Manama, Asharq Al-Awsat- In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Abdul-Jalil Khalil, the leader of the Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, the largest Shiite opposition group in Bahrain, said it is important to find a common ground for dialogue via a Gulf state that is acceptable to everyone. Such a dialogue, he added, is contingent on forming a commission of inquiry to investigate the incidents that took place, assign responsibility to the government and the opposition for these incidents, withdraw the army, abolish the national safety law (the emergency law), and begin a dialogue as soon as possible to resolve the security situation so that life would return to normal in Bahrain in the service of everyone’s interests. Deputy Khalil rejected intervention in Bahrain’s internal affairs “because the issue will be solved internally but with Gulf mediation”. He denied reports that the opposition is in contact with Iran. He pointed out that the demonstrations in Bahrain were influenced by the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia and by the youths of Face book. He added that the opposition movement did not play a role in the revolt but it agrees with it on the demand for political rights via dialogue.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Where is Bahrain heading?
[Khalil] In my opinion, Bahrain is heading to a normal state on the national social level. There is no fear for the social or national coexistence between the Shiite and Sunni sects. Moreover, on the political level, Bahrain is heading toward more reforms and more genuine participation in the decision-making process. The government and the societies should digest the events in order to select a path leading to genuine participation in the decision-making process and to more freedoms in society.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But the gap has largely broadened in Bahrain and between the united people?
[Khalil] No doubt, it will not be easy to overcome what happened, especially the bloodshed. I believe that the security and military solution was damaging to the issue. For over more than 30 years, we have had many issues and political demands in Bahrain. However, the army did not take to the streets and bullets were not used against the demonstrators. This time, however, the opposite took place. Some quarters in power should absorb what happened. About 23 people were killed, including 17 Bahraini citizens. This rift requires a special handling and the political treatment may perhaps require a large part of the solution and the solace. In my opinion in this regard, we need an impartial inquiry commission that would be formed by a Gulf state that is acceptable to both sides and that would look into the issue of the killed and injured from all sides. Everyone should share the responsibility.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did you not have the historic opportunity to gain more demands through direct dialogue for which the crown prince called for instead of quickly returning to the streets?
[Khalil] I disagree with you on this point. The demonstrations that took place were an extension of what happened in Tunisia and Egypt. We admit openly that the political societies did not anticipate the magnitude of the events, just as the government did not anticipate the magnitude of the existing moves. The incidents erupted on 14 February at the personal initiative of young Face book activists. Quite humbly, the political societies admit that they were not the primary political mover of the incidents. The big mistake that was made at the start was opening fire at the demonstrators and killing a number of citizens. This inflamed the situation.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But the government hastened to respond and meet your demands and calls. It withdrew the army and asked for the initiation of a dialogue but you turned it down.
[Khalil] The crown prince anticipated the magnitude of the responsibility; he sensed that the issue will escalate, especially at the start. The demands were initially confined to genuine participation. After 19 February and after the crown prince opened the doors to dialogue and withdrew the forces, his announcement had its effect. It provided a breathing space that allowed the demonstrators to gather peacefully in the roundabout. That was a correct step; it allowed the demonstrators to express their opinions peacefully in accordance with the constitution. He then sent messages to the political societies and others. The opposition replied to the message of the crown prince by welcoming the start of a dialogue based on specific principles and mechanics and without being an open-ended dialogue. The reply to the message sent by the opposition came after one week and the seven principles to launch a dialogue were set. The seven demands of the political societies consisted of a constitutional monarchy, an elected government, and an elected parliament. The seven principles that the crown prince proposed consisted of a government that expresses popular will, an elected council with full powers, files to deal with other issues, such as the file of acquiring citizenship for political purposes instead of the legal acquisition of citizenship. This is granting citizenship to the tribes coming from Pakistan that do not speak Arabic and on which the citizenship law does not apply, the file of one vote for each citizen, the fair distribution of the electoral districts, and the rest of the seven principles. This was a very important step taken by the crown prince. Based on this, the opposition held a meeting in the afternoon and welcomed the principles of the dialogue. These principles intersected on three main points of the seven principles. These were the electoral districts, the elected council, and the government that expresses popular will. However, on the same evening, the Peninsula Shield Force entered Bahrain, the events accelerated, and we all know what transpired.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Peninsula Shield Force entered after the demonstrators went beyond being peaceful. They blocked main roads and vital positions and began to constitute an element of dangerous lawlessness.
