Sunday's talks would seem to represent a conceptual and organizational middle ground between the two efforts. The 2011 National Dialogue was based on the principle of "fighting dialogue with more dialogue," and to this end the government invited all Bahrainis (and expatriates) capable of verbal communication. The final list was something like 300 participants, including group representatives and individuals. The formal opposition had perhaps 5 seats. Not only this, but the process was chaired by Speaker of Parliament and long-time Khalifa bin Salman crony Khalifa al-Dhaharani, rendering the entire event something like a glorified National Assembly session--but one that was somehow even less efficacious.
The effort led by the royal court early last year attempted the opposite--and for Bahrain more traditional--approach, inviting only opposition societies to a process that was not public and about which there was much speculation. Indeed, Sunni societies such as the National Unity Gathering, under the impression that they had been invited, announced a boycott of the talks, whereas Sahwat al-Fatih opposed them precisely because they had not been invited. Finally, the NUG figured out the same thing, and the two joined together to call for Sunni inclusion. Seemingly caught off-guard, the state pulled the plug on the talks, and rumors and vague newspaper articles telling of coming dialogue stopped.
Thus we arrive at the talks to begin Sunday, February 10, a convenient four days before the anniversary of the uprising. Imagine that! The official statement from the BNA is here, but the upshot is an odd 8-8-8 ratio of representatives from parliament (including from the Shura Council), opposition societies, and what are being called "nationalist" political societies. The latter "National Coalition" includes the National Unity Gathering, al-Asalah, al-Manbar, and the aptly-named and presumably just-created "National Dialogue Society." Interestingly, Sahwat al-Fatih is not among the participants. (The full list of participating organizations is here. Unlike with the 2011 National Dialogue, they can be listed on only one page of a newspaper.)
Beyond this it gets quite confusing on various fronts. First, the Gulf News reported the day before yesterday that "each of the alliances will be represented by six people" rather than the eight it is now reporting. And one of the "nationalist" groups has already dropped out. So it is clear that the design of the meetings is still very much in question and that adjustments are ongoing.
Second, and more important, it's still not clear what will be the government's role or indeed the exact format of the meetings. The government's original position--that it would "organise and moderate the talks, but would not be an interlocutor"--has been roundly criticized by both al-Wifaq and the supposedly-pro-government "nationalist" societies. Asked by the BBC to clarify, the government gave this response: "Representatives of the government's ministries will be present at the dialogue to oversee and make suggestions if needed, but will not be there to take part in the dialogue itself." So, it's exactly as they said: the government will take part but won't participate. Why is that so hard for you people to understand?
Finally, according to the dialogue's patron Justice Minister Khalid bin 'Ali, "there would be no time limit for the dialogue and that the agenda would be set by the participants when they meet on Sunday. The outcome would be recommendations endorsed by the participants that would be conveyed to the parliament for approval." So, not simply is the entire process subordinated to the opposition-less parliament, but indeed a third of the delegates to the talks already ARE members of parliament. So the full parliament will ratify recommendations negotiated by a subset of the parliament along with opposition and "nationalist" non-parliamentarians? An odd setup.
For their part, al-Wifaq do not wish to wait to find out how all of this is going to shake out. The Gulf News reports that the group is pushing for a postponement until a clearer and more efficacious format and follow-up process is decided, preferably bilateral talks between the opposition and the government. The problem, of course, is that this would mess up the state's right-before-February-14 timing and even, depending on one's degree of cynicism, defeat the entire purpose of the initiative. Whatever the case, in the end we are left with the following two familiar sentiments from the opposition and pro-government sides, as told by the Gulf News:
Opposition figures, addressing a press conference, said that they wanted more details before the start of the talks. “We will ask for more details about the format of the talks,” they said on Monday. “We want also to know more about the aspects and outcome of the talks, including the fairness of the representation is, the agenda, the time frame, the moderation, the role of the government, the outcome and the guarantees by the authorities,” they said.In other words, al-Wifaq is skeptical about the seriousness of the talks and may choose not to participate, and Sunni societies are skeptical of al-Wifaq and may walk out. That sounds about right. (For the more optimistic view of Mansur al-Jamri, see here.)
