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BAHRAIN: Planned Talks Bring Hope for Peace

Suad Hamada

MANAMA, Jun 8 2011 (IPS) - A national dialogue with no preconditions could bring the situation in Bahrain back to normal after a military crackdown that followed months of unrest.

Three opposition groups – the Democratic Nationalist Rally, the Democratic Progressive Tribune and the National Democratic Action Society (Waad) – have welcomed the dialogue slated to start Jul. 1. The Al Wefaq National Islamic Society that led protests in February and March before the declaration of a three-month state of emergency also hinted that it approved of the talks.

In a statement issued early this month, Al Wefaq welcomed a comprehensive dialogue based on a national consensus to achieve the demands and aspirations of Bahrainis. The group hinted that its engagement in the talks would depend on the involvement of Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who suggested the idea at the height of the unrest in February.

The protests in Bahrain, inspired by the political movements in Egypt and Tunisia, started on Feb. 14 with calls for better housing services and living conditions, and escalated to demand the overthrow of the regime.

The unrest has affected people’s lives and the economy. One example was the postponement of the Formula One race that had been scheduled for March. The announcement of the dialogue might have influenced the FIA Grand Prix’s decision to agree to hold the games in October.

A probe by a parliamentary committee found that the Bahrain Petroleum Company lost six million Bahraini dinars (almost 16 million dollars) because of a strike called by the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions in March. The investigation looked into irregularities in the company, which generates around 70 percent of the state’s revenues.

The strike that continued for one week in March led to the loss of some 2,000 jobs in both the private and public sectors, said the opposition newspaper Al Wasat. The Ministry of Labour has promised to work with companies to re-hire workers who were fired to keep the unemployment rate below the usual upper limit of four percent.

“I say yes to the dialogue to remove Bahrain from what it is going through right now,” business journalist Hana Buhiji told IPS. “There are many announced demands and for a successful dialogue, ideas should be reviewed to organise those demands according to their priorities for the nation and citizens before putting them on the negotiating table,” she said.

Buhiji also called for proper channels for all parties in the talks to reach a middle ground. “If the dialogue wouldn’t do that or would try to reduce demands, then it is going to be a waste of time. This would affect economic, political and social lives in Bahrain,” she said.

“All segments of society should be involved in the dialogue, especially those who are representing all Bahrainis. It should be precise and just, so that our real demands can reach the negotiating table,” she urged, while highlighting the importance of flexibility and the acceptance of different viewpoints.

Violence and clashes during the unrest led to the death of 13 protesters, four policemen and seven civilians who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, according to statistics released by the Ministry of Interior. Figures presented to parliament showed that 391 police officers and 56 innocent citizens and residents sustained injuries. The opposition, however, said the number of casualties among protesters is much higher than the official figure.

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa assigned legislative and executive authorities to call for the dialogue and ensure proper procedures for smooth and open deliberations.

The King invited everyone to take part in the initiative to further push for reforms and meet citizens’ expectations for peace, justice and stability. The outcome of the dialogue is to be referred to the King for implementation according to constitutional principles.

Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs and Endowments Shaikh Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa said the dialogue would include everyone, with no exceptions.

“The approval of the four opposition societies was welcomed by ordinary citizens,” said Ubaidly Al- Ubaidly, Al Wasat columnist and editor-in-chief. He added that people feared those societies might hinder the dialogue by setting conditions that are hard to achieve, and that this could throw Bahrain back into dark times again.

“Citizens look to the dialogue not for major political benefits, but for things that touch their lives directly, such as better living conditions and stability,” he said while urging the opposition societies to unite to negotiate for the best for the country and the people. He said all those involved in the talks should genuinely work to make them a success and push for fruitful results.

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