[Khalil] The truth is that only one road was blocked. This was the Al-Marfa [Harbor] Street that is an extension of the Pearl Roundabout. We expressed readiness to exert efforts to re-open this road; the opposition has no influence on all 60,000 or 70,000 demonstrators in the roundabout. The front part of the road was opened and the back road remained closed. In the early morning, however, the forces moved and we all know what transpired. Had we been given a chance for one or two days, we would not have become embroiled in this crisis.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But in the meantime, the slogans and chants changed from demanding reform to overthrowing the regime and the establishment of a national republic.
[Khalil] The seven political societies make up a broad group that is supported by religious leaders that have influence over the people, such as Sheikh Isa Qasim. Our vision was related to the constitutional monarchy that limits the powers of the king as well as the powers of the people, as is the case in Morocco; a government that expresses popular will; an elected council; and a fair distribution of the wealth. This is the dominant and broad current. There is also a small faction that raised the slogan of overthrowing the regime and then turned into demanding a republic. But there is disagreement between the main current and the other current that believes in the establishment of a republic. In our opinion, the situation in the region is not conducive to the demand for a republic because such a demand is a kind of unstudied politics. We disagreed with them very openly and we took the podium of the masses in t he roundabout to outline our vision to them. Some of them did not agree with us but the majority supports a constitutional monarchy and a government that recognizes and knows the opposition currents.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] As political societies, you are criticized for remaining silent over the demands to overthrow the regime and establish a republic. Your silence was seen as a sign of approval because you did not clearly express your opinion.
[Khalil] We have to agree that there is a small current that called for the establishment of a republic. But since the matter is still in the realm of mere words and was not translated into a fact and violence, let him speak. It is not the first time in Bahrain that slogans to overthrow the regime are raised. As long as their demands are peaceful let them express their viewpoints. The political societies would have repulsed them had they initiated the violence. Our vision proceeds from the national action charter that was voted upon in 2001 and that consisted of a constitutional monarchy and an elected council. We are proceeding from common ground on which we had agreed; we are not proposing ideas that are unstudied.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But the charter set the features of the Bahraini constitution. It was accepted unanimously and you accepted it as well at the time.
[Khalil] The charter is the train that took Bahrain to the shores of safety. We signed it but the charter is not the constitution. The constitution in force is that of 1973 that was suspended. When King Hamad took power in 1990, he found himself before a political crisis, especially after the uprising of the 1990s. When King Hamad came to power in 1990 he launched his initiative by proclaiming a general pardon of all the politicians inside the jails and the return of those outside the country. He also abolished the state security law. That was a big step that was appreciated. The third and principal step was proposing a referendum on how to emerge from the crisis due to the suspension of the constitution in order to draft a new constitution. The charter was proposed and the emir became a king on condition that the country become a constitutional monarchy – similar to other well-rooted constitutional monarchies – and then talk about the legislative power that pertains to an elected council with full legislative and oversight powers and an appointed advisory shura council. The constitution was to be above the charter. The charter was put to the vote and received an overwhelming 98.4 percent of the vote. So it was agreed upon and we expected to take persistent steps ahead on the path of these amendments. Unfortunately, a kind of backpedaling took place regarding the charter after it amended the constitution. Work began to implement the charter but a difference arose regarding the committee amending the constitution that was announced in 2002. This constitutional difference did not stop the wheel of going forward. The opposition asked for a dialogue pertaining to the constitution and the ruling regime insisted on proceeding with the constitution. In the elections of 2002, the opposition boycotted the elections in protest against the new constitution because it curtailed the powers of the elected council and gave similar powers to the appointed council. Had the charter been implemented we would have overcome what happened.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you not think that the opposition committed mistakes in managing the current crisis?
[Khalil] I am a member of the opposition; your question should be addressed to an impartial and neutral side. In my opinion, had the opposition turned down the crown prince’s seven principles and refused to sit at the dialogue table it would be responsible for some of the mistakes. However, the opposition was not given a chance, especially after the seven principles were announced. Had the opposition been given a chance, we would not have become embroiled in this security and military option.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But as you said, the management of the demonstrations in Bahrain differs from the way they were managed in Egypt and Tunisia.
[Khalil] There is not much difference. The demonstrations in Egypt erupted and headed to the Al-Tahrir Square. They were gathered in one place. In Bahrain, rallies and marches were staged and headed to the roundabout. I admit that it was absolutely wrong for the gathering to spread to the financial harbor road but gathering around the roundabout was not wrong. On the contrary, the demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt were marred by acts of violence. In Bahrain, not even the tire of a single car was burnt. It was a peaceful movement.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But the demonstrators were carrying weapons.
