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Could Bahrain’s Student Movements Find a Solution for the Country’s Political Problems?

London, United Kingdom. 21st May 2011 -- Bahraini and Spanish protestors grouped together outside their Embassies in London supporting each other’s fights in their quest for greater political freedoms and human rights in their countries. United Kingdom. 21st May 2011. Photograph by Justice For Bahrain. Copyright: Demotix

London, United Kingdom. 21st May 2011 — Bahraini and Spanish protestors grouped together outside their Embassies in London supporting each other’s fights in their quest for greater political freedoms and human rights in their countries. United Kingdom. 21st May 2011. Photograph by Justice For Bahrain. Copyright: Demotix

Bahrain, which has been experiencing political turmoil since February 2011, is unable to move beyond the impasse. Bahraini students recently held an event in London, called Bahrain Debate, in the hope of finding a new way to move forward.

Bahrain has a long history of student movements. The previous generation of national activists started their political career as members of a student coalition in the early seventies.

Abdulrahman Al Nuaimi, second from right, is the founder of WAAD (National Democratic Action Society), which is the first political party in the Gulf region. WAAD is the second largest political group in Bahrain and the largest secular political group in the country, This picture is from the days when he was with the Bahraini students union in Iraq (1975). Source: Aldemokrati

Abdulrahman Al Nuaimi, second from right, is the founder of WAAD (National Democratic Action Society), which is the first political party in the Gulf region. WAAD is the second largest political group in Bahrain and the largest secular political group in the country, This picture is from the days when he was with the Bahraini students union in Iraq (1975). Source: Aldemokrati

The Bahrain students union might technically be the first union in Bahrain's history. It was declared on February 25, 1972, when a group of students studying in universities in Damascus, Syria, decided to form an organized group. The union was comprised of 11 student groups from different countries at the time and it expanded to 16 groups from different countries later on.

In 1975, the Bahraini parliament was dissolved for demanding more active scrutiny on the state income. A blanket ban on unions went into effect as unions were seen as a formidable rival to authorities at that time. The student union suffered a great deal of the prosecution that followed. Many of the members of the student union were banned from travelling; those outside Bahrain were arrested and extradited to Bahrain and others were deprived of their scholarships.

Authorities in Bahrain decided to create parallel student groups, which were supported financially by the government and their objective was to stop the formation of new student movements abroad. However, even those Governmental Non-Governmental Organizations (GONGO) withered and died after a while — like most civil society groups in Bahrain at that time.

After removing the ban on unions in Bahrain in the year 2001, student movements have struggled to reemerge. Torn between the influence of political players and sectarian division, student groups in Bahrain have been sidelined from the spotlight, emerging only as proxies to the classical political players. It is rarely that an event organized by independent students will get much attention.

In February of 2012, I participated in an event discussing the crisis in Bahrain. That was the only event since then to put people from different parts of the political spectrum on the same panel publicly in Bahrain. For many reasons such events stopped in Bahrain until recently that is.

Bahrain Debate is an initiative to try and find alternative solutions for the political crisis in Bahrain. The pilot session was mostly a debate in the matters of human rights, political development, the future of the country and the role of youth in Bahrain.

In a report by the think tank Chatham House, Bahrain Debate was cited as one of the civil society initiatives that could help find new and creative solutions to the crisis in Bahrain.

The report says:

in 2012, a group of Bahraini young people held a rare public political debate, the ‘Bahrain Debate’,
at the Alumni Club in the capital. The purpose was to discuss the country’s political crisis in an open
forum that was streamed live online; the organizers said the 50 tickets for the event sold out in less
than 10 minutes. The debate was praised by Bahrainis from across the political spectrum as a rare
example of civil-society dialogue, but it has not been repeated since.

In an effort to try and re-ignite the collective brainstorming effort, a group of students in the UK decided to re-engage in a debate about the future of the conflict.

In their statement, Bahrain Debate organizers say:

“The goal of this event which is organised with the SOAS Mena Society is to rethink the conflict with a focus on political economic, historic and societal aspects. The initiative shall then decentralize and have independent bodies host debates under our umbrella, with the concept of an “in-house” debate for closely aligned political actors to debate the best approaches/policy etc”

I believe it is nothing less than our duty to use any means available to us to have some sort of impact on a political and humanitarian crisis that has been continuing for the last 3 years.

Marwa Hassan, of the SOAS Middle East and North Africa Society, University of London, is one of the organizers. Marwa says this initiative is more of a duty than a privilege. She adds:

“As a student at one of the most politically active universities, I believe it is nothing less than our duty to use any means available to us to have some sort of impact on a political and humanitarian crisis that has been continuing for the last three years. It is extremely easy to become disconnected and disillusioned from the reality of the world around us, when not being directly impacted by a crisis in a country thousands of miles away. However, ultimately it does impact us, through our political freedom and our freedom of expression. Therefore, as we have a platform to address such matters, and to potentially affect change – or at least thought – we are duty bound to exploit this. By hopefully encouraging other organisations to host similar events, we can perhaps seek to promote change and a development in the political processes of, and in, Bahrain as well as the wider Arab world.”

Abdulla Abdalaal is a PhD candidate in SOAS’ Department of Economics. He says the situation in Bahrain requires finding solutions to stop it from devolving into an even worse scenario:

“The Bahrain Debate is trying to break down walls and build bridges between different political, economic and social players both within the country and in the international community. The current climate in Bahrain is conducive to dangerous outcomes, whether it's the political impasse, economic stagnation or social degradation. We want to highlight such issues that potentially could find commonality across the spectrum, encourage fruitful debate and lay the grounds for creative solutions in rethinking the conflict.”

The organizers see this event as the beginning for more debates that will try to bring together different parts of the political spectrum, says Mohammed Aldaysi, one of the event organizers. He notes:

“Providing a much needed platform for political debate only enhances the chance of either co-operation or further conflict between political actors. The main goal here is to stress the need for a political economic analysis in order to reach more sustainable solutions to the conflict.”

This will not be the last time we hear from these young Bahrainis. Their vision is to give this initiative the momentum required to make an impact, according to another organizer Noor Bahman. She notes:

“We are currently working on it with members from across the political spectrum. We are holding a screening in Bahrain to show this event – with subtitles suitable for a Bahraini audience – and probably continuing the debate with other participants there. Realistically, we are looking at an event in Edinburgh sometime in 2015, possibly the US – we've also contacted three political coalitions in Bahrain that showed interest in hosting similar debates. Nothing is finalised yet but we have a vision.”

The first session of The Bahrain Debate took place in December 2014 in the university of SOAS. This was the first time for formal representatives of the opposition and the government to have a town-hall style event since before 2011. You can watch the whole session on the link below and you can follow The Bahrain Debate Twitter account for new updates.

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