In every dialogue session so far a portrait of His Majesty King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa has sat proudly on the wall above delegates. There ends the presence of the King in the dialogue. He has said he “stands at the same distance from all participants” as a neutral party. But why does his portrait sit above the dialogue tables and for that matter, every public building in the country? In the UK, a constitutional monarchy, there are no mandatory imposing images of Her Majesty the Queen in schools, hospitals, libraries, or indeed the cabinet room.
But Bahrain is not a constitutional monarchy, no matter how much it tries to pretend it is. The King is the absolute ruler, as noted in this important piece by former CIA officer Emile Nakhleh, with powers that fettered away from the British monarchy decades ago. As the Head of State, with wide reaching political powers, it is his responsibility to partake in addressing the political crisis that has gripped Bahrain for more than two years.
This is neither a principled demand nor a political ploy. This is the blatant observation that a country cannot move forward politically, without action by the political authority. It is fairly simple equation.
Government officials have been quick to trumpet this dialogue as a sign of the willingness to reform, reminiscent of the noises made about the establishment of the BICI. True, it is a positive step to see dialogue, as was the mandate for the BICI. But if we have learned anything from the BICI it is that there must be a political will for action in order for anything to change. Thus far little has changed since the BICI, as accepted even by the lead Commissioner of that Inquiry.
So now is not a time to be congratulating Bahrain for starting a dialogue. Now is the time to be pushing to ensure something positive can come from the discussions, which will lead the country down the path of reform and change. There is little doubt that without one year and a half of constant calls from the international community for a dialogue to take place, it would not be happening now and therefore Governments must up their work to make sure this is not an opportunity wasted.
Already there are those trying to undermine the dialogue. Loyalist groups have opted in, then out, then back in again, whilst reports have circulated of threats to sue an opposition member of the negotiation. Human rights violations are ongoing and official and semi-official media continues to target the opposition, creating a negative atmosphere for ‘national unity’.
Such talk makes it clear that there are some who prefer Bahrain to burn before reforming, who will allow any outcome that avoids giving up full dictatorial powers. So nothing is guaranteed and a dialogue alone will not return Bahrain to stability without serious discussions with those in power about starting real reforms.
The dialogue has so far been slow, with an agenda not yet agreed after 2 months of talks. It seems that progress is being delayed as a result of a stand-off between two visions of what dialogue should be. On the one hand pro-Government members want to preserve the status-quo whilst giving the impression of engaging with the opposition, whilst the opposition themselves see a dialogue as between those in power and the people. Of course all parts of Bahraini society do need to be involved from independents, to those on either side, but a mechanism that does not address the root grievances of the people – the absence of an inclusive, democratic system – is nothing more than a talking shop. Bahrain needs more than talk, it needs action. The hope is that talk will in itself lead to action but only if the right people are prepared to join in. At the moment this is not happening.
The international community must align themselves with the vision set forward by the opposition. This does not mean necessarily calling for the same reforms as the opposition, but it means supporting dialogue as a serious process that can appease everyone, including the long suffering people of Bahrain. Without this key dynamic the dialogue will continue to be a show for the world that has no bearing on the lives of Bahrainis’.
The Justice Minister has rejected foreign influence but Bahrain does not exist in a world of its own. Bahrain is a key strategic state for many international players and it is therefore in the interests of all to see stability. It is high time the international community realized that this stability could only come about through democratic reforms. The people will not be crushed, as proven by 2 years of continuous struggle, and the situation cannot remain the same. This leaves reform as the only viable option.
At the same time, if the people are to feel that the outcomes are theirs and it is something they can buy into, they have to have legitimacy over whatever is decided. The opposition is pushing for a referendum to ensure this, although the Government has so far refused.
Dialogue has opened up room for optimism – but nothing is guaranteed. This is just the beginning and a number of outcomes are still possible. To avoid things slipping into further chaos and this opportunity to be wasted, the international community must support calls for the central power in Bahrain to be involved in dialogue and for the agenda to be serious in discussing how Bahrain can transform from a dictatorship into a democracy.