Khalil al-Marzook is the political adviser to the secretary general of Al-Wefaq, the main Bahraini opposition political group.
The society and its supporters are boycotting the country's elections on 22 November, the first since a popular protest movement was put down with force in February and March 2011, leaving dozens dead and hundreds in jail. Marzook spoke to Bill Law while visiting London.
BL: Critics say that Al-Wefaq made a strategic blunder with the boycott. How do you respond?
KM: The great and strategic blunder would be to participate in a system that undermines you, legitimises your repression and gives you no power. We were in the system [in parliament] in previous elections and showed our good will, we were proactive and trying to help the situation.
Remember that the Bahrain crisis did not just start in 2011. It goes back many years to when the first parliament was dissolved and the constitution was suspended in 1975, after just a few years of independence. Since then the people have offered many solutions but the government has not listened to people's fears, concerns and demands. It is not happening.
BL: Isn't Al-Wefaq better inside the system than out? You would at least have a voice.
KM: The core dispute between us and the ruling family is its complete dominance of the political system and the decision-making process. If we participate in that system, and we have tried before, we will not be able to change anything. We would end up legitimising outcomes we have not been able to change. It is much better not to participate, to boycott.
|The government has not listened to people's fears, concerns and demands. It is not happening.|
What brought the ruling family to the bargaining table was not when we were in parliament. It was when we resigned from the parliament [in 2011] that they negotiated with us. If we go back they will not negotiate, they will say, "you know the rules of the game, you need to raise your concerns in parliament". But we would not have enough votes and so nothing would change.
BL: Al-Wefaq is asking its supporters to join the boycott and not to vote. What are you saying to them?
KM: We are convincing our people that if you vote you accept a system that is unfair, that is excluding and repressing you. The boycott gives you much more power to demand reform. And we are doing this by persuasion not by threats.
BL: You mentioned that Al-Wefaq has been negotiating, that has been primarily with the crown prince, Salman Bin Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa. Are you still talking to him?
KM: The crown prince stopped negotiating after the election was announced [by the royal family in September] and they went ahead with the election unilaterally without consulting with us. They are the ones who stopped the negotiations, not the opposition.
We have always said we will talk on the basis that we will have a credible dialogue that comes up with solutions. We will not set conditions and they should not set conditions either.
BL: But by saying no to the election have you not hung the crown prince out to dry?
KM: The crown prince has offered no meaningful reform of the political system, such as fair districting, a fully authorised parliament, accountable government, independent judiciary or inclusive security. None of these have been addressed in a serious way.
He has not offered any confidence-building measures such as the release of prisoners, or the elimination of unfair trials and harsh sentencing. He hasn’t intervened with the [state] media that is building hatred in Bahrain.
The crown prince has not given any roadmap to the opposition. Everything is vague, everything is, "I wish I could deliver". And the first test was on the electoral system, the reform which was supposed to stop the gerrymandering.
If Al-Wefaq had run we would have ended up with fewer seats. So at the first test, he failed.
BL: But have you not been painted into a corner? You are not in parliament, the government can do what it wants and you are losing support - doesn't the ruling family have you where it wants you?
|The authorities... rule the people but the people are not going to accept repression.|
KM: Al-Wefaq is not cornered. It is the authorities who are restricting the options to solve the problems. They are cornering themselves. If they are serious about the country and the future they should go for solutions. They rule the people but the people are not going to accept repression. No one will accept that.
BL: It is nearly four years since the events of February 2011. What is your mood?
KM: We are optimistic. The people are determined that the struggle will continue until they get their rights and we also have this determination to fight with the people until that is achieved. The international community should consider their own democratic values and not have double standards for Bahrain.
The current election in Bahrain is in no way legitimate, it is gerrymandered and whatever the outcome it will not matter because the upper house [the Shura Council] has 40 members appointed by the king and it has all the power.
This is not a democratic system that represents the people. That is why it will be shameful for any democratic state to recognise the election.
BL: What do you think about the UK's approach to the election?
KM: Unfortunately the western countries are putting their short-term interests ahead of the need for reform in Bahrain. And this means that they will go along with the authorities even if they have questions about the legitimacy of the vote.
Unfortunately, we see that the UK government is aligning itself more and more with the ruling family. This will reinforce the Bahraini government position that it does not need to compromise. The people of Bahrain who respect and admire British democracy ask how the UK government can support the repression of democratic rights.
BL: Is the US doing enough?
KM: The US has done a great job in persuading the government to talk to the opposition. They have criticised the human rights situation in Bahrain, they have urged the implementation of recommendations in the BICI [an independent inquiry into violence during the 2011 uprising]. Unfortunately the government of Bahrain is rebuffing the Americans because of the support it is getting from the UK.
BL: How heavily influenced is Al-Wefaq by Iran?
KM: Al-Wefaq and the people of Bahrain want dignity and equality. The Iranians have no influence in Bahrain. The opposition in Bahrain is very nationalist and there are no external influences - because we know that this will only complicate the situation.
It is the government of Bahrain which is lending itself out to anyone who will support it - going to Russia, China, whatever, because they want more backing for their illegitimate authority. That is the problem, not the opposition.