When the Bahrain uprising began in February 2011 thousands of people took to the streets to demand democratic reforms. One of the top demands from protesters, both Shia and Sunni, was that the prime minister, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, resign. Despite threats of violence, thousands continued to peacefully protest outside of his office in March 2011, calling for the monarch to give power to a newly elected prime minister.
Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa has served as prime minister of Bahrain for 42 years, since Bahrain declared independence in 1971, making him the longest serving prime minister in the world. However, he is not there by popular support, as the Bahraini people have never had the opportunity to vote to elect the prime minister. Prime Minister Al Khalifa remains in his position due to a direct appointment by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, his nephew.
The U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS) found that "the King, through the prime minister, makes all cabinet appointments and thus exercises direct rule; the Assembly does not appoint — or have power to reject — cabinet appointments.” With such a direct influence on the king's rule, the prime minister holds a vital position in terms of how the monarchy responds to the people of Bahrain. Described as a hard-liner, the prime minister has been, according to CRS, “skeptical of political accommodation with the Shiites,” who make up a majority of the country. With the continued violence and suppression of the country's peaceful protest movement, the monarchy’s purported plan to implement reforms and work with the country's Shia population appears to be a farce.
Although the Bahraini government has verbally acknowledged the need for democratic reforms, the ongoing human rights abuses and lack of substantive reform show that both the prime minister and the government at large are not interested in reforms and even encourage violence. In July 2013, a video surfaced online in which the prime minister thanked a police officer for his use of torture and assured the officer that he is above the law and will not be held accountable. Prime Minister Al Khalifa stated, “These laws cannot be applied to you. No one can touch this bond. Whoever applies these laws against you is applying them against us. We are one body.”
The police officer, Mubarak bin Huwail, was recently acquitted of torturing six medics that treated injured protesters who were wounded by security forces during the 2011 uprising. While last week the prime minister stated, "The rule of law must prevail... the country's security can in no way be compromised,” his contradicting actions throw doubt on the sincerity of his claims of reform. Unfortunately, without democratic reform and respect for human rights, Bahrain will not be able to move forward.
If King Hamad is as serious and committed to reforms as he claims, his first step should be to establish the position of prime minister as one elected by the people. If the king removes Prime Minister Al Khalifa, security forces can begin to be held accountable for their abuses against protesters, instead of being granted immunity. And given the shared power between the King and prime minister, an elected official could be a crucial figure in directly implementing reforms and orchestrating an effective national dialogue.
However, given King Hamad’s emergency ban on protests this week, it’s clear that he is not interested in reforms, human rights, or listening to the people of Bahrain.