Bahrain’s largest opposition group is resisting grassroots demands for renewed full-scale street protests amid regional pressure to strike a compromise solution with the regime.
Al-Wefaq and other Bahraini opposition groups boycotted the country’s parliamentary by-elections last Saturday. But al-Wefaq did not support the latest calls for demonstrations at Pearl Square and may be pushing for a de-escalation of protests in the near future. A resigned al-Wefaq MP said that while the party engaged in its own protest activities, it was wary of endorsing an “event launched in the virtual world,” one which they could not ensure would remain organized or under control. More generally, al-Wefaq leaders say a reversion to mass street protests under present circumstances would be ineffective and invite harsher repression from the regime. “It would only result in the killing of more innocents,” the resigned MP said.
Al-Wefaq is also awaiting the findings of a state-appointed fact-finding commission, which is probing rights abuses during the suppression of protests earlier this year. The nominally independent commission reports its findings in October, and al-Wefaq hopes this would further pressure authorities to agree to reforms.
Another contributing reason leading to al-Wefaq’s reticence may be the group’s engagement in fresh efforts to reach a political compromise with the regime. They are engaged in communications with the government brokered by Iraq, with support from the Gulf states and Turkey. Sources say that these regional players are strongly pressuring al-Wefaq to call off their street protests and urge youth and grassroots groups to follow suit. The negotiators argue that calm on the streets is conducive to a political solution.
According to Al-Akhbar‘s sources, this regional mediation effort was initiated by Iraqi Shia spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who first appealed to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to intervene and “save the people of Bahrain.” The government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), acting in conjunction with other Gulf states, later approached Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, requesting he fill the go-between role during the communications. Al-Wefaq’s Secretary-General Sheikh Ali Salman travelled to Iraq last week to communicate Al-Wefaq’s views to the Iraqis, also discussing possible compromises. The product of these discussions was then passed to the UAE.
According to these sources, this channel led to the suggestion of direct negotiations between the Bahraini government and the opposition. These negotiations would be in lieu of the ‘National Dialogue’ launched by authorities, which the opposition boycotted and dismissed as a charade. Another proposal seeks to provide Bahraini Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin-Salman Al Khalifa, whose replacement has been a key opposition demand, with a face-saving way of stepping down. His departure would be deferred for a year, appearing as though he was not pressured to leave.
Al-Wefaq officials would not discuss details of Ali Salman’s latest visit to Iraq. Sources in Tehran told Al-Akhbar that Iranian authorities do not support the regional mediation bid and are suspicious of efforts to re-engage the Bahraini opposition in dialogue with the regime. However, resigned al-Wefaq MP Matar Matar said the group welcomed any mediation aimed at encouraging “rational” elements in the ruling elite to agree to political reforms. He also urged the Gulf states to press for reform in Bahrain, claiming some Gulf governments were unhappy with the Bahraini regime’s security-oriented approach toward quashing the opposition.
Al-Wefaq and six other primary Bahraini opposition groups recently showed renewed signs of a common purpose. These groups split at the height of the protest movement earlier this year over specific demands and response to the March crackdown, when Saudi and UAE troops aided Bahraini security forces in crushing the protests. But the seven parties recently joined together to organize a ‘National Unity Day’ and memorial for the late opposition figure Abdul Rahman al-Nuaimi. They have also reiterated their resolve to build a powerful national coalition.
All opposition groups jointly boycotted the Saturday by-elections. In addition to refusing to field or support candidates, they campaigned for a voter boycott, countering government efforts to secure a high turnout. The semi-official daily newspaper Al-Ayyam reported last week that the government considered punitive measures against anyone “obstructing or boycotting the electoral process.” Measures ranged from fines and jail terms to suspension of civic rights and denial of employment in the public sector. Only after the vote took place did Justice Minister Sheikh Khalid Bin-Ali Al Khalifa explain the “misunderstanding” that reported sanctions only applied to those attempting to obstruct others from casting votes.
Opposition groups also said there was evidence the authorities re-registered pro-regime voters from other districts so that they could vote in constituencies holding the by-elections. This effort, they say, was intended to bolster turnout figures.
Nevertheless, figures released on Sunday confirmed a modest turnout, with several winning candidates receiving only a few hundred votes. In 4 of the 18 constituencies only one candidate stood. An announcement by the Justice Ministry reported 51 percent voter turnout, contradicting independent observers and opposition spokespeople who suggested an actual turnout of around 17 percent.
Sources within the opposition believe the authorities manipulated the numbers to reach their higher figure, including voters from the previous parliamentary elections in the 22 constituencies not holding by-elections. They also counted 100 percent turnout in the four constituencies where candidates ran unopposed.
Al-Wefaq’s Salman described Saturday as a “day or mourning for democracy.” The state-run Bahrain News Agency announced that a mass motorized procession would be held throughout the streets of Manama and at the prime minister’s palace in Rifaa. These celebrations intended extol “the success of democracy represented by the by-elections.”
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