x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Inclusive talks are Bahrain's only way ahead

For reconciliation dialogue to produce genuine political reforms, the government and the opposition must show a degree of compromise.

The next few days could set the tone for the future of political reforms in Bahrain. The largest opposition movement, Al Wefaq, is trying in meetings this week to decide whether to participate in reconciliation talks, scheduled for Saturday, between the government and pro-reform Shiite groups.

Al Wefaq knows that its absence would hugely diminish the credibility of talks. It remains hesitant to get on board while trials of activists linked to the Shiite-led campaign for greater political rights are set to take place, and as many other demonstrators continue to be detained. Whether the party takes its seat at the table on Saturday will depend in part on feedback from its supporters.

The government has repeatedly called for reconciliation and a negotiated settlement. Certainly the streets of Manama are far quieter than in recent months, but there have been lasting wounds inflicted by both protester violence and the heavy-handed response by security forces. These talks are vital to begin repairing the damage.

There have been conflicting signals from both sides. Last week, the courts sentenced eight prominent activists and opposition leaders to life in prison on charges of plotting a coup during March protests. There is no doubt that wrongs were committed on both sides - which require full and transparent investigation - but the priority now has to be reconciliation. Quick convictions of opposition figures at this point only make good faith talks more difficult.

The Bahrain government's show of goodwill in holding reconciliation talks needs to be seen by all sides as more than just a show. For all Bahrainis, Shiite or Sunni, pro-government or opposition, the turmoil of the past months has been a tragedy. The government has consistently espoused a policy of gradual reform - a return to internecine violence will only make this more difficult.

For these talks to reap genuine results, all sides need to show a degree of compromise. Al Wefaq should join the negotiations, and the government should extend a hand so the opposition groups can do so in confidence.