Friday, July 29, 2011

National Dialogue Final Score: Khalifah bin Salman 1, Everyone Else 0

From the day Khalifah al-Dhaharani was announced as the head of Bahrain's National Dialogue in lieu of the crown prince, you knew bad news was ahead. (Actually, you knew it as of about March 20.) Not only did the lack of a royal family patron send the unmistakable message of an initiative designed to fail, but al-Dhaharani's long-time proximity to Khalifha bin Salman give the impression that the entire initiative may not be a project of the king so much as of the prime minister. In which case the last month would have served primarily to preclude any substantive political reform rather than to enable it.

Now, it seems as if those fears have been realized. To see this we may take a quick look at the actual results ("recommendations") stemming from the Dialogue, which have been conveniently summarized here (the Gulf News also has a summary). It is perhaps easiest to begin by listing those things that were NOT agreed:
  1. Increasing the powers of the elected lower house vis-a-vis the appointed Shura Council;

  2. Placing the National Audit Court under the aegis of the parliament (due to "concerns over [its] independence");

  3. Changes to electoral districts (which might create "sectarian quotas in parliament, leading to political crisis." Well, good thing we avoided that!);

  4. Term limits for ministers; and

  5. Selection of the prime minister from the largest vote-getting party in parliament (which "was rejected on the grounds that it would result in deepening sectarianism." Obviously!);
So what, you ask?, are all of these monumental political reforms coming out of the National Dialogue that the Bahraini government is now touting? (See Al-Dhaharani's op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal, where he heralds "radical changes to democratic oversight of the executive branch.") In fact, they number about three:
  1. "The presence of ministers will be required when MPs debate issues related to their respective ministries";

  2. "MPs will be able to question ministers during the parliamentary sessions rather than in specific committees. The Parliament will be entitled to initiate discussions on any theme in addition to the agenda"; and, most importantly,

  3. "The king should choose the prime minister who will select his ministers, a change from the current situation where the monarch appoints the prime minister and the ministers."
The first two represent marginal changes at best. The third is where is the action is: the power to appoint ministers will transfer from the king to the prime minister. I guess this is the "radical change" in the "oversight of the executive branch" that al-Dhaharani refers to.

The only question that remained, then, was whether or not the king would agree to such an overt downgrade in authority. Well, his anticipated post-Dialogue address was given today, and it seems the answer is: yes. The operative portion of the speech is:
in order for the national consensus views to materialize by activation through our constitutional institutions, we have ordered the executive and legislative authorities to take the necessary actions.
While he does not address the issue of the selection of ministers specifically--whereas he does note explicitly that the recommendations include "specific standards for the selection of members in the Shura Council, supporting the independence of the juridical power, and boosting human rights"--there is no indication that this additional measure has not been accepted.

If you are wondering how King Hamad's speech went over, the word "hailed" comes to mind:


The prime minister's remarks in response are especially interesting. His statement (and his personal letter to the king to the same effect) says,
The government strongly supports what the popular will has agreed on by consensus and will ease all obstacles to reach forecast goals. ...

In line with the royal directives, the government will work out mechanisms to ensure implementation of the consensual visions through constitutional institutions so as to cope with the present phase and cater to citizens’ needs.
In other words, "I am happy to make sure that the additional powers granted me in the Dialogue come to fruition."

If this matter of appointing ministers would seem a relatively anti-climactic change, Bahrainis at least seem not to understand it this way. The Bahrain Mirror already has an analysis of the implications of this development, titled "On the Principle of Consenting to the Consensus: Transfer of the King's Powers to the Prime Minister." The final paragraph says (or rather asks) it all:
Why would the king approve such a recommendation that decreased his powers? And how did [popular] political demands turn into gains for the prime minister? And what will be the king's [new] position in the state and in the administration of governance? And does His Highness know what will be the catastrophic scenario to follow if agreed to these recommendations?"
Obviously, this article is written in the conditional tense, and I can't tell whether this is because it preceded the king's address--its time-stamp is 06:23, so I think this is the case--or because its author didn't hear an explicit agreement to this recommendation in the king's address. It says "to be continued" at the end, so perhaps the former is more likely. In any event, you get the picture: the significance of this (possible) constitutional change is not lost on ordinary Bahrainis, nor should it be on anyone else.

(Unrelatedly, the sequel to the "Palace Wars" article of a few days ago is now up as well. It is titled "Al Mahmud's Industry in the Context of the Palace Wars.")

Update: Khalifah bin Salman has already chaired a cabinet "work meeting" aimed at implementing the recommendations of the National Dialogue. I guess he is wasting no time.

Update 2: International Crisis Group has released a comprehensive paper on the politics of post-February Bahrain.

And Al-Jazeera English has a revealing if somewhat dated (unavoidably so, I'm sure) undercover documentary on Bahrain. The video is here:



Update 3: the Bahrain Mirror has an appropriate follow-up story to this article titled "His Highness the King and the Claimants of His Power."

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The U.S. Embassy in Bahrain: An Evil Everyone Can Appreciate

The only thing Bahrainis seem to be able to agree upon these days is that they really don't care for the U.S. Embassy. Indeed, just when you thought the Embassy was definitely a Hizballah agent working for Iran, you find out that it is actually single-handedly propping up the Al Khalifa regime. What to believe anymore?

Such is the conclusion one must reach if he would be persuaded by the continued anti-U.S. mobilization on the part of both pro-government Sunnis as well as those who continue to pursue Bahrain's long-expired "February 14 revolution." The belligerence of the former camp has been well-documented here (as well as in my Foreign Policy article). Most strikingly, two weeks ago in Busaiteen, Sh. 'Abd al-Latif Al Mahmud said to his National Unity Gathering rally-goers,
If the regime is too weak to stand up to the US, they need to declare that so people can have their say.

And if the regime needs a third rally [the first two being the pro-government counter-protests at the al-Fatih Mosque], this time in front of the US embassy, the people are ready. If the US is threatening to withdraw its troops and the facilities it gives to Bahrain then to hell with these troops and facilities. We are ready to live in famine to protect our dignity.
In fact, of course, the demonstration in front of the U.S. Embassy never materialized--not, at least, from the National Unity Gathering. The February 14 Coalition, on the other hand, is another story. While al-Wifaq has scheduled for Friday a march down al-Budaiyi' Road from the Saar to al-Diraz Roundabouts (which is actually only around 1 km or so), the February 14 folks are planning a rally in front of--you guessed it--the U.S. Embassy in Zinj. Ironically, with the demonstration taking place on a Friday, I doubt anyone will even be there to be annoyed by it.

Unfortunately, unlike for the al-Wifaq rally, there is no colorful web flier that I can post, though if this changes I will add it. News about it appeared first on opposition forums, and the Bahrain Mirror has since confirmed it, reporting that
The February 14 movement has called for a rally in front of the American Embassy in Manama the day after tomorrow, Friday, under the slogan, "Right to Self-Determination 5 [I guess it's the fifth rally?]."

In a statement a copy of which the Bahrain Mirror has obtained, the Movement said that "it will continue the path of the revolution," arguing that "the system has lost its legitimacy." The statement added that "the [national] dialogue was the system's attempt to circumvent the popular protests," arguing that "the crimes of the regime and the occupying Saudi forces were committed with American support."
When combined with the revelation earlier this month by Bahrain's Defense Minister Marshall Khalifah bin Ahmad that Bahrain's uprising "was by all measures a conspiracy involving Iran with the support of the U.S.," this additional revelation of U.S. complicity in the Saudi intervention also means that American foreign policy is approaching Iran-Iraq War-levels of duplicity. On the authoritative Dick Cheney Scale of Meddling, we are looking at an 8.5 at least.


