By Simeon Kerr in Manama – 16/02/2012 – 6:07 p | Hits: 1759
High quality global journalism requires investment. Please share this article with others using the link below, do not cut & paste the article. See our Ts&Cs and Copyright Policy for more detail. After making initial contact with the island’s ruling family last week, Bahrain’s opposition has reiterated its demand for fundamental change in the country’s ruling system, saying direct talks with the king are needed to resolve simmering tensions. The possibility of a return to dialogue has encouraged onlookers, but strong scepticism remains on both sides about the likelihood of reaching a breakthrough that could end the country’s year long political and economic crisis.
Amid continuing protests and widespread arrests, opposition groups have reaffirmed their demand for an elected government and more accountability, pledging peaceful protests while calling on youths to avoid violence.
Despite police claims that it would use minimal force with teargas and rubber pellets, there is evidence, seen by the Financial Times, that birdshot was used against some protesters on the one-year anniversary of the pro-democracy demonstrations this week. Armoured personnel carriers were also mobilised.
The opposition says 43 people were arrested on Wednesday amid heavy policing during the night across Shia villages, especially on the restive island of Sitra, where police could be seen firing teargas, apparently at random, into residential areas. The interior ministry later released a statement saying two policemen were seriously injured in attacks against police patrols in Sitra that night, with both hospitalised due to severe burns from Molotov cocktail used in the assaults.
On the anniversary, demonstrators injured at least five police, according to Adnan, one policeman on patrol in the village of Sanabis. He said one of the main reasons for suppressing the protests was to protect Bahrain’s economy, rejecting the protesters’ demands as “false”.
Nonetheless, initial contacts last week between the Sunni ruling family and the main group representing the majority Shia al-Wefaq, have encouraged observers about the potential for fresh dialogue.
Al-Wefaq last week held informal talks with Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, head of the ruler’s court, widely regarded as a government hardliner.
The opposition is hopeful that international pressure, especially from the US, may make the government more open to a more meaningful dialogue.
Opposition groups walked out of last year’s national consultation, launched just three months after the violent crackdown on dissent last March, describing the process among politicians and civil society groups as a conversation among loyalists.
“We are ready for any dialogue, without limits, with those who have the power to bring real changes,” said Sheikh Ali Salman, al-Wefaq’s leader. “The talks have not yet reached the level of dialogue, which is what we need, not just talks that go nowhere.
Opposition sources say the initial contact with the ruling Al Khalifa family does not yet indicate that the government is serious in its intentions, but merely responding with vague statements to assuage international pressure for any solution to the political vacuum that could destabilise the region.
“The barrier is that some people in the ruling family do not believe in democracy, but are stuck in the 18th century,” said Sheikh Ali.
But a government spokesman said any sign that the opposition was willing to come to the negotiating table was encouraging.
“The ball is in their court – the offer for dialogue has always been open, but they need to engage without preconditions, such as calling for the government to resign of other trophies, before they engage,” said Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Mubarak Al Khalifa.
Representatives of the island’s Sunni community have called for their inclusion in any dialogue that emerges between the government and al-Wefaq.
Al-Wefaq’s secretary-general said the grouping around Sheikh Abdullatif Almahmood is welcome to hold its own talks with the government, but that the real issue had to be resolved via direct talks with King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.
“The problem is the ruling system, that’s what we want to correct,” he said.