x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Both sides depend on Bahrain detente

Bahrain's government believes that 90 per cent of opposition demands have been met; Al Wefaq says that figure is "out of touch with reality". Only reconciliation talks can bridge the divide.

In the 13 months since protesters in Bahrain took to the streets calling for political reforms, there have been several abortive attempts at reconciliation talks between the government and opposition groups.

So far, negotiations have floundered, with the opposition Shia Al Wefaq party walking out of meetings in protest at the detention of its members and other protesters. It has led to a stalemate and continued protests that have been damaging for both sides. How, then, to move forward?

On Tuesday, King Hamad Al Khalifa praised a report by Bahrain's National Commission charting the progress of reforms, which were recommended in November by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry dealing with government abuses since the protests began.

The report shows that many Shiites who were dismissed from public-sector companies have been given their jobs back. Meanwhile, some changes to the judicial and security apparatus are being implemented.

The opposition, however, say these reforms are not enough. So far, they point out, the government has only acted to address the violence of the last year; original demands, such as an overhaul of parliament, rights for the Shiite majority and economic reforms, have not been met.

Bahrain's future will be shaped by those long-term reforms, or their absence. But it is inevitable that in a climate of hostility, not all of these issues can be addressed at once.

It is vital that the government continues to engage the opposition - this is a matter of perceived good faith as well as concrete action. The independent inquiry was a substantive step towards healing the wounds caused by the preceding year of violence. The report issued on Tuesday should build on that.

Words must be followed through with actions. One closely watched bellwether will be the trial of 20 medics, who were originally sentenced from five to 15 years in prison, and who have now been referred to civilian court. A prosecutor on Tuesday said most charges would probably be dropped.

Bahrain's stability now depends on the government, and just as importantly the opposition, offering good-faith engagement in reconciliation. The government believes that 90 per cent of demands have been met; Al Wefaq says that figure is "out of touch with reality". Both sides have a duty to bridge the divide.