Huffington Post, October 5, 2011
MANAMA, Bahrain –It took Tom Hayden 14 years, two months and four days to go from being one of the leaders at the demonstrations that disrupted the 1968 Democratic presidential convention to his trial as one of the Chicago Seven to winning a seat in the California state assembly in 1982. But just as the ways to campaign and communicate have accelerated since then, so has the time frame from going from leading a huge street protest to being elected to the government you were protesting against.
So say hello to Ali Abbas Shamtoot, 34, former security guard at the Ministry of Education and owner of a mini-bus service who today finds himself a newly elected member of the Bahrain parliament, representing Constituency Four, Capital Governorate.
Shamtoot’s photo was plastered throughout the media as a leader in the demonstrations that rocked Bahrain in February and March. The government’s crackdown to those demonstrations led the leading opposition group in parliament to resign its 18 seats. That prompted the just held by-elections to fill those seats and – SHAZAM – seven months and 10 days after he was a leading face in the street protests Shamtoot was elected to parliament.
There is some irony in his election. The leading political groups who oppose the Bahrain government told people to boycott the election. Boycott as in DO NOT VOTE. Some opponents of the election made this clear to voters by doing their best to block access to polls and scare voters. It worked – voter turnout was much lower that historical levels.
But the election went on and now there are 18 new members of parliament in seats once held by the main opposition, including a record number of women. Many have already begun their work, striking independent positions, calling on the government to enact reform and distaining the mean streets approach to problem solving and democracy.
Thus it appears that Shamtoot not only seemingly ignored the boycott called for by his comrades (unless he did not vote in the election that he won) but he actually RAN for office. Clearly the definition of solidarity with the people may be lost in translation.
This is not Shamtoot’s first run. He stood in 2010 and then withdrew before the vote, along with another independent candidate, to permit the opposition candidate to win unopposed. He reportedly accepted some “assistance” to step down and perhaps was looking for an encore of that this time.
Instead, he will find himself under the glare of publicity – if he ever shows up to take his seat. Now entitled to a diplomatic passport, Shamtoot may first find himself explaining why he uses his private minibus for taxiing without a commercial permit.
But his election is just one more example of the surprises that came from the by-election as a diverse group of candidates contended for the 18 open seats. Shamtoot joins businessmen, women and other wild cards that have the potential to greatly energize the parliament. It could be a classic lemons to lemonade story.
The three newly elected females, for example, said they were not going to join any blocs in parliament, but would work independently and co-operate with all colleagues for the benefit of Bahrain, including helping women socially, economically and politically.
Likewise, another newly elected member, Ali Hassan Ali, told reporters that hard work to improve the country starts now, as it is not the time to sit back and remain passive. “This is now the starting point and it is important that we work even harder now to build our country for the future and for our people,” he said.
Another new member, Jamal Mohammed Abdulla, concurred. “I am very positive about the new parliament, as members are more independent and not politically aligned to a group or society, therefore their views are not dictated by any outside influence,” he told reporters. “They have free will and minds to decide what is right for the country and the Bahraini people. We also have a lot of technocrats, which is important as we need to push people with wider perspectives into the political sphere. The selection in parliament is much better with more variety.”
It should be wonderful to watch.
It is also worth remembering the words of Hayden when he left office in 2000 because of term limits. His last day was filled with praise from colleagues from both sides of he aisle. They noted how they voted agaisnt his ideas more thn anyone else, but praised him for keeping them honest and for working with everyone in trying to find solutions.
Hayden said that day that said his greatest challenge as a legislator was balancing his values– as a person who questions authority–with the need to win enough votes to get his bills passed.
He said his time in Sacramento had taught him that “all great ideas don’t come from my head” and that compromise and dialogue can lead to meaningful change.
Perhaps Shamtoot and the other new members will find that right translation for that advice.
Tom Squitieri is a journalist and is also working with the Bahrain government on media awareness.