A National Reconciliation Dialogue is currently in progress in Bahrain in response to the King’s invitation. The sessions take place twice a week with 300 participants divided into groups.
The dialogue was initiated following the lifting of the State of National Safety on June 1 which had been in force in the wake of the troubles in the preceding three months. The dialogue is meant to heal the wounds, clear the air, bridge the sectarian divide the troubles had created, unite the nation, generate trust across the community and, most importantly, bring about changes in the Constitution and laws in line with the outcome of the dialogue.
In order to abort any criticism on the score of accountability even as the talks progressed, the King had simultaneously ordered the formation of a body consisting of eminent and independent international experts to look into the human rights aspects of the various issues which tend to crop up in relation to the days of the troubles.
Nothing seems amiss in the aims of the dialogue. Yet, since the start of the dialogue and even a few days before that, certain groups within the opposition, Al Wefaq – the largest of them all – among them, have been behaving in a manner which is not conducive to the smooth progress of the initiative which has come in for praise from the UN, the US, the UK and a number of other countries and international institutions.
This inconstancy of the opposition – taking part in the dialogue yet belittling and undermining it – has taken various forms. The most serious of which is that it is either unable or unwilling to control its constituents which tend to take out unauthorized demonstrations and rallies or indulge in low-key sporadic violence necessitating intervention by security forces and thus offering an opportunity to international news agencies to criticise the authorities for no fault of theirs. One would expect that once the opposition groups have decided to be part of the national dialogue, even if belatedly and grudgingly, they would at least take their followers into confidence and instruct them to refrain from playing truant.
The second issue which seems to throw spanner into the works is the tendency of some of the opposition participants to threaten every now and then that they would pull out of the talks or from some of its key sessions for which they tend to cite all manner of facetious reasons such as that they are given only five minutes to put across their point of view at a group sitting. But the point is so is everyone else on the table whether pro-government or not. That is the nature of the dialogue when 300 people have to discuss a set of issues on a given day. The latest retrograde step was the walk-out by some Al Wefaq members after a war of words with a warning shot that they would now decide on July 14 whether to take part in any further meetings or not.
Another negative element in this scenario is the Friday sermons by some leading Shiite clerics – Shaikh Issa Qassim for one – which are dismissive in their tone and tenor and even tend to question the usefulness and validity of holding any dialogue. Since the opposition largely consists of Shiites, it is once again the responsibility of the opposition groups to persuade and rein in such speakers.
The national dialogue was initiated with no pre-conditions, with an open mind and in a spirit of reconciliation. Let some disgruntled elements within the opposition not try to sabotage it. The dialogue is open-ended with no fixed timeframe and issues are going to be discussed threadbare. So patience is the key in such a scenario.
Let the opposition not leave the table halfway through the dialogue since it will hurt them more than the nation.
Political space is nobody’s inheritance. If one party leaves the room in high dudgeon there are others waiting in the wings to occupy that space -as it happened when Al Wefaq boycotted the 2002 national elections – and those who occupy that space may not always be to the boycotters’ liking.