x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Back from the brink in Bahrain

Two weeks after the end of martial law in Bahrain, a large demonstration Saturday passed off peacefully. This is an encouraging sign, but now the government and opposition must move toward real reform and compromise.

For the first time in months, demonstrators were back on the streets of Bahrain at the weekend, and in large numbers. The difference this time was that demonstrations were peaceful and passed without incident.

More than 31 people were killed in protests that swept the country beginning in February. But less than two weeks after the government's lifting of its emergency law, 10,000 protesters took to the streets north of Manama on Saturday, as the country's opposition reiterated its demands for political reform.

Government forces, which in the past clashed violently with these same protesters, this time kept their distance. It is the strongest indication yet that the Bahraini government is prepared for genuine negotiations with the opposition parties, and is serious about discussing ways to reform the country's political system.

This comes in the wake of other encouraging signs. The labour ministry has ordered sacked Bahrainis to be given their jobs back. The UN says Bahrain has agreed "in principle" to a human rights investigation. And the recent appointment of Khalifa al Dhahrani, speaker of the Council of Representatives, to lead a national dialogue suggests that calls for such a conversation might actually proceed.

Of course, many challenges remain. Opposition leaders are facing prosecution, and the main opposition party al Wefaq says it is sceptical about the willingness of the government to effect change. The party has publicly opposed Mr al Dhahrani's appointment, insisting that the king or the crown prince - not a parliamentarian - handle the negotiations. "What we are discussing is a pivotal issue of difference between the ruling family and the people," Khalil al Marzooq, an al Wefaq leader, told al Jazeera.

The fact that disagreements are now centred on dialogue and not blood shows a degree of progress in the stalemate. We hope these overtures continue.

With war raging in Libya, and reports of Syrian troops firing on retreating civilians and ambulance workers, events of the past week in Bahrain show that the country has a chance to pull back from the brink. Now, the time has come for real talks to begin.