MANAMA (Reuters) - A leader of Bahrain’s second largest opposition group said the party would join a national dialogue next week but a sectarian crisis was inevitable unless talks led to genuine political reform.
Four months after Bahrain’s Sunni Muslim rulers quashed pro-democracy protests led by the Shi‘ite majority, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has set July 2 as the start of a national dialogue to discuss economic, political and social reforms.
The opposition has said only deep political reform, not mere dialogue, can permanently end popular unrest.
“The government needs to develop progressive solutions. This crisis is political,” Radhi al-Mousawi told Reuters in an interview. “Without a permanent solution to reforming the constitutional monarchy, the crisis will return in a few years.”
Mainstream opposition groups such as Waad seek a more representative parliament with legislative powers that are not weakened by an upper Shura council appointed by the king.
The government has said all types of political, economic and social reform can be discussed but the opposition is suspicious that the wide variety of issues will diminish the chances of agreeing on real democratisation.
Participants in the dialogue will send their proposals for approval to Bahrain’s ruling family at the end of the talks.
Waad, a secular leftist party run by Sunnis and Shi‘ites alike, was the worst-hit during unrest this year. Both of its offices were set ablaze and the government banned its operations, a decision it reversed just last week.
Waad members believe their non-sectarian voice made them a target by hardliners in support of the government, who they accuse of stoking sectarian tensions in the Gulf island kingdom.
“The government cannot gain victory over people by sewing sectarian divisions. Sectarianism could destroy us. The wars in Lebanon and Iraq have shown us that,” Mousawi said as he examined the charred walls of Waad’s offices in Manama.
Mousawi has led Waad in the stead of Ibrahim Sharif, the party’s Sunni, secular leader who was sentenced to five years in prison last week on charges of assisting a “foreign terrorist group” in a coup plot. Eight prominent hardline Shi‘ite opposition leaders received life in prison.
Bahrain, which crushed demonstrations calling for democracy in March, accuses the opposition of a sectarian agenda and backing by Shi‘ite power Iran, charges that Shi‘ite groups deny and Waad said was contradicted by its secular approach.
Some hardline parties had called for abolition of the monarchy, but Waad and its Shi‘ite political ally Wefaq, the opposition’s largest bloc, stuck to calls for democratic reforms to Bahrain’s constitutional monarchy.
That has not stopped government loyalists from accusing Wefaq of taking direct orders from Iran and Waad of accepting such plans for political gain, accusations both groups deny.
Opposition groups say that to have its ban lifted, Waad was coerced into accepting the national dialogue and apologising publicly for criticising Bahrain’s invitation of Saudi and United Arab Emirates troops to help it crack down on protests.
“We paid the price with certain concessions in a statement last week in order to reopen,” Mousawi said. “But we felt it was important to do it so we could get back to work.”
Authorities last week handed back the keys to Waad’s burnt-out headquarters, which the party is now renovating.
Mousawi warned Waad was ready to withdraw if democratic reforms to the monarchy were not addressed. Opposition parties complain the dialogue dilutes their voice -- they have only 35 of 300 seats at the talks.
“This was not the dialogue we imagined, we wanted direct talks between the government and the opposition,” said Mousawi. “If there is no serious move on political reform, we will walk.”
Mousawi criticised Bahraini officials’ arguments that the opposition must be patient as reforms are implemented gradually in Bahrain, which they say is new to democratic reforms compared to established constitutional monarchies in Britain or Denmark.
Mousawi said: “The people are ready for democracy now ... No country can progress if over half its population feels it is marginalised.”
Editing by Mark Heinrich