MANAMA/DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahrain launches a national dialogue Saturday but many in the Shi’ite majority doubt the ruling Sunni monarchy will offer the concessions that could heal wounds caused by a crackdown on pro-democracy protests.
The kingdom, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, has accused its mostly Shi’ite protesters of a sectarian agenda backed from non-Arab Shi’ite power Iran, across Gulf waters.
In March, Bahrain’s Sunni rulers imposed emergency law, inviting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to send troops, and tanks rolled into the island as local forces cleared the streets of protesters, arresting hundreds of people.
Inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that toppled rulers in those countries, Bahrain’s Shi’ites called for a greater say in government and an end to what they say was systematic discrimination in access to jobs and social services.
The tiny Gulf Arab state has spent weeks preparing for the talks, which it says will discuss political, economic, social and legal reforms that could ease longstanding grievances and which are expected to last at least a month.
“We need to ensure this dialogue quickly offers real political situations to create stability,” said Wefaq spokesman Khalil al-Marzouq. “Otherwise the situation will explode again.”
King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa said “all options” were on the table” for negotiations,
With protests erupting daily in the winding alleys of Shi’ite villages ringing the capital Manama, opposition groups have been torn over whether or not to attend talks that most of their supporters believe will fail.
Wefaq, the leading Shi’ite opposition group, announced it would attend the dialogue at a rally of tens of thousands of supporters Friday evening.
The audience responded to the news by shouting: “We want the freedom of all our prisoners.”
“No one cares or us, no one is listening to us. We will go to the dialogue, but if the dialogue does not deliver what the people need, we will withdraw,” the party leader Sheikh Ali Salman told cheering supporters waving Bahraini flags.
The area was so crowded some crammed on rooftops as a state helicopter buzzed overhead.
Wefaq sources told Reuters there had been heated debates over whether the group could maintain its credibility with its large support base if it went to talks and they failed to achieve tangible reforms.
Bahrain has offered some concessions ahead of Saturday’s talks. It established a panel to investigate deaths and arrests that Shi’ites bore the brunt of after the protests, and plans to withdraw most, though not all, Saudi troops.
National dialogue spokesman Isa Abdulrahman said the dialogue offered an opportunity for reform and easing Sunni and Shi’ite divisions that threaten the country.
“The goal is to reach a consensus with everyone, it’s not about a vote. This is about bringing together all elements of Bahraini society to heal this nation so that it can move forward to a brighter future,” he told Reuters.
The forum has received hundreds of proposals for discussion and if delegates agree some reforms, the king could later sign them into law.
But critics point to the fact that just 35 of the 300 seats in the forum have been given to opposition groups, who say they will be unable to push for increased powers for a lower parliament whose authority is neutered by the king’s appointed upper Shura council.
“We looked at the other names, and so many of them we know are with the government. How is this going to be a dialogue?” asked one Wefaq official, who asked not to be named.
King Hamad, in a speech televised late Friday, said no voice in society would be marginalized.
“It will be a true dialogue in every respect and no section of Bahrain’s wide and diverse society will be ignored.”
Wednesday, King Hamad announced set up an independent, international commission to investigate the protests and the handling of the crackdown.
The move was hailed by rights groups such as Amnesty International, but opposition groups say the commission’s funding by the king throws its neutrality into doubt.
Any positive gesture has been overshadowed by the recent sentencing of eight prominent Shi’ite opposition leaders to life in prison, a move that roiled Shi’ite villages.
The rallying cry “Down(King) Hamad” is now mixed with the refrain: “No dialogue with al-Khalifa.”
Night and day, dozens of riot police cars patrol the Shi’ite villages that ring the capital Manama, waiting to snuff out protests. Most villagers say reconciliation is out of reach.
“It’s infuriating - the police camp out here at night, they watch us all day,” shouted Ahmed, an angry teen-ager watching from his home as police set up a checkpoint outside his dusty ramshackle village of Karzakan.
“They want our leaders to go to dialogue with a gun to their head, how is that consensus?”
Editing by Jon Boyle