Not mentioned in the Bahrain Mirror summary is an additional detail of the planned embassy protest. Its organizers with the February 14 Movement are claiming via "multiple sources" inside the Embassy that U.S. officials have already authorized the use of force by the Bahraini riot police to put down the protest. This same post on the largest opposition forum even claims that the chargé herself "said that the cacophony of voices [of the protesters] must shut up."

Who will put a stop to this latest outrage committed by the U.S. Embassy? Why, Al-Watan's anti-American extraordinaire Yusif Al Bin Khalil, of course.

You may recall that in a post exactly one week ago we paused to examine at some length Al Bin Khalil's then-latest op-ed offering, "Bahraini Societies Control America," which purported to expose a sinister dinner party organized for the graduates of the American Studies Center planned for July 30 at a hotel in Juffair. To quote from that post:
the entire article revolves around a dinner party--the exact date, time, and location of which he not-so-subtly divulges for anyone who might want to pay it a visit--for ASC graduates organized by a Bahrain Transparency Society, which I'd not previously heard of. Anyway, as you would expect, Al Bin Khalil insists that such a meeting is tantamount to a gathering of American spies, and notes incredulously that despite receiving "official promises from the university administration that the center will see changes" following his previous self-styled exposé back in June, "there seems to be an insistence that the American Madrasah Center [sic!] continue ... to train Bahraini political cadres that will turn into anti-state political activists and rights defenders in the name of freedom and human rights." He asks probingly, "Is the university administration aware of the organization of this event for these students?"
Well, interestingly, I today received an e-mail from the ASC listserv that announced the following:
From: xxx
Date: Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Subject: [ASC EMail Discussion List] ASC Annual Graduation Dinner
To: xxx@arts.uob.bh


ANNOUNCEMENT

Dear ASC Students, past and current,

Due to circumstances beyond our control, this year's ASC Graduation Dinner has had to be postponed - NOT CANCELED! - till September when the new semester begins.

We will notify you and hope for a good turnout since everyone will be back in town.

Thanks for your patience and have a great summer reading good stuff!

xxx
Apparently, "due to circumstances beyond our control" is another way of saying "a pro-government op-ed writer somehow convinced the university administration that we are all tools of the U.S. military-industrial complex." Maybe I should try to pay Al Bin Khalil to write an op-ed arguing that I should be installed as prime minister. The way things are looking now, sadly, that might just do the trick.

We may end with a few more details about the upcoming demonstrations this weekend. The February 14 rally in front of the Embassy we have already treated. Al-Wifaq's rally down al-Budaiyi' Road (a name, incidentally, that really annoys Shi'a since despite running through a dozen or so Shi'a villages, it is named after al-Budaiyi' village proper, which is, of course, Sunni-settled)--this al-Budaiyi' rally will take place on what al-Wifaq is calling "Perseverance Friday." Its slogan is "The People Are the Source of [the Political, i.e. Executive and Legislative] Powers." The flier includes pictures from the six previous weekend protests so you can see what you've been missing out on.


Yet this is not all. For the first day of Ramadan there is planned a demonstration in front of the Ministry of Labor (which I think is in 'Isa Town) for those laid off from government jobs for "expression of opinion or calling for political change." They are demanding their jobs back, compensation for lost wages, an end to corruption, etc., and they even have some nice fliers of their own:

And this one I really like:


Finally, we may mention the content of a royal decree promulgated today that is only significant because it is so funny. The BNA announces:
His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa issued today decree 82 for 2011 appointing Alice Thomas Sama’an as head of the Bahraini Diplomatic Mission to the United Kingdom at the rank of Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador.
If the name Alice Thomas Sama'an strikes you as a bit odd for a Bahraini female who is to head its UN delegation, it is because she happens to be a member of the country's hundreds-strong indigenous (sort of, she is Lebanese) Christian community. She is also a token Christian member of the Shura Council.

In her role as Female Religious Minority Public Relations Assistant, Sama'an joins a select company. This includes Bahrain's "first elected female MP in the Arab Gulf," Latifah Al Gaoud, whose electoral district--the Southern 6th--Bahrainis derisively note is home to "10,000 birds and gazelles"--and only 770 registered voters as of the 2010 election. (One Shi'i district in the Northern Governorate, by contrast, is home to 16,223 voters.) In two terms, she has yet to run opposed.

It also includes "the first Jewish female ambassador of an Arab nation," Bahrain's ambassador to the United States from among its 36-strong Jewish community. If one would question my interpretation of such appointments as PR moves, consider this explanation from the head of the Bahrain Human Rights Society (quoted in the New York Times no less):
We always believe here that control of America is governed by the Zionist lobby. The media and the money are all in the hands of the Jews. We believe if we have a Jewish ambassador and Jews in the Shura Council, this is a positive indicator for the country.
Any other questions?

Update: the February 14 rally flier is finally up (thanks to a commenter for the link), and she's a beaut. Funnily, however, it includes English translations of most of the details--presumably for foreign (U.S.) consumption--except for the tiny fact that it is to take place in front of the U.S. Embassy! Oops.


Update 2: many are reporting that the planned Embassy demonstration was blocked by.. roadblocks, which I guess is not difficult to do since it sits at the corner of two streets and is backed by the highway. As Chief Wiggum would say, "That's nice work, boys."

On the other hand, al-Wifaq's rally did go ahead, and they've already got the video to prove it:

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Dialogue is Dead. Long Live the Dialogue.

Today marks the final session of Bahrain's National Dialogue, which ended on an appropriate note with a special session dedicated to ex-patriot participants. This is appropriate, of course, in that it highlights how ridiculous the whole process was. The end result?: if you would believe the Bahrain News Agency, at least, a set of "recommendations" reached by "consensus" that would "further enhance the powers of the elected parliament." The newest of these measures as per the BNA are the following:
  1. "The presence of ministers will be required when MPs debate issues related to their respective ministries"; and

  2. "MPs will be able to question ministers during the parliamentary sessions rather than in specific committees. The Parliament will be entitled to initiate discussions on any theme in addition to the agenda."
So, assuming these "recommendations" were to be accepted by King Hamad, ministers would actually have to show up to parliament when issues under their purview are discussed; they can be questioned in the general assembly; and discussions won't be limited to agenda items.

All of which revisions are very nice; but unfortunately none of them even approaches the heart of Bahrain's political impasse, which revolves around the opposition's demands for an elected government, electoral redistricting, and empowerment of the lower house vis-a-vis the Shura Council. If these sound familiar, it is because al-Wifaq has invoked these demands explicitly in the names given to its weekend "festivals." One was a rally for "Fair Districts" and one was for "An Elected Government":



Yet, as the BNA notes, "Delegates did not reach consensus on a number of further suggestions, including whether the Shura Council should be granted the same powers as the Parliament, and whether the responsibility for law-making and oversight should be restricted to the elected chamber." Imagine that. In the end, then, whether or under what circumstances parliament can question ministers is a secondary matter compared to the method of selection of those ministers; the process by which the parliament itself is elected; and whether or not any parliamentary decision regarding the ministers can simply be overturned by the appointed upper house.

