Bahrain: Dialogue Begins with Protests and Skepticism

As the National Dialogue began on Saturday, about 500 protesters marched from surrounding Shiite villages towards the capital. Upset with the opposition al-Wefaq party’s decision to participate in the dialogue and the recent sentencing of activists, they shouted: “no dialogue without the downfall of the regime.” After clashing with police, the mostly young protesters were dispersed with teargas and rubber bullets. The youth movement has refused to participate in the dialogue.

In the coming weeks, four-hour meetings will be held three times per week with participants grouped into committees of about 50, comprised of representatives from the government, opposition groups, unions, women’s societies, journalists, businesses and professional societies. The first meeting is expected to begin Tuesday night, focusing on the four themes of the Dialogue: political, social, economic, and legal issues. Yet controversy surrounds the minimal representation of opposition groups, which have been given 35 out of the 300 spots. While participants are meant to dictate the direction of the talks, there are too many representatives handpicked by the government, and too few from opposition groups. Citing the sensitivity of the Bahrani regime to international criticism, Shadi Hamid argues that the National Dialogue is the “right gesture,” but following the pattern of Arab regimes’ past reform efforts, “the fundamental power structure doesn’t change in any way.”