As Bahrain reform talks begin, divisions run deep


Bahrain is eager to get back to business after widespread upheaval over the past five months, when a protest movement was crushed by the Gulf state’s Sunni Muslim rulers, but the country remains deeply divided.
Facing international calls to engage with opposition groups dominated by majority Shi’ites, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa opened a national dialogue this week with “all options” on the table to discuss political, economic and social reform. “The Bahrainis are responsive to international opinion … It’s what Arab regimes are good at, embarking on reform and doing the right gesture. The fundamental power structure doesn’t change in any way,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center.
“The situation is very tense and there is a divide and it’s not going to be healed overnight.” Mostly Shi’ite pro-democracy protests, inspired by revolts that toppled Tunisia and Egypt’s leaders, erupted in February in Bahrain, a financial hub and modest oil producer and host to the Fifth Fleet, the US Navy’s main regional outpost. By mid-March the protests demanding political reform were stamped out by Bahrain’s Sunni rulers with the aid of some 1,500 troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. An estimated 30 people died.
Bahrain introduced over two months of martial law during which thousands of people who took part in the protests lost their jobs, but Shi’ites say it was a witchhunt that targeted them for being Shi’ite.
Bahrain’s Sunni royal family and Saudi Arabia, with its own Shi’ite population in the oil-producing Eastern Province near the causeway linking the two countries, are determined to keep Bahrain’s status quo, and have accused Shi’ite power Iran across Gulf waters of stirring up unrest. After two and a half months of imposed calm, the king lifted martial law and announced the dialogue, and on the eve of talks unveiled an investigative committee to probe widespread reports of abuse in detention, including four who died in custody. He said most Saudi troops would leave.
Yet on the day the dialogue formally opened on Saturday, about 500 protesters marched from nearby Shi’ite villages toward Manama’s main roundabout, the heart of the February protests. The mostly Shi’ite youth clashed with police and were eventually turned back by a volley of tear gas and rubber bullets.
Many are upset that the opposition decided to join the talks, where they hold just 35 out of 300 seats. They are also angry over the sentencing of eight opposition figures and activists to life in prison in June. “No dialogue without the downfall of the regime,” they shouted.
The opposition was split until the last minute over whether to join the dialogue. After a rally organised by the main Shi’ite opposition group Wefaq that drew over 20,000 people, its leader Ali Salman was nearly assaulted by a Wefaq member angry over the decision to participate.
The Sunni government called on the more radical youth to let the dialogue run its course, promising that reforms will be considered and those who committed crimes would be punished. Wefaq leaders were spared from facing trial.
Opposition figures suspect the dialogue, in which the youth movement is not taking part, is a PR exercise that aims to appease international criticism about the crackdown on the democracy movement. US President Barack Obama has called on Manama to release opposition figures and start talks.
Taking place at a gleaming cultural centre in the capital of Manama, the dialogue has all the trappings of a big budget conference, with catered food and scores of staff, as well as a logo, website and a slogan, “Our Bahrain. Our Unity.”
Meetings will be held three times per week, four hours at a time. The participants, which will be grouped into committees of around 50, are drawn from the government, opposition groups, unions, women’s societies, journalists, businesses and professional societies.