Saturday, June 11, 2011

National Dialogue or Just Another Session of Parliament?

The Bahrain News Agency is reporting (English here) new details about King Hamad's "National Dialogue, Take 2" initiative, which is scheduled for the beginning of July and will be presided over by... Crown Prince Salman--oh wait, no it won't. Actually the king has tapped current two-term Speaker of the Parliament (actually the only speaker of the parliament since the body was reinstated in 2002) Khalifah al-Dhaharani. So much for the recent New York Times report that the White House is "cultivating" Crown Prince Salman to be the moderate future leader of Bahrain, and that he "has been assigned to lead whatever dialogue there is with the opposition." Oops. That was February; this is June. The BNA video press release is below:

Apart from the obvious slap in the face of Crown Prince Salman, and further confirmation of what everybody already knew--that despite meetings with Obama he is still essentially irrelevant within the Al Khalifa--the selection of al-Dhaharani also raises serious questions about the nature and ultimate viability of the National Dialogue Initiative.

Firstly, and relatedly, al-Dhaharani's selection over against that of the crown prince offers a precious window into internal royal family politics. The crown prince, King Hamad's son and chosen successor, has been passed over for an initiative that he himself sponsored (creating what one Bahraini friend described euphemistically as "an awkward situation") in favor of the prime minister's right-hand man in parliament. Though the latter is simply the agent, the two Khalifahs (bin Salman and al-Dhaharani) seem thus to have won a conspicuous battle against the faction led by the king and crown prince.

The second and equally notable upshot of a National Dialogue headed by al-Dhaharni is that it threatens to become, as the title of this post suggests, a mere session of parliament. Indeed, if its attendees include only the pro-government parties now in parliament along with former MPs from al-Wifaq (since al-Haqq and al-Wafa' were never going to participate, and Wa'ad and al-'Amal are now banned), and the whole thing is going to be presided over by the speaker of the parliament, then how exactly will it differ from a glorified legislative session?

For all his lost political capital, at least the crown prince would be a direct representative of the ruling family who, even if he cannot negotiate entirely on its behalf, occupies an immediate place next to the country's decisionmakers. Al-Dhaharani, on the other hand, if perhaps a loyal follower and close confidant of the prime minister, can serve at best as political messenger to the royal family.

Moreover, he seems not to be particularly liked, not simply by the opposition but even by his own pro-government colleagues in parliament. Back on February 24, for example, Al-Wasat ran this article where it was reported that fellow pro-government 'Adal al-'Asumi announced his refusal to attend sessions of parliament in protest over al-Dhaharani's "manner of administration," which he said included "repeated violations" in parliamentary procedure. Al-'Asumi complains further that al-Dhaharani treats MPs like "primary school students" and reminds al-Dhaharani that "this council is a council for the people whose representatives are elected, not post office clerks working in his private organization." He concludes by accusing al-Dhaharani of aggravating Bahrain's February crisis: "I announced loud and clear out of my faith in my country and allegiance to its leadership, headed by His Majesty the King, that the method of the presidency in the management of differences [within parliament] is one of the causes of aggravation that brought us to the present bottleneck."

The following video shows another pro-government MP, 'Abd al-Halim Murad, threatening to resign from the parliament on account of al-Dhaharani, whose managerial and conflict resolution skills are here on display!

So what does everyone else think? Well, obviously the prime minister is pleased, as announced already in Al-Ayyam in an article appropriately titled "the Prime Minister welcomes the King's selection of al-Dhaharani to the presidency of the Dialogue of National Consensus."

The Crown Prince has officially "congratulated" al-Dhaharani. Yea, I bet.

Al-Wifaq, however, is reiterating via 'Ali Salman its position that it "will not participate in an unconditional dialogue." And Khalil al-Marzuq elaborates upon al-Wifaq's rejection: "The dialogue that needs to happen is between the King, the Crown Prince, and the opposition."

