x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Brave step needed to heal Bahrain

After a full year of troubles in Bahrain, the essential political solution still seems far away. But reforms are not impossible, if there is the will to compromise.

There are some anniversaries that are not to be celebrated. As Bahrain marks one year today since the beginning of protests, the scenes on the streets there are depressingly familiar. Young protesters are throwing firebombs at authorities, who respond with tear gas and sometimes deadly force; checkpoints across the island kingdom are garrisoned by formidable security forces. Life is far from returning to normal, and the past year's cycle of violence shows little sign of abating.

Manama's solution, in part, has been to hire former Miami police chief John Timoney. The American "top cop" is supposed to curb acknowledged abuses by the security forces, a crucial first step towards stability. Mr Timoney will be judged on whether his efforts calm the protests, or simply quell them by force.

As he has noted, some violent protesters are young men driven by an inchoate anger against the government, not by specific demands. How to get those young men off the street? Policing by itself will not suffice.

What has been lost in the events of the past year is that the Pearl Roundabout demonstrations started peacefully, and included some Sunni Bahrainis. It was not until the clampdown that protests took on a violent and decidedly sectarian character in the Shiite-majority country.

Before the unrest, Bahrain was gingerly progressing on reforms led by Crown Prince Sheikh Salman Al Khalifa. Those reforms targeted economic diversification, easing investment restrictions and job creation, all steps forward in a country where wealth disparity has been a major grievance. Along with land-access improvements and greater political representation, these reforms were Bahrain's way forward.

The bitterness of the last year - violence on both sides, started-and-stalled reconciliation efforts, and the prosecutions of protesters (including the 20 medics who are still on trial) - has made those reforms more urgent, not less. Bahrain today is behind where it was a year ago.

And yet social stability is prerequisite to substantive reform. The government faces the daunting task of convincing protesters, and the communities that support them, that reform and reconciliation are possible. This might begin with an amnesty and an inclusive political discussion. Bahrainis on both sides do not want to see another anniversary like this one.