TWO YEARS after protests erupted in the tiny kingdom of Bahrain, King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa has finally announced talks with the political opposition. But the people of Bahrain need more than just talk. The largest opposition party, al-Wefaq, faces popular pressure to withdraw from negotiations. Many in Bahrain have lost faith in the royal family’s willingness to implement democratic reform.
If the Sunni king — a strong US ally whose family has ruled since the 19th century — is serious about allowing Bahrain’s Shi’ite majority a greater voice, he needs to show it. He must pardon and release the “Bahrain 13,” a group of opposition leaders arrested in 2011. He must end violence against nonviolent protesters. And he must hold his own government accountable for systematic torture.
In retrospect, the king’s decision to appoint a respected international commission to investigate the aftermath of the initial uprising looks more like a brilliant stalling tactic than a sign of a more just system. So far, few of that commission’s recommendations have been implemented.
Now, activists who once pushed for modest reforms are calling for the monarchy’s ouster. Serious talks could provide a peaceful way out. Bahrain is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which patrols the Persian Gulf, through which much of the world’s oil passes. If the monarchy is toppled, or if the crackdown takes an even bloodier turn, the Fifth Fleet could be forced to leave. Russia’s disastrous attempts to prop up Bashar Assad in Syria, home of a Russian naval base, provide a cautionary tale about how badly such an alliance can backfire.