ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — For two years, the talk in
Bahrain was all about talks. The island nation’s political crisis that started
amid the Arab Spring could be solved, it was reckoned, if everyone could sit
down at the same table. Just starting the discussion seemed to be the biggest
But, over the last seven months, many in
Bahrain seem to have lost faith in the power of negotiation. The country’s long-awaited
National Dialogue opened in February and, after a holiday break, resumed on
Oct. 30. But it has so far failed to produce much consensus. There isn’t even an
agenda yet, because participants haven’t agreed on one. “We didn’t move one
inch forward,” said Ahmed Alsaati, a member of parliament and delegate to the dialogue,
summarizing the talks to date. “We spent more than seven months discussing what
is the definition of this word or that word,”
To make matters worse, after a series of
arrests among their supporters, the opposition boycotted the talks in September
and has yet to return. The other parties have given it until Dec. 3 to decide
whether to do so.
All sides still say they are committed in
principle to the dialogue. But their constituencies, whose faith in the talks
is waning, are adopting strategies of escalation that stand to destabilize
Bahrain and perhaps permanently cripple the idea that there is a political
solution for the country. The opposition continues to bring demonstrators to
the streets, day after day and week after week. Government supporters are
pushing for tighter security to calm the unrest. And a small group of radical opposition youth
has been targeting the police more frequently and aggressively with makeshift
weapons and bombs.
Bahrain’s current crisis dates to 2011, when
protestors took to the streets with demands and grievances against the
country’s ruling monarchy. Many of them came from the country’s Shiite
majority, which has long argued that they are politically and economically
marginalized by the Sunni-led government. Security forces dispersed the
protests, but they didn’t stop — they simply fragmented, popping up in Shiite
villages and towns.
Eager for change, the opposition was
ready to negotiate, arguing that only political concessions would appease
protestors on the streets. The government also wanted an end to the unrest. So,
in the spring of 2011, the country opened talks. But the opposition pulled out
in the summer, arguing that an ongoing crackdown against its supporters showed that
negotiations would not yield real reforms.
With talks out of the picture, protests
continued, and the government continued to disperse them. In the country’s
Shiite villages in particular, a daily cat-and-mouse game emerged between young
demonstrators and the police — a ritual that scared away foreign investors,
froze everyday life, and left a trail of human rights violations. Each
afternoon, small lines of demonstrators marched in opposition strongholds until
security forces arrived to quell them, using tear gas and sound bombs.
Sometimes the protests ended there; other times, demonstrators were beaten or
police officers assaulted.
More than 90 people have died in clashes
since 2011, according to the country’s public prosecution.
Everyone from politicians to diplomats to
the crown prince argued that re-starting the dialogue was the key to breaking this
cycle. Street protests couldn’t offer redress for opposition communities who
felt disenfranchised, for example, by what they say are gerrymandered voting
districts. Security forces couldn’t
alone bring the quiet that Bahrain’s suffering businessmen demanded. Meanwhile, the country’s allies were eager to
find a solution that avoided the tectonic change that had destabilized
countries such as Egypt and Libya.