Bahrain’s National Dialogue: Doomed to Fail

Photo Credit: AFP/Joseph Eid
By Ramee Mossa

In mid-March, at the height of the pro-democracy protest movements in Bahrain, the government resorted to bringing in foreign troops, mainly from the UAE and Saudi Arabia, to violently subdue the protesters. The following three months saw the imposition of emergency law and widespread government attacks against Bahrain’s Shia population. While Bahrain’s Shia population represents a majority in numbers, they are given little political and economic power. 

The first week of July marked the first week of a month long national dialogue in which the Bahraini government and its allies hope to bring a solution to the country’s disenchanted majority. However, the dialogue began in the shadow of street protests, foreign intervention, and ongoing criminal activity by the government. Without a doubt, these factors mean that the dialogue is doomed to fail before it ever even starts.

By the time the state of emergency was lifted on 1 June, the Bahraini government had already grossly violated the human rights of its Shia majority. At night, demolition teams were hired to destroy Shia houses of worship, some of which had stood in place for 640 years, well before the Al Khalifa tribe came to power in 1820. Government forces arrested journalists, who were then tried in military tribunals. Doctors and nurses were beaten and arrested, apparently for offering medical treatment to injured protesters. The Bahraini government also cracked down on students and civilians, expelling nearly 300 students, revoking dozens of scholarships, arresting and interrogating students and handing down harsh sentences in military tribunals.

In the shadow of these events, the Bahraini government has now begun what they call a national dialogue and reconciliation process. But when the party guilty of human rights abuses holds all the power – and the wounds of its crackdown remain fresh – it is unlikely this scenario will rebuild the trust required to achieve real results.

The national dialogue already began on a bad note. And now, protests are erupting daily in the Shia villages that surround the capital Manama. Furthermore, the dialogue itself has not been given the power to make any concrete changes. Rather, the forum has received hundreds of proposals for discussion and if any consensus is reached, proposals are then forwarded to the King who holds a veto power over the requests. Therefore the forum only holds the power of suggestion and the King, if he chooses, may decide not to sign any of the proposals.  

Critics have also complained that the dialogue is dominated by pro-government factions. In fact, only 35 of 300 seats have been delegated to opposition group members. Additionally, eight prominent opposition group members will be missing as they have recently been handed life sentences in Bahrain’s military courts “on charges of seeking to topple the monarchy and collaborating with a foreign terrorist group, among a host of other charges”.

One Wefaq official, from the largest Shia opposition group, has stated that “we looked at the other names, and so many of them we know are with the government. How is this going to be a dialogue?”

The opposition members have also complained about the procedures under which the dialogue is to be held. Each member is given a numbered placard, and when called, a speaker receives less than five minutes to speak, which led Sayed al-Mousawi, also from the Wefaq party, to complain that "to reach a complete solution to the big problems, you have five minutes to speak? What is that? Is this dialogue?"

The talks, which aim to rectify a centuries-old divide between the minority Sunni rulers and their majority Shia population is to meet only three days a week for a total of one month. It is doubtful that much can be accomplished in 10-12 days of talking. While there has been mention of a possible extension if required, the allocated time for the dialogue remains inadequate, considering the severity of the issues at hand.

Shia demands are wide-ranging and surely will not be rectified by this national dialogue, which in reality is nothing more than a public show. While Shia demands are fair, they pose a security risk to the entire Arab Gulf. They are demanding fair and democratic representation in an expanded parliament with limits placed on the power of the ruling family. They are also demanding greater access to important political and military posts. Economically, they are demanding fairer access to housing and jobs in Bahrain’s increasingly important financial sector. The political demands in particular are causing many of Bahrain’s neighbours to keep a close eye on the dialogue.

Bahrain is an important strategic position from the perspective of the Gulf monarchies and the US. For the Gulf monarchies, Bahrain is the most vulnerable to being influenced by Iran. The Gulf monarchies fear that if Bahrain’s Shia population play a significant role in their country’s politics, it will eventually fall to Iran’s influence, similar to what has happened in Iraq.

Barbara Surk of the Associated Press writes that “Saudi Arabia does not have a seat at Bahrain's crisis talks, but it carries a critical voice in everything from the tone of the debate to the eventual offers on the table”.

While the Saudis and the Americans have remained supportive and optimistic of the national dialogue, there is no denying that they will not accept any significant increase in the power of the Bahraini Shia population.

Bahrain’s population also represent an important hindrance to the successful conclusion of the national dialogue. The mainly Shia protesters who took part in the original pro-democracy protests in February and March are no longer seeing eye to eye with their political representatives. Many of the protesters have gone back out into the streets protesting the opposition’s participation in the national dialogue.

Many of Bahrain’s Shia population no longer feel that their government is a legitimate dialogue partner as a result of the human rights abuses the government has inflicted on its own population. After the crackdown, the main opposition parties - which are currently taking part in the national dialogue – watered down their original demands and attempted to restart the dialogue as the state of emergency was imposed. The very fact that the opposition parties were willing to go to the negotiating table with the government at the height of its crackdown meant that they lost a significant amount of credibility and legitimacy amongst their supporters.

Hence, the national dialogue is set to fail before it even finishes. The Bahraini royal family is unwilling to give up its power; meanwhile, the royals are also under pressure from their neighbours and the US not to relinquish power. On the opposition’s side, there is a lack of credibility from the government. The opposition groups have been given only a minor role in the national dialogue. They feel that they have been marginalized in the overall process. With every day that the national dialogue continues without solid results, the few opposition members whom have been invited to take part in the process are becoming increasingly disconnected from the people they claim to represent. If this trend continues, it will become less likely that, even if a consensus is reached within the national dialogue, that it will be accepted by Bahrain’s population.

There has been increased talk about opposition members pulling out of the dialogue. Further, reports have come out suggesting the US is considering moving its fleet to another location, a sure sign that the American government is abandoning the regime. The odds are stacked against the success of the national dialogue, and it is becoming less likely every day that stability will be brought back to the island kingdom. 

 

26 July 2011

 

Photo Credit: AFP/Joseph Eid

 

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