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How Long Can Bahrain's Opposition Hold Out for Dialogue?

MANAMA, Bahrain—Fourteen months after the Arab Spring hit the shores of Bahrain, revolution has at least two major hubs. The first is a large, several-story villa with high ceilings and bright ivory-colored walls—the headquarters of Al-Wefaq, the largest Shia opposition group here. Another locus is across town, in a run-down mall overlooking a poorly kept traffic roundabout. Activists, human rights groups, and local organizers gather at a Costa Coffee with their computers.

On any given day this week, each of these two hubs are helping organize massive protests across Bahrain—an anti-welcoming for the Formula 1 race scheduled to go ahead beginning April 20th. Most of Al-Wefaq’s demonstrations are officially sanctioned with government permits. They might be met with tear gas, but they will largely remain peaceful marches. Most of the others—including the countless smaller protests that pop up daily in the corridors of dozens of Bahrain's Shia villages—aren’t legally ordained. Tear gas, sound bombs, and perhaps even more blunt force will likely meet these displays of anger at the regime.

The difference between these two group’s protests has grown increasingly emblematic of their response to Bahrain’s crisis overall. Opposition groups led by Al-Wefaq continue to walk a fine line, organizing pro-democracy protests but keeping open a door for dialogue with the ruling Sunni monarchy. “I strongly believe in dialogue,” says Jasim Hussein, a former MP for Al-Wefaq—one of the 17 representatives who resigned in protest at the height of a government crackdown against protesters last year.

Many youth on the street, however, have long ago lost faith in that option. Under the umbrella of an online group of activists calling themselves the February 14 Coalition, they are talking about other options. For months now, protesters have chanted “Yasqut, Hamad”—Down with the King. Now, Molotov cocktails are becoming increasingly popular. Some more extreme online groups allying with the February 14 Coalition have called for more direct attacks on security forces too.

Despite this apparent split in intentions for the direction of the uprising, up to this point both Al-Wefaq and the February 14 Coalition have maintained their credibility on the streets. It’s an open question, however, just how long Al-Wefaq can hold on. On April 17th, the International Crisis Group warned that Bahrain could be “sliding toward another dangerous eruption of violence”—a momentum that favors activists over their political overlords. And if the politicians were to lose their street support once and for all, it would likely deal a deathblow to any hopes of a quick political settlement here.

“You have this split between people who are willing to engage politically…and some other people who think there should be no engagement,” says Justin Gengler, author of the blog Religion and Politics in Bahrain. “It’s surprising that Wefaq was able to control [those two sides] for so long.”

A difference of opinion between the street and the official opposition is not new, though the gap seems wider now than ever. When Bahrain’s protests first erupted last February and March, members of the official opposition joined an effort organized by the Crown Prince, Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, aiming to find political solutions to the crisis. But protesters’ demands grew faster than even Wefaq could accommodate, and talks fell apart definitively on March 13th, when troops from neighboring Saudi Arabia marched into Bahrain.

Throughout the fall, Al-Wefaq worked to stay at the front of the anti-government sentiment, even though varying ideas about the uprising’s direction persisted. One of the most effective ways has been through social support for many of the victims of the unrest. From the Al-Wefaq headquarters, the group’s leader, Sheikh Ali Salman, recounts how the party reaches out to victims’ families, offering to help them file legal proceedings for torture and lost loved ones.

Around the New Year, Al-Wefaq also got a boost from two openings that offered an exit to Bahrain’s crisis. In the months prior, a government-commissioned Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) began looking into the allegations of abuse during February and March 2011. When the report was released on November 23rd, it condemned government use of torture, illegal arrests, and excessive use of force. Bahrain’s King Hamad bin ‘Issa Al Khalifa agreed to follow up, setting up a committee to ensure the report’s recommendations were implemented. Then in early January, rumors of a political dialogue surfaced yet again—seemingly a vindication of Al-Wefaq’s holding out for a political solution.

Both those opportunities, however, came to naught, and the result may deal a deathblow, ironically, to the most moderate supporters of Bahrain’s uprising.

First, political talks fell flat, rejected by a new set of Sunni political groups formed in opposition to the mostly Shia protests. The groups vowed to boycott dialogue until the protests on the street came to an end. “The first demand is peace. You have your right to speak, but in a peaceful way,” argues Sawsan Al-Shaer, a prominent columnist who supports the new movements. “In a peaceful country, it’s good to have dialogue,” adds Nassar Al-Fadhala, a former MP for Bahrain’s wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. “But if it’s not peaceful, we’re negotiating about what?”

Even as attempts at dialogue failed, so too did the promised reforms of the BICI commission. Opposition groups today—both official and underground—argue that changes have been inadequate and superficial, the kinds of cosmetic tweaks that please international observers but make little impact on the ground. Police reform, for example, has proceeded on paper; a new code of conduct was released in December that vows to make human rights a priority. The government even brought in a former Miami police chief, John Timoney, to advise the reform. On the streets, however, the conduct of the security forces seems as brazen as ever. “The government did not respect the recommendations,” argued Said Yousif, who works to catalogue abuses for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. “Until now, it’s continuing. At least 30 people have been killed [since the report was released].”

Earlier this week, Amnesty International added to the chorus of observers who agree that little has changed. “[T]he government’s response has only scratched the surface of these issues. Reforms have been piecemeal, perhaps aiming to appease Bahrain’s international partners, and have failed to provide real accountability and justice for the victims,” alleges a report released on April 17th. “Human rights violations are continuing unabated.”

The combination of those two failures—for post-BICI reform and for dialogue—has worked against the chance of any political solution to Bahrain’s crisis—at least in the eyes of many youths on the street. “We are very angry and very sad,” argued Moona, a 33-year-old protestor who attended an April 6th march in the capital and joined chants calling for the fall of the regime.

What this signals for the direction of Bahrain’s crisis seems clear: a further slide into escalation. Hussein of Wefaq argues that one reason the protests have remained mostly peaceful is the cool-headedness of their own operation. By not calling people to the streets officially, he says, demonstrations haven’t reached their full potential. But in resistance to the Formula 1 race, the February 14 Coalition seems to be flexing its muscles. The coalition plans two “Days of Rage” over the weekend, including simultaneous protests in multiple locations. Police, for their part, have cracked down harder than they have in months. On April 17th, opposition activists reported more than 100 pre-dawn arrests of activists in the Shia villages.

Salman of Al-Wefaq told me on April 5th that his group’s position has not changed. “To speak clearly, we are with a credible dialogue, a political solution…There is no precondition for [that] dialogue.”

The question, increasingly, is to whom they will be speaking.

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