Bahrain Opposition on Verge of Pulling out of Government Talks

Article excerpt

Al Wefaq, Bahrain's main Shiite political party, is close to pulling out of the national dialogue to discuss reform, arguing it's only a fig leaf for continued autocracy.

The largest opposition group in Bahrain is likely to soon pull out of a national dialogue set up by the government to address a political crisis that has been simmering since the government crushed a pro-democracy uprising in the spring.

The talks are structured to dilute the voice of the opposition and give the illusion that the government is addressing political problems when it is actually ignoring them, charges Khalil Al Marzooq, a spokesman for Al Wefaq, the strongest Shiite opposition party. He and three other party delegates have recommended to the leadership that Al Wefaq leave the talks so as not to be part of a government charade. A decision will likely be made soon.

"We entered the dialogue to help the country, to try to reform it from inside," he said by phone from Manama. "But now we believe that we have enough evidence for the international community that the authorities are not serious in reform. ... Nobody is responding to us. We cannot continue this, fooling ourselves and fooling the people and fooling the international community that this is a solution."

The national dialogue comes after the government brutally crushed an uprising that began in February in the tiny island ruled by a Sunni monarchy. Protesters, who were mostly from the majority- Shiite population, called for democratic reforms, including a new constitution, an elected government, and an empowered parliament.

Analysts say the government-sponsored talks aren't getting to these root causes of the uprising, and they see little sign the government is willing to implement real political reform that would address those issues. Without change, protesters and the political opposition are unlikely to give up their fight, which means no solution for unrest is in sight for the tiny US ally that hosts the US Navy's Fifth Fleet.

"I think the national dialogue is designed to fail to solve the real serious political issues and it's designed to shore up the regime's position," says Toby Jones, a historian of the Gulf at Rutgers University. With the talks, as well as a commission appointed by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to investigate the crackdown, "there's an underlying case being made by the government that the crisis started in February," he says, instead of acknowledging the long-running problems that led to the uprising.

Coming on the heels of a visit by Bahrain's crown prince to the US and Europe, both moves also appear meant to placate international allies like the US, which has pressured Bahrain to find a political, rather than a security, solution to the crisis.

To the opposition, the biggest problem with the talks is their structure. Out of 320 participants, just 25 are members of the political opposition, according to Marzooq. That includes four Al Wefaq members - a fifth who would have participated is currently detained on charges of passing false information to the media.

Representatives of the monarchy are not present. Members are divided into four groups focused on politics, rights, economics, and social issues, and are each given five minutes to speak in a session. Consensus is reached by majority opinion, says Marzooq. Because the government filled the invitee list with pro-government delegates, the voices of the opposition are drowned out. …

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