WASHINGTON, Feb 12 (IPS) - Despite the start of a government-inspired dialogue with the opposition Sunday, the Bahraini government continues to jail dissidents, arrest demonstrators, and use a rigged judicial system to convict them.
Although the Al-Khalifa regime officially is not a party to the dialogue, Western governments welcomed the interior ministry’s call for dialogue, hoping the process will silence the opposition and relieve the West of the moral responsibility to address human rights abuses in Bahrain. According to initial media reports, the so-called “national dialogue” does not seem promising.
The Al-Khalifa regime not only has banned Shia from working in the national security sector; it has pressured private companies to fire Shia employees and replace them with Sunni workers. Security forces frequently storm into activists’ homes and arrest them without arrest warrants or specific charges. The regime is enforcing a Sunni apartheid system on the Shia majority.
King Hamad and his uncle, the prime minister, have relied on Saudi military and economic support to enforce their anti-Shia policies. According to recent media reports, “Desert Shield” enforcements, presumably Saudi, have entered Bahrain.
The regime also has enlisted Sunni leaders in the region, including the Egyptian Grand Mufti of al-Azhar, to implicitly support the Sunni crackdown on the Shia opposition. The Grand Mufti and other anti-Shia figures have used Iran as a pretext.
A recent report by the Washington-based think tank Project for Middle East Democracy has concluded that the regime has not implemented the six key recommendations of the Bassiouni BICI report. These recommendations - 1719, 1722b, 1722d, 1722h, 1724a, and 1724c - focus on torture, convictions, illegal arrests and lengthy incarcerations, censorship, and regime incitement of hatred, violence, and sectarianism.
Washington’s continued refusal to force the Al-Khalifa to institute real reforms is endangering the personal security of our diplomats, military personnel, and civilians in Bahrain. The killing of Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi in the midst of chaos and terrorism should not be lost on anyone.
Al-Khalifa’s refusal to respond to their people’s rightful demands would spell the end of their tribal rule. It will also harm U.S. interests in the Gulf region.
The stalemate has pushed many Bahraini activists to replace their demands for reform with calls for regime change. Once the regime loses the reform game, its demise become inevitable. Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Tunisia offer a sobering lesson.
The dialogue meeting that was held Feb. 10 and is supposed to occur on successive Sundays and Wednesdays included a majority of pro-government participants and only eight representatives of the opposition groups. Since the government has not agreed to the nine demands of the opposition, some media reports already view the government dialogue initiative as merely a public relations stunt.
The situation in Bahrain is becoming unsustainable. It is time for Obama's new Secretary of State John Kerry to employ the full range of U.S. diplomacy and power to change it.
What to do?
As the Bahraini opposition marks its second anniversary on Feb. 14, President Obama and Secretary Kerry should take a hard look at Bahrain and decide whether the survival of Al-Khalifa rule is in the best interests of the U S.
If it is, the administration should pursue a proactive policy to save the regime. President Obama and Secretary Kerry should impress on Bahrain’s King Hamad the necessity to implement the following steps:
First, initiate genuine, inclusive dialogue with representatives of all opposition groups. The dialogue should be led by Crown Prince Salman and should focus on substantive reforms and not become mired in process and media sound bites.
Second, the king should relieve Prime Minister Khalifa of his position and replace him temporarily with the crown prince until a permanent prime minister is appointed.
Third, the king should set a date certain for national elections to a parliament with full legislative powers. International monitors should be invited to supervise the elections. Following the parliamentary elections, the king should appoint a new prime minister subject to parliamentary approval.
Fourth, the king and the crown prince as an interim prime minister should implement the six key recommendations in the BICI report, referred to above. The crown prince should also establish a special commission to include government and opposition representative to oversee the implementation of all the recommendations highlighted in the BICI report.
Fifth, the crown prince should review the employment discriminatory policies against the Shia, especially in the armed forces and the security services, and provide equal access opportunities for all qualified Bahraini citizens to apply for jobs in these sectors regardless of religious affiliation.
These urgent steps must be taken to satisfy the legitimate demands of the opposition if the regime is to save itself.
*Emile Nakhleh, a former Senior Intelligence Service Officer, is a Research Professor at the University of New Mexico and author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing Society.