Bahrain’s government and opposition will attempt to negotiate an end to the political crisis that began with intense protests in 2011. Sunday's session marks nearly two years since the February 14 pro-democracy protests.
Six of the main opposition groups agreed in January to take part in the dialogue called by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. However, mistrust runs deep on all sides.
Bahraini officials call the dialogue a chance for a "national consensus," but are unclear on whether they will consider any reforms that would weaken their direct control over the country.
The conflict began during the successful 2011 revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya and has now lasted longer than Syria's own, much bloodier rebellion. The protests in Bahrain, led by Shiites who accuse the government of institutional discrimination, were crushed a month later by the Sunni monarchy's security forces acting with the aid of soldiers from Saudi Arabia. In the two years since, at least 55 people have been killed in the clashes, other activists were stripped of their citizenship, and dozens of Shiite political leaders remain in jail, some sentenced to life terms.
In July 2011, opposition withdrew from dialogue, complaining that the government had ignored demands and underrepresented dissidents. Protests have continued since then, and Bahrain has drawn international criticism for the repression of demonstrations and the harsh sentences handed down to opposition figures.
Some members of the opposition remain wary of dialogue, which they believe won't help them further their goal of installing a democratic system that would give government representation to Shiites, who make up 70 percent of Bahrain's 550,000 native-born citizens. Hard-line protesters want nothing less than to bring the monarchy down. Under the current system, the dynasty picks the Cabinet, though there is a nominally elected parliament.
Though Shiites have fought for decades for greater political voice, the two straight years is the longest sustained period of protest. And, despite the scheduled dialogue, tensions could even be growing as Thursday's two-year anniversary approaches.
On Saturday, Shiite protesters hid behind barricades of burning tires as secrtiy forces assaulted them with tear gas canisters. Police have also set up checkpoints in the capital, Manama, and ringed Pearl Square, the birthplace of the revolution, with barbed wire and concrete barriers.
mkg/kms (AP, dpa)