Moreover, as discussed previously, the most far-reaching "recommendation" to emerge from the National Dialogue is not even any of these newest ones cited above, but an earlier one. Nearly a week ago the Gulf News reported that "[p]articipants agreed that the king should choose the prime minister who will select his ministers, a change from the current situation where the monarch appoints the prime minister and the ministers." That is to say, more fundamental than the modalities of questioning ministers is the appointment of ministers in the first place, which delegates have suggested be moved from the king's prerogative into the domain of the prime minister.

It is at this point that we would do well to recall the next stage in the National Dialogue, which is codification of some or all--or none--of these suggestions by royal decree from King Hamad. Does anyone want to bet how he will deal with the suggestion to transfer the appointment of ministers to his uncle? (On the other hand, I think it goes without saying that, should he indeed agree to such a concession, one would have to conclude that his intra-family position is even more vulnerable than is now assumed.)

In order to punctuate just how far the National Dialogue failed to resolve any of Bahrain's problems, al-Wifaq and the National Unity Gathering held yet another set of dueling rallies over the past few days. Al-Wifaq's took place on both Friday and Saturday. The former was the latest edition of al-Wifaq's "Our National Demands" festival. Lebanon's Daily Star quotes 'Ali Salman as saying, "Our demands remain the same. An elected government, elected parliament, one vote for each citizen and independent judiciary." The Saturday event featured the heavyweight combo of Sh. 'Isa Qasim and S. 'Abdallah al-Ghurayfi, speaking about the destruction of Shi'i mosques as part of the post-February crackdown.

The counter-rally of the National Unity Gathering, on the other hand, happened Monday night in 'Arad, with organizers claiming a 50,000-strong turnout. The purpose of the meeting, according to one of its organizers in a statement to Al-Watan, was "the issue of the National Dialogue and the positions the Gathering adopted with respect to its overall vision for comprehensive reform in the Kingdom, in addition to its vision for the future." A more cynical view from the Bahrain Mirror is that the gathering aimed to "intimidate other national constituents [i.e., al-Wifaq] who are demanding an elected government." As evidence of this is offered the conspicuous presence of 'Adel Flaifel, a once-feared colonel in the Bahraini state security service relieved of his duties in 2002 after pressure from human rights organizations accusing him of torture.

An intrepid photographer has uploaded some shots from the rally here.
While it does not seem to have featured anything as striking as a 20-foot banner with the flags of the U.S., al-Wifaq, Iran, and Hizballah (such as that of two weeks ago in Busaiteen), judging by the posters held by some of the participants, there must have been a healthy dose of U.S.-bashing. We have this guy, for example, with his imaginative and colorful "No to the [U.S.'s] New Middle East" sign.


There also seemed to be a healthy contingent of Saudi flags, as well as a reporter from Al-Arabiyyah. I wonder if anyone from the opposition is decrying this blatant Saudi interference in Bahrain's sovereign affairs?

I for one would have liked to see a nice-sized flag made from the following graphic floating around on pro-government forums and Facebook pages, showing the al-Wifaq logo along with that of the Third Reich. This photoshop, which gives new meaning to the already-terrible term "Islamo-fascism," is part of a new pro-government series with the slogan, "ash-sha'ab yurid isqat al-wifaq." Which is catchy.


The real reason for this article, though, and the inspiration for its title, is speculation--originally reported in CNN Arabic but now given longer treatment at the Bahrain Mirror--that King Hamad is already mulling "a new initiative to solve Bahrain's crisis," hopefully one with a non-zero chance of succeeding. (Of course, aside from any new public "initiative," there are almost certainly discussions ongoing behind closed doors, likely including representatives of al-Wifaq.)

The CNN Arabic story cites
reports that [the king] plans to issue a message to the people of Bahrain before the end of this July that will probably include a new initiative for a new phase of reform.
It continues,
With no clear details of the new political initiative, observers say there are indications that it will include the return of all fired from their jobs without exception, as well as the release of a number of prisoners.
(On this account, note yesterday's high-profile release (Arabic here) of Muhammad Al Bu Flasa, a Sunni (Salafi, no less) who disappeared just hours after giving an anti-government address at the Pearl Roundabout on February 15. His release now comes presumably after his completion of a 5-month terrorist re-education (and de-Shi'ification) program such as the governments in Yemen and Saudi Arabia give to former members of al-Qa'ida.)

Members of the opposition, however, do not seem sanguine about the chances that the king's address in the run-up to Ramadan is likely to go beyond the "visions" (i.e., recommendations) resulting from the just-completed dialogue. The Bahrain Mirror quotes former al-Wifaq MP 'Ali al-'Ashiri as saying in response to the reports,
The visions are obvious things, and probably the king's speech will just include some ready-made points known to them [al-Wifaq] beforehand, like the things agreed to at the Dialogue, such as a review of the electoral districts.
He continues:
The call for dialogue doesn't correspond to the situation in reality and on the street. There needs to be progress toward the political and security situation in the country before the [dialogue] initiative. No initiative can succeed without these preliminary steps, which were absent from the first version of the dialogue.
Whether or not the speculations of CNN Arabic are correct that the king will announce a new dialogue initiative, it is clear that the regime will attempt to persuade observers that the just-commenced Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) into the post-February crackdown is yet another step down the road toward political and societal reconciliation. Indeed, the Gulf Daily News reports today (in all caps no less) that "ALL WILL BE REVEALED," this according to the prime minister. And the BICI even has its own website, so you know it's really going to get to the bottom of things.

If I may be so bold as to predict the outcome of the investigation, it goes something like this:
  1. The government did X, Y, and Z wrong.
  2. But the protesters did A, B, and C wrong.
  3. So really both sides were partially at fault, and what Bahrain needs is some sort of process to reconcile the two wronged parties (proceed to National Dialogue #2!).
And so the saga continues.

Update: for those who have questioned (in the comments) my closing predictions with the argument that the BICI's mission does not extend to violations by protesters, you may wish to see the Bahrain New Agency's coverage of the National Unity Gathering's 'Arad rally, which it uses as an opportunity to not-so-subtly hint at exactly this point. Indeed, the entire coverage of the demonstration highlights only the need for an inquiry into demonstrators' behavior:
Thousands of people braved the heat last night to attend a massive rally in Arad called by the National Unity Assembly.

Its chairman Dr Abdullatif Al Mahmood used the event to welcome an independent inquiry into Bahrain's unrest and urged participants to report any rights violations to its own fact-finding panel, to be submitted to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry.

An independent inquiry into Bahrain’s unrest has been urged to probe alleged violations by political movements.

That was one of the key messages to out of a rally attended by thousands in Muharraq last night.

It was organized by National Unity Assembly and its chairman Dr. Abdullatif Al Mahmoud said any investigation must look into claims that certain political groups were involved in disrupting health and education system denying key rights to citizens.
So, are we still convinced that my prediction is so off?

Update 2: The king has just given his anticipated pre-Ramadan speech about the Dialogue, the (English) text of which is here. In true Arab Gulf fashion, the only operative paragraph seems to be the following, which announces new economic benefits for public sector employees (rather than, say, political reform):
As we are aware of the economic challenges we have to live with, and as we are keen on upgrading the citizens' standards of living, we ordered the government to take the necessary actions regarding increasing salaries of civil, military and retired government employees and to expedite the other matters pertaining to all citizens' living that have been included within the National Dialogue views.
He also seems to imply that the "reforms" agreed at the Dialogue will indeed be undertaken: "In order for the national consensus views to materialize by activation through our constitutional institutions, we have ordered the executive and legislative authorities to take the necessary actions." But this statement seems somewhat vague perhaps due to translation.

