Bahrain opposition on verge of pulling out of government talks

Al Wefaq, Bahrain's main Shiite political party, is close to pulling out of the national dialogue to discuss reform, arguing it's only a fig leaf for continued autocracy.

By , Correspondent

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    Mohammed al-Hussaini, an Islamic Sunni scholar, speaks at a gathering in Muharraq, north of Manama, July 14, 2011. The gathering was held by pro-government protesters condemning the recent release of prisoners and detainees of the Bahraini government.
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The largest opposition group in Bahrain is likely to soon pull out of a national dialogue set up by the government to address a political crisis that has been simmering since the government crushed a pro-democracy uprising in the spring.

The talks are structured to dilute the voice of the opposition and give the illusion that the government is addressing political problems when it is actually ignoring them, charges Khalil Al Marzooq, a spokesman for Al Wefaq, the strongest Shiite opposition party. He and three other party delegates have recommended to the leadership that Al Wefaq leave the talks so as not to be part of a government charade. A decision will likely be made soon.

“We entered the dialogue to help the country, to try to reform it from inside,” he said by phone from Manama. “But now we believe that we have enough evidence for the international community that the authorities are not serious in reform. … Nobody is responding to us. We cannot continue this, fooling ourselves and fooling the people and fooling the international community that this is a solution.”

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The national dialogue comes after the government brutally crushed an uprising that began in February in the tiny island ruled by a Sunni monarchy. Protesters, who were mostly from the majority-Shiite population, called for democratic reforms, including a new constitution, an elected government, and an empowered parliament.

Analysts say the government-sponsored talks aren’t getting to these root causes of the uprising, and they see little sign the government is willing to implement real political reform that would address those issues. Without change, protesters and the political opposition are unlikely to give up their fight, which means no solution for unrest is in sight for the tiny US ally that hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

“I think the national dialogue is designed to fail to solve the real serious political issues and it's designed to shore up the regime's position,” says Toby Jones, a historian of the Gulf at Rutgers University. With the talks, as well as a commission appointed by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to investigate the crackdown, “there's an underlying case being made by the government that the crisis started in February,” he says, instead of acknowledging the long-running problems that led to the uprising.

Coming on the heels of a visit by Bahrain’s crown prince to the US and Europe, both moves also appear meant to placate international allies like the US, which has pressured Bahrain to find a political, rather than a security, solution to the crisis.

To the opposition, the biggest problem with the talks is their structure. Out of 320 participants, just 25 are members of the political opposition, according to Marzooq. That includes four Al Wefaq members – a fifth who would have participated is currently detained on charges of passing false information to the media.

Representatives of the monarchy are not present. Members are divided into four groups focused on politics, rights, economics, and social issues, and are each given five minutes to speak in a session. Consensus is reached by majority opinion, says Marzooq. Because the government filled the invitee list with pro-government delegates, the voices of the opposition are drowned out.

Vote stacking?

The Al Wefaq delegates tried multiple times to change the process, says Marzooq, asking the head of the dialogue to change participant selection and other aspects they felt were unfair, to no avail. A government spokesman could not be reached for comment.

The group’s participation, announced at the last minute, was calculated to avoid becoming a scapegoat for the failure of dialogue. They must balance that interest with strong popular opposition to the talks. Many of the young protesters who take the brunt of police crackdowns are opposed to any dialogue before reform takes place.

At many protests, citizens reject Al Wefaq’s calls for democratic change within the system, and instead call for the downfall of the monarchy. No one in the talks represents their views. The government has accused the protesters of being in league with Iran, whose regional rival Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain to help quell the uprising.

Marzooq acknowledges the difficulty in justifying Al Wefaq’s participation to ordinary Bahrainis. “The people are fed up. We took a very brave decision to enter the dialogue while most of our people they don't believe in this dialogue,” he says. “It’s too hard for you, if you are not convinced, to try to convince someone.”

But even as the national dialogue is ongoing, so is the government’s crackdown on those who supported the uprising, and more widely, the nation’s majority Shiite population. Hundreds of the more than 1,000 people who were arrested during and after the uprising remain in prison, some awaiting military trials with little access to lawyers or family.

Protests in Shiite villages continue, says Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Security forces continue to disperse the protests using tear gas, rubber bullets, and shotguns loaded with bird shot, but arrests have decreased. Protesters are more often now beaten and left in the street.

Also ongoing are the firings of Shiite employees who participated in or supported the uprising, mostly from government-owned companies or government institutions. “There is real sectarian cleansing in government institutions,” says Mr. Rajab. Human Rights Watch said Thursday that more than 2,000 people have been fired since late March, violating both Bahraini labor laws and international standards.

Yet one development that has observers in and outside Bahrain cautiously hopeful is the king’s appointment of an independent fact-finding commission to investigate the alleged abuses that occurred on both sides during the crackdown, in which about 30 people were killed. The five-person panel includes respected international figures, buoying hope it will conduct a real and wide-ranging investigation.

But some worry that because the panel was appointed by the king, he is under no obligation to accept its findings, particularly if they implicate senior government officials.

Marzooq worries that there is no guarantee of the safety of those who implicate senior officials. And while he and others look forward to the commission’s report, expected to come in October, no one expects it to solve Bahrain’s problems. “There are deep-rooted structural, sectarian, political and economic problems, and I don't think the commission has the authority to investigate those kinds of things,” says Jones.

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