MANAMA (Reuters) - For Maryam Abdullah Jawad, a Shi‘ite Muslim, grief at the loss of her son prevents her even contemplating the idea of solving Bahrain’s political ferment by talking to its hereditary rulers.
“Ali was like a flower and they plucked him,” said the 40-year-old schoolteacher, whose eldest son was killed in August 2011 aged 14 during a protest.
“We cannot sit in dialogue with the Al Khalifa.”
Two years of political conflict in strategically vital Bahrain has left the island’s small population bitterly divided over the country’s future, even as its political leaders make tentative moves towards reconciliation.
The Sunni-led government, led by the Al Khalifa family, and Shi‘ite-dominated opposition have resumed a “national dialogue” for the first time in 18 months, aimed at resolving a crisis that began with mass pro-democracy protests in February 2011.
But Jawad’s comments reflect a political atmosphere charged with mutual recrimination, and with the authorities unwilling to budge on the opposition’s main demand for an elected government, nobody on either side pretends a breakthrough will be easy.
Even accounts of Ali’s death are contested. Although independent investigators, including those of an inquiry last year led by Egyptian-American jurist Cherif Bassiouni, found his injuries compatible with witness accounts he was hit by a tear gas canister, the government’s own report said he had not been.
For all the glimmers of hope at a luxury desert resort that hosted the new talks on Sunday, it takes only a brief excursion into poorer Shi‘ite Muslim neighborhoods to sense the extent of Bahrain’s problems.
The tarmac of roads leading to Jawad’s neighborhood of Sitra has been torn up to make crude barricades against police cars and houses in the area bore stenciled portraits of the dead, including Ali.
In Sitra, a district of fishing villages before the seafront was pushed back via land reclamations, graffiti demands the fall of the Al Khalifa and urges justice for those killed in unrest.
Two crude effigies, representing a riot policeman and a ruling family member, swung by the neck from lampposts nearby.
Bahrain, home to the United States’ main Middle East military presence via the fifth fleet, lies on a sectarian fault line aggravated by the regional tussle for influence between Shi‘ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.
Its Shi‘ite majority has long complained of entrenched discrimination, and their loyalty has been openly questioned by members of Bahrain’s Sunni ruling family, bound by historical and marriage ties to that of Riyadh.
“For us it is very important (the dialogue is successful) and I hope it is the same for the other groups,” Bahrain’s Information Minister, Samira Rajab, told Reuters.
“We are very serious with the dialogue.”
Early exchanges in the talks have focused entirely on procedural issues such as the agenda and the composition of participants, signs that the opposition remains very wary about a dialogue it fears may be intended purely for show.
Rajab looks askance at the possibility, raised by the opposition, that it could quit the talks if it does not like the way the discussions are going.
“So far the statements (the opposition) made after the first session was not positive,” she said. “They keep saying they are not sure they will continue the dialogue. On the other side, they push the violence on the road.”
Both sides fear a repeat of what happened during previous, unsuccessful, attempts at dialogue.
Ruling family moderates lost influence to hardliners after the opposition delayed its response to the Crown Prince’s offer of talks. Then, in a formal dialogue in July 2011, the opposition quit when it became clear it would be vastly outnumbered by pro-government representatives.
“Some people are saying this dialogue is a trap. We are really very, very careful,” Abduljalil Khalil Ebrahim, a senior official in Wefaq, the main opposition group.
Analysts debate whether ruling family moderates remain sidelined. The opposition complains that harsh judgments are being handed down in courts and security services remain heavy-handed, both signals, they say, of hardliner ascendancy.
But Western observers in Manama say the fact that Crown Prince Salman was able to push for this round of talks, and that the state press has toned down its rhetoric about the opposition, suggests the government position may be softening.
The role of Saudi Arabia will be crucial. The kingdom, on which Bahrain is financially dependent, aided Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy by sending troops at the height of the crisis.
Riyadh, where stemming Iranian influence on the Arab side of the Gulf is an overbearing concern, is said by analysts to view an elected prime minister in Bahrain as a red line.
There have been near daily demonstrations in Bahrain since the end of martial law in June 2011, often ending in violent confrontations as youths throw stones or petrol bombs and police fire birdshot pellets and tear gas.
Rights and political activists accuse the government of persistent police brutality. The authorities point to what they describe as “terrorist” attacks on security patrols.
Round the corner from Jawad’s house, protected by concrete anti-blast blocks, five black-clad security officers sat outside a police station, shotguns resting between their legs.
Shi‘ites point to the decrepit state of their communities, the impoverished houses and narrow streets, as evidence of the wider discrimination they say the majority community endures.
They complain they cannot get good government or military jobs and that despite being more than half the population, their views are sidelined. The government denies discrimination.
In the upscale Sunni district of Rifa, things could not be more different.
Most shops on its busy main street proudly display photographs of leading ruling family members, particularly of the prime minister, who is seen by Shi‘ites as a hardliner.
“The government has some rules. Respect these rules. If you want a better life, respect the rules,” said Hussein Mohammed, 28, an off-duty policeman, lounging with a group of friends against a large car emblazoned with the national flag.
His friend, Mohammed Khaled al-Abdullah, 21, a soldier, said he had no problem with Shi‘ites, but added that Iran was behind anti-government protests.
Sectarian ill-feeling is worse than older Bahrainis can ever remember. Jasim Husain, a former Wefaq parliament member, said: “There are people who are communists or socialists but they are sectarian ... Bahrain has lost much because of this attitude.”
Reporting By Angus McDowall, Editing by William Maclean and Samia Nakhoul