Update 3: The Bahrain Mirror has a good analysis of the implications of the new "reforms"--namely the transfer of the power to appoint ministers to the prime minister from the king. It essentially makes the same point we've been making here.

Civil Society and Democratization in the Arab Gulf


I understand that this may be off topic for those who are interested only in Bahraini politics, but I have a new (co-authored) article in Foreign Policy's Mideast Channel about civil society and democratization in the Arab Gulf, based on new survey data from Qatar. Its main argument is that in the rent-based regimes of the region, where citizens (and organizations) are linked to the state through far-reaching clientelistic networks, the standing notion that civil society tends to lead toward more democracy (or, more specifically, more democratic-oriented citizens) turns out not to be the case.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Palace Wars and Royal Visits

As there seems to be a relative lack of headlines this week following al-Wifaq's withdrawal from the National Dialogue (although there is speculation that Wa'ad may be next; and there is another al-Wifaq "festival" this Friday in al-Musalla, titled "We Are Committed to Our National Demands"), I thought I would highlight an interesting article in the Bahrain Mirror titled "Palace Wars and Their Implications: How Did the National Unity Gathering Overthrow the Crown Prince?" (bad Google translation here). It seems to be the first in a multi-part series, so I will have to keep track of the new ones.

(Of course, if this is not your style, you can always go and read Yusuf Al Bin Khalil's latest offering: "Bahraini Societies Control America," in which he once again goes after the American Studies Center (ASC) of the University of Bahrain. In fact, the entire article revolves around a dinner party--the exact date, time, and location of which he not-so-subtly divulges for anyone who might want to pay it a visit--for ASC graduates organized by a Bahrain Transparency Society, which I'd not previously heard of. Anyway, as you would expect, Al Bin Khalil insists that such a meeting is tantamount to a gathering of American spies, and notes incredulously that despite receiving "official promises from the university administration that the center will see changes" following his previous self-styled exposé back in June, "there seems to be an insistence that the American Madrasah Center [sic!] continue ... to train Bahraini political cadres that will turn into anti-state political activists and rights defenders in the name of freedom and human rights." He asks, "Is the university administration aware of the organization of this event for these students?" Well, is it? IS IT?!@#!?1)

You'll have to read to find out!

Back to the Bahrain Mirror article. Government opponents in Bahrain continue to rue the post-February political exit of Crown Prince Salman, a man who, now at the end of July, is looking very much a welcome alternative to the likes of Al Mahmud and Muhammad Khalid, to say nothing of the three Khalifahs: al-Dhaharani, bin Salman, and bin Ahmad. So too, it seems, does the U.S. miss the moderate, youthful (by Gulf royalty standards), English-speaking, American University-educated crown prince. Indeed, as recently as a month and a half ago, the State Department still held out hope that it could somehow singlehandedly revive his political career. A story in the New York Times proclaimed that "The White House [is] Cultivating a Prince to Coax an Ally to Change." I guess they forgot to ask him whether or not anyone in his family is likely to listen to his political suggestions.

As its name implies, the "Palace Wars" article tells the story of the post-February 14 sidelining of the crown prince and corresponding empowerment of Khalid bin Ahmad (Minister of State for Royal Court Affairs) and his brother "The Marshall" Khalifah bin Ahmad (Minister for Defense and BDF Commander-in-Chief), known together as al-khawalid; along with of course the prime minister. If you are confused by all these family relationships, see the following tree of Al Khalifa ministers (it links to a .pdf), for which I cannot take credit.


More important than the actual exposition of the "Palace Wars" article, though--which in any case is probably of interest mostly to Arabic readers--is the popular sentiment it increasingly represents: the feeling that if any political solution is to be reached in Bahrain, it must inevitably involve Crown Prince Salman, not least because there are seemingly few others within the royal family willing even to sit in the same room as the opposition. Whether or not this is so out of a genuine political moderateness, or mere political expediency--a country ever on the brink of societal conflict cannot seem an inviting prospect for the one who hopes someday to inherit it--the underlying cause makes little practical difference.

The U.S. was on the right track in attempting to "cultivate" a viable political peacemaker in the crown prince. Yet, at a time when association with the United States is almost exactly the opposite of a political asset, it would do better to work its magic from behind the scenes rather than, say, by inviting him to the White House to meet with the president. Its lack of recognition of this fact, to say nothing of the more fundamental fact of the crown prince's current intra-family weakness, spells trouble for American policy in Bahrain. Indeed, it is perhaps not an understatement to say that priority number one for the United States should be working towards the settlement not of the country's outward political crisis, but of its internal family crisis, the persistence of which will make impossible any larger political resolution.

On the subject of Bahrain's personality politics, we may note a few other recent news items. The first of these is another string of royal visits to the majalis of pro-government families, presumably to shore up support for King Hamad. The first was performed by the king's son and "personal representative," Sh. 'Abdallah. According to the Bahrain News Agency,
the bin Dainas, Al-Oraifis, Al-Kindis and Taquis reaffirmed their unwavering support for the measures undertaken by His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa to protect the nation and citizens and restore the status of Bahrain as a haven of security and stability, led by the Al-Khalifa.
Just the day before he had met a number of families in Muharraq--the "Al-Murbati family majlis, Bu Hijji family majlis and Syyadi family majlis"--where he "emphasized that the Kingdom of Bahrain will remain strong and solid forever with its loyal people who will always continue the path of development, prosperity and preservation of the divine grace of security and stability."




This follows a personal visit by King Hamad on July 12 to the Al Ghatam in al-Zallaq, where he "laud[ed the] Al-Ghatam family's dedication in serving their country and contributing to its progress and prosperity."

And prior to this was a visit on July 6 to the majalis of the Al Sabt and Al Sindi; and on July 4 to those of our friend Muhammad Khalid, Safouq Khalaf, and Jamal Dawad.





Not to be forgotten, finally, are the previous visits to the Al Musallem and Al Mahmud in al-Hidd that we noted in June. Isn't it strange that no member of the royal family has the time to make an appearance at the National Dialogue, supposed to contain a representative cross-section of Bahraini society, and yet in the past month various members including the king himself have made repeated stops at the homes of individual families? It is almost as if prominent, tribally-allied families in Bahrain have better political access than do ordinary citizens and members of actual political societies. But that couldn't be right.

Not to be outdone, the prime minister is aiming to receive the entire ex-patriot community of Bahrain--or, barring that, at least the members of the newly-formed Western Expatriot Council, which seems to consist entirely of Britons. Prominent Bahraini political scientist 'Abd al-Hadi Khalaf has published an e-mail to the British Club listserv that
ask[s] for [members'] help on a pressing matter. His majesty the King and HRH the Prime Minister have both expressed their wholehearted support for the concept of Expatriate Councils and the Prime Minister now wishes to meet members of the WESTERN expatriate community during this coming week.
The tone comes off as oddly desperate:
We are seeking at least TWO HUNDRED people for the visit and, as a starting point, it would be good if we could get a minimum of TWENTY nominations from each of the following twelve organisations. However, if you get to 20 confirmed names please do not stop there, keep going as there is no upper limit and we really are going to be struggling.

Our motto for the next 8 hours needs to be ‘As many as possible – There is no such thing as too many.’

