Bahrain’s National Dialogue faces a Stalemate

By Elham Fakhro

Two years after the launch of Bahrain’s national dialogue, government and opposition representatives have failed to arrive at a settlement over the future direction of the country. The withdrawal from the talks of Bahrain’s largest opposition group al-Wefaq – first in July 2011 and again in September 2013 after the arrest of its deputy leader – reflects growing tensions between the two sides. A coalition of opposition groups said that the ongoing arrests of political leaders and activists were proof that the government was not serious about reform. Government representatives, on the other hand, accused the opposition of supporting violence by the February 14 coalition, a radical opposition group that the government calls a terrorist movement. Newly-energised loyalist groups also accuse the government of adopting a ‘too soft’ stance against the opposition. Bahrain’s international allies – including the United States and the United Kingdom – continue to criticise the absence of sufficient reform by the government, but have failed to broker any political settlement. As the schism between social and political groups hardens, prospects for a political solution appear increasingly dim.


The run up to dialogue
The most recent chapter in Bahrain’s political history began with the advent of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) uprisings, when a coalition of anonymous online activists calling themselves the ‘February 14 Youth’ issued a call for protests to take place on 14 February 2011. The date marked the tenth anniversary of the National Action Charter, a document promulgated by Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa which promised the reintroduction of constitutional life in Bahrain after twenty-five years under a national state of emergency. Instead of reintroducing Bahrain’s suspended 1973 constitution, Hamad promulgated a new constitution behind closed doors that diluted the powers of Bahrain’s elected lower chamber of parliament, by forcing it to share power with an upper chamber, an appointed Shura Council. Gerrymandering of electoral districts also diluted the electoral power of Bahrain’s Shi’a population, leading to dissatisfaction amongst civil society organisations about the direction of the reform project. Between 2001 and 2011, incidents of appropriation of public lands by high-level government officials and evidence of corruption fuelled calls for reform. The beginning of the MENA uprisings further energised government critics, providing a fertile environment for the rise of an opposition street movement.

 In response to the online call for protests, groups of scores of people gathered in villages across Bahrain on 14 February 2011, demanding greater reforms. The security forces’ killing of a protester prompted thousands to attend his funeral, marking the beginning of a month-long sit in at a traffic junction called the Pearl Roundabout. On 17 February, security forces cleared the roundabout of all demonstrators, killing three civilians. In response, a coalition of seven Islamist and leftist opposition political groups, including the largest Shi’a Islamist organisation, al-Wefaq, announced their withdrawal from parliament. The next day, Bahrain’s crown prince invited representatives of opposition groups to enter into dialogue over the future of the country. Opposition groups responded by insisting on the implementation of certain demands, including the election of a popular committee to redraft the constitution, as preconditions to the talks. Groups aligned with the February 14 Youth rejected any dialogue with the government, insisting that their aim was its downfall. Loyalist groups also organised several large counterdemonstrations in support of the government.

 On 14 March 2011, following a general deterioration in the country’s security, troops from the Gulf Cooperation Council, in a force called Peninsula Shield forces, entered Bahrain in support of the government and to crush the protests. Troops from the Bahrain Defense Force cleared the roundabout of protesters, while Hamad declared a three-month state of national safety. Over 4 500 workers were fired from their jobs on suspicion of having participated in protests, and hundreds of civilians were sentenced to jail by military courts. An independent commission of inquiry appointed by Hamad to investigate the February and March events found evidence of a ‘culture of impunity’ among security forces, which led to widespread abuse and the deaths of five detainees from torture. It also detailed the destruction of several Shi’a mosques by security forces. The commission also confirmed the killings of three members of the security forces by protesters. A special round of parliamentary by-elections held in September 2011 was boycotted by opposition groups, resulting in a parliament dominated by loyalist and independent candidates. The February 14 coalition reaffirmed its aim to bring down the monarchy, marking a growing rift with more mainstream opposition groups such as al-Wefaq, which insisted on non-violent methods to pressurise the regime to reform. Groups of youths associated with the February 14 Youth began adopting increasingly violent strategies, including the use of Molotov cocktails in confrontations with security forces and detonations of small explosives.

 The first dialogue: The National Dialogue

Following the lifting of the national state of emergency, King Hamad announced that a national dialogue would take place beginning 2 July 2011 between different segments of Bahraini society to discuss demands for reform. The dialogue brought together over 300 representatives from Bahraini civil society. These included seventy ‘public figures’, all forty members of the Shura Council, representatives of five newspapers and eight trade unions, and thirty-one representatives of professional societies. The dialogue also included representatives of nineteen political parties. Opposition groups were awarded a total of thirty-five out of over 300 seats, prompting criticism that they were widely under-represented. Al-Wefaq, in particular, complained that its five seats did not reflect the fact that it had held forty per cent of the seats in the elected chamber of parliament before its withdrawal.

