The state of Bahrain's national dialogue: all talk?

The following is a guest post by Jenifer Fenton.

Bahrain’s main opposition group took to the streets on Friday demanding a credible dialogue with the King.  

“We will continue to rally,” said Khalil Al Marzooq, a senior member of  Al Wefaq.  It was their seventh - and likely not their last - Friday gathering.  The group walked out of the Kingdom’s National Dialogue on July 19.  “General efforts to make it credible were rejected and ignored,” Al Marzooq said. 

More than 300 people in Bahrain began “talking” in July in line with a directive from the king following widespread unrest that shook the island nation earlier this year. Five people from each political society were invited, as were select NGOs, members of the business community, some unionists and 70 or so public figures. 

The talks were biased from the onset, Marzooq said. Opposition and those critical of the government only made up between 10 and 15 percent of those participating in the talks.  In Bahrain, a Sunni minority rules over a Shiite majority, who feel disenfranchised. 

The country remains in a tenuous status quo.  

After Al Wefaq withdrew from the talks, Isa Abdul Rahman, spokesperson for the dialogue, said “regardless of any participant’s decision to leave, the dialogue will continue. This is a time to be engaged, open, creative and to demonstrate willingness to take bold decisions.” 

Al Wefaq wants fully elected government representation, according to Marzooq. The group, which said it won 64 percent of the vote in Bahrain’s last election, also wants the country to have an independent judiciary and thinks all Bahrainis should be able to serve in the country’s security services.

Bahrain News Agency put out near-daily press releases of what the dialogue, which ended July 25, had accomplished. I asked a prominent opposition figure, who did not take part in the talks and who cannot be named for security reasons, for his take on some of the government’s statements. 

Bahrain News Agency: “The National Dialogue completed its political discussions with consensus to further enhance the powers of the elected parliament.”   

Opposition member: All changes discussed by the government “will not tip the balance towards a fairly elected parliament.”

BNA:  “Discussions on electoral constituencies sparked a heated debate, but participants agreed on the need for a fairer system.”  

Opposition member: “Nothing is being tabled for changing the unfair constituencies.”

BNA:  “Delegates...agreed on the need to improve social justice...They called for an in-depth study to identify low-income target groups and improve the redistribution of government support.” 

Opposition member: “This is all part of political talk does not really change anything in reality.” 

BNA: “Delegates agreed to establish an authority for national reconciliation.” 

Opposition member: “This would be a good step. But from previous experience we could end up with a government body that (produces) slogans.”

BNA: “Participants also agreed that undermining religions and sects should be illegal.” 

Opposition member: “Again, there is no substance to this proposal.”

Dialogue has to come from both sides: from the government and from the opposition, said Abdulaziz Sager, the chairman of the Gulf Research Center, an independent think tank.  “It is a waiting game,” Sager said. “The status quo position... we don’t know where that will lead.”  The wider the gap between the peoples’ demands and the government’s ability to deliver, the more difficulty the country is going to be in, he said. 

“I think from the beginning people had doubts that the talks would go anywhere,” said Faraz Sanei, from Human Rights Watch, who was in the country during the unrest earlier this year. Currently, the organization is not allowed in Bahrain. Sanei did point to some improvements, including the king’s decree in late June transferring court cases that have not been heard from the special military court to civilian courts. Verdicts from the military court can also be appealed to the civilian courts.  According to multiple figures from human rights groups and opposition members, some 300 cases have come before the courts.  Seven hundred were expected to be transferred to the civilian courts. 

Many people in detention have also been released, Sanei said. Since March 15, when the king declared a state of emergency, between 1,200 and 1,300 people were detained, according to multiple sources. Bahrain has a population of just more than 1.2 million people. As of Sunday, there are about 300 still in custody. (Authorities in Bahrain did not respond in time for publication to a query asking for the government’s statistics.) 

There are other numbers that speak to the degree of the unrest. Thirty three people have died. Some under questionable circumstances.  Previously, Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority had said that some members of the Bahrain security forces were under investigation for actions related to the unrest, but provided no further details.  

Between 2,500 and 3,000 have been fired from their jobs. The government has said that hundreds were reinstated. But trade unions and human rights groups think the government’s figures are exaggerated. At least three doctors were fired from their jobs last week, opposition sources said.   

Places of worship have been ruined. Bahrain’s government has previously denied these claims, saying only that it removed illegal makeshift construction. Two Shiite cemeteries were desecrated.  

Is it possible to reverse the effects of the unrest and go back to the way things used to be?

An independent international panel, set up by the king, is tasked with investigating the events that unfolded in Bahrain. The five-member commission, whose head is Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni, will report back to the king, who will “take the necessary action.” 

Bassiouni was asked if he can guarantee the safety of the witnesses who meet with and give testimony to his team. Bassiouni said he could not. A Bahraini, who wishes not to be named for security reasons, who met with the commission to discuss a personal case, said via email: “I think people can't feel safe to talk while people are in jail and tried in court and fired from jobs just because they expressed their opinion.” The person was also asked to attend a general meeting where they could further discuss the case. “I told them (the commission) that talking in a general meeting in front of others might subject our safety to danger. But they provided no solution.”

Al Wefaq also met with the commission. They too have concerns about what happens after the commission releases its report in October. Who will implement the recommendations, who will protect witnesses and employees who pointed the finger at their bosses, Marzooq asked. Who can the Bahraini people turn to for help, he said. “You cannot go to the police, court, you cannot go to the media, the hospital, you will be fired from the job,”  The whole state is your enemy, he said. People need and want to have representation in the government, if they did, the same thing that happened this year could not happen again. “We cannot continue with the same structure.”