Posted: 9/21/11 10:04 AM ET
A’ali, Bahrain — The rubber stamp storyline out of Bahrain is that it is the latest chapter of the people rising against the evil rulers in the 2011 drama of the Arab Spring. Spend a few days and nights away from the hotels and international clusters and with candidates under the campaign tents and in the small conversations and it is quickly apparent that it’s not the same old story.
Two of those candidates for Saturday’s parliamentary elections are Sawsam Al Taqawi, a 39-year-old female, and Sameeh Binrajab, a 52-year-old male. Both have a common Shia background and a common mantra: they are running because it is all about “Wajeb watani” — one’s national duty.
“Bahrain is passing through a lot of challenges,” Taqawi says. “At the end of the day, we have to put our hands together.” She had planned to run for parliament in 2014 and saw the by-elections as an opportunity to seize. “It’s the right time,” she says.
By comparison, Binrajab had no thoughts of running until persuaded by friends in the neighborhood and business. “This is a test, a challenge for us,” he says. “We need to work together, to try to rectify what has happened to the economy and solve a lot of the problems.”
Eighteen seats became vacant in February when members of the largest opposition, al Wefaq, resigned in protest against the government’s crackdown on street violence and protestors. For almost two months Bahrain struggled with division on the streets.
The wounds still fester today. The Pearl Roundabout that was the central focus of the street protests remains closed and blocked, a barren patch as greater Manama hums around it. Protests continue in some locations and veteran correspondents whose mistresses have been conflicts around the world recognize the distinctive perfume of tear gas.
Those 18 open seats are to be filled on Saturday and protestors have already vowed to shut down voter access to the polls. Police have said they are ready to be pro-active in limiting street disruptions. The script looks tense and plays right into the shorthand of the good-vs. -bad and no shades of gray.
Talking with Taqawi, Binrajab and their counterparts provide that gray, where the vast middle ground of Shia often work and believe in much of what their country is about. They want more progress in democratic reforms and more voices heard, but they are repelled by the destructive and seemingly personal actions of the minority on the streets.
“Sixty percent of the people are not sure what to do,” Binrajab said. They are afraid of what is happening to them, fearful of those who are the troublemakers.”
Binrajab is no government shill. He thinks the economic side “needs a lot of improvement” and there are social changes “required to (repair) the mess that we have had the past eight or nine years.”
Both he and Taqawi had their banners defaced and destroyed, their web sites hacked and have had personal threats made to their faces. Binrajab says he fully expects that the tent he uses for his nightly meeting with prospective voters – the Bahrain version of New Hampshire-style retail campaigning except with spicier food – will be burned down before Saturday’s vote. “I am glad I rented it,” he says with a smile.
Taqawi is one of four candidates already declared a winner after their opponents withdrew. She becomes just the second woman ever elected to the parliament.
“They thought I would be afraid. I was not,” she says. “They said if you really love Bahrain you would pull out, that I was a traitor and not representative of the martyrs and injured, and that I was bought by the government.”
She said the attacks only increased her determination. “It’s our right, especially we as women. Bahrain is a country of laws and you have to step out and speak about it,” she says. “We live in a democracy, no one tells us what to do.”
Taqawi is used to breaking ground. She helped coached Bahrain’s national female teams in soccer and swimming to elite levels and already says she would like to continue her new political career by becoming a national minister in the future.
She has already started to work. “Some of the people who lost jobs asked for these document and called for help,” she said. “I am trying to see a way to return the back to jobs.”
Her only regret about being unopposed is “I won’t get to see how many people would vote for me.”
Tom Squitieri is a journalist and is also working with the Bahrain government on media awareness.