The pardoning and release from jail of prominent opposition figures like Nabeel Rajab and Ibrahim Sharif can only be seen as a serious attempt by the Bahraini authorities to achieve a degree of consensus with those elements of the opposition who try and portray themselves as relatively moderate and non-sectarian.
However, the inflammatory 11 July speech by Ibrahim Sharif is an unfortunate indication that some of these figures have not moved on in their thinking from the events of 2011.
February 2011 cost Bahrain a great deal in a number of ways. These events set Bahrain’s economy back at least two years. Recent difficulties arriving at a balanced Budget and controlling levels of debt are a direct result of those events.
The fact that there is less money to go around in 2015 for supporting low income families, job creation and assisting those with special needs, is very directly a result of the damage brought about in 2011.
It is a simple fact that Bahrain cannot afford a return to this kind of instability. Thus, difficult choices have to be made about how to deal with those who are still inciting violence and unrest and whose actions threaten to undo all the progress which has been made over the past four years.
Amnesties and pardons have to be a two-way street. Clearly the hope was that through overtures with opposition figures on the left-wing and relatively liberal fringes; this could pave the way towards political consensus and during the page on the traumatic events of 2011.
That is why Ibrahim Sharif’s 11 July speech was the political equivalent of a hand grenade. His words were a flashback of 2011, with the language of “martyrs”, “revolution” and overthrowing the monarchy. His attacks on the Government used language which was particularly shocking and unpleasant. “Now is the time” he repeated over and over again as if he was still standing at Pearl Roundabout.
As head of Wa’ad political society Ibrahim Sharif in the past had a significant following among Sunni liberals, intellectuals and the middle class. After Wa’ad allied itself with the sectarian agenda of Al-Wefaq Islamic Society, those political constituencies deserted Wa’ad completely and today you would struggle to find anyone from this demographic who still affiliates themselves with Wa’ad.
Therefore, it was telling in his speech the degree to which Sharif was reaching out to pro-opposition Shia militants. Instead of seeking reconciliation or aspiring to a shared political vision – Sharif was transparently trying to establish a new political constituency for himself in the most inflammatory manner possible. As a result, Sharif’s subsequent detention surprised nobody.
Bahrain’s leadership is absolutely right not to give up on prospects for political consensus. It is also impossible to ignore the fact that detaining figures like Nabil Rajab and Ibrahim does harm to Bahrain’s international reputation.
However, these attempts to reduce the political temperature and create a more responsive climate for dialogue will only work if these attempts are reciprocated. If figures like Nabeel Rajab, Khalil Marzouq, Ibrahim Sharif and Ali Salman exploit each attempt at reconciliation to engage in self-serving campaigns of incitement; then they kill off any prospects for reconciliation from the outset and force the authorities to take action to preempt new rounds of disturbances.
By continuing to fight the battles of 2011, Ibrahim Sharif forces Bahrainis to go round in circles and blocks all routes to a dignified political exit from the ongoing standoff.
The royal pardons are a welcome and brave step and demonstrate the seriousness and good will of the authorities in taking Bahrain forward towards a more unified and prosperous future. We hope that there are enlightened figures within the opposition who realize that they cannot afford to miss this opportunity to collectively embark on a new chapter for Bahrain.