Slogan semantics aside, however, the substance of the address was much less compromising, with al-Wifaq proposing to put to popular referendum its demand for an elected rather than appointed government. Not that such a vote would ever happen, but the fact remains that the opposition's specific constitutional demands, if perhaps not amounting to "the fall of the regime," go far enough in their substantive reforms that one would be hard-pressed not to deem the resulting political system an entirely new one in practical terms. That is to say, al-Wifaq's "reforms" cut to the core of the principle of monarchism in the Gulf.
With the government already warning election boycotters "against plotting potential acts of treason and intimidation," one can only guess what will be its response to the proposed referendum.
Yet, in a continuing development that must be orders of magnitude more worrying for Bahrain's ruling family--or, rather, for certain factions of it--al-Wifaq is not alone in seeking a basic revision of the political status quo. Angered by the king's perceived leniency toward the perpetrators of the February uprising, including the transferal of court cases away from the military's jurisdiction; the BICI probe into the actions of the police/military and the recent (resulting) arrests of security personnel; and the perceived marginalization and lack of appreciation of those citizens who took an active role in "defending" the country in February and March (followers of the National Unity Gathering, for example), many Bahraini Sunnis are openly questioning their position within the country's political system and, more fundamentally, their relationship with the ruling family.
On the first point, the newly re-Jamricized Al-Wasat ran a well-circulated story yesterday reporting that, "in direct violation" of the king's June royal decree that transferred prosecution of uprising-related cases to civilian court, the military prosecutor is "moving to restart criminal cases." Al-Jamri himself also wrote an op-ed on this topic today titled "Mysterious and Frustrating Complexities."
As regards the BICI commission, despite the current feigned support for it among pro-governments in the wake of this week's attack on the BICI offices by a mob of frustrated protesters--see, e.g., this and this in Al-Watan (English)--still its mandate to probe the actions of police and military personnel has struck a nerve with many. This is illustrated to good effect in the most recent columns of Yusif Al Bin Khalil. He tells,
Two days ago, dozens of citizens gathered in front of the house of Sheikh Abdullatif Al Mahmood, the president of the National Unity, and demanded the release of a number of security men arrested under investigation. The discourse was only characterized with anger. Enthusiasm overwhelmed. It is a result of a feeling of injustice and resentment towards who defended the homeland among security men. Away from the circumstances and the complexities of the issue, the emergence of such a spontaneous assembly [i.e., the National Unity Gathering] which may not be legally licensed, reflects the political movement in the Sunni community today.This "feeling of injustice and resentment" in not limited merely to "security men," however.
The above-quoted article, titled "Bahraini Sunnis at the Time of Awakening," continues:
After the event had been held in the presence of security forces, the group was able to acquire considerable popular sympathy for their cause in various regions of the Kingdom. I asked one of the young participants in the sit-in about the reason for his presence. ... He spontaneously responded: ‘If anyone else thinks he is right and has demands to defend, we are also right and have demands to defend''. Such transformations will let us ask about the options available to the Sunni community as it is currently reshaping itself as a political force within the political Bahraini system. This pushes us to wonder about future options. It starts from the traditional path concerning the relationship between the community and the royal family, moving on to the radical path obsessed with its desire for confrontation with any party, ending with the rational path which seeks to establish a network of alliances for the community while ensuring the balance of the three main powers that affect the political system.The first of these "follow-up" columns--"concerning the relationship between the community and the royal family"--appeared today.
Titled "Bahraini Sunni[s] and Future Options," Al Bin Khalil argues that the events of February has caused
the Sunni community ... to reconsider its options in light of the new developments. Now, it’s going through a stage of conflict on how to decide on future options. The question posed by Sunni elites today is whether to remain committed to their historic alliance with the royal family that dates back to the pre conquest era in 1783.You may read the rest of the surprisingly blunt article for yourself, but the jist of it is that Sunnis must rethink their broad "alliance with the royal family on which the Sunni community was relying entirely in the management of its affairs before the 14th of February."
And if this is not hard-hitting enough for you, the Washington Times is shaking the Bahraini Twitterverse with its just-published interview with 'Abd al-Latif Al Mahmud in which the latter seems to suggest the prime minister should step down, and this only a few months after National Unity Gathering ralliers were heard chanting "The people want Khalifah bin Salman" at their counter-demonstrations at the Al-Fatih Mosque.
