MANAMA // Bahrain moved cautiously forward on a path towards reconciliation yesterday with the inauguration of a "National Dialogue" about the country's future.
The dialogue was a "healing process" for the country, said Khalifa Dhahrani, the parliament speaker and chairman of the dialogue. While there would be "no preconditions and no ceiling" to the principles submitted to King Hamad bin Issa Al Khalifa at the end of the process, he emphasised that the dialogue was about ideas, not immediate change.
The discussions would be broken down into four main categories: political, social, economic and legal, officials said. There would also be an extra session for issues concerning expatriates.
"This dialogue is not resulting in solutions or decisions," said Isa Abdulrahman, the spokesman of the National Dialogue. "It will be visions."
He said that topics with a consensus would be submitted to the king, as would those where no agreement could be reached and the reasons why.
New billboards were raised across the city to promote the dialogue with the slogan: "Our Bahrain, Our Unity". It was a marked contrast from the pitched battles that took place between protesters and the police in March on the streets of Manama.
At least 30 people died during the protests, including a 30-year-old man who succumbed to a head wound on Thursday.
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The beginning of the dialogue came three days after the king issued a decree to set up an independent commission to investigate the government's crackdown on protesters. The commission has a mandate to look into allegations of torture and military trials, as well as the way in which the government went about arrests and the circumstances of deaths during the protests.
The committee is chaired by Cherif Bassiouni, a United Nations war crimes expert, and also includes Philippe Kirsche, the former president of the International Criminal Court; Nigel Rodley, a human rights lawyer; Mahnoush Arsanjani, an Iranian lawyer who has worked for the UN; and Badria Al Awadhi, a lawyer from Kuwait.
Mr Bassiouni, who is also conducting an investigation into alleged human rights abuses in Libya, has said the commission would be granted full co-operation of the government and would "work away from any government influence", according to a report by Dow Jones.
However, members of two opposition groups said they were concerned about some details revealed for the first time about the dialogue.
The Islamic National Accord Association, Al Wefaq, said it would increase pressure on the organisers of the dialogue to ask the government for the power to hold a referendum at the end of the process so Bahrainis could vote on any changes to the constitution. The group joined the dialogue on Friday, just a day before the talks were due to begin.
"The main issue is that this dialogue is not representative of the people," said Khalil Al Marzooq, an Al Wefaq member. "It is an ideas forum, rather than a people's representation. So we will ask for a referendum like they had in Morocco on Friday. If you want to have a 'national consensus', as they say, then you need a vote."
There was also concern about the definition of "consensus" used by the organisers. Munira Fakhro, a sociology professor from the secular opposition group Waad and a member of the dialogue, said she was surprised to find that decisions would be based on a majority, not on complete agreement.
"All of the opposition groups are only about 10 per cent of the participants in the National Dialogue," she said. "I'm afraid we will not be able to reach agreement on whatever ideas we call for about the constitution and about electing the government."
While the roughly 300 participants in the dialogue might be able to come to a consensus on the less divisive issues, such as family law and education, they would probably clash on ideas that would see power subtracted from the monarchy, she said.
"The crisis in Bahrain is built not on youth or family law," Dr Fakhro said. "The origin is political."
However, Al Wefaq and Waad representatives said they would participate in the dialogues for the time being. The first dialogue will take place on Tuesday evening for four hours and continue three times a week with no deadline, organisers said.
In Washington, the US State Department welcomed the dialogue.
"Al Wefaq's participation adds an important voice of Bahrain's political opposition to a process that has the potential to serve as a vehicle for reform and reconciliation," Mark Toner, the State Department spokesman, said. The dialogue, he said, shows "the government of Bahrain is taking concrete steps which could contribute to national unity and stability".