al Wefaq and the Politics of Stalling
Friday's (25 January) demonstration-turned-riot in Manama is a clear reminder of the hurdles that continue to obstruct a working national dialogue to defuse political tensions in Bahrain. Every step undertaken, every concession made and every good-will gesture is greeted with renewed violence. Since ensuring public safety is the prime obligation of Bahrain's government, when violence occurs it has no option but to deploy its security forces to restore order. There is nothing exceptional about Bahrain's response to violence, all responsible governments retain police forces precisely for dealing with such antisocial behaviours.
Friday's violence could easily have been prevented, al Wefaq - which claims to represent the opposition in Bahrain - could have acted maturely and reinforced the position of the government that the demonstration was illegal. And it was illegal! A permit to demonstrate was submitted and it was rejected on grounds that it would pose a threat to the peace. This is another essential role that governments play, to ensure that demonstrations occur in a place and at a time where demonstrators may voice their opinions without undermining the freedoms of other citizens.
Again, Bahrain is hardly unique in regulating the venue and timing of demonstrations. It is difficult to imagine the British government, for instance, authorising a demonstration in the centre of Covent Gardens, particularly if it was certain that violence would ensue. Yet, so many continue to blame the Bahraini government for fulfilling the tasks of governance and in doing so reveal the extent that hypocrisy determines policy towards the country.
Why did al Wefaq not attempt to prevent the outbreak of violence? Why has it insisted that demonstrations - even illegal ones - continue while pledging to work with the government in the national dialogue?
There are two possible answers and neither is encouraging.
First, and perhaps most obvious given two years of intransigence, al Wefaq is disinterested in national dialogue; it harbours other ambitions and deploys tactics of deliberate stalling to purchase time. If this is accurate, what is al Wefaq holding out for? Do they envision a solution that does not include the government? Are they playing for time in the hope that external pressures hoist them to political prevalence? If such logic underlines al Wefaq's lethargy, then they bear sole responsibility for the lack of concrete progress in the national dialogue since the government has showed it's willingness to engage with al Wefaq so long as the bloc meets them halfway. They have not done so and thus the time may be approaching for the government to engage with others, those that genuinely want to heal the rift the past two years has caused, and write-off al Wefaq altogether. Time is of the essence and if the bloc is deliberately set in molasses-mode it clearly does not have the national interest in mind.
Exclusion from engagement may, in fact, be the correct approach since the second reason behind al Wefaq's stalling tactics may be that it is already irrelevant among so many in the opposition exactly because it has not worked diligently enough alongside the government for reform. After two years of false promises and the stoking of vividly wild ideas, al Wefaq is increasingly seen from within its own ranks - re: opposition groups - as delegitimated, as spoilers for nothing more than their own party-centric aggrandisement. They forced themselves into the spotlight and have become addicted to holding out, not reconciliation. In short, for reform to work self-promotion needs to be eclipsed by negotiation and compromise and, it seems, that al Wefaq is incapable of either.
Instead of engaging in the well-worn rhetoric that complains the government is attempting to pervert reform, it is time for the true culprits of stalling, al Wefaq, to finally be held to account. If the bloc is unable to deliver a working settlement - especially one that engages all segments of society, including the expat community - then their brokerage role must be suspended and new negotiating partners found.
There is no other choice. Bahrain will move forward; beyond the past years of unrest. It will reinvent itself and the process of national healing will unfold. If al Wefaq wants to belong to that future, it needs to assume its place at the tables of negotiation now or be relegated to a footnote of Bahraini history.
Such a diagnosis is not based on blind assumption; life in Bahrain goes on and even the outbreak of violence now and again will not derail the transformation of the Kingdom. The markets are bustling, new construction projects and land reclamation speckle the horizon and people, in general, are eager for the full return to normality.
So, al Wefaq, what line will you tow when the sweeping majority of Bahrainis, from every walk of life and full of positive expectations, determine that you are an anachronism? Will you spout the same lines while everyone else contributes to making the gem of the Arabian Gulf an even better place to live? If your interests are truly entwined with social developments, you will have to climb down from your standoffishness and work with the government at reforming the Kingdom, but you will have to do so fairly and with honest intents. If not, well then it seems political irrelevance awaits.