With moderates in Bahrain’s government and opposition apparently being outflanked by more hard-line elements, the prospects for dialogue and reconciliation arising from the Independent Commission of Inquiry are fading, warns Hussein Ibish in this guest post.
The report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which was published on November 23, and the Cabinet Statement of November 21 acknowledging many of its more embarrassing findings represented the most significant opportunity for progress in Bahrain in many months.
But it appears that neither the government nor opposition groups are moving quickly or decisively to take advantage of it and instead are continuing with the confrontation that has been simmering since the uprising was crushed last spring. I described this confrontation in “The Bahrain Uprising: Towards Confrontation or Accommodation?” – a briefing paper for The Henry Jackson Society (right) - published on the same day as the commission report.
Particularly disturbing was the use of force against Shia protesters on November 24, the day after the report was published, which was part of a now-familiar pattern of controversial deaths and violent clashes and funerals. It suggested that the modus operandi of security forces had not been affected by the commission’s findings.
While the cabinet says that at least 20 security officers will face prosecution for their role in the crackdown, there have been no high-level resignations and no dramatic reorganization in the security forces.
On November 28, the king did decree that security forces would now have to refer cases “requiring arrests” to the Interior Ministry. And there have been some changes in the top security personnel in Bahrain.
Major-General Adel bin Khalifa bin Hamad Al Fadhel has been appointed acting National Security Agency chief. He replaced Shaikh Khalifa bin Abdulla bin Mohammed Al Khalifa who has hardly been demoted, and will now serve as “Supreme Defense Council secretary-general and advisor to HM the King for national security affairs with the rank of minister.”
None of this is likely to reassure anyone that a major transformation is underway.
The primary government response has been the creation of a National Committee to examine the commission’s recommendations and report back to the king by February. This sets up a potentially endless cycle of commissions referring to committees that in turn refer to working groups and so forth, with a large amount of process and little substance.
Opposition groups pointed out that the commission had suggested any follow-up committee should be jointly appointed, not created by royal decree. Indeed, the charge of unilateralism was among the most serious complaints leveled by the opposition against the commission from the start.
Reportedly the largest opposition group, Al Wefaq, has had at least two members invited to join the new committee but has refused to participate. This mirrors its stance of boycotting parliamentary balloting in September and refusing to participate in the legislature under the current circumstances.
One can readily understand the opposition’s skepticism about the government’s intentions and this entire process. However, the commission report was hardly the whitewash that many opposition figures had predicted. To the contrary, it was surprisingly blunt about the excessive use of force and other abuses on the part of security services, even though it did not go as far as many would have wanted with regard to the systematic nature of abuses.
Without being in the least naïve, it’s important to recognize that for all its failings, Bahrain’s government has gone further than any other Arab regime currently facing a popular uprising in what in effect amounts to self-criticism: sponsoring and welcoming a report that is frankly critical of the crackdown.
As they have several times since the protest movement began early in the year, moderates in both the government and the opposition appeared to be allowing themselves to be outflanked by more hard-line elements.
Rather than taking advantage of whatever opportunity might have been presented by the commission report, opposition figures can continue to insist that no real reforms are on the table, and government supporters can continue to claim the opposition are simply subversives and continue on the path of confrontation rather than accommodation.
Nothing in the aftermath of the commission report suggests either side is seriously adapting its approach and both are behaving much as they did before it was published. Most troublingly, there is still no working mechanism or venue for meaningful dialogue between the parties.
But this pattern cannot continue, since it is inherently unstable and volatile. The simmering tensions and barely-contained violence of recent months could boil over at any moment, to the benefit of neither the government nor the mainstream opposition. The opposition would no doubt correctly note that the government holds most of the cards, but they too have agency, responsibilities and a major role in determining the future of their country.
Neither the government and the Sunni minority on the one hand, nor the opposition and the Shia majority on the other, can hope for any kind of decisive “victory” over the other in the long run, even in a political war of attrition. At some point if Bahrainis of all stripes are to face a reasonable future, they are going to have to achieve a political accommodation, undoubtedly involving much greater forms of constitutionalism and wider social and political enfranchisement than currently exists.
This means serious-minded, reasonable forces on both sides will have to move quickly and decisively to take advantage of any opportunity for significant progress. Unfortunately, precisely such a potential opportunity has just presented itself and appears to have been squandered in favor of business as usual.