Still holding on to its democratic façade, the Bahraini regime has called for a national dialogue to begin on July 2, while simultaneously orchestrating wide-ranging violations of basic human rights. King Hamad announced the formation of a “fact-finding committee” to investigate the cause of the uprisings in Bahrain in a June 29 speech, in an apparent gesture to encourage opposition participation in the dialogue. By-elections are scheduled for September 24 to replace the 18 opposition MPs who resigned in February in protest of the monarchy’s violent suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators who had been emboldened by the general climate of Arab uprising. All resigning MPs were from al-Wefaq (the Accord) National Islamic Party, Bahrain’s largest political opposition group, formed in 2001 from a grouping of different trends within Bahraini Shi’i political Islam.

Yet the national dialogue and scheduled elections are no more than panels in Bahrain’s democratic veneer. The June 22 appointment of Speaker of Parliament Khalifa al-Dhahrani to  lead the dialogue—replacing Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who initiated the talks—demonstrates this clearly: al-Dhahrani himself has no executive power, and al-Wefaq had expressed a specific desire to speak directly with the king or the crown prince about the most crucial issues, especially constitutional amendments. Al-Wefaq—by far Bahrain’s largest political movement, which won 18 of the 40 available seats in parliament in the last elections—was allocated only five representatives in a dialogue that will include 300 participants.

Moreover, the continuing arrest of demonstrators and ordinary citizens and the life sentences meted out to eight human rights activists on June 22 by a military tribunal sends the signal that the iron fist will continue to be employed even as the hand of dialogue is extended. An appeals court delayed the hearing of their appeal until September 11, meaning that opposition activists will not know the trial’s ultimate outcome before they have to decide whether or not to participate in the national dialogue. As of this article’s publication, al-Wefaq remains undecided.

The Era of Tame Opposition

Al-Wefaq’s decision to participate in 2006 parliamentary elections after having boycotted in 2002 (after King Hamad issued a new constitution that greatly curtailed the powers of the parliament) was a major victory for the monarchy. It meant that the most important opposition force had resigned itself to play by the rules of the game imposed by the king, thus transforming itself into a tame opposition. It also led to the creation of Haqq (Justice) Movement for Liberty and Democracy, an unregistered Shi’i opposition group that broke with al-Wefaq and continued to boycott elections. A previously unseen type of coalition then emerged between al-Wefaq and the government, with both parties having an interest in implementing the socio-economic reform program run by Crown Prince Salman.

The reforms aimed at increasing the share of the private sector in the economy but also at extending the reach of the welfare state. In the mind of the Bahraini rulers, these two objectives went hand-in-hand; by taxing the private sector, the government would be able to meet the costs of the generous social policies it envisioned. A labor market reform launched in 2006 sought to tackle unemployment, a major factor behind the discontent and political mobilization of the 1990s, and in order to push the private sector to employ Bahrainis (instead of cheap expatriate labor) the government worked to improve domestic professional training while simultaneously increasing foreign labor costs through taxation and granting expatriate workers more leeway in negotiating labor contracts. Although such measures displeased the private sector, they worked to the interest of al-Wefaq, which presented itself as the voice of the disenfranchised. For the king and the crown prince, reinforcing the welfare state has been seen as a tremendous tool of social control for which they were willing to irritate the regime’s numerous clients in the business community.

In view of the uprising and increasing criticism from opposition movements less willing to compromise, however, al-Wefaq can no longer play the tame opposition role. And the monarchy, where hardline factions of the ruling dynasty now prevail, feels it needs to reinforce its political base more than cultivate its ties with al-Wefaq.

What of the Monarchy’s Shi’i Constituency?
It would be an error to think that the Al Khalifa’s constituency is only to be found among the Sunni population; Shi’i Bahrainis are riven by numerous internal divides that translate into different political attitudes. Shi’i businessmen, who play a major role in funding and organizing popular religiosity and are very much attached to their Shi’i identity, share corporate interests with their Sunni counterparts. Both are tied to state elites by patronage networks still largely headed by the immovable Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who has been in office since 1971.

The 76-year-old prime minister has the reputation of placing personal loyalty to himself above sectarian identity in granting protection. In this regard, he is in line with the traditional positioning of the Al Khalifa who—contrary to their Saudi protectors—have typically displayed a liberal attitude towards religion. The princes and strongmen of the dynasty have contributed to the financing of popular Shi’i rituals and to the renovation of mosques and husseiniyyat (places where the Shi’a celebrate important festivals). In Bahrain, the ninth and tenth days of the month of Muharram (when the Shi’a celebrate the martyrdom of their Imam Hussein) are public holidays and the rulers have always maintained good relations with many among the traditional clerics.
Even so, the monarchy’s crackdown on the 2011 uprising confirms that it is moving away from these enlightened positions. The counter-demonstrations initiated by the regime have been headed by Sunni religious scholars who have explicitly tried to mobilize sectarian solidarity by presenting the demonstrators as Shi’a acting on behalf of Iran. In May there were alarming reports of vandalism in more than forty Shi’i shrines, mosques, and cemeteries, some of which were destroyed on government orders. Meanwhile, a Sunni sectarian movement called the National Unity Gathering called for the boycott of Shi’i businesses in the city of Madinat Hamad.

The resignation of prominent pro-regime Shi’i public figures (notably religious judges and members appointed to the upper house of parliament) has been a sign that the regime’s Shi’i constituency is being shaken as never before. If the regime insists on holding parliamentary by-elections in September, and al-Wefaq boycotts them, it is unclear whether the traditional pro-regime Shi’i notables will provide cover for the regime – as they did in 2002 – by standing for election in predominately Shi’i districts.

The task of the national dialogue will be to convince the monarchy’s Shi’i constituents that their interests will be best served by standing by the regime. As for al-Wefaq, at this point only the promise of substantial constitutional amendments can lure it back to its former role of tame opposition.

Laurence Louër is a research fellow at Sciences Po, Paris.