Can negotiations that don’t even have an agenda bring peace to Bahrain?
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — For two years, the talk in Bahrain was all about talks. The island nation's political crisis that started amid the Arab Spring could be solved, it was reckoned, if everyone could sit down at the same table. Just starting the discussion seemed to be the biggest obstacle.
But, over the last seven months, many in Bahrain seem to have lost faith in the power of negotiation. The country's long-awaited National Dialogue opened in February and, after a holiday break, resumed on Oct. 30. But it has so far failed to produce much consensus. There isn't even an agenda yet, because participants haven't agreed on one. "We didn't move one inch forward," said Ahmed Alsaati, a member of parliament and delegate to the dialogue, summarizing the talks to date. "We spent more than seven months discussing what is the definition of this word or that word,"
To make matters worse, after a series of arrests among their supporters, the opposition boycotted the talks in September and has yet to return. The other parties have given it until Dec. 3 to decide whether to do so.
All sides still say they are committed in principle to the dialogue. But their constituencies, whose faith in the talks is waning, are adopting strategies of escalation that stand to destabilize Bahrain and perhaps permanently cripple the idea that there is a political solution for the country. The opposition continues to bring demonstrators to the streets, day after day and week after week. Government supporters are pushing for tighter security to calm the unrest. And a small group of radical opposition youth has been targeting the police more frequently and aggressively with makeshift weapons and bombs.
Bahrain's current crisis dates to 2011, when protestors took to the streets with demands and grievances against the country's ruling monarchy. Many of them came from the country's Shiite majority, which has long argued that they are politically and economically marginalized by the Sunni-led government. Security forces dispersed the protests, but they didn't stop -- they simply fragmented, popping up in Shiite villages and towns.
Eager for change, the opposition was ready to negotiate, arguing that only political concessions would appease protestors on the streets. The government also wanted an end to the unrest. So, in the spring of 2011, the country opened talks. But the opposition pulled out in the summer, arguing that an ongoing crackdown against its supporters showed that negotiations would not yield real reforms.
With talks out of the picture, protests continued, and the government continued to disperse them. In the country's Shiite villages in particular, a daily cat-and-mouse game emerged between young demonstrators and the police -- a ritual that scared away foreign investors, froze everyday life, and left a trail of human rights violations. Each afternoon, small lines of demonstrators marched in opposition strongholds until security forces arrived to quell them, using tear gas and sound bombs. Sometimes the protests ended there; other times, demonstrators were beaten or police officers assaulted.
More than 90 people have died in clashes since 2011, according to the country's public prosecution.
Everyone from politicians to diplomats to the crown prince argued that re-starting the dialogue was the key to breaking this cycle. Street protests couldn't offer redress for opposition communities who felt disenfranchised, for example, by what they say are gerrymandered voting districts. Security forces couldn't alone bring the quiet that Bahrain's suffering businessmen demanded. Meanwhile, the country's allies were eager to find a solution that avoided the tectonic change that had destabilized countries such as Egypt and Libya.
With anxiety about Bahrain's future running high, there was cautious optimism when the king announced that the National Dialogue would finally begin in February. "Achieving genuine resolution to many key issues can only be achieved through national consensus among all participants in the dialogue," Bahrain's Justice Minister Sheikh Khaled Ali Abdullah al-Khalifa, one of two government representatives at the National Dialogue, said in response to questions from FP.
Yet the discussions quickly proved contentious, beginning with their very composition. Just over two-dozen delegates sit around the table, one-third from a coalition of five opposition groups, one-third from a coalition of pro-government groups, and one-third from parliament and appointed by the king. The government is represented by two ministers, but no one from the ruling family is present, causing groups to question what decisions can actually be made. With this in mind, the opposition has insisted that any decision from the dialogue be put to referendum, an idea other delegates reject. (For a while, the opposition figures engaged in the national dialogue remained hopeful that a member of the ruling family, probably reformist Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, would negotiate with them directly. But it hasn't happened.)
Simultaneous to disagreements about the nature of the national dialogue itself -- which also includes the yet-to-be-set agenda -- tensions on the street have made it even harder for delegates to make concessions.
Over the summer, the parliament proposed a series of new anti-terror laws, later approved by the king, giving security forces sweeping powers to detain and charge suspects. New rules also forbid political groups from having contact with foreign embassies and governments without the foreign ministry's consent. These developments have fueled complaints and accusations of human rights abuses similar to those that first galvanized protests almost three years ago. Human rights groups have reported hundreds of house raids and arrests without warrant since the summer and say detainees still face torture, despite government promises of reform.
Meanwhile, a string of small-scale car bombings has rocked the capital, Manama. The government blames youth from a leaderless opposition group named for the date protests began in 2011: the Coalition Youth of the 14 February Revolution. The government has arrested dozens of suspects thought to be involved in the bombings. Whether these individuals are actually implicated or not, February 14, as the group is known, is certainly leading a campaign of tire-burning and Molotov-cocktail throwing that scares many in the Sunni community.
After several months of slow-paced discussion, the talks hit their most serious road block in September as a result of what was happening outside: Opposition groups pulled out after the arrest of Khalil Marzooq, the deputy leader of the opposition Shiite political bloc al-Wefaq. Marzooq has since been released from prison on bail, but the charges of terrorism brought against him have not been dropped.
"The decision to suspend our involvement was not only due to the arrest of Khalil, but that was the tip of the iceberg of a series of events in recent months," said Ali Alaswad, a former opposition MP who resigned at the height of the unrest in 2011. "Even now, despite Khalil's release... we have seen more negative indicators of how the authorities are treating the opposition." Sheikh Khalid, however, pointed a finger back, saying that the opposition has "failed to show willingness to engage with other political players nor to denounce violence."
Against this backdrop of escalating tension, supporters of the National Dialogue insist that the process still offers the promise of a more stable future. On Wednesday, in a communiqué, the remaining delegates called for the opposition to return to the process: "[T]he existing table set up specifically for the dialogue is the only place to achieve the national consensus. Therefore, the so-called 'suspension' of the participation underlines the lack of appreciation and seriousness of the [opposition] towards the call to complete the National Dialogue."
Yet many of the questions that have so far paralyzed talks remain unanswered. For instance, opposition groups have always insisted that political issues -- such as re-districting for parliamentary representation and electing a prime minister (the position is currently appointed by the king) -- be on the table. But pro-government constituencies have viewed the forum as a venue to mend fences. They have preferred to focus on questions like how to re-start the stalled economy. With the opposition eschewing talks altogether, it will be virtually impossible to find a compromise on these matters.
Should the opposition return, however, the talks may still be moribund. Even if leaders at the table are willing to forge ahead, their constituencies may already have moved on. According to Justin Gengler, professor at Qatar University's Social and Economic Survey Research Institute, many Bahrainis have soured on the very idea of a negotiated outcome to their country's woes. "Given how things have deteriorated, especially as the dialogue doesn't seem to push things forward, the argument for reform is getting harder to make," Gengler said.
Perhaps expectations were set impossibly high. The idea of negotiation took on a mythical quality in Bahrain by the time talks actually began. It would be the solution, the end of the trouble, the way out. But, as time has passed, it's become clear that talks will only work if all sides in Bahrain make big compromises. No one has yet been willing to do so.
Until the talks are more than talk, little will change.
MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images