July 13, 2011

U.S. Silent On Bahrain’s Faulty Dialogue

Since kicking of Bahrain’s National Dialogue with rousing public encouragement, the Obama administration has reverted back to its usual muted self. Perhaps the White House wanted to give the dialogue a chance to breathe and avoid being seen “meddling,” except Bahrain’s opposition already suspects “the international community” - America and Saudi Arabia - of foreign intervention.

A more plausible explanation is that the White House has no good news to report.

Two weeks of manipulated “dialogue” have yielded predictable results in Bahrain. Although the White House hailed Al Wefaq’s last minute participation, the leading Shia bloc vocally announced its doubt in the government and an intent to shift pressure onto King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Al Wefaq would not be held responsible for the crisis, warned its leader Sheikh Ali Salman, and to this end the group is partially succeeding. While the Obama administration has refused comment, the “National Dialogue” has fulfilled all of Al Wefaq’s expectations: a stacked government roll-call, limited time to speak and off-topic “workshops” that ignore the core political differences driving Bahrain’s uprising.

In Bahrain’s streets, protesters opposing the “National Dialogue” altogether continue to clash with security forces. Emerging reports have also documented the torture of Bahrain’s national football team; family members of the victims alleged that “non-Bahraini” men had beaten them. While the regime just released poet Ayat al-Gormezi, who was arrested in March and tortured, her token freedom won’t distract the opposition calling for systemic political reform. al-Gormezi will likely return to rallying for democracy and her fellow political prisoners.

After boycotting two of the four “workshops” (economic and social) in favor of the political and human rights, the latest inflammatory incident brought Al Wefaq one step closer to terminating its entire participation. The government was quick to remove MP Jassim Al Saidi’s from the day’s session and announce his retraction for calling Shias “rawafidh,” an Iranian-tinged slur meaning “national rejectionist.” Nevertheless, his remarks were taken as the latest suppressive act and a wider symbol of the government’s objectives. Two of Al Wefaq’s delegates, Khalil al-Marzouq and Hadi al-Mosawi, walked out of Tuesday’s session, telling reporters that the party would decide on its overall participation on Thursday.

Al Wefaq obviously wishes to avoid responsibility for the dialogue’s potential collapse. al-Marzouq preemptively explained, “We advise distancing ourselves from something that could portray us as partners in a dialogue which will lead to results distant from, if not contradictory to, the people's will... Despite our serious efforts to amend measures... they are ignored and rejected. The dialogue's administrators control the path of the dialogue, its agenda, its topics and its mechanisms.”

The dialogue's progress can also be inferred by the positive but ambiguous spin from Bahrain’s state media.

Washington’s initial burst of enthusiasm and its ensuing silence fits into the Obama administration's wider response to the Arab Spring. Duality creates a warped phenomena of highlighting the start of “dialogue” and watching it unravel in silence. The initial fluctuations don’t last long though; coupled with simultaneous U.S. actions, this pattern openly endorses the U.S.-allied regimes in Bahrain and Yemen. For instance, Jeffery Feltman spent his July 3rd cutting cake with King Hamad and other dignitaries. The Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs “commended” the King for “fostering Bahrainis' own vision of a united path forward, and welcomed the beginning of the National Dialogue in Bahrain and the formation of a royal commission of inquiry.”

"As Americans, we know that there is no easy path,” said Feltman, whose frequent visits to the island have earned him a poor reputation amongst the opposition. “We know from our own experience that there will be challenges along the way. But Bahrain and the United States will continue to be there for each other - as partners in promoting each other's security, prosperity, and progress.”

While the governments will “continue to be there for each other,” neither government “is there” for Bahrain’s opposition.

The formal pomp of an opening ceremony is too ancient to go out of style, and admittedly necessary in generating an atmosphere of professionalism and significance. Staying out of bilateral negotiations also makes sense for a third party. However Washington isn’t a third party in Bahrain’s National Dialogue - more like a silent first party - and forceful actions are in greater need when its dialogue runs off course. Protesters justifiably assume that government-sponsored “negotiations” are already corrupt, that “dialogue” is a tool for Washington to micromanage reform. Reform over regime change goes the White House’s unwritten motto.

By failing to hold governments accountable during their “dialogue,” the Obama administration suggests that it doesn’t even support the image of reform in the Middle East.

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