Bahrain: Safe harbor with troubled waters

The world watches with alternating hope and alarm as diverse countries in the Middle East and North Africa explore new relationships between governments and the governed. This struggle is of intense interest to international observers, given the key role some of these countries play in global energy and financial markets and in the political currents in Muslim countries.

In Bahrain - long recognized as a safe harbor of peaceful, moderate, progressive policies - we have witnessed demonstrations in our streets as some of our citizens demand a new social compact. Our crown prince has agreed to negotiate this, but it is attainable only if we respect the rule of law and maintain peace and security. Bahrain's security and the safety of its people will never be negotiable.

We have witnessed some confrontations that have resulted in security forces firing on civilians, which is shocking to us and is not in keeping with our long history of peace. But we also cannot negotiate with parties who refuse to enter discussions, or allow uncontrolled attacks on civilians or infrastructure.

Only when understanding replaces fear will we know peace and find our way toward practical reform. We all - government and opposition - must work together to create effective links among all national groups, to understand each other's views.

The crown prince has committed to tackling every political, constitutional, economic and social issue. He has promised explicitly that the dialogue will cover even the thorniest issues the demonstrators have raised and has suggested that the agreed results be voted on in a national referendum.

A partial list of the issues on the table includes:

  • Giving the parliament full authority - one of the first demands of the demonstrators.
  • Ensuring that our government represents the will of the people.
  • Redistricting to ensure fair voting districts. (Critics have charged that parliamentary districts dilute Shia voting power.)
  • Instituting fair naturalization procedures. Bahrain is one of the few countries in our region that allows foreign nationals to become naturalized citizens. Some opposition parties claim the government manipulates naturalization to increase the Sunni population, but that, too, is on the table.
  • Setting up transparent contracting and auditing procedures to combat corruption.
  • Addressing sectarian tension to bring an end to envy and division among our population.

Our concern, however, as citizens and leaders of Bahrain is that we see the demonstrations continuing long after these demands were agreed to. We deeply regret the violence that has taken place, but only dialogue can stop it. The demonstrators asked for reform, addressing the issues listed above. The crown prince agreed and initiated a dialogue to address those issues in an honest, calm, reasoned manner. So why have the demonstrations continued and even intensified?

We hope the nations of the world see our efforts to defuse the situation and see the intransigence of those who refuse to take "yes" for an answer. Many Bahrainis have a legitimate fear that foreign interests are stoking the passions and fears of our population, that Iran is fanning the flames of discontent into a firestorm of violence and provocation - or even sabotage. Our foreign minister warned Iran last week that its interventions could provoke a wider conflict; we hope fervently to avoid that. America's defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, stated Wednesday that Iran is exploiting divisions in Bahrain to provoke unrest and violence.

When demonstrators attacked people and property, Bahrain invoked the mutual-defense provisions in the Gulf Cooperation Council charter and asked members of the Gulf Shield forces to come help - not to confront demonstrators, but to protect critical infrastructure.

All Bahrainis seeking peace, security and reform must join the dialogue immediately. If the opposition refuses to enter a dialogue with the government, then we fear it is more interested in spreading division and instability than in seeking real change. If strife and fear replace peace and freedom even in Bahrain, then no place will be safe from the storm.

By Jamal Fakhro, deputy chairman of Bahrain's Consultative Council, the upper house of parliament.

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