“The crisis needs management and [Prince Khalifa] is seen as a main party in managing the crisis,” said Mr. Mahmoud, a former opposition figure but now a strong supporter of King Hamad‘s. “If the crisis is over, we might feel comfortable telling him, ‘Thank you, you have done what you needed to do, and we need a fresh face.’”The National Unity Gathering has already attempted to explain away the comments in a statement (English via BNA) made just hours after the article appeared, saying Al Mahmud's words were taken out of context. But the author, Ben Birnbaum--who I hope for his sake is now outside of Bahrain!--has said he will upload the audio of their conversation, which everyone seems quite eager to hear:
So I guess we will soon find out how "out of context" Al Mahmud's quotations really are. In any case, there is doubtless to be an awkward meeting with the prime minister in Al Mahmud's future. Something like this maybe:
In or out of context, the Washington Times piece has served to raise the one truly unspeakable topic in Bahrain--that of the prime minister. And when viewed alongside the recent anti-state protests of "military men" outside Al Mahmud's house earlier this week; the resumption of military prosecutions despite the apparent wishes of the king; and the Al-Watan article asking if ordinary Sunnis should "remain committed to their historic alliance with the royal family," it seems that the Bahraini government has considerably more to worry about than a mere electoral boycott from al-Wifaq.
One might speculate that the internal Al Khalifa divide is once again rearing its ugly head, with the so-called khawalid--the partisans of Royal Court Minister Khalid bin Ahmad and his brother (and defense minister) "the Marshall" Khalifah bin Ahmed--taking their competition with the king and prime minister up a notch. But feel free to disagree.
Update: the Arabic Al-Watan website (which is updated much more often than the English) is running the National Unity Gathering's denial of the Washington Times piece as its top story:
Update 2: the audio of the conversation has now been released by the Washington Times author, to everyone's approval.
If you can't open the file directly, the Manama Voice has an embedded player here. Either way, both Al Mahmud and the Arabic-to-English translator can be heard clearly, and the quotations from the article seem to be legitimate. The very opening of the audio, for example, is (with a slight omission after "If the crisis is over,") the line: "If the crisis is over, we might feel comfortable telling him, ‘Thank you, you have done what you needed to do, and we need a fresh face.’”
Update 3: the Ministry of Interior is reporting that it has summoned Nabeel Rajab for questioning "for publishing wrong news and information through social media websites." One is surprised only that it has taken this long. (Update: he's now supposedly been released.)
Update 4: the Bahrain Mirror has an interesting interview with newfound Bahraini celebrity Ben Birnbaum titled: "Washington Times Reporter to Bahrain Mirror: The National Unity Gathering's Response Didn't Deny What Al Mahmud Said, and I Think What He Said Is His [Actual] View."
And in case you haven't yet downloaded the new al-Wifaq Android app, here you go.
Finally, Al-Jazeera is reporting that members of the BICI have been making "surprise visits" to the sites of recent demonstrations (i.e., to the villages) to "witness the actions of both protesters and the police." The implication is that the committee's investigators are scrutinizing not only the government side (as is its mandate) but also the alleged provocations of demonstrators. I predicted something like this a month ago--i.e., that the group's final "report" will tend to attribute guilt to both sides--and was criticized by commenters as being ignorant of the BICI's purpose. How's that prediction looking now?
Update 5: Khalil al-Marzuq tells the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Dar that Bahrain may see a "civil war" if real reforms are not enacted (via the Manama Voice.) Pro-governments are taking his judgment to be a threat:
Update 6: Al-Wasat has a revealing update on the impending by-elections. It seems that only half of the 18 districts have any candidates running at all given the boycott of al-Wifaq and Wa'ad. I guess those pro-government Shi'a parties (which now include the 'Rabitah al-Islamiyyah' group of al-Madani, another prominent pro-government Shi'i) are not working out so well.
Update 7: very much in line with our article here, the Bahrain Mirror asks: "Is the Marshall Winning [the Competition] for the [Position of the] Prime Minister?"