by Emile Nakhleh
Bahraini, Arab, and international media have assessed the dialogue meetings Crown Prince Salman held with opposition representatives Jan. 15 positively and expressed cautious optimism about his ability to bring about genuine civic peace in that embattled country.
In a Jan. 16 column in al-Wasat newspaper, Mansoor al-Jamri hailed the meetings as a very important event in the annals of modern Bahrain. He cautioned, however, that only time will tell whether the Crown Prince’s efforts would resolve the current “suffocating” political crisis in Bahrain. Such a resolution will have to based on “respecting human rights for all, full citizenship, social justice, and equality before the law,” he added.
American, British, and French diplomats in Bahrain praised the initiative and urged the Bahraini government to open participation in the dialogue to representatives from all segments of society.
The Crown Prince’s meeting with the two representatives from al-Wefaq offered an intriguing photo-op. Here you have the future King of Bahrain meeting with Khalil al-Marzooq, who is awaiting his sentence, and Sheikh Ali Salman, who is banned from traveling out of the country, discussing the future of a peaceful, inclusive Bahrain. While sitting in Salman’s palatial office and enjoying his hospitality, these two interlocutors were only recently accused by the government of inciting “hatred against the King” and promoting “terrorism.”
The Bahrain Mirror news site addressed the Crown Prince in an editorial stating, “It is not sufficient for you to pursue dialogue by yourself.” To drive this point home, the international organization Human Rights First (HRF) called on the United States Government “to urge the government of Bahrain to include in the meetings the principal leaders who are still in jail.” HRF added, “No settlement between the government and the opposition will succeed unless the government stops human rights violations, releases political prisoners, and accepts accountability of previous violations.”
Cause for Optimism
According to media reports, the Crown Prince promised to raise the level of government participation in the dialogue and to discuss some of the core demands of the opposition. It’s interesting to note that the minister of interior Rashid bin Abdallah Al Khalifa, and former minister of labor, Dr. Majid al-Alawi, were present at the meeting.
Following Salman’s meeting with al-Wefaq leaders, the five opposition groups (Wa’d, al-Minbar, al-Ikha’, al-Tajammu’, and al-Wefaq) described the atmosphere as one of “candor and complete transparency.” But they cautioned, “a positive outcome of the meetings would depend on whether there is a genuine partnership” with the people.
According to Bahraini government spokesperson Samira Rajab, the Crown Prince identified five key agenda items for dialogue. In addition to raising the level of official representation, the items would include the legislature, the judiciary, the executive branch, electoral districts, and security for all the people. The Crown Prince also promised that the forthcoming discussions would be “serious, transparent, and truthful.”
Cause for Caution
Despite the optimistic reaction to Salman’s Jan. 15 meeting with al-Wefaq leaders, several factors could dampen and perhaps torpedo the dialogue process.
First, the Crown Prince identified fewer items than what he raised in his 2011 initiative. Also, he did not elaborate on how he and his government would approach each item.
Second, Salman’s agenda items fall short of what the opposition groups had demanded in the October 2011 “Manama Document” to which they remain committed. Among other things, they have called for a nationally elected unicameral legislature with full legislative powers, a representative and accountable government, a just electoral system, and a trustworthy judiciary.
Third, it would be difficult for the proposed dialogue to move forward while illegal arrests, sham trials, and harsh imprisonment of mostly Shia men, women, and youth continue unabated. Sectarian discrimination and massive human rights violations in the midst of the purported granting of “political” citizenship to Sunni foreigners from Pakistan, Jordan, and elsewhere, create a toxic environment for dialogue.
The “sixty four million dollar” question revolves around how much leeway the hardliners within the ruling family will give the Crown Prince as he pursues serious dialogue with the opposition. Will King Hamad go out on a limb in support of his son’s initiative?
Where do the Prime Minister and his supporters among the “Khawalids” stand on his great nephew’s initiative and will they tolerate seeing jailed opposition leaders, who only very recently were accused of crimes against the state and of spreading sedition or fitna, be set free? To repeat the words of Mansoor al-Jamri, “The coming days, weeks, and months will tell.”