After nearly two years of political unrest, this week Bahrain's King Hamad called for renewed national dialogue. And while it appears some groups have agreed to talks, the major sticking point remains: the state will merely serve as the "moderator," and not participate directly, according to official statements. Although the crisis in Bahrain did result in a deepening sectarian conflict that requires national reconciliation, the demands of the Sunnis and Shiites are for social and political reforms, which can only be enacted by the government.
Al-Wefaq, the main Shiite political society, accepted the king's call on Wednesday. But its leaders remain deeply skeptical over whether the government is serious this time around.
Sheikh Ali Salman, the secretary-general of the main Shiite political society al-Wefaq, said in a recent interview with me that the government's idea of "dialogue" is for Shiite and Sunni opposition groups to talk behind closed doors without the government's participation, an approach he believes is futile. "Certain factions within the state don't want reform. They need to understand this is something that we need," said Salman, who does favor talks that would include the state.
King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa's announcement appeared to be a follow up to a call in December from the crown prince for national dialogue. But it remains to be seen if the king and the crown prince are speaking for other state leaders, such as the prime minister, or merely on behalf of the faction that has been open to reform. In the past, when efforts were taken to address the grievances of the opposition, the talks broke down in part because the hard line faction within the government, under the influence of some Saudi Arabia leaders, did not believe in making concessions to the opposition.
Since that time, Bahraini society has become more polarized and radicalized. Bahrainis tell stories of self-imposed segregation in restaurants, university classrooms, and other public venues. Online Shiite and Sunni commentators have stepped up their sectarian animosity toward each other since the prince's call. One Sunni commentator wrote on the Bahrain Forum: "Without the wisdom of his highness, the King, and his patience, you traitors (Shia) would have long been killed and forgotten ... we urge our lions and eagles to kill, shoot, and crush any person that throws Molotov's on you (Sunni) or tries to attack you with a weapon ... an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."
Even among the more measured Sunni voices, there is fear that any reconciliation effort would hand over a measure of political power to the Shiites. If there are any compromises, one Sunni human rights activist said, a confessional system could develop which reserves a place for Shiites and Sunni in particular government posts. "We could reach a situation as it exists in Lebanon, where the prime minister has to be a Sunni and the parliamentary speaker has to be Shiite," he said.
At this point, there is widespread suspicion whether any attempt at national dialogue that does not explicitly include the state would succeed. And, Bahrain's Information Minister Samira Rajab told Reuters that the government will ask all parties to nominate representatives, but the government would serve only as the moderator.
The government apparently believes that moderating the dialogue -- without directly participating -- creates the appearance that the conflict is between the Shiites and Sunnis and has little to do with state politics. "The sectarian cause is being used by the government to make sure our democratic demands will not be met," Salman said.
In an ideal world, if al-Wefaq and Sunni groups, including the anti-Shiite National Unity Gathering, were to negotiate among themselves, they might find there is more to unite than divide them. Both Shiites and Sunnis want a more democratic form of governance and the economy to improve to provide well-paying jobs. Both wonder why Bahrain is the poor cousin in the Persian Gulf. Such a dialogue would deprive the government of one of its strongest arguments -- that the problem in Bahrain is not about a lack of reform, but primarily about Shiite and Sunni animosity.
But this scenario is unlikely. As a result, the United States should use the opportunity for renewed talks to pressure those important factions within the Bahraini government who are too comfortable with the status quo: occasional low-level protests, nightly battles between Shiite youth and the police, but for the most part a functioning society.
And the Bahraini government should not sit on the sidelines. The state needs to become intimately involved. In addition, the state should take concrete steps from the outset as a goodwill gesture, such as implementing more of the recommendations in the Bahrain International Commission of Inquiry (BICI), to address the human rights violations against the Shiites. The BICI report, commissioned by the king, was published in November 2011. Overall, the report called upon the government to take sweeping steps within the security forces to curb the violent treatment of protesters and prisoners. So far, however, only three of 24 recommendations have been fully implemented.
The time for a theoretical approach to ending the stalemate is over. As the two-year anniversary of the Bahraini uprising approaches, it is becoming increasingly more likely that the status quo is not sustainable in the long term. If the government is calling for dialogue merely to head off protests expected to mark the two-year anniversary, this would be a serious miscalculation of events on the ground.
Geneive Abdo is a fellow in the Middle East program at the Stimson Center and the author of a forthcoming monograph on sectarianism to be published by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
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