By William Fisher
After two years of civil unrest, death, torture and destruction, the King of Bahrain finally sat down with his subjects last week for the start of a much-delayed "National Dialogue" designed to bring "meaningful reform that meets the aspirations of all of Bahrain's citizens."
Those were the words of U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland, speaking on Monday after what must have been months of hyper-diplomatic arm-twisting.
"The United States welcomes the start of Bahrain's National Dialogue. We're encouraged by the broad participation of Bahraini political groups in the dialogue."
She added, "We view the dialogue as a positive step in a broader process that can result in meaningful reform that meets the aspirations of all of Bahrain's citizens . We believe that efforts to promote engagement and reconciliation among Bahrainis are necessary to long-term stability."
The tiny, oil rich state is strategically located and is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet. In early 2011, protests erupted led by majority Shi'ite Muslims , who include the King and the Royal Family. The Shi'ite Muslims, who claim they are discriminated against, demanded an end to the Sunni-led monarchy's political domination and full powers for parliament. Shi'ite Muslims complain of discrimination in the electoral system, jobs, housing, education and government departments. The U.S. views Bahrain as an ally a
against Shi'ite Iran.
At the beginning of the serious unrest, the Gulf Cooperation Council ordered Saudi troops to drive over the causeway that separates the two countries. Saudi troops assisted Bahraini police and security forces in quelling the unrest.
This will be the second time the government and opposition groups have attempted to organize a national dialogue. Earlier, the largest democracy group, Wefaq, and five other groups, have said they are ready to participate in the talks but have called for a constitutional democracy with an elected government rather than one appointed by the king.
Thirty-five people died during the unrest and two months of martial law that followed, but the opposition says that number has risen to more than 80. The government rejects the figure.
While martial law has ended and the government has introduced what most observers regard as minor reforms, the opposition says the measures are cosmetic.
Fifteen months ago, the King of Bahrain received a 500-page report from the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). The report contained the Commission's findings regarding the February-March 2011 popular uprising and the government's heavy-handed response.
The King and his government were widely hailed for commissioning and then personally receiving the report, which described in detail the frequent use of excessive force by security forces, the systemic abuse and torture of detainees, mass discrimination and dismissals of workers and students, and grave violations of medical neutrality.
It highlighted a culture of impunity prevalent among government officials at all levels, concluding that many abuses "could not have happened without the knowledge of higher echelons of the command structure."
This report was no inside job. The shocker here was that the report was commissioned by the King himself, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah, and funded and carried out under the supervision of an independent team headed by an Egyptian judge with an impeccable reputation for fairness.
The King's decisions to both commission and accept the report was hailed by some in the international community as an extraordinary act of political leadership. It was seen by many as a potentially critical step toward resolving the country's escalating political crisis.