And the less-mainstream opposition has a stronger stance still: that "dialogue is suicide," which is less catchy in English as it doesn't rhyme. The opposition forums are full of graphics proclaiming this message:


Which leaves open the possibility that King Hamad's "Dialogue of National Consensus" in fact will be a "Dialogue of Those Already in Consensus." I can almost see it now...

More seriously, the main difficulty with the al-Dhaharani plan for political reconciliation is made obvious when we compare it to the previous model of 2001, which resulted in Bahrain's National Action Charter and, eventually, the Constitution of 2002. This process, if ultimately disappointing for the opposition due both to the content of the constitution and its unilateral promulgation by King Hamad, at least employed a process of political negotiation that was much more viable than the current attempt.

In 2001, negotiations were held behind closed doors, were held directly with the King and other members of the Al Khalifa, and involved senior religious and political leaders on the side of the opposition. King Hamad even made a celebrated (or infamous, depending on your view: see the video below) stop to the home of influential cleric 'Abdallah al-Ghurayfi as a gesture to Bahraini Shi'a. Although, again, the end result fell far short of the expectations of many Bahrainis, still the process of negotiation itself enabled a debate (if not a transparent debate) about fundamental political restructuring that involved those senior-level figures that must of necessity be involved in such discussions.

Compared to this more serious initiative, which saw no less than the King of Bahrain making a personal visit to the home of an ordinary citizen in order to engage the opposition, a "national dialogue" under the sponsorship of Khalifah al-Dhaharani is just another session of a powerless and ineffective parliament.

Update: the Bahraini government has apparently decided that if al-Wifaq is not happy to play ball with the al-Dhaharani-led dialogue, it may as well just prosecute its members. Matar Matar and Jawad Fayruz, arrested some weeks ago under mysterious circumstances, were today abruptly taken to military court (English). The cases against them, now adjourned for around two weeks, revolve around the charges of "public incitement for regime change and deliberately spreading biased rumours, in addition to taking part in public gatherings." (Separately, sentences were handed down for half a dozen other individuals tied to February/March protests, including the now-famous poet Ayat Hassan Muhammad.)

If it didn't before, I'm sure al-Wifaq will really want to participate in the national dialogue now.

Update 2: CNN has a bit more on the court proceedings against the ex-al-Wifaq MPs.

And, for Arabic readers, the Bahrain Mirror has an interesting piece by one of the founders of Al-Wasat and former deputy editor-in-chief of Al-Ayyam, 'Abbas BuSufwan, titled "Who Ran the Crown Prince Out of the National Dialogue?" The article also bears this nice graphic related to its main point:

"National Dialogue: Between the Cars of the Crown Prince and the Horses of al-Safriyyah [Palace; i.e., his rivals within the Al Khalifa]"

Update 3: more good stuff from the Bahrain Mirror, both on the crown prince (though both in Arabic).

1. The mother of Crown Prince Salman lashes out at her son's detractors.
2. A piece on "the war of the palaces" highlights the crown prince's economic policy and achievements. Can you tell that the opposition really would like to have him back in the picture?


  1. i dont think a dialogue with Dharani will fail because it wont start.

  2. I've heard that AL-Dahrani does only hold the Primary school degree !! Can anyone verify this

  3. And btw , Excellent post Justin as always

  4. yes Al Dahrani only holds a Primary school degree
    see this

    hope someone translate it to english

  5. Sorry. I don't agree with you. He's a wise man, the wefaq it self has chosen him to be the head of parliament.

  6. As al wefaq rejects the dialogue it's going thru duplicated breakings, which shows the suffer of soon ending of this disloyal society

  7. Impressively accurate.. As usual :)

  8. Love it when pro-gov't guys come here and write their half-assed opinions as facts accepted by everyone :D

    Great article by the way, I was personally sceptical about dialogue _with_ the CP heading it, now even he's gone, the gov't isn't even TRYING to look trustworthy.


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