[Khalil] We leave that to the investigation; we have evidence and photos.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you not think that the media and the foreign interventions were a negative influence on the demonstrations?
[Khalil] First of all, the opposition did not want a foreign side to intervene in an internal affair. To this day we say that the problem in Bahrain is an internal one. There is no need for any external side to intervene in the crisis; we will solve it internally. It is true that when the crisis first erupted we disagreed with the crown prince about how to manage the dialogue. But the difference did not reach the level of confrontation; the military and security option complicated the issue. We were not given a full opportunity to open the blocked roads. The sit-in is not a demand; the opposition wants to poach the game, not kill the gamekeeper. What concerns us most is getting the basic demands.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some reports are saying that the opposition is cooperating with foreign media outlets to inflame the situation. Frankly, they are saying that it is cooperating with Iranian media outlets.
[Khalil] In the first place, the foreign media came late; the movement in Bahrain began on 14 February and the media came after one week. It was natural for the masses to interact with the media outlets regardless of whether they are the Al-Alam television channel or the Al-Manar television channel or Al-Jazeera or the BBC. This is natural; but the really effective tool was Face book and Twitter.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But you tried to exploit the media to inflame the demonstrations in an attempt to put pressure on the government during the course of the dialogue.
[Khalil] No, never; the opposition and the youths were in agreement on reaching the roundabout; even the crown prince did not object to remaining in the roundabout. It is true that there is a difference on the language of the slogans and on the geographic extension; but even the opposition rejected this extension. The opposition believes that peaceful expression of opinion is guaranteed to resolve the issue. We asked for an expeditious political resolution to the issue in order to close it and get to the table of dialogue and a solution of the problem.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some even go to the point of saying that what happened is a revolution and not just demonstrations demanding rights.
[Khalil] Our demonstrations were similar to those of Tunisia and Egypt. Let us admit that the discourse of the Bahraini movement was derived from Egypt. The young Bahrainis moved with admiration and searched for a suitable place that resembles the Al-Tahrir Square and they selected the roundabout. Even the slogans were similar. They began with political demands, but after two persons were killed the ceiling of the slogans rose to “The people want to overthrow the regime”. The whole opposition movement called for reforms at first, but we should not forget what happened.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you not think that talking about the constitution of 1973 has been overtaken with the signing of the charter?
[Khalil] No, the constitution has not ended but some of its articles related to the parliamentary council have been suspended; it was in forced until 2002. Four or five articles were suspended; the king’s powers were limited and the constitution of 2002 raised the powers of the king. The opposition’s demands are the same as the king’s proposals regarding constitutional monarchy in the charter.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Al-Wefaq Bloc had a strong presence in the political life and political landscape as well as a weight in the parliament prior to the events. Why did things change?
[Khalil] That is true; when the demonstrations erupted we were in the council, but the security handling and management of the demonstrations was wrong. We were in contact with the security organs in managing the crisis. But hen the channels of communications with the deputies were closed and after people were killed in the field, the deputies could not carry out their duties because they were ignored. This led Al-Wefaq to resign.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The members of the group that was seized after the events are accused of being in contact with foreign elements. Some also believe that the opposition is charged with having relations with external quarters, such as Iran.
[Khalil] Such accusations are not recent. Every movement making demands in Bahrain is accused of having contacts with external elements. But the issue in Bahrain is a domestic issue. In the official stand, the political societies were not accused of contacting outside quarters except for those who were apprehended. The detainees are those demanding the establishment of a republic with the exception of Ibrahim Sharif’s society (Wa’d) [The National Democratic Action Society]. But some are using Iran as an excuse for motives that serve other motives.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The authorities are saying that the expulsion of the Iranian Embassy Charge D’affaires was because he was collaborating with the demonstrators. What do you think?
[Khalil] If the government has any proof that the opposition is in contact with Iran it should present it to the media based on the principle of transparency. The differences between the government and the Iranian Charge D’affaires should be raised in the media. By the way, last month The Guardian newspaper published an important document saying that US diplomatic circles asked for proof that implicates the opposition for being in contact with Iran for 30 years. Not a single piece of evidence was presented that implicates the opposition.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Perhaps it was indirect contacts?