Speaking of desperation, organizers of the post-al-Wifaq National Dialogue are taking pains to demonstrate that it is still relevant. The Bahrain News Agency is doing its part by proclaiming that participants have reached "a ground breaking consensus" that, according to the Dialogue spokesman, "represents a radical shift in the balance of power, between the democratically elected parliament and the executive branch, in a new commitment by Bahrain to concrete reforms."

What is this "ground breaking," democratizing consensus, you ask? Habib Toumi at the Gulf News explains:

The government will under the proposal require the endorsement of the parliament before taking up office. ...

[P]articipants agreed that the king should choose the prime minister who will select his ministers, a change from the current situation where the monarch appoints the prime minister and the ministers.

A suggestion to choose the prime minister from the party that has the highest number of votes in the quadrennial elections was rejected on the grounds that it would result in deepening sectarianism, the spokesman said.

Participants could not agree on how long ministers can remain in charge of their portfolios.

So, this new "consensus" to improve democracy in fact is a project to institutionalize additional autonomy for the prime minister, whose right-hand man in parliament Khalifah al-Dhaharani just happens to be in charge of the National Dialogue. Interesting. Still, though, I offer $100 to anyone who can explain in the comments section how "choos[ing] the prime minister from the party that has the highest number of votes in the quadrennial elections" would "result in deepening sectarianism." That is what we call a paradox.

Finally, Bahrain's much-heralded truth commission led by Prof. Bassiouni will hold its first public session on July 24 at the National Museum. This location is actually very convenient as the committee can begin its investigation immediately with the post-February firing of Hasan Madan--the head of the very dangerous Progressive Democratic Tribune political society--from his administrative position at the National Museum. You can bet that they'll get right on that.

Update: and on an unrelated note, The Australian (via The Times) is reporting (though with anonymous "sources") that the U.S. is mulling moving the Fifth Fleet out of Bahrain. Somehow I doubt anyone is holding their breath. Update: the Defense Department is now denying this.

Update 2: the posters for al-Wifaq's Friday rally in al-Musalla are in. First we have an appeal to our love for old toothless guys and kids:


Another, if not as heart-wrenching, offers a nice overview of all of the previous rallies. It asks, "Will you be a part of the sixth festival's picture?"


Finally, we have the al-Diraz Youth Movement inviting the new U.S. Ambassador to its own rally in, well, al-Diraz.


I'm sure his attendance would go over really well with the likes of Al Mahmud and Muhammad Khalid.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Better Late Than Never: Al-Wifaq Officially Out of the Dialogue

Ten days ago there was a post here titled, "Al-Wifaq to National Dialogue: We're Out, Baby!" It was prompted by a Bahrain Mirror article suggesting that the group would announce its withdrawal from the National Dialogue later that weekend at a rally in al-Diraz, following heavy criticism of the first week's sessions by 'Isa Qasim, 'Ali Salman, and Khalil al-Marzuq. Obviously, that never happened.

Now, it seems the folks at the Bahrain Mirror were only off by a week or so. As reported everywhere, al-Wifaq today announced its official pull-out of the talks. The AFP quotes Khalil al-Marzuq as saying, "We have tried but without success to make it a serious dialogue." It continues,
In a statement, [al-Wifaq] said the dialogue would "not reach a radical political solution to the crisis in Bahrain but instead complicate the political crisis."

It was "vastly under-represented and marginalised in the dialogue ... whose results have been determined in advance," Al-Wefaq said. It did not want to be linked to a process "whose results could be far removed from the political will."

The full Arabic statement (and not a short one) is posted on the group's news website. The headline reads, "The dialogue team saw that the dialogue will not lead to a political solution to the crisis in Bahrain." And the subtitle: "The al-Wifaq General Secretariat agrees to order the dialogue team to withdrawal."


While the writing has clearly been on the wall since even before the dialogue started--indeed, according to al-Wifaq statements, the only reason they agreed to take part in the first place is because of U.S. pressure--the decision to announce the withdrawal today must have been helped in part by fresh violence over the weekend that left one Sitra woman dead, reportedly from tear gas inhalation when the latter was used to disperse protesters at a so-called "March for Self-Determination." (The Ministry of Interior denies these claims.)

I'm no medical expert, but after seeing the following video from Sitra showing police shooting teargas directly into peoples' homes, it certainly cannot be out of the realm of possibility.



Predictably, further clashes ensued at the funeral procession of the woman, when participants attempted to march again following the burial.

Contemporaneous with the withdrawal of al-Wifaq, the only remaining opposition society in the National Dialogue--the Ibrahim Sharif-less Wa'ad (nobody say al-manbar al-tuqaddami)--has released its own July 17 statement critical of the National Dialogue. Though it falls short of saying it will leave the talks, the statement, posted to opposition forms and probably elsewhere, insists that "the dialogue process is not serious." Of course, since the group was only unbanned days before the dialogue started, and since its leader is serving a 5-year prison term for being a terrorist plotter, it is not exactly in a strong bargaining position vis-a-vis the government. Were it to withdrawal as well, it may find that its newfound status as a legal political society a rather fleeting one.

Finally, we may report some new developments on the anti-U.S., anti-King but still somehow pro-government Sunni front. The first is a second "strongly-worded letter" by Muhammad Khalid to King Hamad (the first is discussed here). According to the Bahrain Mirror, it accuses the king of surrounding himself with "bad advisers." In this "message to the leadership," Khalid insists that, "We are alive. We have a voice, and we won't die"--"we" being, presumably, him and his like-minded fellows at the National Unity Gathering. Further, he called on "our brothers in the intelligence services" to deliver a message to the king that "we have demands, and these are the execution of the law against criminals." The latter is evidently a reference to the recent release of political detainees.

In any case, you get the idea: the letter goes on in this fashion and, once again, its main points are even delivered publicly via Twitter: "What remains of the king's prestige, and that of the country, and of the [Ministry of?] Interior, and of the Law, in the face of the concessions to and [royal] pardons of the traitors... Nothing will work with them [the opposition] save for the fist of the Marshal [BDF Commander-in-Chief Khalifa bin Ahmad], the only one able to overcome them."


Notice, if you will, the first re-Tweeter of Khalid's post. Could it be? Yes! It's our friend Yusuf Al Bin Khalil, which leads us nicely to our final discussion, which is of Al Bin Khalil's newest series in Al-Watan. Having been effectively barred from writing his "Ayatollah Obama" series after a protest from the U.S. Embassy, on July 11 he hit on a new subject matter: the newly-appointed Ambassador to Bahrain, career Foreign Service Officer and former Ambassador to Yemen Thomas Krajeski. These include:

11 July: "Why Don't We Reject the New American Ambassador?"
12 July: "The People Want the Change of the Ambassador," which incidentally is much catchier in Arabic as it rhymes.
13 July: "Duties of the New American Ambassador, Part 1"
14 July: "Duties of the New American Ambassador, Part 2"
15 July: "Duties of the New American Ambassador, Part 3"
16 July: "Duties of the New American Ambassador, Part 4"
17 July: "Duties of the New American Ambassador, Part 5"

All of the latter purport to discuss "the tasks to be handled by the new U.S. ambassador in the case his nomination is accepted by the Government of Bahrain." I see what you did there.

