Following Tuesday's opening session of talks, Khalil al-Marzuq announced (see also the Bahrain Mirror's coverage) that al-Wifaq delegates would not be attending two of the dialogue's four committees--the "social" and "economic" committees--but only the "political" and "human rights" committees. Which is a polite way of saying that the former two are altogether beside the point of the dialogue, which according to King Hamad is to bring political reform and reconciliation. More generally, the move continues al-Wifaq's rejection since the start of protests of the notion that the root of Bahrain's current crisis is fundamentally socioeconomic rather than political, an image the Bahraini government would very much like to cultivate.
The AP quotes al-Marquz as saying,
We believe the dialogue should discuss major political and security issues. ... This dialogue will not lead to a solution ... and it does not fulfill the needs to pull Bahrain out of its political crisis.Given this less than positive evaluation of the first session, the Bahrain Mirror reports that al-Wifaq made its continued participation in the National Dialogue contingent on the success of the second session held today, Thursday. This, of course, is in line with 'Ali Salman's warning when the group announced its participation that it would leave the talks if it become obvious that they would be unfruitful.
Well, evidently al-Wifaq was no more impressed with today's session than with Tuesday's. For, as reported once again by the Bahrain Mirror, it "has decided to pull out of the dialogue and will announce the decision tomorrow at its rally" in the northern village of Karranah. Moreover, the report says, the al-Wifaq source confirmed that the decision "has been made known to concerned countries working to resolve the Bahrain crisis"--that is, one assumes, to the United States.
(This comes after a Tuesday Financial Times story claiming that al-Wifaq's participation was brokered by the State Department. It quotes "one opposition politician" as saying, "'The argument of the Americans is that we would be blamed for failure of the dialogue so tactically we had to be part of it.'")
Appropriately, then, al-Wifaq's planned mass rally for tomorrow (the fourth installment of its "Our National Demands" Festival series) in Karranah is titled "An Elected Government." Among its many electronic fliers is one that offers a quote from Sh. 'Ali Salman:
"Our demand: an elected government representing the will of the people.
Isn't that what is enjoyed by 90% of the people on Earth?
Isn't this the demand of the revolting Arab populations?
Isn't that what is called for in international agreements such as The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that [the Government of] Bahrain signed?
Isn't that modernization?
Isn't that a "national" demand?
Or is it just a ploy to elicit adherence to governments stuck in the Middle Ages?"
Irrespective of what tomorrow's rally in Karranah will bring, al-Wifaq's decision to leave the dialogue, if perhaps sudden, can come as little surprise, particularly if it was indeed the U.S. that ultimately convinced it to take part rather than its own judgment. Apart from the intrinsic problems stemming from the very structure of the dialogue itself, we might name a few others:
- At the same time that Bahraini society was supposed to be engaged in "dialogue," the same sorts of government behaviors that necessitated the dialogue in the first place--in particular, violent repression of peaceful demonstrations--continued unabated, as covered in a recent Economist piece.
- Originally scheduled to take place prior to the start of the National Dialogue, authorities postponed until September the appeal hearing for the 21 opposition leaders sentenced in June, a move widely seen as an overt attempt to coerce al-Wifaq cooperation in the dialogue and, more generally, to use the appeals as a bargaining chip in government-opposition negotiations. (And this, of course, is in addition to the two military cases against former al-Wifaq MPs Matar Matar and Jawad Fayruz, due for sentencing any day.)
- The timing of the dialogue initiative--which is set to end as the holy month of Ramadan begins--is not random, and works very much in the government's favor. Ramadan being a month for fasting and avoidance of conflict, the opposition will be in a tricky situation in which carrying on a political fight in August is likely to be viewed as irreligious or simply out of place. As such, for some 40 days (counting 'Eid) after the dialogue ends, Bahrain will see a lull in political action that will make it difficult to carry on the momentum of July. Indeed, one gets the impression that the government hopes everyone will have forgotten about the "recommendations" (assuming there are any) of the National Dialogue by the time the Ramadan and 'Eid holidays end.
- After its protest resignation from parliament and assumption of leadership of the February and March demonstrations (helped later by the fact that most other opposition figures had already been arrested), al-Wifaq gained widespread support among Bahraini Shi'a, many of whom had long criticized it for having been co-opted through its parliamentary experiment. But its decision to join the dialogue undoubtedly reversed much of this gain in support. So once it became clear that the (largely international PR) benefits from participation were not worth the (domestic) harm to its following, the decision quit the dialogue presumably was an easy one to make.
But--hey--if nothing else, at least regime supporters will be happy that al-Wifaq is out of the talks. A new billboard (see our previous post on Bahraini billboards) spotted in Busaiteen declares, "We [Sunnis, I guess, or maybe Salafis] will stand shoulder to shoulder against a Wilayat al-Faqih"--which, as everyone knows, 'Isa Qasim and 'Ali Salman were pushing for at the National Dialogue.
On an unrelated note, finally, I should say a word about our friend Yusif Al Bin Khalil, Al-Watan's professional anti-U.S. op-ed columnist. It seems his newest series, titled "Ayatollah Obama and Bahrain," has caught the attention of the U.S. Embassy, which has been pressuring Bahrain's Information Affairs authority to put an end to it. But, as another pro-government newspaper (Al-Watan is run by the Royal Court), Al-Ayam, reports, the Bahraini Society of Journalists is rejecting this U.S. effort. A spokesman insists that Al Bin Khalil "did not defame either directly or indirectly the character of the [U.S.] president or degrade [him], but dealt objectively with [U.S.] foreign policy, which does not conflict with the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution; nor [does it conflict with] the [Bahraini press law], which [i.e., freedom of the press] has been in place in the United States of America for a long time."
I, for one, hope Al Bin Khalil is able to continue his writing long enough for it to appear on the reportedly-upcoming English-language online version of Al-Watan, which will be great fun for everyone.
(Update: Al Bin Khalil has written a new article today in which he mocks the pressure from the American Embassy. It is titled, "Dear Obama: This is How You Ban Freedom in Bahrain.")
Update: the Bahraini government just can't get enough of Religion and Politics in Bahrain!
Update 2: a story at Al-Jazeera contradicts the Bahrain Mirror report that al-Wifaq will announce its withdrawal from the National Dialogue tomorrow. I guess we shall see.
Update 3: since 'Ali Salman's keynote at the festival in Karranah (audio here) has now ended and I'm yet to hear anything about a complete al-Wifaq pull-out of the talks, it appears that the Bahrain Mirror rumor was indeed wrong after all.
In the end, though, I'm not sure what practical difference it really makes, since al-Wifaq has already clearly checked out intellectually from the talks, reiterating several times that the only reason it is there at all is to avoid "a scenario again where people say that the opposition is resisting in trying to find a political solution," as Khalil al-Marzuq said yesterday. I'd be surprised if they weren't busy browsing the Interweb or playing paper football during the sessions.
Likewise, in his Friday sermon today, Sh. 'Isa Qasim was equally dismissive of the talks: "This dialogue process is twisted and the way it is conducted indicates that there is no meaningful substance. ... The aim is to delay reforms and democracy." And, at least according to a poll at CNN Arabic (which asks, "Do you think that the National Dialogue will succeed in solving the current crisis in Bahrain?"), a healthy majority seems to agree: