12th Feb, 2013 –
Almost exactly two years after unrest first broke out in Bahrain, on 10 February 2013 representatives of Bahrain’s major political groupings sat down for a new round of the National Consensus Dialogue, with the aim of addressing the main grievances arising from the unrest.
This round of dialogue came following a call for talks from the Crown Prince in December 2011, which was in turn welcomed by major opposition groups.
How do things look so far?
It is very early days. However, the first session seems to have been remarked on positively by attendees on all sides. According to the Dialogue spokesperson, Isa Abdulrahman: All sides expressed a sense of “compromise” and there was a positive response in discussion of the agenda. “The overall feeling was that the members wanted to move towards a solution to the stalemate and they aimed to achieve common ground,” he said.
Have all groups accepted the path of dialogue?
The major established political groupings from the opposition have attended. However, there is opposition to dialogue from militant elements of the opposition who say that Bahrain’s leadership won’t voluntarily make concessions.
Is Al-Wefaq in or out?
Opposition society Al-Wefaq agreed their attendance at a meeting just two hours before the Dialogue began. They said that their attendance was merely to submit a nine-point agenda and their participation in the Dialogue was conditional on acceptance of this agenda in full.
A major concern for Al-Wefaq is the active participation of the Government, to ensure that there could be implementation of agreed measures.
Is the Government included?
The Government is represented by Justice Minister Shaikh Khalid Bin Ali Al Khalifah and two other representatives.
Who is participating?
29 members were present at the commencement of the dialogue: eight from the National Alliance Coalition of ten societies, eight from six Opposition societies, four independent members each from the Shura Council and Parliament and three ministers. The session was mediated by two government-designated members.
The Coalition was led by Ahmed Jumaa (National Action Charter Society) and the members were Abdul Rahman Baker (National Constitutional Gathering Society), Ahmad Al-Binali (Al-Wasat al-Arabi Islamic Society), Khalid Al-Qattan (Al-Minbar National Islamic Society), Abdulla Al-Huweihi (National Unity Assembly), Adnan Bader (Al-Asalah Islamic Society) and Abdulrahman Abdul Salam (Islamic Shura Society).
The opposition team was headed by spokesperson Hassan Al-Ali (National Democratic Assembly) and members Dr. Munira Fakhro, Abdulla Janahi and Hafidh Ali from the National Democratic Action Society (Wa’ad); Abdulnabi Salman and Hameed Al-Mulla from the Democratic Progressive Tribune; Sayed Jameel Khadim from Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society and Musa Al-Ansari from Al-Ekhaa Society.
The moderators were Judges Khalid Ajaji (Ministry of Justice) and Abdulla Taleb.
MPs Ahmed Al-Saati, Sawsan Taqawi, Latifa Al-Gaoud and Abdulhakim Al-Shammary are the Parliamentarian members, alongside Shura Council members; Dalal Al-Zayed, Jameela Salman, Dr. Abdul Aziz Abul and Khalid Al-Maskati.
What is the format for the 2013 Dialogue?
After the first 10 February meeting, participants agreed to continue meeting on a twice weekly basis, which would allow participants to go away and consult with their respective groupings.
What meaningful concessions can we expect the parties to make?
It is difficult to say how much flexibility we can expect. Both the leadership and the opposition have so far engaged constructively, but the opposition shows little sign of caving in on its demand for an elected Government, and few on the loyalist side accept such a solution, partly because they fear that Al-Wefaq is the single largest political party and could with ease impose its vision on any future Government.
The Government, continues to emphasize that street violence should stop if the opposition is serious about engaging in dialogue.
The origins of the National Consensus Dialogue
Who called for National Dialogue in early 2011?
Crown Prince Salman Bin Hamad initiated calls for dialogue in early February 2011, following confrontations between protesters and police centred on Pearl Roundabout. The opposition coalition led by Al-Wefaq society later refused the Crown Prince’s dialogue by demanding that first the Prime Minister and Government resign. Hence, as the security situation continued to unravel in early March there was little readiness from the opposition to negotiate.
The July 2011 National Dialogue was called for by HM the King and headed by Parliament Chairman Khalifa Al-Dhahrani. Al-Wefaq later withdrew from the Dialogue, but Wa’ad, the liberal front of the opposition continued.