In sum, then, I think we can agree that the entire process of the National Dialogue has succeeded only in further dividing two sides in Bahrain that were already quite far apart. Al-Wifaq is now out of the dialogue, which (assuming it continues) will not end until Ramadan, after which the country will see 40 days or so (including 'Eid) of a political lull. By the time the holiday is over, Bahrain is scheduled to hold almost immediately September by-elections to vote in new parliamentarians to replace those from al-Wifaq, which has already announced its boycott.

Moreover, for its part, the pro-government crowd is not only as staunchly or more staunchly opposed to political concessions to al-Wifaq as it was in February in March, but it is now also pushing hard against the king himself, perceived as too lenient and too beholden to his "bad [American] advisers," as Muhammad Khalid would say.

If there is an easy resolution to this now-multiparty struggle, I am not seeing it.

Update: according to the Gulf Daily News, al-Wifaq's pull-out has "evoked widespread condemnation." Who are these condemning voices, you ask? The article continues:
Bahrain University associate professor in psychology department Dr Nu'man Al Mossawi described the decision to quit as "not wise."
"Not wise" according to an associate professor of psychology at the state university? Booya! In your face, al-Wifaq!

Update 2: Jane Kinninmont analyzes al-Wifaq's exit for Foreign Policy's Mideast Channel. And for The Atlantic Hussein Ibish.

Meanwhile, a parliamentary spokesman is blaming the decision on--who else?--'Ali Khamene'i: "Wefaq has a different agenda," he said. "They want an Islamic state under Wilayet al-Faqih and they received a green light from Tehran to withdraw from the negotiations." Right, right.

Update 3: The National Dialogue (I didn't realize an abstract political process could make its own statements) has somehow released "its" own response to al-Wifaq via the BNA.

Update 4: Wa'ad may be next to call it quits. The GDN story has a hilarious series of quotes from Munira Fakhru, including: "We really have no clue what is next in this process unless a top official explains to us where we are heading." And: "[Y]ou have more than 70 people in each session who are given about three minutes each to share their views."

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Other Side of Radicalization in Bahrain


As noted yesterday, I have a new piece at the Foreign Policy Mideast Channel on the issue of anti-U.S. and anti-regime mobilization among Bahrain's ostensive pro-government constituency. It is largely inspired by the recent post "Obama ♥ Iran: A Love Story, Chapter 2." Enjoy.

For those interested, yesterday's post "Threatening the King" has even more on this front, most of it too recent to have been included in the Foreign Policy article.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Threatening the King

In what the Bahrain Mirror calls "perhaps the harshest letter addressed to the king of Bahrain since the outbreak of the February 14 crisis," former Health Ministry employee-turned-National Unity Gathering adviser 'Adal 'Ali 'Abdallah has "threatened King Hamad that he might lose his popularity in the event he continues what ['Abdallah] calls 'satisfying the Americans for the sake of the throne.'"

He is said to have written, "O King, to satisfy the Americans for the sake of the throne will only increase your distance from your people; nor will the Americans be satisfied by your attempt to buy them [i.e., the Shi'a] off."

In this latest bad omen for King Hamad, not only did 'Abdallah make no effort to sugar-coat this overt threat, but indeed he even transmitted it publicly over Twitter:


In his open letter decrying the king's appeasement of the Americans, 'Abdallah was joined by Muhammad Khalid, who sent a similar message. The Bahrain Mirror offers details of his own "angry letter," which is quoted as saying, "Your appeasement of the Americans, who have increased treachery and hate for you, has distanced you from those who honor and mentor you." Note that the Arabic word for "mentor" here [ناصح] can also mean "uncle." Coincidence?

This comes less than a week after a strongly-worded oration at the National Unity Gathering's rally last weekend in Busaiteen, where 'Abd al-Latif Al Mahmud warned, "If the regime [i.e., King Hamad] is too weak to stand up to the U.S., they need to declare that so people can have their say."

Today's letters seem to have been prompted by the recent quiet release of several hundred political detainees, including the well-publicized poet Ayat al-Qurmezi, and rumors that higher-level opposition leaders are next on the list. (Note, though, that the actual charges against al-Qurmezi and the others released seem not to have been dropped). Hard-line Sunnis see the moves as tantamount to royal pardons, with which King Hamad has been liberal in the past.

That King Hamad has been unable to put a stop to such rhetoric--either the constant attacks on the U.S. Embassy and president, or these explicit public criticisms of himself--would seem a bad sign for those hoping for a moderate leadership in Bahrain. The more hawkish members of the royal family, and their popular supporters as represented by the National Unity Gathering, seem to be making a strong play for the king's position.

On exactly this topic I have a forthcoming article in (probably tomorrow's) Foreign Policy Mideast Channel. So I'll leave this posting short for now.

Finally, on an unrelated note, last week's article about al-Wifaq's impending pull-out of the National Dialogue seems to have missed the mark only in its timing. There are now several reports suggesting that the group will end its Dialogue experiment sometime next week, not least on account of Jasim al-Sa'idi's use of an anti-Shi'a slur (rafidah) during a discussion session yesterday (you keep it classy, al-Sa'idi), which prompted an al-Wifaq walk-out. No word whether anyone from al-Wifaq retorted with the nickname common among al-Sa'idi's detractors, shaikh al-mujannasin: "shaikh of the naturalized [Bahrainis]."

Really, it's difficult to see how someone seemingly so reasonable could make such comments. Oh, wait, that's right:


Update
: Meanwhile, this week's edition of al-Wifaq's ongoing "Our National Demands" political festival (last week's focused on an elected government) will center around the demand for non-gerrymandered (their euphemism is "just") electoral districts--as compared to, say, the current ones, crafted exactly around Sunni-Shi'i lines:



As per the attractive flier below, this fifth rally will be held tomorrow, Friday, at 5:00pm in Bilad al-Qadim.


The U.S. Embassy demonstration notice also mentions Sitra, so perhaps the February 14 people have something going on there as well.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Obama ♥ Iran: A Love Story, Chapter 2

I honestly don't have time to be writing all of these updates, but this one is just too good to pass up. Readers may recall our May 22 article, "Obama ♥ Iran: A Love Story," which highlighted the anti-U.S. backlash of pro-government Bahrainis following Obama's criticism of the post-February 14 crackdown during his much-hyped speech on the Middle East. (If you haven't seen it, you may wish to check it out just for the hilarious photoshops of Obama alone, such as the one to the left.)

Well, the Obama-bashing (and general U.S.-bashing) is now back in full swing, with similar hilarity ensuing. For those who visit regularly, you know that one of our favorite past-times here is to keep up to date with the musings of Al-Watan's anti-American rhetorician extraordinaire, Yusif Al Bin Khalil, whose long-running serial "Washington and the Sunna of Bahrain" has recently been spurned in favor of an even better and more subtly-titled series: "Ayatollah Obama and Bahrain." This column, which has run almost every day since June 26, includes the following variations:

26 June: "Ayatollah Obama and Bahrain: The Principle of Exporting the [American?] Revolution"
27 June: "Ayatollah Obama and Bahrain: Strategic Ignorance"
28 June: "Ayatollah Obama and Bahrain: The Saudi Neighborhood"
29 June: "Ayatollah Obama and Bahrain: The American [Naval] Base in Juffair"
30 June: "Ayatollah Obama and Bahrain: The Security Vacuum"
2 July: "Ayatollah Obama and Bahrain: Manufacturing Extremism in Manama"
3 July: "Ayatollah Obama and Bahrain: Washington's Instructions for al-Wifaq"
4 July: "Ayatollah Obama and Bahrain: We're Not Better than the Americans"
5 July: "Ayatollah Obama and Bahrain: [U.S. Operation] Dawn [in Fallujah] and [GCC Shield Operation] al-Faruq [in Bahrain]"
6 July: "Ayatollah Obama and Bahrain: Washington's Enemies"

The nice thing about these articles is that you don't even have to read them in order to figure out the main point. And if you read the title and still can't predict the rest of the argument, you need only read the first sentence. The last article titled "Washington's Enemies," for example, begins: "Does American President Barack Obama want the countries of the GCC to be the foremost enemies of the United States, historically-speaking?" Enough said.

