1st Jan, 2014 –

It is difficult to predict which direction political events in Bahrain will take. A key milestone is the Parliamentary elections scheduled for later in the year; but it is currently uncertain whether or not the opposition will boycott these.

Part of the uncertainty arises from the lack of a clear strategy from the various political forces for emerging from the current crisis.

This is particularly noticeable from the leading opposition grouping Al-Wefaq Islamic Society, which has walked away from the negotiating table and has backed itself into a corner by laying down some conditions for coming back to talks; which few expect that the other parties can accept.

Where does this leave Al-Wefaq and the mainstream opposition? In the absence of a major change of stance from the Government, the opposition will either be forced to drastically cut back on their preconditions for talks; or they may decide to temporarily abandon the path of Dialogue and return to rioting and mass protests.

However, the latter strategy is far from straightforward. Throughout 2013 and even much of 2012 the opposition failed to mobilize their supporters in sufficient numbers, in significant locations and for significant periods of time; only managing occasional one-off rallies.

As a result, the most noticeable opposition activity was a constant pattern of small scale rioting. These were notable for violent attacks against police; wide-scale use of Molotovs and simple weapons; and blocking roads with rubbish and burning tyres.

More serious still were a number of incidents using bombs and improvised explosives against civilian targets; like malls, a Mosque and public areas.

If Al-Wefaq fails to articulate a coherent strategy for getting themselves back into Dialogue, the inevitable result will be demoralization among many of their core supporters and increasing radicalization of the extremist elements of the opposition. This is potentially very dangerous; particularly with Iran and Hezbollah being only too willing to provide funding and support for any groups willing to undermine stability in Bahrain and the region.

On the other hand, we require a clear strategy from Bahrain’s leadership for engineering a peaceful end to the ongoing political stand-off. There will always need to be a police-driven security approach for countering terrorism, violence and rioting; but this must be achieved hand-in-hand with a strategy for engaging the views of all major political groupings and facilitating a process of reconciliation.

As was shown by the recent report by the BICI Follow-Up Unit; most of the Independent Commission’s Recommendations are currently being addressed; but more needs to be done to show what has been achieved and to demonstrate progress on some of the most sensitive issues, like full accountability for the events of early 2011.

More needs to be done by all sides to create a climate where the sides feel empowered to engage in Dialogue and real progress can be made.

Because of constant boycotts by Al-Wefaq and other groups, the National Dialogue process has lost credibility across Bahraini society. This is very dangerous and gives the opportunity for extremists to put forward their intolerant and sectarian visions for Bahrain’s future – this would be a disaster for us all.

If Al-Wefaq and other opposition groupings don’t participate in the 2014 elections, this is likely to mean another four years of extra-parliamentary agitation. Therefore, all sides have an interest in creating a climate where all major groups have a stake in contesting elections.

In this context, we understand the importance of taking measures against those stirring up sectarian tensions and destabilizing our society. However, there will be a careful balance to be struck in deciding whether to pursue measures against figures like Khalil Marzouq and Ali Salman. Have their words and actions broken the law and endangered social coherence; or should legal proceedings against such figures be avoided in the cause of confidence-building measures for reconciliation and Dialogue?

We cannot afford by December 2014 to be in the same position we’re in now. Reconciliation will entail brave steps and clear leadership from all sides.

It is not enough to have a strategy. That strategy must be properly understood by the wider society in order that support and consensus can be built up and in order that all sides can better understand each other’s methods and goals.

We hope that as we go in to 2014 there can be more of a public debate to help us feel that we have a shared vision for coping with the many challenges that still face us.

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