Bahrain national dialogue set to resume Sunday
Bahrain's national dialogue is set to resume Sunday in an atmosphere of mutual mistrust between government and the opposition ahead of the second anniversary of a Shiite-led uprising that shook the Gulf kingdom.
The opposition said on Wednesday that an agreement on the mechanism of its planned talks with around 27 representatives of pro-regime groups should be agreed in advance.
The dialogue, aimed at ending the kingdom's political deadlock, comes amid daily opposition protests for the anniversary of the uprising against the Sunni monarchy that erupted on February 14, 2011.
"The opposition groups are the only ones which have not yet submitted a list of their representatives," government spokeswoman Samira Rajab said.
She accused the opposition of being "linked to foreign agendas" and of "stalling" the talks, insisting that the government had responded "very clearly" to their concerns.
The government accuses Shiite-dominated Iran of backing the opposition in Shiite-majority Bahrain. The opposition denies the allegation.
Six opposition groups led by Al-Wefaq had said they wanted clarifications on the mechanisms of the talks, asking for an agenda, timeframe and a high level of government representation.
The opposition has repeatedly said it is ready for meaningful talks, but has stuck to its demands for a real constitutional monarchy with an elected premier.
Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, an uncle of King Hamad, has been in office since 1971, and is widely despised by Shiites.
The opposition also wants the results of the talks to be put to a referendum and not be submitted to King Hamad.
Al-Wefaq, Bahrain's major Shiite opposition bloc which withdrew from a similar round of talks in July 2011, said in December it was ready for new dialogue.
"We are ready for serious talks that could take the country out of its crisis, but not a dialogue that would only waste time," said Khalil Marzooq, a leading Al-Wefaq figure.
He accused the government of trying to embarrass the opposition by claiming it rejects talks.
"We want a specific agenda and new mechanisms different from those which have led to the failure of talks in the past," said Marzooq.
For International Crisis Group analyst Claire Beaugrand, each party in Bahrain is "testing the intentions of the other," and the "initial positions of both sides are very different."
The opposition is "very pessimistic but does not want to make any mistakes by which it would bear responsibility for the dialogue's failure again," she said.
The government, meanwhile, "seems to be in a stronger position after it has managed to control the situation for the past two years."
Bahrain has been shaken by unrest since its forces crushed Shiite-led protests in March 2011. The unrest has so far left 80 people dead, according to the International Federation for Human Rights.
The Bahraini regime says it has implemented the recommendations of an independent inquiry commission into the unrest that criticised the excessive use of force against protesters.
But the opposition argues that force is still used in frequent confrontations between mostly youthful protesters and police in Shiite villages, with protesters using petrol bombs and police responding with tear gas and birdshot.
The kingdom, home to the US Fifth Fleet, has made no political concessions to the opposition so far.
"If the dialogue fails, the political Shiite opposition demanding reform will lose support in favour of the more radical opposition" which openly calls the overthrow of the monarchy, Beaugrand said.