x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Talks to end the crisis in Bahrain set to resume

Talks aimed at ending Bahrain's political crisis will resume today after a two-month break, complicated by a string of car bombings and new anti-terrorist measures.

ABU DHABI // Talks aimed at ending Bahrain's political crisis will resume today after a two-month break, complicated by a string of car bombings and new anti-terrorist measures.

Despite a lack of progress in the talks, which began in February and adjourned in June, there is agreement among participants in the so-called National Dialogue that it may be the best, perhaps the last, chance to end the country's latest spate of turmoil, which began with massive demonstrations in February 2011 calling for an end to political and economic discrimination against the country's majority Shiite population.

"Dialogue is the only option for Bahrain and Bahrainis," said Bahrain's education minister, Majid Ali Al Naimi, who represents the government in the talks.

"We must build a national consensus," Mr Al Naimi told the London-based, Saudi-owned newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat.

Ali Alaswad, a former MP representing the Shiite opposition society Al Wefaq, agreed.

"The dialogue cannot afford to fail," he said.

Bahrain's king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, convened the talks in February in an attempt to end the country's political stalemate after two years of protests during which at least 92 people have been killed. The 24 delegates to the talks represent Bahrain's political societies, parliament and the government.

Perhaps the chief obstacle so far is the failure of the participants to agree on the agenda for the talks.

Delegates from the government and from pro-government groups say the National Dialogue is a forum where Bahrain's political and religious factions can state their hopes and vent their grievances in the presence of their opponents and detractors. In doing so, they say, Bahrainis will find the way to live together.

Mr Al Naimi, the education minister, explicitly rejected the notion that the National Dialogue is a negotiation.

"The dialogue is being held amongst brothers," he said. "The dialogue cannot be conducted as would negotiations or political haggling. Negotiation is conducted between opponents."

But opposition parties led by Al Wefaq say that the National Dialogue must formulate institutional reforms to end the political stalemate. These proposed reforms, they say, should be put to a binding national referendum.

Unable to resolve this fundamental disagreement and agree on the dialogue's "principles and values", delegates adjourned for the summer on June 27. Since then, the obstacles facing the dialogue have only mounted.

The government says opposition supporters triggered a series of car bombs in a Sunni neighbourhood, near a Sunni mosque and close to the royal residences. No one was killed, but several people were wounded. Yesterday, Bahraini police said they defused a bomb planted outside an industrial area in the village of Sitra.

The official opposition has condemned the bombings, but the attacks have hardened the attitudes of many Sunnis, said Justin Gengler, a researcher at Qatar University's Social and Economic Survey Research Institute.

"Given how things have deteriorated the argument for compromise is getting harder to make," he said, adding that many Sunnis now insist that dealing with the opposition should be a question of security rather than politics.

In response to the violence, Bahrain's parliament held an emergency session late last month that passed recommendations - later promulgated as a decree by the king - to impose tougher penalties for terrorist acts and to ban protests in the capital, Manama.

But moderate political opposition groups say that these new measures are too broad and end up punishing civilians who have played no role in the violence. Between August 18 and 23 alone, 49 people were arrested, they say.

Security in Shiite areas has increased, said Ala'a Shehabi, a member of the opposition rights group, Bahrain Watch. "I don't think anyone can talk about reform with this dynamic".

Despite the stumbling blocks, there are still some promising signs. One comes from Bahrain's crown prince, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who has called for dialogue since last December, but until now has remained behind the scenes.

In May, Mr Alaswad, the former Al Wefaq MP who now lives in Britain, said he met the crown prince during his visit to Britain, at the request of the royal court.

"There was good progress during that meeting," Mr Alaswad said, adding that the communication continues. "We send messages or letters to [the royal court], for example to discuss how to make more progress on the dialogue."

A government spokesman for the National Dialogue did not return requests for comment.

Meanwhile, delegates have promised to keep up their work, logging long hours at the dialogue, which is held at a hotel a 45-minute drive outside the capital.

edickinson@thenational.ae

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