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Violence Intensifies as Bahrain Awaits Peace Talks

  • Phillip Walter Wellman

Bahraini pro-democracy protesters wave signs, pictures of prisoners and people killed in three years of unrest, Abu Saiba, west of Manama, March 21, 2014.

Bahraini pro-democracy protesters wave signs, pictures of prisoners and people killed in three years of unrest, Abu Saiba, west of Manama, March 21, 2014.

At the beginning of 2014 there was new hope in Bahrain that a political consensus might finally be reached to help end the country’s three-year-long civil conflict.

The crown prince met directly with opposition leaders in January, the first meeting since pro-democracy protests erupted in 2011.

While the gesture aroused hopes that national reconciliation talks could be revived, two months later no discussions have taken place, and deadly violence has risen to a level not seen since the height of the uprising.

Now, a fourth attempt to stage successful peace talks in Bahrain is in the works.

According to organizers, all parties to the talks have listed issues of importance to them, and a final agenda is being compiled that should result in some progress.

The opposition previously argued that the dialogue was flawed from the start, and designed to prevent meaningful change to the way power is structured and exercised in Bahrain. Those who spoke out also complained about the lack of royal participation.

The government says that when talks restart, a greater number of senior officials will be present.

But as officials push ahead with their plans, many Bahrainis have become disillusioned with the drawn-out process.

"There’s a question to what extent even the political representatives of Bahraini society can now claim to speak for the constituents that they represent," says Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a research fellow from Rice University in the United States. "That goes for government-backed organizations as well as the opposition."

At the same time, as active participation in organizations across the political spectrum declines, the small island nation has seen a growing radicalization.

Salman al-Jalahma, speaking for Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority, says the threat of violence is not only becoming more prevalent, but also more extreme.

"The Ministry of Interior has been uncovering 'sleeper cells' - more and more of them in the past few months — 'sleeper cells' that [contain] weapons intended for mass destruction," he said. "In the last three or four months [there has been a] heavy use of militant guerrilla warfare, and it’s been the first time since last year that the number of real bombs far outnumber the number of fake bombs across the country."

A bomb blast earlier this month killed three police officers in a village west of the capital, Manama, and last month an officer was fatally wounded in an explosion on the third anniversary of the country's Shi’ite-led uprising.

Despite the rise in violence, Bahraini opposition groups say the government must make big changes in its domestic-security policy if national dialogue is to succeed.

Police are said to routinely target innocent civilians and use tear gas indiscriminately in Shi’ite neighborhoods, and opposition activists say Bahrain is holding more than 3,000 political prisoners.

Abdul Jalil Khalil Ebrahim, speaking for the main opposition party al-Wefaq, met with the crown prince in January. Events since then, he says, have made him doubtful that reconciliation talks can succeed.

"You can’t move with the political approach and at the same time use the same security measures," he said. "Once you stop the security measures, you pave the road for the political approach to move ahead."

Ebrahim says the government’s tactics fuel radical action rather than curtail it.

"You see, the people, their relatives, are either arrested or killed or sacked from their business," he said. "You can’t control the youth. You can’t control their reaction. The only solution for such things is to start with a genuine political dialogue. If no hope, Bahrain will go nowhere."

Apart from their complaints about discrimination, Bahrain’s majority Shi’ites say they should have greater rights and benefits. Only if the Sunni monarchy acts on their demands, Shi'ite leaders say, can democratic reform move forward. Government officials say they expect the national dialogue to resume very shortly.

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