Muharraq, Bahrain - A year into the unrest in Bahrain, there is a palpable sense of fear and anger on this island, a Sunni stronghold located on an island just east of the capital.
Police checkpoints guard the causeways which connect Muharraq to Manama. Buildings are festooned with posters praising prime minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, a staunchly conservative figure who is reviled by the opposition.
The island is home to Bahrain’s two main Sunni political parties: Al Islah, the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Al Asalah, a salafi party. A sign outside the latter’s headquarters declares “no dialogue with traitors”; another mockingly depicts a donkey above the slogan, “let’s go to dialogue!”
Also on Muharraq island is the National Unity Assembly, a movement which is in theory ecumenical but in practice has emerged as a powerful political vehicle for pro-government Sunnis.
The leader of the assembly, Sheikh Abdellatif al-Mahmoud, decries the rising sectarianism in Bahrain. But he simultaneously denounces the protesters as Iranian agents aiming to build a Shia theocracy, and accuses them of causing unrest to seek revenge for Husayn, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad whose death in the 7th century cemented the split between Sunni and Shia Islam.
“They want to kill or insult or attack anyone who does not believe in Husayn the way they believe,” he said in an hour-long interview. “Their religious culture is the basis of their actions.”
’We need to set conditions’
The opposition and the government are debating whether to open another round of negotiations, their first since a failed “national dialogue” last summer. “It’s become the talk of society,” said one prominent Sunni businessman.
Rhetorically, at least, most of Bahrain’s politicians are interested in another dialogue. Khaled bin Ahmed, the royal court minister, discussed the idea in January during meetings with members of Al Wefaq, the largest Shia opposition party, and with other opposition parties. “There is no solution for the crisis now except dialogue,” said Mohammed al-Gassab, a member of Wa’ad, a secular leftist party.
But many people here, including some political officials, acknowledge it will be difficult to actually launch another round of talks. Both opposition and pro-government groups have set conditions which would be difficult to achieve.
The opposition is increasingly fragmented: Wefaq and Wa’ad might agree to negotiations, but it’s unlikely they will convince youth activists aligned with the loosely-organised February 14 movement.
The government, meanwhile, has been vague about who might lead the dialogue, and what issues it might discuss.
“The opposition is not convinced that the government wants to have a real dialogue,” said Ahmed Makki, another member of Wa’ad. “In order to enter any agreement with them, we need to set conditions.”
One of those conditions is the release of political prisoners, including the group simply referred to as “the fourteen”. They were arrested in April and tried by a military court; half received life sentences, while the others are serving jail terms of between five and fifteen years. Their sentences were upheld following an appeal in September.
“I don’t feel Wefaq represents me,” said a prominent Bahraini lawyer who has defended a number of people accused of political offences. “The people who do represent me, they’re in prison right now.”
Pro-government groups have their own conditions. The National Unity Assembly wants an invitation to any dialogue, which so far has been framed as a conversation between the opposition and the government.
“Most of the political factions in Bahrain do not agree that it should be a dialogue between only Al Wefaq and the government,” said al-Mahmoud. “[But] they believe that they are the only political powers in Bahrain, and they are the only ones the government should have a dialogue with.”
The opposition has already rejected that demand. “We respect that political groups are loyal to the regime,” said Jawad Fairouz, a former member of parliament from Wefaq. “[But] how the regime will deal with loyal groups is between them.” He also suggested that the outcome of any negotiations should be subject to a popular referendum.
’I think there will be an escalation’
Last year’s “national dialogue” fell apart in part because it was chaired by Khalifa al-Dhahrani, the speaker of the lower house of parliament and a conservative figure close to the prime minister.
Al-Mahmoud has called for a complete end to violence before any dialogue with the opposition [EPA]
The opposition wants a reformist to head the next round of talks. “Even the king is not clean, he's lied too many times,” said Ali, an investment banker at a Wefaq rally last week who asked that his real name not be published. “If you ask me they should put the crown prince in charge.” But many in the pro-government camp, who view the crown prince as too accommodating, would likely balk at such an appointment.
Al-Mahmoud has also demanded a complete end to violence in the streets, a request which is almost certainly beyond the power of the main opposition parties. Leaders of Al Wefaq say privately that they have little control over the actions of young protesters who clash with police on a nightly basis.
Dissension is growing within the ranks of government supporters, too. They have held several rallies in recent months warning the government not to agree to any new dialogue; the posters outside Al Asalah’s headquarters represent a widely-held view.
The widening sectarian gap in Bahrain is also an impediment to any dialogue. It is often a one-sided issue: In dozens of interviews with opposition activists, ranging from moderate Wefaq and Wa’ad functionaries to Molotov-throwing youth in the villages, it has been exceedingly rare to hear sectarian slogans.
But al-Mahmoud raised the issue of sect repeatedly during an interview last week, at one point accusing the protesters of dividing Bahrain into “two camps, the camp of Husayn and the camp of Yazid,” the Umayyad caliph against whose rule Husayn rebelled.
All of this has many Bahrainis pessimistic about the prospects for dialogue. And that could lead the opposition parties, which so far have hedged their criticism of the government, to take a harder line.
“I think there will be an escalation soon,” predicted one activist. “If the opposition tries for dialogue and the government does not participate, who can blame them for calling for the downfall of the regime?”