Closing Window of Opportunity in Bahrain

By David Weinberg

King Hamad Al Khalifa of Bahrain has finally confirmed the widespread rumors that his country is preparing to call elections. In so doing, this pivotal Gulf country will be setting a concrete deadline for addressing the grinding political conflict between its Sunni ruling family and Shi'ite-majority population.

Scheduling elections will also create a limited window of opportunity for outside actors such as the United States to play a pivotal and constructive role. However, the July 7 expulsion of a top American diplomat from Bahrain highlights the potential challenges Washington faces in the country should it disengage.

Ever since the start of the Arab Spring three years ago, Bahrain has been gripped by an uprising that seeks representative government and constitutional limits on the country's monarchy. The authorities put down initial protests with ruthless force, but the opposition has sustained smaller demonstrations since then on a near-daily basis. The opposition's main faction, Al Wefaq, resigned its parliamentary seats in protest and plans to boycott any future vote until the adoption of serious reforms.

Holding a new vote creates added pressure for an accord, since the regime would like to see opposition members participate in order to legitimize the election's outcome.

The continued stalemate in Bahrain is hurting all sides. This dispute has provided Iran with a convenient opportunity for violent interference, and it could threaten America's most important naval base in the Middle East. The regime has had to contend with constant acts of sabotage, such as road blockages, Molotov cocktails and improvised explosive devices. The Bahraini opposition -- already marginalized politically -- is also suffering, as more radical forces have pushed to outflank it.

Looking forward, there are three central questions that could determine the outcome of this crisis. First, are King Hamad and the royal family prepared to end the regime's oppressive practices for imposing public order? Second, is the opposition prepared to accept an accord that falls short of its full goals? Third, is the Obama administration prepared to apply serious American statecraft in order to facilitate such an accord?

Bahrain's security forces have been using supposedly non-lethal weapons such as teargas and birdshot with excessive force, causing numerous injuries and deaths. Not a single senior security official has been held legally accountable for the killing and torture of peaceful protesters going back to 2011.

Crown Prince Salman and the king do deserve some praise for bucking hardliners in January to restart the stalled national dialogue process. But the recent expulsion of a U.S. diplomat who was in the country to support this process -- and the interrogation of his Shi'ite interlocutors -- is a sign of extremely bad faith.

The Bahraini government has stated it is engaged in talks with members of the dialogue process, which includes Al Wefaq. The burden of proof is now on the regime to present the opposition with a serious enough proposal in these discussions to justify ending their boycott.

Whether or not the opposition is prepared to rejoin the political process in response to such an offer remains uncertain. A reasonable deal could include enough redistricting to let Shi'ite parties contest a majority of seats in Bahrain's Council of Representatives. It could also include a government more accountable to this Council and control over ministries that affect citizens' daily lives.

Yet even if such an agreement includes the release of political prisoners and a road map promising additional reforms, it will no doubt fall short of the opposition's preferred goals. Al Wefaq will need to prove it can settle for limited gains and treat negotiations as a genuine process of give and take.

Finally, there is the question of Washington's proper role in Bahrain. Because of America's naval facilities in the country, we carry a certain degree of leverage and responsibility for what transpires on the island.

Currently a debate is simmering within the Obama administration over whether promoting an accord in Bahrain is worthy of American effort. But given that U.S. officials are now routinely being vilified by local officials and in the regime controlled press, our policy cannot continue on autopilot. America must seriously reengage or be prepared to retaliate after Manama's unprecedented provocation.

As Bahrain's fall elections approach, the U.S. now has a rare opportunity to promote Mideast reform through a settlement in Manama. But promoting such an outcome requires genuine action. It means proactively helping Bahrain's factions bridge their gaps in negotiations. It also means putting them on notice to expect specific, compelling penalties or rewards based on their conduct.

Upon learning of his recent expulsion from Bahrain, State Department human rights chief Tom Malinowski observed that the order was "not about me but about undermining dialogue." He concluded "those committed to reconciliation should not be deterred." Washington should heed his words -- the window of opportunity is swiftly closing shut.

David Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

(AP Photo)

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