Not surprisingly, such ravings have caught the attention of the U.S. Embassy, which has petitioned Bahrain's Information Affairs Agency (English here) to put an end to the "Ayatollah Obama" articles. But this effort is being resisted by the Bahraini Society of Journalists, which insists that Al Bin Khalil
did not defame either directly or indirectly the character of the [U.S.] president or degrade [him], but dealt objectively with [U.S.] foreign policy, which does not conflict with the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution; nor [does it conflict with] the [Bahraini press law], which [i.e., freedom of the press] has been in place in the United States of America for a long time.
Now, Al Bin Khalil is striking back with a retort of his own, writing a new article today that mocks the Embassy's pressure. Titled "Dear Obama: This is How You Curb Freedom in Bahrain" (full English translation here, though not mine), the piece expresses "surprise" at
the stance of the U.S. Embassy in refusing freedom of expression in Bahrain; a freedom which we enjoy since the launch of the reform project by the King. This leads us to ask more questions about how serious Washington is about promoting/spreading freedom and reforms in Bahrain and the region?
And it ends with a "plea" and warning of sorts:
[I hope] you will understand my point of view and intervene to stop pressures of the U.S. Embassy on the freedom of expression in Bahrain. Meanwhile, I will start a new series monitoring and analyzing the roles played by the U.S. Embassy in Manama, to reach a deeper and a common understanding of the American-Bahraini relations to better serve our common interests.
Yet this Obama-Iran Love Story is not just about Yusif Al Bin Khalil. At a pro-government rally today in Busaiteen--a counter-point to al-Wifaq's festival in Karranah--one heard a similar tale of U.S. interference in Bahraini affairs, and more overt warnings about the consequences of this. National Unity Gathering leader Sh. 'Abd al-Latif Al Mahmud told listeners (full audio here) that, among other things, it is the United States that divided Bahrain into Sunnis and Shi'is, just as it had done in Iraq. And, he said,
If the regime is too weak to stand up to the US, they need to declare that so people can have their say.

And if the regime needs a third rally [the first two being at the al-Fatih Mosque], this time in front of the US embassy, the people are ready. If the US is threatening to withdraw its troops and the facilities it gives to Bahrain then to hell with these troops and facilities. We are ready to live in famine to protect our dignity.
The title of the Al-Watan article covering the event (English alternative here) offers an apt summary: "Al Mahmud: We Will Not Sell Our Nation [to the U.S.], and We Won't Give in to American Pressure."

In fact, though, all one need do to appreciate the tone and purpose of the event is to see its decorations, which include a 15-foot-wide banner directly behind the speakers' stage bearing the flags of "The Conspirators against the Arab Gulf": the U.S., al-Wifaq, Hizballah, and Iran, and the message: "Bahrain of the Al Khalifa: God Save Bahrain from Traitors."


What's that? You say you didn't realize they were all in cahoots? Well, get with the program! And read on.

In an interview with Egyptian journalists that he obviously didn't think anyone would bother watching or recording, the BDF Commander-in-Chief Marshall Khalifah bin Ahmad
confirmed that the events of Bahrain [i.e., the February uprising] was by all measures a conspiracy involving Iran with the support of the U.S., [which is] trying to draw a new [strategic] map [of the region] [as] revealed by Condoleezza Rice in hearings before Congress for approval of her 2005 appointment as secretary of state, when she talked about regime change in the Middle East [and] talked about the notion of ​"creative chaos."

He added: "More important than the differences between the U.S. and Iran are their wide-ranging common interests in various areas that take aim at the Arabs."
If this isn't crazy enough for you, a new 15-minute "documentary" is circulating through the Intertubes titled "The Economic Hitman," which purports to tell the story of the "Secret Plan to Overthrow the Bahraini Regime" orchestrated by--you guessed it--Amreeka. Narrated by the Stephen Hawking character from Family Guy, the video really is a see-it-to-believe-it situation.


The video's accusations side, the immediate cause of this resurgence in America-hating among Bahrain's pro-government folks is not obvious. Certainly, there have been reports of meetings between al-Wifaq and U.S. Embassy representatives, and al-Wifaq has made clear (as did this Financial Times story) that it was persuaded to participate in the National Dialogue only by the argument of the State Department that it would appear unreasonable and unwilling to compromise if it did not. But even this would only put the U.S. somewhere around a 3 on the Dick Cheney Scale of Meddling (where 10 equals Dick Cheney-esque levels of international interference).


It could be that the more hard-line elements of the regime are attempting to embarrass or question the tactics of the king and his barely-ruling faction. Hence, perhaps, Al Mahmud's suggestion that "If the regime is too weak to stand up to the US, they need to declare that so people can have their say." And so on. Whatever the case, this campaign would seem a short-sighted strategy, particularly given the failing health of the Saudi monarch as well as the crown prince and long-time defense minister Sultan bin 'Abd al-Aziz, who just days ago had yet another surgery in New York. (I guess the Saudis are not so mad about the U.S. stance in Egypt that they've stopped using our medical facilities.)

Certainly, the current Saudi generation has shown unwavering enthusiasm for the GCC military effort in Bahrain, but in a few short years they may well be consumed by internal royal matters (see this great Foreign Policy piece by Simon Henderson) and less worried about carrying out an interventionist regional policy. At which point the pro-government Bahraini dream of a permanent GCC base staffed by prospective new members Jordan, Morocco, and Egypt(?) will seem a long way off indeed. And, if an emboldened Iran were to seek to take advantage of a Saudi Arabia in political transition, a U.S. navy base in Juffair might start to sound not so bad.

Update: Al Bin Khalil's latest offering is now online. He seems to have followed through on his promise to Obama to "monitor[] and analyz[e] the roles played by the U.S. Embassy in Manama." The new article is titled "Backbone of the Embassy: Israelis in Manama." And his Twitter post announcing the new piece is even more explicit: "Who is it that runs the American Embassy in Manama: Washington or Tel Aviv?"

The story now is also beginning to get a bit of English coverage. The indispensable Habib Toumi at the Gulf News has written a good overview, including the official response of the Embassy to Al Bin Khalil's charges that he is being muzzled.

Update 2: The Bahrain Mirror (its recent false report about al-Wifaq leaving the dialogue notwithstanding) has an article today that purports to give further details about the organized anti-U.S. Embassy campaign of which Al Bin Khalil's Al-Watan column forms but one part.


Update 3: Al Bin Khalil's newest offering: "Why Don't We Reject the New American Ambassador [to Bahrain]?"--i.e., career FSO and former ambassador to Yemen Thomas Krajeski.

As one of his Twitter followers says of the piece, "Al Bin Khalil presents in his article important reasons to reject the new American ambassador in Bahrain, who will not serve to strengthen relations but to intervene even more in local affairs."

