Monday, April 1, 2013

A (Discouraging) Window into Bahrain's National Dialogue

I'm quite busy preparing a paper for this year's GRM, so I've currently little time to write here. (Though I do have an article on Bahrain for the European Council on Foreign Relations that should be published this week.) Thankfully, G2K contributors continue to fill the gap. The following update from Mansoor al-Jamri helps elucidate what for me at least has remained a bit murky: the actual modalities, procedures, and agenda--or lack thereof--of the ongoing "dialogue" between the opposition and pro-government groups. (Don't you dare suggest that the government "mediators"/"observers" are participating in the talks!)

He concisely summarizes,
On 10 February 2013, a "dialogue" process started in Bahrain, and the participants have been meeting once or twice every week, but without real progress on any meaningful issue. The following is an attempt to describe the current situation.
  1. The government insists on saying that the current process is titled "Complementing (or completing) the political dimension of the National Consensus Dialogue". This is to say that this exercise is linked to the "National Consensus Dialogue" that was organized after the state of emergency in July 2011.
  2. The government rejects the descriptions used by the opposition, specifically that this is not a "dialogue" and it is nothing to do with "negotiations".
  3. The government rejects any talk that this is a dialogue between the government and the opposition, and insists that this is a dialogue between the "constituents of the society", i.e. between the Shia and the Sunnis. The government says it is a "Coordinator" in the process, and any point must be agreed on by "all parties" to be considered valid.
  4. The government says that the outcome of the exercise will be summarized and handed over to the King (to be introduced later through the current parliamentary process). The opposition rejects this idea, and insists that the outcome must be submitted to a referendum.
  5. The sessions are held in Al-Areen Resort, south of Bahrain, near the Formula 1 race circuit. Each participant is allowed to speak for 5 minutes in rotation.
  6. The participants are 27 people, 19 of whom are linked to the government and 8 are from the opposition, as follows:
    • 3 ministers (1 from the ruling Al-Khalifa family [i.e., the Justice Minister], who is also the administrator of the sessions, 1 Sunni, 1 Shia)
    • 8 parliamentarians (4 from the appointed Shura Council and 4 from the House of Representatives).
    • 8 from the Sunni loyalist political groups.
    • 8 from the opposition groups (2 from Al-Wefaq, 2 from Waad, etc.).
    • The opposition delegation is made up of Shias and Sunnis, and includes 2 women.
  7. Up until today (29 March 2013), a total of nine sessions were held. All the sessions have been deliberating on the MECHANISM, and nothing yet has been agreed on. Specifics are as follows:
    • The opposition wants a representative from the King to attend the sessions. This is totally rejected up until now. [See, e.g., here.]
    • The opposition wants the results of the talks to be presented to the public for a referendum. This is also rejected.
    • The opposition wants to participate in appointing 4 independent candidates to replace 4 from the parliamentarians. This is also rejected. [On this, see this recent Gulf News article.]
    • The opposition wants to agree on the formation of an implementation committee to be responsible for overseeing the implementation of the results. This is not yet agreed on.
    • The opposition wants to have a timetable for this process. This is rejected.
    • The government wants to delay talking about the MECHANISM and to go to the issues on the agenda. The opposition says an agreement must first be reached on the MECHANISM.
Finally, one must note the ongoing legal controversy surrounding al-Wifaq for its recent lawsuit filed against Minister of State for Crazy Affairs Sameera Rajab, whom it accuses of "defaming" the society in comments published in March in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and later carried in the BNA.  In (a very mature) response, the Ministry of Municipalities filed similar suit against one of al-Wifaq's representatives in the dialogue, Majeed Milad, for comments he made in an interview regarding the state's demolition of Shi'a mosques. According to al-Wifaq, some in the government are attempting to force (or provoke) its exit from the dialogue.

Update: An update from Mansoor:
By now, the 27 people taking part in Bahrain's "National Consensus Dialogue" have completed about two months of heated discussions without breaking through the deadlock. However, something new could be emerging out of the latest session held on 7 April 2013, when the participants talked about several issues and realized that the lack of progress to date relates to the fact that there is no confidence between the government and opposition and that, for any success to be achieved, confidence-building measures must be implemented.

Ahead of the session 7 April, the government issued a statement, through the Information Affairs Authority (IAA), saying that "the Cabinet confirmed that as per the government's responsibility and participation in the National Consensus Dialogue, the Government is keen on moving forward with the agendas core topics in an aim to achieve consensus in terms of political development."

By this statement the government wanted to block the opposition's insistence on continuing to debate several key issues pertaining to the "mechanism" for dialogue, specifically the opposition's demand that a King's representative ought to attend the session, and that the outcome of the dialogue must be presented for a referendum to gain popular legitimacy.

With regard to the demand for a referendum, the IAA said in its statement, "The cabinet further confirmed that the real guarantee for development and reform is to work within the state institutions, and to respect the legislative and constitutional laws that form the road map for any person seeking progress and development in the Kingdom." This means the cabinet rejects the idea of the referendum.

However, members of the opposition participating in the dialogue process issued a counter-statement reaffirming their “adherence to serious national dialogue leading to an outcome that takes Bahrain out of the bottleneck,”. More specifically, the statement said that “the opposition rejects any dictates to be imposed through official press statement, from outside the dialogue table,” and that the opposition insists on agreeing on the “mechanism” first before moving to the agenda of issues.

The opposition has a concern based on previous experience that unless a mechanism is established, then things will be wrapped up, summarized in points, tweaked to suit those in power, and enforced. ...

During the session of 7 April 2013, it became evident that there is currently no confidence between the government and opposition, and to achieve real progress, confidence-building measure must be implemented to pave the way for meaningful deliberations.
Update 2: The Gulf Daily News reports that pro-government groups, including members of parliament, are accusing the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain of collaboration with al-Wifaq in the national dialogue:
"This diplomat [the U.S. ambassador] has crossed all red lines as he runs the National Dialogue, distributes letters and recommendations in English to participants, according to evidence we have.

"We don't want a statement being issued by parliament condemning his interference, a strong decision has to be taken by MPs and sent to the government to stop this man from further damaging the nation."

Mr Al Dossary's comments follow allegations on Sunday by MP and dialogue participant Latifa Al Gaoud that a key opposition document submitted to the talks had been drafted in English before being translated into Arabic.

Ms Al Gaoud, who is a member of the National Independent Bloc, said some of the words had not even been translated into Arabic and suggested the document had been drawn up with help from the US Embassy.

Mr Krajeski caused anger last month when he was spotted at the National Dialogue venue on the same day that a session of the talks was taking place.

He was seen leaving just moments before talks were due to start, but a US Embassy spokesman claimed he was there for a private meeting and did not meet dialogue participants.

Among those also seen at the meeting attended by the ambassador was editor-in-chief of opposition newspaper Al Wasat Dr Mansoor Al Jamri.

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