The National Alliance, an umbrella for nine political formations after one group pulled out, on Tuesday said that it was ready for the talks, but said that it would push for an end to street violence “to ensure a positive context for the dialogue.” “We do not want to be part of the dialogue merely for the sake of having talks,” Ahmad Juma, the head of the alliance, said. “We want to have a clear and positive for the dialogue platform for the talks by insisting on an end to all forms of violence. We reject the use of violence to exert pressure and we refuse any foreign interference in the talks. We will simply walk out in case there is foreign interference,” he said.
As if to antagonize its fellow dialoguers further, al-Wifaq is opening up a whole new front on the question of "foreign interference" with its announcement yesterday that it has accepted an invitation from the Russian Foreign Ministry to visit Moscow to "exchange views on how to exit the political crisis in Bahrain." (Al-Wasat has transcribed a lengthy interview, which also includes questions about the dialogue, here.) The "delegation," whose members as far as I can see have not been named, begins today and will last until the scheduled beginning of the dialogue on February 10. This is being billed as an attempt to apply pressure on the Bahraini government. In the meantime, I doubt any Sunnis will make the connection between this visit and Russian support for Iranian-backed Bashar al-Assad.
As for the second concern of Ahmad Juma, violence, the situation is perhaps equally bleak. The February 14 Coalition and others have organized an extensive schedule of protest activities spanning February 1-16 that is likely to feature violent altercations between demonstrators and police. There is even increasing worry, I am told, of more organized spoiler attacks on police or even civilian populations meant to derail the dialogue process and the formal opposition's "abandonment" of the revolution. This would assume that the perpetrators had confidence in the seriousness of the talks, however, which would seem doubtful.
That said, and for what it's worth, I've been told that the Justice Minister--not to say the Justice Ministry generally--intends for the talks to be serious, and that he is seen as having stuck his neck out in leading the effort. This is reflected, it is said, in the participation of additional, yet-unnamed ministers, who presumably will represent other factions of the ruling family who do not necessarily support the process or are worried about it veering out of control. Further, it is said, the lack of crown prince involvement is not because the initiative is unrelated to his surprise call for dialogue at the Manama Dialogue, but because moderates do not wish to see a repeat of the crash-and-burn of March 2011. Thus, as the person explained it, Bahrain is sending in "the B team" at a time when use of "the A team"--Sh. Salman--would seem risky and premature. Unfortunately, one can envision how this strategy, insofar as it can be viewed as evidencing a lack of seriousness, may obviate the need for the A team altogether.
Update: Apart from the kickoff today of the new and improved national dialogue, there are several interesting stories this morning. One is an upgrade in Bahrain's economic outlook from "poor" to "stable" by S&P. Two others involve the Khawalid. First, Defense Minister Khalifa bin Ahmad has said in an interview with Al-Arabiyya that the Iranian threat compels GCC countries to seek to acquire nuclear weapons. A second story in the Bahrain Mirror claims that the real reason behind the January 20 resignation of BAPCO CEO Gordon Smith is his refusal to comply with a Royal Court order to hire 120 soldiers from the Ministry of Defense to replace Shi'a employees.
Update 2: After an internal meeting yesterday, al-Wifaq has now officially agreed to take part in the talks, although it is clear that they don't know exactly what they're getting into. In an interview with The Independent before his trip to Moscow, 'Ali Salman is quoted as saying,
We sent a letter to the Bahraini Justice Minister [who will moderate the talks] but they will just be between the opposition groups and government loyalists, not members of the royal family themselves. The talks themselves are also vague – will they lead to an agreement on reform, or just advice to the government?Indeed, it would seem that the best case scenario here is that the initiative will serve as a confidence-building measure that might then lead to a separate, probably quieter process that does stand some chance at resolving substantive political disagreements. But we certainly are not at that stage yet.
Update 3: Emile Nakhleh on "Obama and Bahrain: How to Save Al-Khalifa Rule." Hint: give Khalifa bin Salman the boot.
And this highly-recommended piece from an unlikely source: Admiral Dennis Blair, former Director of National Intelligence and Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, who writes of the "False trade-off on Bahrain."
Update 4: Perhaps the first big business casualty of "political instability" in Bahrain is, curiously, the main domestic competitor of the flagging (and political flashpoint) Gulf Air. As one analyst quoted in the USA Today candidly notes, "The Bahraini government is looking to re-energize Gulf Air at the expense of facilitating growth for Bahrain Air."
Also: hopefully the first and last of would-be "spoiler" attacks (or scare tactics) coinciding with the second anniversary of the uprising and/or the recently-begun "dialogue."