Bahrain Government’s Confidence May Be Misplaced

BY Margaret Warner  May 18, 2011 at 4:30 PM EDT

MANAMA — In an interview conducted Tuesday night with little advance notice, Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, was indirect but clear: However grateful the Bahraini monarchy is for U.S. support in its current crisis, it isn’t necessarily ready to follow U.S. advice on how to resolve it.

Al Khalifa had just hosted senior U.S. officials from the State Department and National Security Council — so recently that when we arrived, ministry officials were still removing the American flags they’d brought out for the meeting. The administration officials had urged the regime to end some of the harshest measures of the current crackdown, and also to renew its earlier offer to hold a “dialogue” with the opposition.

Not so fast, said the affable foreign minister, a larger-than-life character who tweets several times a day and describes himself as a “bon vivant” on his Twitter page. When the crown prince offered the dialogue in early March, the minister told us, “it was because of the situation in the street. We wanted to talk to everyone to bring back peace and order. … But now that we’ve restored law and order, we’re not looking at the government talking to opposition. We’re looking to a government that is aiming towards total reconciliation of our people.”

Translation: this window of opportunity has closed. There will be no renewed offer of direct talks between the crown prince and the opposition parties like Al Wefaq. Instead, all conversations about creating more political openness and economic opportunity for ordinary Bahrainis will have to be done in Parliament — which, he didn’t mention, the royal family’s supporters and backers control.

Minister Al Khalifa sounded confident indeed. But as we left, we got news that suggested his confidence may be misplaced. In the village of Nuweidrat, which we’d just visited, residents mounted a protest Tuesday night. During clashes with police, reports said one demonstrator sustained a head injury. His distraught brother allegedly then ran a car full speed into the officers, injuring nine.

“CARNAGE,” screamed the headline in one state-owned English language newspaper this morning. State-owned Bahrain TV was filled with breathless reports about the assault on officers. Dueling videos circulated on Twitter from the Shia-led opposition and the government’s mostly Sunni backers. Some pro-government voices were heard on radio call-in shows urging the monarchy extend the state of emergency, due to be lifted June 1.

(See an opposition group and the Bahrain News Agency versions of events. Editor’s note: video contains graphic content and may be disturbing to some viewers.)

The Bahrainis think they have the situation under control. But this incident suggests the warnings from the U.S. might be right: As dicey as it will be for the monarchy to meet Shia and opposition demands for more political participation, not moving down that path could carry greater perils.

Margaret Warner’s full interview with Bahrain’s foreign minister airs on Wednesday’s NewsHour.

Additional reporting by Joanne Elgart Jennings