Analysis: Bahrain reform dialogue faces a rocky start

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 23, 2011 9:34 AM
Analysis: Bahrain reform dialogue faces a rocky start

By Erika Solomon

MANAMA (Reuters) - Some Sunni groups taking part in Bahrain's national dialogue say the Shi'ite-led opposition is serving Iran. Most participants have yet to announce their stance, and the largest opposition bloc may not even take part.

With only a week to go until the talks begin, deep-seated divisions and mutual suspicions mean consensus will be tough to reach and any reforms that are agreed are unlikely to satisfy everyone.

The Sunni-ruled Gulf kingdom quashed weeks of Shi'ite-led pro-democracy protests in March and imposed martial law until June 1. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa then called a national dialogue, insisting that all reforms were up for discussion.

But with 300 people invited to join the talks and hundreds of opposition activists languishing in jail, critics hold out little hope that any meaningful reconciliation can be achieved.

"The possibility of it ending positively are nearly zero," said Shadi Hamid, from the Brookings Center in Doha.

Complicating matters on the tiny island is the presence of troops from fellow Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, which is wary of unrest among its own Shi'ites, clustered in the oil-producing Eastern Province that is linked to Bahrain by a bridge.

Hundreds of mostly Shi'ite Bahrainis have been arrested for taking part in the protests, which the government says serve the political agenda of Shi'ite power Iran, just across Gulf waters.

With dozens facing military trial and the dismissal of up to 2,000 mostly Shi'ite workers and students, the leading Shi'ite opposition party, Wefaq, has warned that it might not be able to hold back protesters if the dialogue proves fruitless.

"The situation is boiling," Wefaq spokesman Khalil al-Marzouq said. "If people lose hope that this dialogue will achieve anything serious to solve their problems, I don't know how we will be able to keep things in check."

Since Bahrain lifted the emergency law, protests have erupted daily in Shi'ite villages clustered around the capital.

A military court sentenced eight prominent Shi'ite activists to life in prison Wednesday, on charges of plotting to overthrow the government. The ruling sent angry youths into the streets shouting "No dialogue with the Khalifa family," as riot police rushed to stamp out unrest.

BALANCE OF POWERS?

Bahrain's majority Shi'ites complain they are discriminated against in jobs and housing services. Opposition groups of all stripes complain that parliament's upper house, which is appointed by the king, can overrule the elected lower house.

Those sentenced to life belonged mainly to three hardline parties who called in March for the overthrow of the monarchy. They were small parties, but had begun to gain traction among young protesters inspired by the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.

Along with a handful of moderate opposition parties, Wefaq has long called for a constitutional monarchy in which the Khalifa family remains, but elected deputies have more say.

With 18 MPs elected to the 40-seat lower house in the last election, Wefaq wants direct talks with the monarchy.

Instead, all seven registered opposition parties will have 35 seats between them. They say their voice will be drowned out among 300 figures taking part in talks.

"If I represented a majority in the parliament, how can I go to a dialogue where I get a fraction of the vote?" Marzouq said.

Sheikh Abdul-Aziz bin Mubarak al-Khalifa, international counselor at the Information Affairs Authority, called on Wefaq to "be a leader" and join the talks, arguing that consensus would need to be reached, no matter the percentages.

"All parties must see eye to eye, and who doesn't want more political participation? They all want the same thing," he said.

CLASHING VIEWS

Yet the tenacity of the opposition protesters and the ferocity of the government crackdown against them, have left such gaping wounds in Bahraini society, that those who could once find common ground are now entrenched in their views.

The head of the National Unity Gathering, a large political bloc seen as loyal to the government, is skeptical of Wefaq's calls for a reformed constitutional monarchy.

"I feel like we are in a constitutional monarchy now. We have a constitution and nothing is imposed without law," Sheikh Abdullatif al-Mahmoud told Reuters.

Many of the Sunni or pro-government groups that are taking part in the dialogue say opposition Shi'ites want to bring Bahrain into Shi'ite Iran's sphere of influence.

"The opposition's demand is not a civil state or a democracy," said Abdulhaleem Murad, of the Islamist Sunni group Asala. "To be brief, their demand is to implement the Iranian agenda that aims to create an Iranian empire, starting in Bahrain as a key to the rest of the Arab Gulf."

Even government officials told Reuters they questioned the loyalties of groups like Wefaq.

In an interview, Wefaq leader Sheikh Ali Salman shook his head and said there was nothing more his party could do to convince their dialogue partners of their Bahraini loyalty.

"All we can do is repeat: We want a civil state for all religious groups and political movements in Bahrain," he said.