from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Can Bahrain Save Itself?

June 03, 2011

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The first real glimmers of positive news emerged from Bahrain in the last two days. The king lifted the state of emergency on June 1. He then called for “all necessary steps to prepare for a serious dialogue, comprehensive and without preconditions” that would “start from July 1,” and sent the interior minister to meet that same day with opposition parties. Those parties have now responded positively; the main group, al Wefaq, said it “welcomes the appeal from King Hamad for a serious, comprehensive dialogue based on the principle of national consensus.”

The Government of Bahrain has a great deal of ground to make up, and must persuade the opposition parties and its Shia population that this offer of dialogue is serious. Previous efforts have failed, largely due to the conduct of the security forces. Even this week, while the government talked of dialogue, the New York Times reports that “security forces attacked peaceful protesters in more than 20 villages with rubber bullets, stun grenades, shotguns and tear gas, according to human rights observers in Bahrain.”

Such conduct must stop or opposition leaders will be forced to suspend participation in any dialogue—even before it begins in July. Moreover, those discussions must cover how to deal with those who are now unjustly imprisoned and with the claims of those who were injured or killed this year. There must be some fair mechanism to investigate and punish abuses by the security forces.

This week Bahrain’s Foreign Minister, Sheik Khaled, was in Washington meeting with U.S. Government officials and others interested in Bahrain, and next week Crown Prince Salman will visit here and see Secretary Clinton and the president. This is putting Bahrain’s best foot forward, for the crown prince is widely regarded as supportive of reforms and Sheik Khaled is a highly skilled and very popular envoy. According to Bahraini official sources, in the dialogue all constitutional reforms will be on the table. It is understood that some power must move from the king to the elected assembly, and that the assembly must be far more representative of Bahrain’s majority-Shia population than today’s gerrymanders permit. The impression I was given is that such objectives are acceptable to the king, and the main argument will be over timing and phasing of any reforms. It can’t happen all at once, officials say, especially “in our neighborhood” where Bahrain’s larger and richer neighbors will look askance at any serious progress toward constitutional monarchy.

Bahrain can save itself if the king is truly open to such reforms. Of course, the opposition must act responsibly as well—but its leaders have largely done so since the beginning of this crisis. The king, the crown prince, and Sheik Khaled should concentrate in the coming weeks on restraining police actions that can poison the atmosphere once again. Given the history of police abuses in the last several months, and the apparent divisions within the royal family over whether to crush the opposition or talk with it, this may be the greatest short-term challenge.