What were the circumstances in Bahrain during the first 2011 Dialogue?
The country was divided, the political future was unclear and sectarianism was on the rise as a result of incidents that took place during that period. The economy and tourism were also struggling. Hence National Dialogue was a step forward. The opposition, Ministers and loyalists came together under one roof and tried to address their differences.
Who participated in the 2011 dialogue?
More than 300 representatives of NGOs, including political societies, representatives of the government, members of the Shura Council, Parliament, leading community figures, religious scholars and businessmen.
A remarkable fact was how well figures from all sides interacted with each other during the Dialogue. Those attending remarked on how opposition and Government representatives would be seen sharing gossip and jokes during coffee breaks – an indicator of how small and close-knit Bahrain’s society has always been.
What did people hope to achieve?
People on both sides hoped to achieve changes in the political and social ambience in the country. The opposition insisted on an elected government; a matter that did not enjoy consensus among the participants at the dialogue. The recommendations were later submitted to the King; some of them were passed as laws and others that required legislation were discussed in the Parliament and Shura Council.
What was discussed?
The Dialogue was divided into four themes, political, economic, social and human rights. Any topic of significance to Bahraini society was open for discussion, including the election of a Cabinet. Other main topics were changes to the election process, setting a criteria to the membership of the appointed Shura Council, appointing and questioning of ministers, etc.
The central principle of this dialogue was consensus, i.e.: this is not about one sect imposing its political vision on everyone else. Recommendations were collectively arrived at with the aspiration of benefiting everyone.
There were no limitations or a ceiling to any topic of discussion.
Why was the 2011 Dialogue perceived to have failed?
The withdrawal of Al-Wefaq, which held 18 seats in the previous Parliament, was portrayed as representing the collapse of Dialogue, as Al-Wefaq is generally seen as the main branch of the opposition.
What led to Al-Wefaq pulling out? How did the opposition regard dialogue?
Al-Wefaq emphasized its poor level of representation among numerous participants and their belief that the Government did not have the desire to compromise.
Salafi MP Jassim al-Saeedi openly called Bahraini Shias ‘traitors’ and ‘non-believers’ in one of the sessions, which immediately triggered Al-Wefaq’s withdrawal.
Even some loyalists believed that the Dialogue was in part a publicity stunt and were cynical about the possibility of tangible results. Others perceived it as an opportunity for reconciliation, rather than a fruitful dialogue that could bring about change. Many loyalists refused the idea of a dialogue with the opposition who they saw as violent revolutionaries and ‘traitors’.
What amendments were made to the constitution as a result of the 2011 Dialogue?
The 2012 Constitutional Amendments are taken directly from the proposals which were agreed during the National Dialogue. Among the significant changes are the following measures:
If a Minister is judged to be incompetent, or to have failed in implementing their programme, they can be challenged by Parliament and ultimately removed from their post.
The Government cannot force its programme on the people. The elected Parliament has to agree this programme, and it is the elected house of Parliament which has sole responsibility for monitoring and ensuring full and effective implementation of these agreed policies.
For the first time the elected House of Parliament (Council of Representatives) has been decreed to hold sway over the appointed House (the Shura Council). This means in practice that if there is disagreement between the two, the head of the elected house holds sway. Responsibility for supervision of the performance of the Government has been taken out of the hands of the Shura Council and is now the sole responsibility of the elected Council of Deputies.
The post of Prime Minister is now increasingly subject to the powers of the Parliament. The Prime Minister can only hold his or her post with Parliamentary approval; and his/her Government and the Government programme require approval from the Parliament. When there are disagreements over these issues, the Parliament is in a significantly stronger position for making proposals to the King about what kind of formula would be acceptable to them as representatives of the people.
Why didn’t dialogue resume in 2012?
During 2012 the opposition generally ignored invitations to Dialogue. Sunni groupings like the National Unity Gathering also rejected the principle of dialogue against a backdrop of rioting, violence and attacks on police and citizens.
The opposition’s emphasis on the idea of an elected government also became increasingly a red line for loyalist groups.