Bahrain’s opposition seeks talks
MANAMA BAHRAIN’S main opposition movement Wefaq is making overtures to the monarchy on how to pursue democratic reforms but its efforts may be undermined by waning support from youth who seek more revolutionary change.
Three members of Wefaq, which dominates Shiite politics and has taken almost half the seats in parliament in past elections, recently met a prominent member of the ruling Sunni al Khalifa family to discuss a way forward after a year of unrest following the bloody breakup of protests at the Pearl Roundabout.
“The country is paralysed now,” Abduljalil Khalil, one of the Wefaq members involved, said to justify Wefaq’s move. “The country is in big trouble if you can’t move your security forces from the roundabout.” The traffic intersection has remained under heavy guard and closed. The economy in what was a bustling banking and tourism centre is stagnant, and visa restrictions have been placed on tourists, journalists and international rights groups.
Washington, for whom stability in Bahrain is important as it bases its Fifth Fleet in Manama across the Gulf from adversary Iran, has often urged the government to engage Wefaq.
But at this stage the point may be moot, as the monarchy now faces an array of hardline political forces Shiite Islamist and secular - some of whom have said openly that they favour ditching the monarchy and replacing it with an republic.
Though most of these groups’ leaders are in prison or abroad, youth and rights activists have used new media to organise street opposition, deploying the language of revolution. And some loyalists accuse Wefaq of exploiting angry youth for its own political gain.
“We won’t let anyone go and speak in the name of the people,” said Hisham Sabbagh of Amal, a legal Islamist party.
An underground group calling themselves the February 14 Youth Coalition - after the date when the uprising began last year - claims to speak in the name of disaffected Shiite youth throughout the country, announcing protests and reporting on clashes in Shiite districts via Twitter and Facebook.
Recently they have used alarming, sectarian phrases such as “holy petrol bombs”, “martyrdom ambushes” and “Haidar attacks”, a reference to the first Shiite Imam, Ali, though they do not veer into the realm of insults that some government loyalists employ against Shiites.
Though youths will go to Wefaq’s government-approved rallies, they ignore calls by its leader Sheikh Ali Salman to avoid slipping into violent engagement with riot police.
Activists say the heavy use of tear gas, bird shot and other crowd control tactics has caused more than 25 deaths and hundreds of injuries since last June, numbers that the government disputes.
“We respect the opposition but everyone has to choose their own path. Ali Salman doesn’t really know the situation we live in,” one teenager said while preparing bottles to throw at police in Jidhafs, an impoverished flashpoint district.
Nabeel Rajab, the founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, poses another challenge.
Rajab, who has risen to prominence in the past year with one of the highest number of Twitter followers in the Arab world at 121,000, was quick to tweet words of rebuke when the news of the talks with the government emerged, describing the court minister who met Wefaq as part of the problem, not its solution.
For many, Rajab has acquired a revolutionary allure.
“We all love him. He’s daring. He knows how to talk and he doesn’t just tell people to do something, he actually does it himself,” said a smitten receptionist after he turned up at a commercial building last month asking for directions.
Like the February 14 activists, Rajab refers to the security forces as “mercenaries”, because of the notable number of Pakistani and other foreign hires - language that Wefaq avoids.
Rajab has become a master at acts of civil disobedience via unlicenced but peaceful protest in the heart of Manama that police confront with tear gas, even if numbers are small. A bete noire for the authorities, prosecutors have questioned him on numerous occasions but never pressed charges.
Last month he was joined by Western activists who were deported for entering on tourist visas, spurring a tightening of visa regulations.