The long-anticipated national dialogue process to find a political solution to the two-year-old crisis in Bahrain was due to begin today despite declarations of mistrust on both sides.
Opposition parties had agreed to the talks despite expressing their doubts about the government’s commitment to reform, while the regime of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa on Friday highlighted its frustration at opposition parties’ “abrupt termination” of previous discussions and claimed that “no sooner had the dialogue been announced, it was being undermined by opposition activists and sympathisers”.
Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of the main opposition group, al-Wefaq, told The Independent that his scepticism stemmed from the fact that members of the ruling family refused directly to enter the talks, and that no firm commitment had been made about how its outcomes would be treated. Last week a government spokesman confirmed: “Representatives of the government's ministries will be present at the dialogue to oversee and make suggestions if needed, but will not be there to take part in the dialogue itself.” Sheikh Salman – who has demanded Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa come to the table - flew to Russia last week for talks with its foreign ministry in an attempt to put pressure on the royals to change their stance. But with America such a staunch ally of Manama it is doubtful what effect this meeting would have.
Speaking through an interpreter – himself an MP who has been exiled from Bahrain – the al-Wefaq leader, 45, said: “We sent a letter to the Bahraihi Justice Minister [who will moderate the talks] but they will just be between the opposition groups and government loyalists, not members of the royal family themselves. The talks themselves are also vague – will they lead to an agreement on reform, or just advice to the government?”
Sheikh Salman spoke to The Independent before his trip to Moscow, while visiting Bahraini MPs in London who are applying for asylum after having their citizenships revoked by Manama. He accused Prime Minister David Cameron of tacitly supporting human rights abuses by failing to condemn the regime in strong enough terms, and said that the beatings and torture of protesters would continue as long as the rhetoric from the king’s Western allies remains weak.
“The uprising has been going on for two years, and yet the abuses are ongoing and no political reform has been seen,” he said. “I think one of the main reasons for this is the soft language from the British Government. Why are they supporting the Bahraini people, not just the Bahraini regime? Supporting human rights is the only way to protect British interests in Bahrain in the short and long term.” He also reserved criticism for Formula 1, which is due in Manama for the grand prix in April. “If the regime is looking to sport as PR, to polish its image, then the F1 teams should look at their positions carefully.”
King Hamad has visited Britaint twice since protests broke out in 2011 in the wake of the Arab Spring, most recently in August last year when he was given a red carpet reception at 10 Downing Street. Mr Cameron took the opportunity to raise the issue of rights abuses – along with business opportunities for UK companies – during the visit, but said on a visit to Saudi Arabia in November with a group of UK defence contractors that he would show respect to Britain’s “old allies” in the region who had the right to “self-defence”. In October Crown Prince Salman signed an agreement with the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond aimed at promoting relations between London and Manama, improving regional stability and a fostering “respect for sovereignty”.
Al Wefaq is demanding political reform and the installation of a constitutional monarchy in place of the Sunni Muslim al-Khalifas, who have run Bahrain since the 18th century. Despite Bahrain being 70 per cent Shia, members of the family occupy most of the top jobs in government and the security apparatus. Once a British protectorate, Bahrain gained independence in 1971 but a deal still exists that would see Britain ointervene militarily in support of the emirate in the case of any air or land attack. It is also a key ally of the US in the region, having participated in military action against the Taliban in 2001. The US Fifth Fleet has been stationed in Bahrain for over 40 years.
Bahrain has been convulsed by ongoing protests since the uprising began on 14 February 2011, and mass arrests are common. Hundreds of people have been jailed since 2011 and al-Wefaq claims that children have been killed through the indiscriminate use of tear gas by the security forces. The regime says it has had to counter more than 10,000 illegal riots since the uprising began, has confiscated more than 8,500 home-made weapons and 1,500 police officers were injured in 2012 alone.
Its opponents stress that largely peaceful demonstrations have only become violent in reaction to police aggression, and that the protests are only illegal after the government outlawed gatherings of more than five people last year. Al-Wefaq claims to have organised many of the protests, although Sheikh Salman suggested it could scale them back if meaningful progress was made. “We are ready, if the regime, rather than abusing people and oppressing Shias every night, is ready to change. We are ready to review protests in the streets.”
But others questioned whether al-Wefaq is really in control of the uprising, pointing out that while it initially organised street demonstrations they are now co-ordinated by apolitical youth group the February 14 Coalition, named after the date the uprising began. Professor Toby Jones, an expert on Bahraini politics from Rutgers University in New Jersey, said: “Al Wefaq is not in control of the street mobilisation – it was not a revolutionary organisation in 2011, and it is not now. It was put in a position to respond after the initial uprising, and while it has criticised the government it has also lost credibility among ordinary Bahrainis by agreeing to enter into these talks.”
Maryam al-Khawaja of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights also questioned whether its demands are representative of what the majority of protesters want. “The February 14 Coalition is demanding the right to self-determination and for the royal family to stand aside, while al-Wefaq is calling for a constitutional monarchy. But what Bahrain needs above all else is for accountability for what has happened since the uprising – even if that means putting the king on trial.”
Human Rights Watch has described the situation in Bahrain as ‘dismal’ and the regime has been accused of widespread abuses, including torture of prisoners, jailing for life many prominent critics and repression of the media. It is also accused of maintaining its grip on power by naturalising tens of thousands of Sunni Muslims from countries such as Pakistan, Jordan, Yemen and Syria to serve in the security forces. Last year Bahrain’s top court upheld sentences against nine doctors from Manama’s main hospital who treated protesters at the height of the 2011 uprising and reported the situation to the international media. They were originally jailed by a military tribunal which accused the doctors, many of whom took part in demonstrations, of occupying the Salmaniya hospital and inciting hatred towards the al-Khalifa family.
In the aftermath of the uprising the royal family set up an independent commission of inquiry into the events of 2011, which reported back in November of that year. But Sheikh Salman stressed that many of recommendations had not been implemented.
The Bahraini government denied the accusation about the security forces, claiming that in fact Shia religious leaders were preventing young Shia men and women from joining the police. It also claimed that many points of reform from an earlier dialogue in 2011 “had been actioned and are well under way”, and blamed al-Wefaq’s earlier walk-outs for stalling the process. But a spokesman for the British Foreign Office, while stressing that it “regularly” raises human rights and that “progress has been made to implement the recommendations of Commission”, admitted that “reform has been slow in some areas, particularly human rights”.
Manama was continuing to claim on Friday that the current round of talks would produce reform, and that it was “serious” in its attempts to institute change. But Professor Jones expressed his doubts, saying that the dialogue process is simply “theatre”. “The Bahraini regime has master tacticians at stalling, and there is nothing substantive about these talks. I don’t think the regime is interested in a solution as much as in victory. The government does not want to yield on anything and the talks are almost designed to fail. The coercive power of the state in Bahrain is much more powerful than in places like Egypt, and the geography makes it much easier for them to contain the protests even though the level of anger is as high as anywhere in the Arab world. Pearl roundabout [the principle site of the 2011 uprisings] is easy to seal off and most of the Shia live in impoverished suburbs.”
He was also critical of Britain, but stressed that the real issue was with Bahrain’s other backers. “The US has much more power than the UK. Could the West do more? Absolutely. But the real elephant in the room is Saudi Arabia, which exercises more power than even Washington does. The US is much more interested in thinking about what’s best for Riyadh than human rights in Bahrain. Al-Wefaq could come out of these discussions looking bad. They go into them prepared to talk, but are likely to leave with nothing.”