Bahraini Ambassador Houda Nonoo: Politics of the street won't achieve progress

Two and a half years ago, many Bahrainis took to the street seeking better job opportunities and greater access to affordable housing. These demonstrators had a noble goal: to build upon Bahrain’s rich tradition of reform from within to make a better country for all Bahrainis. Not long after the movement began, extremists hijacked it, co-opted its legitimate demands for change and plunged our country into a crisis from which we are still working to recover.

In spite of the challenges we have faced as a nation, Bahrainis from across the political spectrum have a new opportunity to come together in the spirit of reconciliation as our National Dialogue reconvened last Wednesday. The resumption of dialogue comes at a time when it is clear that mass protest in the street have failed to bring about meaningful change that can unite, rather than divide, Bahrain. This important realization should only provide further impetus to the National Dialogue as a mechanism to resolve our differences constructively.

On Aug. 14, extreme members of the opposition called for a day of protests seeking to replicate the Tamarod movement in Egypt. Despite the backing of several opposition members, the day fizzled into a series of small, oftentimes violent protests. A week later, the Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society called for a mass demonstration following Friday prayers that drew a fraction of the number of people they had in the past.

These concurrent events do not provide cause for celebration; rather, they demonstrate that meaningful change can only come through a deliberative process that produces a Bahraini consensus for it.

To date, the political opposition in Bahrain has failed to take advantage of the multitude of opportunities to engage in dialogue with the government and their fellow citizens. During the height of the unrest, the opposition walked away from an unconditional dialogue with Bahrain’s crown prince that appeared poised to meet many of their demands. Several months later, they withdrew the first National Dialogue and refused to participate in the National Commission overseeing the implementation of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry Report’s recommendations. And in the first four months of the current Dialogue, opposition societies have resisted moving on from procedural discussions toward substantive issues.

The opposition’s embrace of dialogue as a means to peacefully effect change will have a broad, positive impact on Bahraini society at large. Perhaps most consequentially, it would undermine the violent elements that have been attacking and killing police officers with Molotov cocktails, detonating improvised explosive devices near mosques, and generally disrupting daily life in the country by burning tires and obstructing traffic. Continuing down this destructive path will only further alienate the majority of Bahrainis who wish to simply go about their daily lives.

The Bahraini government has continuously demonstrated its commitment to reform over the past 12 years and has not wavered in the face of recent events. While certain rejectionists deny the government’s commitment to change, it remains clear that many of the reforms undertaken over the past two years have made a positive impact on society. Through the important work being done in our Ministry of Interior, Bahrain’s police force has enacted an expansive code of conduct and the comprehensive retraining regimen developed in conjunction with experts from the United States and United Kingdom has transformed how Bahrain’s police officers respond to violent protests. There is no doubt more work needs to be done, but the progress is plain to see.

The past weeks’ events have only further emphasized that reconciliation will only be achieved through peaceful dialogue. It is imperative that all participants in the National Dialogue redouble their resolve to achieve a broad, meaningful consensus for change. As we reconvene this dialogue, it is imperative for all participants to approach this opportunity with the urgency required to yield a successful outcome. 

Nonoo is Bahrain’s ambassador to the United States.