The wave of protests by the Shiite majority in Bahrain against the ruling Sunni dynasty has intensified sectarian tensions in the small Gulf kingdom that is fast approaching complete political paralysis.
“At the moment there is no more trust between the communities,” prominent Sunni cleric Abdullatif Mahmud said, accusing the main Shiite opposition formation al-Wefaq of being behind the mutual suspicions.
“[Al-]Wefaq works for the interest of its community and not for that of the country,” said Mahmud, head of the National Unity Assembly (NUA) formed at the height of Shiite-led anti-regime protests last year, at a pro-government rally.
“The street is divided, but — thanks to God — we have not reached a sectarian confrontation,” he said, adding “There is no place for dialogue between the NUA and [al-]Wefaq which does not recognize us as a political force.”
Shiite demonstrators are back on the street in Bahrain almost daily, calling for the fall of the regime of Bahraini King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa, whose family has ruled the Gulf archipelago since 1783.
“Down with Hamad,” chanted about 3,000 protesters who rallied last week in the Shiite village of Muqsha, shortly after a UN debate in Geneva on the human rights situation in Bahrain.
They dubbed their rally venue Liberty Square to avoid confrontation with police by trying to return to Manama’s former Pearl Square, where protesters camped for a month last year before being driven out in a mid-March crackdown.
In stark contrast, large posters of King Hamad and his son, Bahraini Crown Prince Sheikh Salman, have been put up at main squares in Manama.
There are also posters of Bahraini Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, an uncle of King Hamad, who has been in office for 40 years and is widely despised by the Shiites.
A tentative attempt early this year to restart dialogue between the palace and the opposition was short-lived, with each side accusing the other of throwing a spanner in the works.
The opposition led by al-Wefaq was in the political vanguard of the demonstrations that broke out in February last year. Its demands included a real constitutional monarchy under which the prime minister would be elected.
Recent constitutional amendments which gave the elected chamber the right to hold a vote of no confidence in the prime minister were dismissed by the opposition as insufficient.
Al-Wefaq controlled 18 of the 40 seats in the elected lower chamber before its MPs resigned in February last year in protest over the violence being used against protesters.
“There should be good intentions, because any hardening on one side will lead to the hardening of the opposite position,” Bahrainin State Minister for Information Samira Rajab said.
The opposition has said that it wants serious negotiations.
“We want a serious dialogue without preconditions to reach an agreement to resolve the crisis,” former al-Wefaq MP Jawad Fairouz said.
“But this dialogue cannot succeed unless political prisoners are released and a referendum is held to endorse its conclusions,” he said, adding that al-Wefaq insisted on peacefully voicing its demands.
The authorities in Bahrain have come under fierce criticism from international human rights organizations over last year’s deadly crackdown on protests.
An international panel commissioned by King Hamad to investigate the government’s clampdown found that excessive force and torture had been used against protesters.