Did Bahrain’s Shi’ite opposition squander its democracy chance?

May 31, 2011

(Thousands of protesters gather at Pearl Roundabout in the heart of the Bahraini capital Manama February 15, 2011/Hamad I Mohammed)

As martial law comes to an end in the Gulf Arab state of Bahrain this week, opposition activists are wondering whether they threw away what might have been the first real chance for democracy in the Gulf Arab region.

Shortly after young Bahrainis, inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, converged on a roundabout in early February, the government offered dialogue with opposition parties on political reforms. But the talks failed to get off the ground. After weeks of behind-the-scenes discussions during which sectarian tension worsened between the Shi’ite majority and Sunnis who saw the ruling Al-Khalifa family as protection, Saudi troops poured in on March 15, martial law was declared the next day and the roundabout encampment was broken up on March 16.

Critics say the leading opposition party Wefaq, headed by Sheikh Ali Salman, failed to show leadership during the unrest, allowing hardliners within the ruling family and among the Shi’ite opposition to steer events. “What a massively missed opportunity. Wefaq should have had the conviction to stand ahead of the others and sit at the table. I’m sure they rue it,” one Western diplomat said. When talks eventually resume, he said, “the ceiling will be lower” and reforms could have been set back by a decade.

On Tuesday King Hamad called for reform talks “without preconditions” from July 1. But the parameters were vague, and with opposition leaders in jail, protesters off the streets and Wefaq attacked daily in state media, the government will have the upper hand to steer them away from parliamentary reforms.

Munira Fakhro of secular opposition group Waad says Wefaq was paralysed by fear of losing the street — Shi’ite protesters radicalised by the deaths of their comrades when security forces made a botched attempt to clear the roundabout on Feb. 17.

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