Bahrain's appeal for talks faces cool reception

June 16, 2011 - 7:44 AM
Mideast Bahrain's Impasse

FILE - In this Wednesday, June 1, 2011 file photo, a Bahraini man passes a graffiti-covered wall in the Shiite Muslim village of Jidhafs, Bahrain, just outside the capital of Manama. The Shiite groups that speak on behalf of protesters, who took to the streets four months ago to demand greater rights, have shown no rush to embrace the appeals for dialogue by the Sunni monarchs they accuse of creating a two-tier society in the strategic Gulf kingdom. The graffiti behind the man in Arabic reads:

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Bahrain's ruler has canceled all vacations for top officials next month. A special center and mediator have been named for talks with opposition groups that are proposed to open July 1.

Now the question is whether anyone will show up.

The Shiite groups that speak on behalf of protesters — who took to the streets four months ago to demand greater rights — have shown no rush to embrace the appeals for dialogue by the Sunni monarchs they accuse of creating a two-tier society in the strategic Gulf kingdom.

The possible failure to open talks could be interpreted as far more significant than simply a payback snub by Bahrain's Shiite majority after unrest that's claimed at least 31 lives and left hundreds of people detained or expelled from jobs and studies.

It would serve as clear recognition that the complexities on the tiny island — drawing in heavyweight issues such as U.S. military interests and Arab worries over Iran — are too vast to solve over cups of tea between the rulers and the opposition.

"Events seem to have gone too far and too fast for some kind of quick fix through talks," said Toby Jones, an expert on Bahrain at Rutgers University.

For its size — about 525,000 citizens on an island that can be crossed in 30 minutes — Bahrain perhaps packs more high-stakes challenges that any of the other Arab uprisings.

Washington is deeply vested in the stability of Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. Bahrain's huge neighbor, Saudi Arabia, also is heavily in the mix. It's taken on the big brother role for Bahrain's ruling dynasty by leading a 1,500-strong Gulf military force sent in March to help crush the demonstrations.

The move was partly motivated by survival instincts. The other Sunni-led Gulf regimes worry that any significant cracks in Bahrain's leadership could threaten their own hold on power. But the Gulf monarchs and sheiks also are united by their fears of Shiite power Iran.

In their view, any possible gains by Bahrain's Shiites could translate into new footholds for influence by Iran and its proxies, such as Lebanon's Hezbollah.

Shiite leaders in Bahrain, however, have no traditional political ties to Tehran and repeatedly insist that they only seek a more equitable voice in the country. Shiites account for about 70 percent of the population, but claim that the system is stacked against them — including voting districts gerrymandered to favor the Sunni minority and policies that effectively blackball Shiites from top political or military posts.

"The challenge now is how to initiate dialogue with representatives of all sides and to ensure that this dialogue will address and resolves divisive issues," said the State Department's top rights envoy, Michael Posner, during a visit to Bahrain on Wednesday.

Washington itself showed the difficulties ahead.

Just hours after Posner appealed for both sides in Bahrain to hold icebreaking talks, the U.S. issued a list of alleged human rights offenders that lumped Bahrain into a list countries including Iran, North Korea and Syria.

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council, Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, cited elements of Bahrain's crackdown such as mass arrests and bans on protest gatherings.

"The Bahraini government has arbitrarily detained workers and others perceived as opponents," Donahoe said in a statement in Geneva. "The United States is deeply concerned about violent repression of the fundamental freedoms of association, expression, religion and speech of their citizens."

In many ways, it echoed the complaints from Shiite leaders in Bahrain on why talks seem unlikely.

They call on authorities to take the first step by easing pressures such as checkpoints in Shiite areas and trials in a special security court set up as part of the crackdown.

"We cannot negotiate in such conditions," Bahrain's most senior Shiite cleric, Sheik Isa Qassim, said last week.

But Bahrain's leaders have given no hint of rolling back.

A blitz of trials on anti-state charges is on the docket for the next two weeks — including doctors and nurses who claim they were abused in custody. Rights groups say that at least 80 university students were expelled from the Bahrain Polytechnic earlier this week for alleged links to the protests.

State-backed companies, including Gulf Air and the state oil company, have threatened to sue the country's largest trade union to remove its board after it backed nationwide strikes in support of the protests.

Even Bahrain's choice of mediator for the proposed talks is under question. The government appointed the parliament speaker to head the dialogue, but opposition groups consider it a downgrade from the first pointman, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who met last week in Washington with U.S. President Barack Obama.

Rulers have ordered all top officials to cancel July vacation plans and even set up a special media center in hopes that talks get under way.

State media, meanwhile, are flooded with messages that many Shiites perceive as divisive. Stories portray the ruling family as the anointed guardians of the country and depicts anyone who challenges them as disloyal or threats to national stability.

"Bahrain stands at the threshold of a defining moment in its history," said the prime minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa.