Bahrain: A Return to Dialogue?

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A Bahraini protester waves the national flag during an anti-government demonstration in the village of Jannusan, west of Manama, on 14 December 2012. (Photo: AFP - Mohammed Al-Shaikh)

By: Shahira Salloum

Published Friday, December 14, 2012

Nothing is official yet, but there has been a lot of talk in Bahrain about returning to the table to find a solution for the country’s crisis. As the ruling family and opposition try to outdo the other in displaying their willingness for ‘dialogue’ without preconditions, many are speculating just how flexible the negotiating parties are in their positions.

Over the last weeks, the prospects of launching a dialogue roundtable to resolve the Gulf island kingdom’s 22-month standoff between the opposition and the regime appeared to be increasing.

There was no formal call from the authorities per se, nor did any of the opposition groups receive an official invite for such an undertaking. What sparked the speculation was a speech by the crown prince Salman al-Khalifa in which he called for an end to violence and the need to listen to the voice of the majority, stressing that only through dialogue can a solution be found.

The opposition quickly welcomed the crown prince’s statements.

No doubt the opposition’s response was partly an attempt to show that they too are interested in a peaceful resolution despite the repression they have been subjected to by the regime.

The situation in Bahrain and the inclinations of the international community are nevertheless favorable for such a dialogue to take place, particularly given the fact that the opposition has said that it is prepared to negotiate without any preconditions.

This prompted more radical elements in the opposition to accuse their colleagues of conceding too much and dampening the movement’s demands.

A leading member of the main opposition group Wefaq strongly rejected this view, saying that preconditions on one side only led to a similar response on the other side, which could call for the opposition to stop its protests before negotiations could begin.

For his part, former Wefaq MP Ali al-Aswad confirmed that there has been no official invitation to dialogue, noting that the opposition’s statement welcoming such an initiative was a way to counter regime attempts to polish its image by suggesting that it alone is prepared to talk.

The MP explains that the timing of Salman’s statements have to do with the presence of prominent international figures in Bahrain at the moment.

He says that there is an ongoing struggle within the regime, in which the crown prince represents a liberal current that from the very beginning has sought a compromise with the opposition. In fact, the opposition and the crown prince did agree on a number of issues in a round of negotiations in March 2011. The key points of agreement were set down in an opposition document that became known as the Manama Agreement.

According to Aswad, for the crown prince – after months of silence – to come out and say that the voice of the majority must be heard means that something serious is in the works.

To support this line of thinking, there is a growing constituency – particularly among the Bahraini merchant class, which has suffered serious losses – that supports a resolution to the crisis.

There is, however, another current within the ruling family centered around Prime Minister Khalifa al-Khalifa, which opposes offering any concessions to the other side.

He will be the most likely loser in any successful dialogue, according to Aswad, as the opposition’s main demand is for him to step down after 40 years in that position.

Khalifa’s star has been fading internationally and his main backers in the Saudi royal family are busy with their ailing king and succession questions. But there are hardliners in the Bahraini parliament and shura council who support the prime minister’s position.

Another group of hardliners led by the security-minded head of the royal court, Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmad, are more amenable to a resolution, as long as they know beforehand the nature of the outcome.

According to informed sources, Ahmad’s current had linked the Bahraini uprising to the crisis in Syria, believing that once the Bashar al-Assad regime falls, the unrest in Bahrain will gradually die down. With no end to the standoff in Syria in sight and in light of the Bahraini opposition’s sustained struggle, Ahmad has become more open to the idea of dialogue as a way out.

Aswad suggests that the international context is more favorable than ever, pointing to US and British pressure on the regime to enact reforms. The London-based former MP insists that the UK has opened its arms wide to the Bahraini opposition in the past few months, softening its approach to the uprising.

Aswad also points out that the number of international and human rights delegations visiting Bahrain has increased recently, during which many Western officials have had the opportunity to take a closer look at the situation.

During a recent visit to Manama, for example, US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner declared, “Bahrain is an important partner, ally and friend of the United States. We have a shared interest in promoting genuine long-term security based on genuine reform and engagement that involves all elements of Bahraini society.”

An EU parliamentary delegation is also expected to visit the island later this month to look into the human rights situation there and issue an official report. This helps pressure the regime to offer more than just talk and promises in the way of a resolution.

For all these reasons, many in the opposition expect the king to issue a call for national dialogue in his speech marking Bahrain’s National Day on December 16.

Given that the regional balance of power remains in favor of the ruling al-Khalifa family, many are wondering whether they will seize the opportunity to finally implement reforms that will bring stability back to the island nation.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

Not too many dictators have an opposition as reasonable and pragmatic as the one in Bahrain. They should jump at the chance to come to an agreement. However, they are dictators, which implies a lack of reasonable-ness.

Not too many dictators have an opposition as reasonable and pragmatic as the one in Bahrain. They should jump at the chance to come to an agreement. However, they are dictators, which implies a lack of reasonable-ness.

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