The government of Bahrain is initiating a dialogue for national reconciliation from July 1 in which 300 representatives of a wide spectrum of political groups, expatriate societies, thinkers, decision-makers and experts are to take part.
The move was announced by the Bahraini King on June 1 while declaring an end to the State of National Safety. Since then a number of confidence-building measures have been taken by the government ranging from the release of prisoners, granting of bail to 20 detained doctors, and the transfer of all trials of new cases to civil courts.
The latest positive development has been the announcement by the King in an address to the nation on June 29 that a five-member independent panel of international experts would look into the claims of human rights violations and violence in Bahrain and submit an impartial report by 30 October. This should set at rest any speculation that the government is either trying to brush such charges under the carpet or is not interested in a serious probe.
No one seems to understand the need to maintain security and stability in the Kingdom better than the Minister of Interior because ultimately it is the Interior Ministry which will have to oversee the security and stability aspects of the nation whatever the outcome of the talks.
His speech, delivered to the security forces last week, was quite humble, realistic and optimistic, something of a rarity in this part of the world.
While he came out with fulsome praise for the security forces, he was candid enough to admit that they were unprepared for the magnitude of the unrest in February. He was also humble enough to state that their response was lacking in certain aspects in view of the gravity of the situation facing them. He explained this too very disarmingly – that the timely tackling of such a situation and control of all reactions was an extremely complicated matter. The challenge obviously was to maintain security while also keeping an eye on protecting democratic rights and practices. In this the Ministry seems to have succeeded admirably.
The challenge has been to bring every shade of opinion in the community to the negotiating table for the national reconciliation dialogue. As he remarked very perspicaciously, any return to the state of disarray, the state of chaos or instability, the state of ruin of national achievements which enabled Bahrain to overcome the phase of destruction, would fail to resolve the problem and therefore it was absolutely necessary to adhere to the highest levels of discipline by everyone at this juncture.
But in the current optimistic scenario two or three political groups seem to be playing the spoil sport. While on the part of the King and the government the talks are to be without any pre-conditions, these parties are refusing to take part in the reconciliation dialogue, coming up with their own reasons for their vacillation backed by mealy-mouthed conditions. The Islamic Action Society is claiming that since their leaders are under detention, it makes them difficult to take any decisions. They ought to realize that the talks cannot be the reason to free the leaders who had been playing truant.
The National Democratic Assemblage says it is boycotting the dialogue because its conditions had not been met, one of which has been that a government through national consensus should have been elected before the start of the dialogue – which is like putting the cart before the horse. Actually this could have been one of the points from their side at the dialogue where other groups could have also expressed their opinion.
But the worst case is that of Al Wefaq, a large Shiite group which also boycotted the 2002 national elections on facetious pretexts but when it found itself isolated, then it decided to contest the 2006 elections. It contested again in 2010 but in the wake of the February troubles all its 18 MPs resigned from the Parliament and the party has again announced that it is unlikely to take part in the dialogue or the parliamentary by-elections.
Isn’t that poor political judgment, especially in view of their experience in the wake of the 2002 boycott? Doesn’t it realise that there is only so much political space available in any landscape? And that if they do not occupy the space which in their belief belongs to them, it is not going to remain vacant but would, instead, be taken up by faces which perhaps they do not like, with opinions with which they do not agree?
Once the government announced that the talks would be without preconditions the pronouncement cuts both ways.
You cannot impose conditions when the other party openly states that all cards of every colour can be on the table. The government had offered talks just when the troubles began in February, it offered them when the troubles were at their height, it offered them again when they were tapering off and it has offered them yet again when the opposition groups have little leverage. And it offered the talks without any preconditions every time. It is time to take up the offer before it is too late to salvage the situation.