 On 17 July 2011, just two weeks before the dialogue could begin, al-Wefaq announced its withdrawal, saying it was vastly underrepresented and marginalised in the dialogue. The party said that it had ‘tried without success to make it a serious dialogue’ and that such a process ‘would not lead to a radical political solution to the crisis but would, instead, complicate the political crisis’.[1] Al-Wefaq also complained about the absence of any representatives from the executive branch in the dialogue, arguing that a dialogue between various segments of society would not lead to the required reforms.

 After the talks ended on 25 July 2011, the government announced that the parties to the dialogue had made progress in five areas, including political, economic, social, and human rights reforms, in addition to expatriate rights. The government subsequently announced the formation of a commission made up of nine government officials to implement the dialogue recommendations. On 3 May 2012, Hamad announced changes to Bahrain’s constitution in line with the recommendations. The new changes required the king to consult with the heads of both parliamentary chambers before dissolving the legislature. The new changes also granted the lower house of parliament the right to vote to withhold its cooperation from the prime minister, and refer its decision to the king, who would act as the final arbiter on whether to dismiss the prime minister. In response to the changes, an al-Wefaq member commented, ‘The amendments fall short of the demands of the opposition, which has been pushing for an elected government and scrapping of the appointed upper chamber in accordance with the 1973 Constitution.’[2]

 Take Two: The second round of dialogue

The first round of dialogue proved unsuccessful in initiating the reforms demanded by Bahrain’s political opposition. They continued to call for non-violent demonstrations against the regime, and tens of thousands of people responded. At the same time, violent confrontations continued between security forces and supporters of a coalition aligned with the February 14 movement. Bahrain’s international allies, primarily the USA, continued to exert pressure on the regime to instate further reforms. On 14 June 2012, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour, Michael Posner, said: ‘The government of Bahrain needs to take action on the full range of recommendations [from the commission of enquiry] including prosecuting officials responsible for the violations identified in the report, dropping charges against all persons accused of offenses involving political expression. Above all, we call on all parties in Bahrain to help each other move towards a comprehensive political dialogue.’

 Early 2013, King Hamad announced a second round of dialogue. It was chaired by the minister of justice, Sheikh Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa, and followed an ‘8-8-8’ format that saw eight representatives from a coalition of loyalist ‘national’ groups, eight from the two chambers of parliament, and eight from opposition political societies. The dialogue also included three government ministers, including the minister of electricity and works, the minister of education, and the minister of justice.[3]Pro-government expatriate groups lobbied extensively for their inclusion in the dialogue but were not granted any seats.

 Prior to the commencement of the dialogue, representatives of opposition groups addressed a letter to the minister of justice requesting the inclusion of the king’s representatives in the dialogue. The government, they argued, was responsible for the ongoing arrests and violations of rights, and thus could not be an independent arbiter in the dialogue. The minister denied the request.

 Dialogue participants met in twenty-four sessions over the course of seven months, but did not move beyond discussing the mechanism of the dialogue. Opposition groups insisted that any resolutions agreed to by the parties should be put to a popular referendum, and submitted to parliament for implementation. Other parties did not agree, resulting in a stalemate. During this period, the government also passed a number of laws restricting opposition activities. These included a ban on protests in the capital city, Manama, after a group calling itself ‘Tamarrud’ announced a day of national rebellion, and after the introduction of a new anti-terrorism law that allowed the government to strip away the nationality of those calling for what the government called ‘terrorist crimes’. The victims of this law included two former parliamentarians from al-Wefaq. The minister of justice also announced that political groups were prohibited from meeting with foreign governments, or foreign organisations without official approval. The new regulations also required a government representative to be present at such meetings. Opposition groups protested the new rules by boycotting a dialogue session. In May, opposition groups also suspended their participation in the dialogue following raids by security forces on the home of the spiritual leader of Al Wefaq, Sheikh Isa Qassim.

 On 17 September 2013, the head of public prosecutions announced that a parliamentarian from al-Wefaq had been detained and charged under the new terrorism law. Charges included ‘inciting and advocating terrorism, and using his leadership position in a legally organised political society to incite crimes’.[4]The following day, all representatives of opposition parties announced the suspension of their participation in the dialogue, stating that ‘opposition parties have made efforts for seven months to turn the dialogue into a meaningful negotiation, without success’.[5] The opposition also announced that it would subject its decision to review, in light of future political and human rights developments. Following this announcement, the USA urged all parties to return to the negotiating table. Government representatives insisted that dialogue will continue without the opposition.

 As negotiations in Bahrain stall, and as trust between the various parties weakens, prospects for a political resolution to the country’s protracted divide appear increasingly slim. As Bahrain’s allies insist on the need for the government to implement deeper reforms, the country’s future rests on whether negotiations can indeed lead to the kinds of reforms required to steer the country away from its current path.

Last modified on Thursday, 19 February 2015 08:39

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