It is two years on Thursday since thousands of Bahrainis, young and old, male and female, Sunni and Shia, took to the now demolished Pearl Square in the capital, Manama, to demand democracy. They were inspired by the Arab spring, but had decades of their own struggle behind them. This might be the moment to end the stereotype that the Gulf knows only dictatorship.
It’s true that our goal has not yet been achieved. But our uprising is neither a failure, nor was it crushed under the weight of tanks brought over the border from Saudi Arabia. Last week, as part of a series of protests to mark the second anniversary, thousands took to the streets under the banner of “no U-turn”.
That message is clearly understood by the authorities. They agreed, finally, to engage with the opposition in a national dialogue that began this week. It’s in stark contrast to the usual response we have been given thus far: killings, repression, sackings, violence and more. But those human rights violations have remained, and there is no guarantee that this dialogue will bring about reform.
Opposition groups – known as societies, since political parties are not strictly legal – entered into this dialogue in the hope that it would end the stalemate. It is our duty to make the effort to find a peaceful solution, but a political negotiation that has a website, a logo, social media accounts and all sorts of PR-friendly features will undoubtedly be of concern to those who want it to be serious. We have raised questions that have yet to be clearly answered about the process of the dialogue, but the government’s position remains baffling.
It has said its role is to be a moderator between the political societies, and that it will implement any agreed consensus. This is no different to the parliament we engaged with between 2006 and 2011, which turned out to be ineffective in creating any change, or even holding the government to account.
This attitude – that Bahrain’s problems exist primarily between its own people – is an attempt to deflect responsibility away from the government and to play up the false idea that this conflict is sectarian. The fact that half the opposition delegates who attended the first dialogue session were Sunnis shoots this argument to pieces.
The elitist attitude of a government that can absolve itself of responsibility for a crisis of its making goes to the very heart of the people’s demands. Bahrain needs an elected government that reflects the popular will. A government of the people, rather than one that sees itself as being above the people and chooses to implement or ignore whatever it deems appropriate.
The difficulty lies in a ruling family that is split between two very different visions for the future. One section understands that Bahrain cannot move forward without the consent of the people. The other believes that crushing the people is the right strategy. Hence this strange half dialogue, in which no one is really sure, even in government, what is actually going on.
For dialogue to be a success, the government needs to realise the system it presides over is fundamentally flawed and work with the opposition to create a series of reforms that will see a united and democratic Bahrain.
We need a political system that agrees that 42 years is an absurd period of time for one prime minister to stay in power; and that a biased judiciary which can give life sentences to peaceful opposition leaders while failing to prosecute a single high-ranking figure for torture, needs reform. Economically, we must move away from reliance on oil and create a sustainable and diversified economy; and, socially, we need to end the sectarian discrimination that keeps Shias out of mainstream society.
In November 2011 we pinned our hopes on the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), when it outlined the violations committed by our regime. The king accepted its recommendations in full, and it had the potential to usher in a new era – but in the end the authorities used it as an excuse to delay finding a solution.
The international community was quick to laud the BICI, without waiting to see if any of its recommendations would ever be implemented. Now even the chief commissioner of that inquiry agrees implementation has not been good enough.
The same mistake cannot happen again. Yes, it is a good thing that dialogue is back on the agenda – and the potential for progress is there – but without international pressure it will be nothing more than a PR exercise.
It will be very hard for the people of Bahrain to buy into two years of constant sacrifices with no reward. The government needs to engage directly with the opposition, and the international community needs to see this as one last chance to avoid a real catastrophe in Bahrain, one that we fear it may never recover from. Now is the time to act.
Ali Alaswad was elected to Bahrain’s parliament in October 2010, but resigned in February 2011 in response to the Governments’ crackdown on peaceful democracy protesters. After his home was targeted by security forces, he left Bahrain and now resides in London where he continues his political work to achieve a democratic Bahrain.