Bahrain’s government and opposition groups have held the first round of talks aimed at solving the country’s two-year-old political crisis.
The talks on Sunday, the first in Bahrain in more than 18 months, involved dozens of representatives from the country’s main political groups. Al-Wefaq, the largest opposition group, agreed to take part, as did several other opposition parties.
Isa AbdulRahman, the official spokesperson for the National Dialogue, told Al Jazeera that the first day of the talks brought “consensus between all the participants to have two sessions per week – they will be meeting on Sundays and Wednesday to continue the talks”.
He said the focus now rested on “building the bridges of trust” between all parties.
The government was represented by loyalist groups like the National Unity Gathering and al-Asala, the main Salafi party in Bahrain.
The government organised the dialogue, but will not take part directly.
Negotiations have been stalled since July 2011, when the government organised a similar round of dialogue. Most opposition groups decided to boycott the talks, but al-Wefaq reluctantly joined, despite receiving just five of the 300 available seats.
The party withdrew after just two weeks, though, saying the dialogue was not a serious effort to resolve the country’s problems.
‘Everything on the table’
There were some doubts last week about whether the new talks would begin on schedule. Al-Wefaq and other opposition groups said the government’s offer was too vague, and demanded an agenda for the talks.
Abdulrahman was earlier quoted in local newspapers saying that “everything [is] on the table.”
The opposition has continued to press for major political reforms, including a constitutional monarchy and an elected prime minister. The current premier, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, is also the king’s uncle. He has been in office since 1971, making him the longest-serving prime minister in the world.
The dialogue comes at a tense time in Bahrain: Thursday marks the two-year anniversary of the first protests against the government. More than 80 people have been killed since then. The government set up an independent commission to study the unrest. Its report, released in late 2011, documented the excessive use of force against mostly peaceful protesters.
Bahrain says it has implemented the report’s recommendations, but the opposition says that abuses continue, with regular reports of torture and the widespread use of tear gas in villages.
The government has not made any significant political concessions to the opposition so far.