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100 Days Later

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You can do a lot in 100 days. It took fewer than 100 business days to draft the U.S. Constitution and President Roosevelt famously pushed 15 major pieces of legislation through the opening 100 days of his first Congress. Dostoyevsky wrote the classic novel The Gambler in just 26; the Beatles took less than 24 hours to record their first album; Vincent Van Gogh averaged a painting a day in the last 70 days of his life.

Today marks 100 days since the Crown Prince of Bahrain dramatically met with some of the country's opposition figures to resurrect the collapsed political dialogue. The meeting was regarded as a breakthrough moment, a crucial first step in rescuing Bahrain from its political and human rights crisis. His government said the parties had committed to "accelerate dialogue" and the opposition declared itself ready for "three meetings a week" in an effort to end the political paralysis that has gripped the country since a violent crackdown followed widespread democracy protests that began in 2011.

"We call on all sides to seize this opportunity to constructively engage in the dialogue to speed up reforms..." said the U.S. government when news of the Crown Prince meeting broke.

But this new urgency announced after the January 15 meeting has resulted in... not very much. Two weeks ago a government spokesperson explained "We are still holding bilateral negotiations in order to work out a consensual agenda based on the visions submitted by all parties."

Meanwhile, during the three months they've been trying to figure out an agenda, Bahrain has continued its slide into greater volatility and polarization. Peaceful and violent protests have continued, hundreds of people have been arrested, several policemen and civilians have been killed and key political figures who ought to be included in the negotiations remain in prison.

Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson said that "a week is a long time in politics," where reputations can be earned and destroyed, history made and careers ended. It's been 14 weeks now since the Crown Prince met the leaders of the opposition party Al Wefaq to bring what he described as "renewed urgency" to the process. What many welcomed as a bold move looks more and more like a stalling exercise, where the government can pretend it's serious without actually talking to everyone who should be in the conversation, or without even talking at all.

Yet the cosmetic dialogues have bought the Bahrain regime time and helped it to dodge increases in international criticism of its human rights record. "Let's give the national dialogue[s] a chance," U.S. government officials have been saying for nearly three years. But we've been here before -- a series of previous dialogues which began in July 2011 failed to produce meaningful reform and collapsed after opposition parties pulled out of talks in the face of continuing human rights abuses, including the arrest of their leaders. These initiatives come and go, giving a false impression that a deal is being worked on when the reality is that Bahrain appears no nearer to addressing its fundamental human rights problems than in was in 2011. No senior government official has yet been held accountable for the deaths and torture detailed by several international NGOs and the inquiry commissioned by the king of Bahrain. Its overcrowded jails still house large numbers of political prisoners, and levels of trust between its security forces and large parts of the population are non-existent.

The Bahrain regime is wrong if it thinks it can play for time while the crisis somehow resolves itself. It's time for the U.S. and Bahrain's other allies to press for an end to the dithering and the start of real negotiations. Without real talks, involving jailed political leaders and addressing Bahrain's human rights disaster, the next 100 days could be even more depressing than the last 100.