The voice on the phone from Bahrain on Wednesday should have sounded, if not elated, at least cautiously hopeful. It belonged to the No. 2 man in Bahrain's main opposition party, Al Wefaq -- and we were speaking on the day the government lifted its 11-week state of emergency. Soldiers and armored military vehicles were gone from the streets of the capital, Manama. And King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa Tuesday had called for talks on reform in July involving all parties "without preconditions."
But Khalil al Marzooq (pictured right), former first deputy speaker of Parliament, sounded dejected. Late Wednesday, he was still reeling from what had happened Tuesday night. Just hours before the emergency rule expired at midnight, he and three other senior Al Wefaq figures including Secretary General Sheikh Ali Salman, had been called in for questioning, grilled for statements they'd made to the crowds during the protests in February and March. "They accused us of insulting the regime and the army," Marzooq said, offenses that if made formal charges under emergency law rules, would subject them to military trial, and political limbo. Salman, Marzook and their colleagues were released a few hours before midnight, with no word on whether they'd be charged. But the timing was no accident, he said: "The threat is to us in Al Wefaq is 'Be careful. Anytime we want, we can continue with your case, and under military court rules. ... The noose is not put directly around our necks, but it is hanging right above us."
Their unexpected interrogation was being widely interpreted today by Shiite-led opposition and its sympathizers as a sign that, despite the king's offer for dialogue, the Bahrain government plans to play hardball.
And it looked like that hard line was working. As the day dawned, there were calls on Facebook and Twitter for the demonstrators who'd paralyzed Manama in February and March to return to the streets. Fliers were distributed on the Internet, ostensibly by the new youth-driven February 14 Movement. But people did not turn out in mass numbers, and in the capital, virtually not at all. "People are afraid of what may happen," said one democracy movement sympathizer, after a 75-day crackdown of detentions, firings, night raids and allegations of torture. "So people aren't going to respond to an anonymous Internet call anymore, from the Internet young people. Nobody knows who they are. People are less trusting in these anonymous calls."
But they were dispersed by police gunshots (whether of rubber bullets or live fire, it's not clear) within minutes. And Shiites from the villages couldn't flock to Manama, even if they dared. Observers reported that entrances to the villages were blocked, no longer by armored military vehicles, but by large buses filled with anti-riot police.
Ironically, Al Wefaq had not joined in the calls to protest. "We didn't want to pose an extreme challenge to the authorities from Day 1 of lifting the (emergency) law," Marzooq said. "We are emphasizing that people have the right to protest. But we were trying to give a signal that we are looking for solutions rather than looking to challenge the authorities again."
That's the message the government chose to take from Wednesday's quiet. "I hope it's the beginning of a political change," said one senior official, also asking not to be identified. The last-minute interrogations of the Al Wefaq leadership "was probably bad timing, to be honest with you," he said, "but it had nothing to do with the timeline of the state of emergency. They just wanted to question them, nothing more, nothing less. ... There is a sincere wish to start over with a new page, and more forward with dialogue."
But the opposition seems paralyzed. The Al Wefaq leadership has said it's ready to talk in principle. But it hasn't responded formally to the King's offer, and says the ground rules, while still vague, appear rigged. Nor has it decided whether to participate in the September elections for the parliamentary seats that their members resigned from during the protests. And now there's a new player coming at them from the right -- a Sunni-led pro-government group, the National Unity Coalition, that is pressing to be included in any talks, and charges that Al Wefaq, or at least its current leadership, is a pawn of Bahrain's Shiite-ruled nemesis Iran.
All this adds up to a dispirited opposition that may not be ready to take the plunge, either in the streets or with a political risky dialogue, even if the King's offer is real. "The situation is very different now. There is real exhaustion. Many people are still in jail," said another well-placed observer, who also asked not to be identified. Does that suggest repression has worked? I asked. "It has, for a time, but at very high cost," he said. "Without a political solution, they have to worry that if grip is loosened, people will come out." He foresees a stalemate through June and July as the government tries to lure back foreign investors and tourists. "They will be dead months politically," he predicted, "while the authorities try to send a message to the world that things are back to normal."
The government's message campaign is already underway. It is urging the governing body of the Formula One race, meeting Friday, to reinstate the lucrative event that was cancelled earlier this year. And Bahrain's Foreign Minister was making the rounds this week in Washington this week, paving the way for the Bahraini Crown Prince to visit in the next two weeks, carrying a back-to-normal, on-the-reform path message directly to President Obama.
But in the end, Bahrain's future depends on how the King and his ruling family address not foreign audiences but their own subjects.