December 10, 2012 12:07 pm

Why Bahrain’s rulers must change course

Bahrain’s al-Khalifas are a fortunate royal family. When their own version of the Arab awakening struck their little island nation last year, their big brothers in Saudi Arabia marched in to protect them and warned western allies to stay away.

But they’re also fortunate because they face a political opposition that has been largely reasonable in both its actions and its demands. Where else in the Arab world, in this time of unprecedented upheaval, would an infuriated opposition leader stand up in a rally and ask the crowds not to call for the fall of the ruler? That is precisely what the 45-year-old Sheikh Ali Salman, who heads the main opposition party Wefaq, did on Friday.

True, he was emotional, he was angry, his voice shaking as he pledged that the Shia opposition to the minority Sunni regime would not surrender or be cowed. His aides commented that they had rarely seen him as visibly frustrated.

But as the cries of “Down with Hamad” grew louder, he told his followers that it was not what his party stood for. “We don’t want these slogans at our political events. We don’t want to give them (the regime) excuses.”

Yet, unless Bahrain’s rulers change course, and change it dramatically, they might no longer find the likes of Sheikh Salman to deal with. He is a man stuck between regime hardliners and an increasingly radical Shia youth who want the fall of the regime, not the constitutional monarchy that he calls for.

“We’re losing the street gradually, especially the youth,” he told me the day after his fiery speech. “But we maintain our discourse so we can open a horizon for a solution. The interest of the country is in a political solution.”

Since the uprising in the capital was crushed last year, Bahrain has settled into an uneasy stalemate, with deepening sectarian polarisation and little achieved in the way of reconciliation.

Security forces have boxed the Shia protesters in their villages on the outskirts of Manama, but the youth still protest regularly and clash with police, and some are turning to violence. “The youth tell us what kind of solution can we have with a regime that treats us as less than human? They have some logic,” says Sheikh Salman.

The world community, meanwhile, has been pressing the ruling family to launch a dialogue with the opposition but, as Sheikh Salman points out, without the threat of consequences.

Moreover, those in the royal family who favour dialogue, namely the US-educated crown prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, have not given up but power is in the hands of rivals determined to pursue a security solution.

Speaking at the Manama Dialogue, a security conference organised by the UK’s International Institute for Strategic Studies at the weekend (the government insisted that Wefaq officials who had been invited should not attend) the crown prince declared that security was not “the only guarantor of stability” and dialogue was “the only way forward”.

He is said to be planning a conference on human rights that would bring together Shia and Sunni parties and pave the way for a political dialogue. Sheikh Salman of Wefaq says he has no problem sitting down with anyone, though the dispute of the Shia parties are with the regime, not Sunni citizens. But dialogue has to be substantive and not a manoeuvre by the regime to buy itself more time.

“The hardliners are stronger than the others,” says Sheikh Salman. “But dialogue is necessary for the country. We don’t want to bring down the regime and I tell the regime you cannot bring down the opposition.”

The alternative to dialogue, he adds, is more violence, and a further weakening of Wefaq. “The choice for people is either to demand a constitutional monarchy or the fall of the regime. That’s it. People will not go back,” he says. “So if the regime undermines the moderate opposition, they open the way for the radicals.”

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