[Khalil] The best evidence is the United Nations referendum in May 1970 when it addressed a clear and frank question to the people of Bahrain: Do you wish to be appended to Iran or do you wish Bahrain to remain and independent Arab state? The people chose the Arabism of Bahrain. They said we do not wish to be annexed to Iran. The constitutional monarchy, the elected council, and the elected government are not Iranian demands; they are popular demands and legitimate rights.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But I go back and reiterate that the demands went beyond legitimate rights to calling for a drastic change of the system. Do you think this is acceptable?
[Khalil] The table of dialogue should be the judge. It determines the substance of the demands that should be debated.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You called for an impartial and neutral inquiry commission. Does this mean that the opposition has split off from the state or has lost confidence in it?
[Khalil] No, of course not; but in view of a fierce battle in which the opposition holds the government responsible for killing more than 209 people and the government is accusing the opposition of killing two policemen who is to decide on this issue? This is the role of the United Nations fact-finding commission. Just as we took the referendum on the Arabism of Bahrain to the United Nations, we have to accept an investigation of what transpired.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does this mean you are trying to internationalize the crisis?
[Khalil] No, absolutely not; but the crisis was internationalized the moment the Peninsula Shield Force arrived. Nevertheless, we accept a Gulf state as a third party in order to close the file of the events regarding those that were killed and those who are responsible for this.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Assuming that the headquarters of the Peninsula Shield Force was in Bahrain rather than Saudi Arabia; would it not be the duty of this support force to safeguard security?
[Khalil] The goal of the Peninsula Shield Force is to protect the peoples. But the demonstrators became afraid that the people were in confrontation with the Peninsula Shield Force for the first time because there was no foreign aggression, as was the case in Kuwait. What is happening in Bahrain is not an aggression but legitimate demands. The opposition is not worried about the Peninsula Shield Force; it is part of the Gulf fabric and we do not reject the Peninsula Shield Force. But what is rejected is the way in which it became involved in the crisis. If the army wished to protect Bahrain from an Iranian intervention, for instance, it should have hastened to deploy a naval force.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But the opposition is threatening the rule in Bahrain.
[Khalil] The opposition did not threaten the regime; the demand for reforms is not and will never constitute a threat. Moreover, the Bahraini army is capable of doing its role. A total of 33 percent of the state budget is allocated to the armed forces. We do not think it is incapable of dealing with political demands.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the solution now that the situation has reached the current stage?
[Khalil] This is a question that is worth discussing; it is addressed to the government as well as to the opposition. I believe that the situation can be dealt with in two stages and the mechanism should be through mediation by a Gulf state that is acceptable to both sides. We are a Gulf nation. We should start by stopping the hemorrhage and starting the political management without going into details regarding what the opposition is demanding or what the government is demanding. Let us agree on the principle that a Gulf state should conduct the mediation. Moreover, the political management of the crisis should be separated from the security approach. In the security approach, the army should be withdrawn and the national safety law should be lifted because it is affecting the country’s economy and we do not need it. Life should return to normal the way it was before we embark on the political management of the crisis because the dialogue cannot be held with the army in the streets and the pistol aimed at the head of the opposition. We do not wish to complicate matters further and we do not need additional conditions. We want to embark on the dialogue with full confidence so that the opposition would propose what it sees appropriate in full confidence and courage. The government should discuss the issue and later this would be put to a popular referendum in which the citizen would have the right to accept what is agreed upon or to reject it. We should not impose anything on the citizens. This political handling of the problem would be acceptable to the rulers and the people proceeding from the principle of no victor and no vanquished.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is the opposition prepared to make concessions to facilitate reaching a solution?
[Khalil] Everyone should make concessions in the political process in order to preserve the continuance of the dialogue and in order to reach points of agreement that will ratified by the people in order to overcome this crisis.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have the names of specific states been proposed to act as mediators?
[Khalil] A report was published in a Kuwaiti newspaper that Kuwait is interested in acting as a mediator. Kuwait sent a delegation about one week ago that met with the crown prince in order to bring the viewpoints of the government and the opposition closer. We do not know whether Kuwait will proceed with these efforts or not. We want to move within a Gulf framework to end the crisis.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why do you want a Gulf framework when the doors of the king are open?
[Khalil] It is true that the doors are op en and the door to dialogue has undoubtedly been opened. But, in my opinion, it would be hard for the two sides to engage in a dialogue without mediation. The situation requires the restoration of trust between the two sides. It seems that the Gulf mediation will play a role in finding solutions and we are looking for solutions, not slogans.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Would it not be courageous by the opposition to present an initiative?
[Khalil] All the doors are closed and the situation is complicated. There is a need for mediation by a Gulf country. After that, the government and the opposition would shoulder their responsibilities.