would have been unthinkable until now.
This move is aimed at criminalising all opposition in Bahrain. It sends a clear signal, that no matter how moderate or compliant with rules an organisation is, if it criticises the Government, it is illegal. Therefore the very act of criticising the Government is illegal and will not be tolerated.
The reality of this position is to push all moderate forces to the sidelines to create a further polarised community, the worst possible breeding ground for dialogue and reconciliation that has been so mooted by the international community.
This leaves Bahrain with a moderate opposition that is outlawed and what is left of moderate establishment figures entirely pushed out. If the international community was hoping to empower moderate voices it has clearly failed.
Shamefully, this is the natural conclusion of a strategy that has gone from refusing to properly condemn repressive acts to outright ignorance. Within this strategy, the most focus must turn to the role of the United Kingdom who has consistently ignored the growing authoritarianism of the Bahraini state, instead opting to ramp up diplomatic and military relations.
This kind of short-termism benefits nobody in the long run. It leaves the state unchecked in their brutal repression of the people, and sets the ground for prolonged economic, political and social insecurity. In the economic sphere it harms development and trade, politically it means calls for reform and protests will continue and socially it promotes sectarianism and polarisation – breeding grounds for extremist ideology. It is frankly impossible to understand how this can be in the interests of anyone, whether internally or an external ally of Bahrain.
Shutting down Al Wefaq is a watershed moment for Bahrain. It marks a new era of labelling all opposition as illegal and provides the justification for the arrest, torture, and even murder of anyone who criticises the Government. But it must also be a watershed moment for the international community, who cannot in all seriousness pursue the same flawed strategy. Condemnation must be strong, unequivocal and most importantly have a genuine impact on the Government of Bahrain. Further failure and Bahrain will rapidly become a failed state.