MANAMA (Reuters) - The unrest in Bahrain has moved back into the political arena after the government ordered security forces off the street, but dialogue with opposition groups has yet to get off the ground.
Divisions between formal opposition groups and the youth movement, thousands of whom are still protesting in Manama’s Pearl Square, could make it difficult to reach compromises.
Bahrain’s opposition looks increasingly divided between its established political groups and the youth movement that emerged after similar movements toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.
The common ground is they both want the release of political prisoners and a fully-elected government. Currently, the government is appointed by the king and about two-thirds of ministers are from the ruling al-Khalifa family.
Bahrain’s main Shi’ite opposition group Wefaq, which works within the political system and took part in elections before walking out of parliament last week, has said in the past it could accept placing the position of prime minister off the agenda as long as the government is elected.
Analysts say a Shi’ite prime minister in Bahrain would be strongly opposed by top oil exporter Saudi Arabia, with which Bahrain has close economic and political ties and which fears the regional influence of Shi’ite power Iran.
Some of the youth movement occupying Pearl Square, radicalised by the seven deaths during the protests, insist that the al-Khalifa family give up power completely.
The Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy, whose leader Hassan Mushaimaa is due to return to Bahrain from London on Tuesday, also disputes the legitimacy of the reform process launched by the king a decade ago, and does not take part in parliamentary elections. It broke away from Wefaq over the party’s decision to contest parliamentary elections in 2006.
Haq’s leaders have occasionally hinted that they question the legitimacy of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and the government has cracked down on them several times in recent years, although they were later pardoned by the king.
The government again arrested several of them during a broad security crackdown in August and charged a total of 25 Shi’ite activists, 23 of which are currently on trial, with trying to overthrow the government using violent means.
The Haq movement is thought to have the closest ties to the youth movement and street protesters, but Wefaq is also trying to reach out to them. Its leader Sheikh Ali Salman has addressed the square at least twice and the group has made efforts to engage the movement’s leaders, but progress is said to be slow.
* WHAT IS THE GOVERNMENT UP TO? The opposition groups Wefaq and Waad say they are waiting for a signal from the Crown Prince that the government will commit itself to an elected government in a constitutional monarchy before they start talks.
The crown prince has set no conditions for dialogue that he says has started already. He has ordered the military and security forces off the streets, under intense pressure from the United States and Britain.
The king has said that political prisoners would be released and proceedings against activists ended.
Analysts and diplomats say the government could finally dump Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the world’s longest serving head of government and a thorn in the side of both the opposition and the street movement.
He could continue in office for some time so that his resignation does not appear to be the result of the protests.
The government is also likely to allow Haq leader Hassan Mushaimaa into the country on Tuesday evening to avoid the bad publicity of arresting him at the airport, and to give the dialogue a chance.
Observers say Mushaimaa’s return could widen divisions within the opposition, especially if he appears at Pearl Square and supports the youth movement’s demands on the royal family.
The government is supported by most of the country’s Sunnis — estimated at about 30 percent of the national population by the U.S. State Department — as well as many of the country’s expatriate population, who account for just over half of the around 1.2 million people living in Bahrain.
Reporting by Frederik Richter; Editing by David Stamp