Analysis: As Bahrain reform talks begin, divisions run deep


Bahrain is eager to get back to business after widespread upheaval over the past five months, when a protest movement was crushed by the Gulf state’s Sunni Muslim rulers, but the country remains deeply divided.

Facing international calls to engage with opposition groups dominated by majority Shi’ites, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa opened a national dialogue this week with “all options” on the table to discuss political, economic and social reform.
“The Bahrainis are responsive to international opinion … It’s what Arab regimes are good at, embarking on reform and doing the right gesture. The fundamental power structure doesn’t change in any way,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre. “The situation is very tense and there is a divide and it’s not going to be healed overnight.”

Mostly Shi’ite pro-democracy protests, inspired by revolts that toppled Tunisia and Egypt’s leaders, erupted in February in Bahrain, a financial hub and modest oil producer and host to the Fifth Fleet, the U.S. Navy’s main regional outpost.

By mid-March the protests demanding political reform were stamped out by Bahrain’s Sunni rulers with the aid of some 1,500 troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. An estimated 30 people died.

Bahrain introduced over two months of martial law during which thousands of people who took part in the protests lost their jobs, but Shi’ites say it was a witchhunt that targeted them for being Shi’ite.

Bahrain’s Sunni royal family and Saudi Arabia, with its own Shi’ite population in the oil-producing Eastern Province near the causeway linking the two countries, are determined to keep Bahrain’s status quo, and have accused Shi’ite power Iran across Gulf waters of stirring up unrest.

After two and a half months of imposed calm, the king lifted martial law and announced the dialogue, and on the eve of talks unveiled an investigative committee to probe widespread reports of abuse in detention, including four who died in custody. He said most Saudi troops would leave.

Yet on the day the dialogue formally opened on Saturday, about 500 protesters marched from nearby Shi’ite villages towards Manama’s main roundabout, the heart of the February protests. The mostly Shi’ite youth clashed with police and were eventually turned back by a volley of tear gas and rubber bullets.

Many are upset that the opposition decided to join the talks, where they hold just 35 out of 300 seats. They are also angry over the sentencing of eight opposition figures and activists to life in prison in June. “No dialogue without the downfall of the regime,” they shouted.

The opposition was split until the last minute over whether to join the dialogue. After a rally organised by the main Shi’ite opposition group Wefaq that drew over 20,000 people, its leader Ali Salman was nearly assaulted by a Wefaq member angry over the decision to participate.

The Sunni government called on the more radical youth to let the dialogue run its course, promising that reforms will be considered and those who committed crimes would be punished. Wefaq leaders were spared from facing trial.

Opposition figures suspect the dialogue, in which the youth movement is not taking part, is a PR exercise that aims to appease international criticism about the crackdown on the democracy movement. U.S. President Barack Obama has called on Manama to release opposition figures and start talks.

Taking place at a gleaming cultural centre in the capital of Manama, the dialogue has all the trappings of a big budget conference, with catered food and scores of staff, as well as a logo, website and a slogan, “Our Bahrain. Our Unity.”

Meetings will be held three times per week, four hours at a time. The participants, which will be grouped into committees of around 50, are drawn from the government, opposition groups, unions, women’s societies, journalists, businesses and professional societies.
“Everything will be up to the participants,” he said.

Yet the opposition complains that this is precisely the problem, that there are too many handpicked participants to reach a meaningful consensus.
“We don’t feel we are getting on the right track of consensus,” said Wefaq member and dialogue representative Khalil al-Marzouq, who griped that he would only have one seat in a committee of 50. “This dialogue is not responding to the real solution the international community wants.”

The wounds are still raw in Bahrain after the protests and crackdown, and tension remains high.

Hassan, a Shi’ite driver, is angry because his $100,000 bus was confiscated by police near a protest site. Now driving a cab, he dares not ask for it back because he once spent three years in prison for spraying protest graffiti on walls.

Sunnis deny Shi’ites are discriminated against and accuse them of taking welfare handouts instead of jobs. Shi’ites argue they are shut out of plum jobs handed to Sunnis and have to take menial work.

Shi’ites are also incensed by naturalised Sunnis from Yemen, Pakistan, and other Muslim countries obtaining citizenship, jobs and housing. Often it is these one-time foreigners who abuse them at checkpoints, they say.

Although there are also poor Sunni towns, Shi’ite villages are crowded with poorly built, crumbling concrete houses, filled with families supported by just a few with jobs.

Nearby, Sunnis homes are easily identifiable. They are the only homes where Shi’ites dare not park in front.

Fissures run so deep in Bahrain that it now dictates preferences over coffee shops. Sunnis go to Starbucks, and Shi’ites go to Costa Coffee for lattes.

It is from the streets where the trouble will come. Shi’ite leaders, sensing the potential for violent protests, say they will have to stay out in front of popular sentiment.
“We are going to lead the street,” said Wefaq’s Marzouq. “We are not going to be led by the street.”