By Arab News
By Siraj Wahab
Opposition parties moved closer Thursday toward opening a dialogue with the government after days of protest. However, opposition leaders want the dialogue to be meaningful and substantial.
The move comes after a series of confidence-building measures that the government took since the protests broke out two weeks ago. The government sacked three ministers, released a number of political prisoners and allowed the protesters to continue their marches and sit-ins around the popular Pearl Roundabout.
On Thursday evening, protests continued at the roundabout as helicopters patrolled overhead. Young people waving national flags, honking car horns and flashing victory signs streamed toward the roundabout in preparation for a major protest march Friday. Save for a few traffic policemen there were no men in uniform in the area. One of the key demands of the opposition group for initiating talks with the government was free access to the Pearl Roundabout and no stoppage of protests.
At the roundabout certain groups appeared agitated. The opposition parties then sent two of their representatives — Muneera Fakhro of Al-Waad political party and Mansoor Al-Jamri, editor in chief of Alwasat newspaper — to the roundabout to pacify the crowds.
“We are trying to reason with them to maintain peace and calm,” Fakhro told Arab News. “It is in the interest of everybody to keep the peace. The government is listening to us, and that is the most important thing.”
Senior opposition leader Abdul Jalil Khalil told news agencies that the opposition parties have accepted the crown prince’s invitation for dialogue.
“We will talk to the crown prince, but we are not going to sit together for a casual chat, but for a meaningful dialogue only,” Khalil, a leader of the country’s leading opposition party Al-Wefaq, was quoted as saying by The Associated Press.
The government confirmed that the crown prince had received the opposition demands. In a statement released on the official Bahrain News Agency, the government expressed hope that dialogue would begin soon despite substantial differences between the various groups.
“It is precisely for this reason that the dialogue must start so a political settlement can be reached through consensus,” the government statement said. “Formal submissions, however, from other parts of Bahraini society are still being received,” it added.
Opposition leaders insist that they will participate in the dialogue with the crown prince if he backs his words with action.
Acting US Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman visited Bahrain on Thursday and underlined Washington’s “unwavering support” for Bahrain, praising the king’s efforts to defuse tensions. He also urged the rulers to answer the legitimate aspirations of the Bahraini people.
Feltman said the crown prince’s pledge for a national dialogue was a positive step. “For the talks to be successful, they should include the full spectrum of Bahraini society and quickly produce concrete actions and reforms,” he added.
Life in the country seemed normal. Aside from some streets being blocked off near the Pearl Roundabout, traffic flowed normally with people traveling unimpeded throughout the city. Hotels that used to do roaring business on weekends remained empty. “There is no problem here, sir. Just avoid Pearl Roundabout, and everything is fine,” said a Bahraini manager of a hotel in Manama’s busy Gold Souk area.
On Wednesday, supporters at a massive pro-government rally at Al-Fateh Mosque in Juffair vowed to stand by the rulers. Called the National Unity Gathering, its leader, Abdullateef Al-Mahmoud, said: “We do not agree with the opposition demand to overthrow the government as a precondition to start a dialogue. It is for the benefit of everyone that stability is ensured and protected,” said Al-Mahmoud.
Bahrain TV and local newspapers estimated that thousands reportedly took part in the gathering, chanting: “Long Live Bahrain; Long Live National Unity; Our Blood and Soul Is a Sacrifice to Bahrain,” and “No, Sunni, No Shiite, Only Bahraini.”
A local newspaper quoted Mona Abbas, a mother of two, saying she was proud to have attended the pro-government rally. “I told my daughters I will come no matter what, and I am so glad that I did,” she told Gulf Daily News. “This is a great gathering that shows our unity as Bahrainis. I have never been more proud to be Bahraini than today.”
The government initially used strong-arm tactics and live ammunition to break up protests at the roundabout. That led to loss of young lives and hardened anti-government protests. The government since has taken a lenient view of the protests and released a number of political prisoners. King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa last week asked Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa to open dialogue with the opposition parties. The crown prince enjoys a high degree of respectability among the opposition members, and he is seen both as sincere and honest.