The political structure in Bahrain, although it has changed in image, with the establishment of parliament and representatives, it has functionally remained relatively unchanged since the Al-Khalifa took over the archipelago in the late 1700s. The Al-Khalifa, along with its very close political allies, rule Bahrain with an iron fist. Rule is inherited through the king, and most high ministries and political positions are in the hands of the members of the royal family. Although there were points in the history of Bahrain that were cause for hope, these events were not much of a change, and only provided an illusion of progress. The first of these is the reinstitution of the Parliament in 2002, after being suspended for 27 years. Many saw this as a turning point in the progress towards a democratic civil society. Parliament, however, turned out to be a sham that effects little to no tangible change with regards to political representation and freedom of association. Political parties are also banned in Bahrain, yet there are political societies, which fulfill similar roles.
The second cause for hope was the 2011 mass uprising that the country saw. Hundreds of thousands flooded the streets in demand of reform and a constitutional monarchy, with some even calling for a republic. The possibility of change seemed so tangible and real to many, with the conditions for it in the hands of the government, who protesters believe could be nudged with the amount of rage there was in the streets. This was not the case, however, as dreams were crushed and thousands were arrested. Many human rights defenders, pro-democracy activists, and individuals who participated in protests were arrested, many of them tortured and continue to serve sentences in jail. Many were shot dead during protests, and some even tortured to death. Although aspirations were high during 2011, there has been a slow regression on the part of the government with regards to democracy. The biggest opposition political societies, Al-Wefaq and Waad, are both banned from operating. Al-Wefaq, which is the biggest political society and would historically win many seats in parliament, was dissolved in 2016. Its leader, Sheikh Ali Salman, was sporadically arrested and released multiple times until 2018, when he was given a life sentence in prison. The spiritual leader of Al-Wefaq, Sheikh Isa Qassim, has also had his citizenship stripped in 2016 and is currently living in exile. Waad, the most prominent leftist, secular political society, was also banned in 2017. Whether it is through outlawing oppositional parties or arresting political symbols, the government of Bahrain has generally exercised more and more of its power since 2011 in order to impose hegemony on these oppositional political societies and the Bahraini people as a whole.
The overall progress towards a democratic society in Bahrain is currently in a state of regression. Arguably the most viable solution towards a Bahrain that respects human rights and democratic participation is pressure from world powers, mainly the United States. Rights groups have recently urged Biden to address humanitarian concerns with Bahraini authorities. Although Biden and most US presidents are mainly concerned with their geopolitical interests in Bahrain, it is imperative that they push the ideals that they espouse publicly, namely human rights and democracy. As such, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights urges the Government of Bahrain to:
- Reinstate legality to political societies
- Follow through with the recommendations of the independent BICI report
- Release political activists and symbols
- Allow citizens to freely associate and express support to whichever political society they choose