Two years after the Arab revolutions began, the Middle East is more polarized than it has been in modern times — but the divide is no longer between dictators and democrats. Instead, politics in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya has become a battle between secular and Islamic forces, while in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and the Persian Gulf, Sunni Muslims face off against Shiites.
The common denominator across the region is zero — as in zero-sum games. Even where all sides are nominally committed to democracy, as in Egypt, political movements are more prone to seek the destruction of their rivals than accept the need for compromise and accommodation.
From outside the region, the universal call is for dialogue and negotiations. Syria’s mostly Sunni opposition has been pushed to talk to the mostly Alawi regime of Bashar al-Assad; the Islamist Egyptian and Tunisian governments face demands to strike deals with their secular opponents. But so far most gestures at detente have been feckless or insincere.
All of this is to explain why what’s been happening in the gulf emirate of Bahrain in the past week is potentially important. Two years ago a pro-democracy movement appeared in the island nation, which, like other gulf states, is governed by a family, the al-Khalifas. When the regime responded with repression, the conflict morphed into a confrontation between the majority Shiite population and the Sunni elite. For the past 18 months, the two sides have been locked in an impasse that has spawned near-nightly demonstrations in Shiite villages, the deaths of at least 55 people, the jailing of many opposition leaders and fraying relations between Bahrain and its chief military ally, the United States.
The situation was looking bleak until December, when King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa abruptly proposed a new dialogue between Sunni and Shiite political parties; he later agreed to participation by three government ministers, including a ruling family member. The opposition al-Wefaq party, which had walked out of a previous round of talks in 2011, accepted the invitation, and twice-weekly meetings began on Feb. 10.
Without question, the chances of a conflict-ending deal are not great. But Bahrain has a few things going for it that Syria and Egypt do not. It has suffered far less carnage than most Arab revolutions have; it is relatively affluent; and its relationship with the United States, which bases the Fifth Fleet at a Bahraini base and granted the emirate a free-trade agreement, means Washington has more leverage. Though the Obama administration has often shrunk from leaning on the ruling family, it pushed hard for a renewal of the dialogue.
Perhaps best of all, Bahrain has some sensible moderates in key positions on both sides. In the ruling family, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, an urbane graduate of American University and Cambridge, has been prodding his family to strike a deal with the opposition all along — and seems open to the groundbreaking steps toward democracy that would be required to satisfy the opposition.
On the other side can be found politicians such asKhalil Marzook, an influential representative of al-Wefaq who visited Washington last week to lay out the party’s position. While opposition protesters in the streets routinely call for the overthrow of the regime and the prosecution of the al-Khalifas, al-Wefaq has banned such slogans from its demonstrations — and Marzook says it is seeking “power sharing” with the family within a constitutional monarchy. Morocco, whose heredity king now coexists with an elected Islamist government, offers an example.
The problem is neutralizing the hard-liners on both sides. The crown prince must contend with his uncle, 77-year-old Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the architect of the repression who has served since 1971 and has substantial support among the Sunni elite. Al-Wefaq in turn must find a way to convince the bulk of Shiites that a deal that preserves the monarchy is acceptable.
Marzook argues, very plausibly, that there is only one way to do that: Release the 13 top political leaders the regime has sentenced to lengthy prison terms and invite them into the talks. “It’s a simple fact that these people have lots of followers,” Marzook says. “And the only way to get their followers on board is to release them.” An agreement on constitutional reforms, Marzook says, could then be put to a popular referendum with a reasonable chance of success.
Release of the prisoners would require a pardon from King Hamad. It would be a bold and courageous act that would electrify his country — and maybe create a model for a strife-torn Middle East.
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