Editor’s Note: Kristin Diwan is Assistant Professor of Comparative and Regional Studies at the American University School of International Service. Her work focuses on the politics and policies of the Arab Gulf.
By Dr. Kristin Diwan – Special to CNN
On Saturday Bahrain will begin a government-sponsored National Dialogue. This has been seen by some as an opening, as evidence that the long campaign of suppression and retribution – the night-time arrest of activists, the torture and forced confessions, the purge of workers and students participating in protests and the trial of doctors and lawyers who served them in the course of their work - is at an end.
The United States ardently wants to believe this narrative. The U.S. wants stability in Bahrain, and, frankly, to have the whole problem go away.
But it would be a mistake for the United States to embrace this National Dialogue without reservations.
Ultimately, stability in Bahrain will require social reconciliation and political restructuring. The National Dialogue will not deliver this, and it may in fact work to undermine the prospects for national reconciliation and reform.
The National Dialogue may appear to be a re-instatement of the offer for negotiations that was proffered to the opposition at the height of the February-March protests, which brought hundreds of thousands of Bahrainis into the streets. It is not.
No one from the ruling al-Khalifa family will be present. Instead, the speaker of the parliament will preside over a gathering of some 300 guests chosen by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa from a broad range of civil society.
The main Shia opposition, al-Wefaq, which gained 43 percent of the popular vote in the 2010 parliamentary election, will have only five representatives at the talks. It is unclear if their political demands will be heard over the myriad other groups, one of which has vowed to petition the king over its failed investment in a luxury housing development gone bust. There is no clear mechanism to prioritize complaints, and no guarantees that they will be acted upon.
The National Dialogue transforms citizens insisting on their political rights into subjects petitioning the King. It is a parody of the opposition’s key demand: A constitutive assembly to realize a genuine constitutional monarchy, a system where elected representatives in a fully empowered legislative assembly could effectively hold such a “national dialogue” and actually have the popular legitimacy and political clout to deliver on it.
But the problems with the National Dialogue go beyond its structure, to the context within which it is taking place. To have a real dialogue people need to be free to express their opinions.
Over the past four months those in power in Bahrain have created an environment where this is impossible. Most obviously, the harsh sentencing of many of the prominent leaders in the opposition through expedited trials in special security courts means that key figures will not be at the table. Yet even the mainstream opposition enters the dialogues under relentless attack by the state-run media, which has buried their reform message and painted them as thugs and tools of Iran.
The opposition is not alone in having its allegiance questioned. The hardliners in power have orchestrated assent to their policies through loyalty petitions at workplaces and loyalty pledges in the university.
This creates an environment where merely staying silent leaves one suspect. It effectively polices the Sunni community as well, leaving no space to question the direction in which the country is being taken. Efforts have also been expended to discredit any foreign voices who question their actions, including a very ugly public campaign against a U.S. embassy official and a libel case against the British newspaper The Independent.
Promising open dialogue in such an atmosphere and through such a framework is disingenuous, but it is more than just a public relations exercise. Inviting the opposition to the National Dialogue is offering them a poisoned chalice.
The centrist groups most invested in engagement - the Shia Islamist al-Wefaq, and the secular leftist al-Wa’ad - desperately want to reverse the current dynamic, which is mobilizing the worst forces of intolerance and generating a poisonous sectarian divide that will be very difficult to traverse. But entering under a framework so clearly designed to fail them is splitting their ranks and driving them further from their popular base. It will undoubtedly weaken them.
The mainstream opposition is not the only force for reform under attack. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa - the royal most associated with reform and most respected by the opposition - is notably absent from the proceedings. And in recent weeks the labor market reforms he has championed - reforms to increase the cost of foreign labor and to create a fund to train Bahrainis - have been scaled back.
It is clear that the trajectory of the past ten years of reform - flawed policies to be sure, but policies that increased the integration of the Shia in the economy and politics of the state - are being reversed.
Bahrain needs more than dialogue; it needs real political reform. The United States should be working to empower those who are prepared to take the risks to achieve this.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Kristin Diwan.