Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, Bahrain’s single largest political movement, yesterday announced its withdrawal from a much-heralded "national dialogue" after only two weeks. The immediate trigger for the decision was an anti-Shia insult used by a pro-government Sunni MP at the discussions. But underlying this are deeper concerns that the dialogue process is unrepresentative and unlikely to bring meaningful reforms. The withdrawal of Wefaq marks a dangerous deterioration in an already fragile effort to move past the abortive uprising and sweeping repression that marked the first half of 2011.
The National Dialogue was already flawed, but the withdrawal of the largest opposition group after only two weeks is a further setback. The recent announcement of an independent commission to investigate the recent events and deliver a report in October is one of the few remaining sources of hope. There are few indications that the government is prepared to countenance the political reforms the opposition are seeking, such as empowering the elected parliament or ending gerrymandering. Indeed, a worrying narrative conveyed by some officials portrays much of Bahrain’s Shia population as disloyal and undeserving of democracy.
Bahrain’s National Dialogue has been portrayed in some media reports as a series of talks between the rulers and the opposition over political reform. In practice, however, the process is very different. For one thing, the rulers are not actually taking part in the talks. Early speculation that the dialogue would be brokered by the Crown Prince, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, proved to be incorrect. Instead, the month-long discussion forum is chaired by the speaker of parliament, Khalifa Al-Dhahrani, a conservative figure close to the prime minister. The 300 participants in the dialogue each take turns to speak about their "visions" for Bahrain’s future, which are then to be edited into a summary document that will be delivered to King Hamad bin Issa Al-Khalifa. King Hamad can then choose to issue new royal orders based on the recommendations, should he so wish. (A satirical view can be found here.)
In addition, the forum has been constructed in such a way as to make the opposition a small minority. Representatives of seven legally recognized opposition political societies, including Wefaq, were allocated only 35 out of the 300 seats at the forum. The rest went to NGOs, professional associations and trade unions (which have been purged of protestors and people who went on strike), as well as representatives of the media (which routinely self-censors and avoids criticizing the government), and "prominent personalities." There are no representatives of the youth protestors, many of whom are now in prison. Overall, the forum is even less politically representative than the country’s parliament, and has even fewer powers to implement any of its decisions.
In May, President Barack Obama warned that a genuine national dialogue in Bahrain could not happen when parts of the peaceful opposition were in jail. They still are. Some prisoners have been released in recent days, including Ayat Al-Qormozi, a 20-year-old woman sentenced to a year in prison for reading an anti-government poem; her case was taken up by Amnesty International and the Hubail brothers, two national football stars whose case attracted attention from FIFA. That these cases had attracted international attention throws into question their value as domestic confidence-building measures.
Crucially, the releases have not included opposition leaders. Among the imprisoned politicians is Ebrahim Sharif, the head of Waad — a secular liberal political society that had a government license for its work — who has been sentenced to five years in jail for seeking to topple the government, after calling for a constitutional monarchy at the protests. Likewise, one of Wefaq’s designated representatives, Jawad Fairooz, a former chairman of parliament’s utilities committee, was unable to attend because he is in prison on charges of spreading "lies." An official told CNN that these "lies" related mainly to interviews he had given to satellite television stations. The most prominent detained politicians including Sharif, Fairooz, Hassan Mushaima and Abduljalil Al-Singace of Haq and Abdelwahhab Hussain of Al-Wafa — among others — recently had their appeal hearings postponed from July until September, after the dialogue is completed.
Given all this, the National Dialogue forum never seemed likely to be the venue where the specific political problems between the government and the opposition are resolved. That said, this type of wide-ranging forum could potentially be a useful platform for Bahrain’s citizens to air their ideas, if they felt free to speak their minds. Saudi Arabia likewise holds a National Dialogue where members of civil society can debate issues, though there is no binding follow-up. In the Saudi case, some have been disappointed with what they see as an elite talking shop; others argue the dialogue process has subtly helped to foster discussions among Saudi society more widely about previously taboo subjects. But Bahrain already has a well-developed civil society, something that, in better times, the country is proud of. It started educating people before the other GCC states, and it was the first to have trade unions. Sadly, this civil society is subject to significant intimidation today.
At a time of profound paranoia about opposition to the government, when people have been jailed for making political statements and attending protests, there is hardly an atmosphere conducive to open discussion about political reforms. Parts of the government, and the state media, have spent months, if not years, trying to convince much of the Sunni population that Shia Bahrainis are incapable of taking part in democracy because they have religious links with clerics in Iraq and Iran — rather reminiscent of charges leveled against Catholics and Jews in different contexts. Some have described Bahrain’s current climate as "McCarthyist," citing, for instance, Facebook pages that have identified even moderate critics of the government as "traitors," at a time when many officials have sought to portray the uprising as a foreign plot. Bahrain’s angry Twittersphere is proving to be a striking example of the fallacy of the "cyberoptimist" view of social media as a force for democratization. In the wider society, "people have informed on their mates, in the workplace, the universities, the clubs," says one civil society activist.
Meanwhile, protests continue in Shia villages, where they are contained by security forces using tear gas and rubber bullets. A recent report by Human Rights First includes their observer’s eyewitness account of police shooting rubber bullets at unarmed pedestrians, including woman and children, some 90 minutes before a protest was due to start in the mostly Shia area of Bilad Al-Qadim on July 6 (just after the dialogue had started). Over the weekend, just before Wefaq announced its decision, opposition sources said Zainab Al-Juma, a 47-year-old mother living in the mostly Shia village of Sitra — always a hotbed for political activism — died after inhaling tear gas. The government rejects the allegations, saying her death was due to natural causes. Riots ensued.
In this heated atmosphere, Wefaq has faced considerable pressure from its supporters not to take part in the dialogue; these constituents regard the dialogue as merely an effort by the government to improve its international image without compromising on any political reforms. Wefaq’s original decision to participate in the dialogue was probably intended mainly as a symbolic gesture of conciliation toward the government, rather than being motivated by expectations that they could agree on real political reforms. It is likely that the U.S. and U.K. were also working hard to persuade Wefaq to join the talks, just as they sought to persuade it to end its boycott of the weak parliament a few years ago (which it did until its 18 MPs resigned in response to protestor deaths in March).
However, the group also has to balance pressures from the street, which has hardly become more moderate as a result of this year’s crackdown. Past experience suggests that there are likely to be unofficial talks between the government and some opposition leaders, probably including Wefaq, behind the scenes. These could be more productive, but will still fail to represent the youth movements. These movements, like their counterparts elsewhere in the region, have been expressing their dissatisfaction not only with the existing regime, but with the established opposition movements — including Al-Wefaq itself. Youth protestors will continue to criticize the group for going into the talks in the first place, seeing it as a sign of weak compliance with a government that continues to repress their pro-democracy uprising, while government supporters will castigate it for pulling out halfway through, seeing it as an attempt to destabilize a much-needed reconciliation after what they regard as an Iran-inspired terror plot. The polarization of narratives — within one tiny country — gives little ground for optimism in the coming months.
Jane Kinninmont is a Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House.