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Al-Wifaq to National Dialogue: "We're Out, Baby!"

You have to hand it to the guys at al-Wifaq. For whatever else you might say about them, they are certainly not slow to take a hint. It has taken the group all of one session of the National Dialogue™ to conclude what it had assumed (and said publicly) well before it agreed begrudgingly to participate: that the initiative could not possibly lead to the sort of substantive political reform demanded by the opposition, and indeed that sparked the entire February 14 uprising in the first place. (Why this is so has been discussed here and here. And in this good Reuters article.)

Following Tuesday's opening session of talks, Khalil al-Marzuq announced (see also the Bahrain Mirror's coverage) that al-Wifaq delegates would not be attending two of the dialogue's four committees--the "social" and "economic" committees--but only the "political" and "human rights" committees. Which is a polite way of saying that the former two are altogether beside the point of the dialogue, which according to King Hamad is to bring political reform and reconciliation. More generally, the move continues al-Wifaq's rejection since the start of protests of the notion that the root of Bahrain's current crisis is fundamentally socioeconomic rather than political, an image the Bahraini government would very much like to cultivate.

The AP quotes al-Marquz as saying,

We believe the dialogue should discuss major political and security issues. ... This dialogue will not lead to a solution ... and it does not fulfill the needs to pull Bahrain out of its political crisis.
Given this less than positive evaluation of the first session, the Bahrain Mirror reports that al-Wifaq made its continued participation in the National Dialogue contingent on the success of the second session held today, Thursday. This, of course, is in line with 'Ali Salman's warning when the group announced its participation that it would leave the talks if it become obvious that they would be unfruitful.

Well, evidently al-Wifaq was no more impressed with today's session than with Tuesday's. For, as reported once again by the Bahrain Mirror, it "has decided to pull out of the dialogue and will announce the decision tomorrow at its rally" in the northern village of Karranah. Moreover, the report says, the al-Wifaq source confirmed that the decision "has been made known to concerned countries working to resolve the Bahrain crisis"--that is, one assumes, to the United States.

(This comes after a Tuesday Financial Times story claiming that al-Wifaq's participation was brokered by the State Department. It quotes "one opposition politician" as saying, "'The argument of the Americans is that we would be blamed for failure of the dialogue so tactically we had to be part of it.'")


Appropriately, then, al-Wifaq's planned mass rally for tomorrow (the fourth installment of its "Our National Demands" Festival series) in Karranah is titled "An Elected Government." Among its many electronic fliers is one that offers a quote from Sh. 'Ali Salman:

"Our demand: an elected government representing the will of the people.

Isn't that what is enjoyed by 90% of the people on Earth?
Isn't this the demand of the revolting Arab populations?
Isn't that what is called for in international agreements such as The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that [the Government of] Bahrain signed?
Isn't that modernization?
Isn't that a "national" demand?
Or is it just a ploy to elicit adherence to governments stuck in the Middle Ages?"


Irrespective of what tomorrow's rally in Karranah will bring, al-Wifaq's decision to leave the dialogue, if perhaps sudden, can come as little surprise, particularly if it was indeed the U.S. that ultimately convinced it to take part rather than its own judgment. Apart from the intrinsic problems stemming from the very structure of the dialogue itself, we might name a few others:
  1. At the same time that Bahraini society was supposed to be engaged in "dialogue," the same sorts of government behaviors that necessitated the dialogue in the first place--in particular, violent repression of peaceful demonstrations--continued unabated, as covered in a recent Economist piece.

  2. Originally scheduled to take place prior to the start of the National Dialogue, authorities postponed until September the appeal hearing for the 21 opposition leaders sentenced in June, a move widely seen as an overt attempt to coerce al-Wifaq cooperation in the dialogue and, more generally, to use the appeals as a bargaining chip in government-opposition negotiations. (And this, of course, is in addition to the two military cases against former al-Wifaq MPs Matar Matar and Jawad Fayruz, due for sentencing any day.)

  3. The timing of the dialogue initiative--which is set to end as the holy month of Ramadan begins--is not random, and works very much in the government's favor. Ramadan being a month for fasting and avoidance of conflict, the opposition will be in a tricky situation in which carrying on a political fight in August is likely to be viewed as irreligious or simply out of place. As such, for some 40 days (counting 'Eid) after the dialogue ends, Bahrain will see a lull in political action that will make it difficult to carry on the momentum of July. Indeed, one gets the impression that the government hopes everyone will have forgotten about the "recommendations" (assuming there are any) of the National Dialogue by the time the Ramadan and 'Eid holidays end.

  4. After its protest resignation from parliament and assumption of leadership of the February and March demonstrations (helped later by the fact that most other opposition figures had already been arrested), al-Wifaq gained widespread support among Bahraini Shi'a, many of whom had long criticized it for having been co-opted through its parliamentary experiment. But its decision to join the dialogue undoubtedly reversed much of this gain in support. So once it became clear that the (largely international PR) benefits from participation were not worth the (domestic) harm to its following, the decision quit the dialogue presumably was an easy one to make.
The ball is now back in the government's court.

But--hey--if nothing else, at least regime supporters will be happy that al-Wifaq is out of the talks. A new billboard (see our previous post on Bahraini billboards) spotted in Busaiteen declares, "We [Sunnis, I guess, or maybe Salafis] will stand shoulder to shoulder against a Wilayat al-Faqih"--which, as everyone knows, 'Isa Qasim and 'Ali Salman were pushing for at the National Dialogue.


On an unrelated note, finally, I should say a word about our friend Yusif Al Bin Khalil, Al-Watan's professional anti-U.S. op-ed columnist. It seems his newest series, titled "Ayatollah Obama and Bahrain," has caught the attention of the U.S. Embassy, which has been pressuring Bahrain's Information Affairs authority to put an end to it. But, as another pro-government newspaper (Al-Watan is run by the Royal Court), Al-Ayam, reports, the Bahraini Society of Journalists is rejecting this U.S. effort. A spokesman insists that Al Bin Khalil "did not defame either directly or indirectly the character of the [U.S.] president or degrade [him], but dealt objectively with [U.S.] foreign policy, which does not conflict with the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution; nor [does it conflict with] the [Bahraini press law], which [i.e., freedom of the press] has been in place in the United States of America for a long time."

I, for one, hope Al Bin Khalil is able to continue his writing long enough for it to appear on the reportedly-upcoming English-language online version of Al-Watan, which will be great fun for everyone.

(Update: Al Bin Khalil has written a new article today in which he mocks the pressure from the American Embassy. It is titled, "Dear Obama: This is How You Ban Freedom in Bahrain.")

Update
: the Bahraini government just can't get enough of Religion and Politics in Bahrain!


Update 2: a story at Al-Jazeera contradicts the Bahrain Mirror report that al-Wifaq will announce its withdrawal from the National Dialogue tomorrow. I guess we shall see.

Update 3: since 'Ali Salman's keynote at the festival in Karranah (audio here) has now ended and I'm yet to hear anything about a complete al-Wifaq pull-out of the talks, it appears that the Bahrain Mirror rumor was indeed wrong after all.

In the end, though, I'm not sure what practical difference it really makes, since al-Wifaq has already clearly checked out intellectually from the talks, reiterating several times that the only reason it is there at all is to avoid "a scenario again where people say that the opposition is resisting in trying to find a political solution," as Khalil al-Marzuq said yesterday. I'd be surprised if they weren't busy browsing the Interweb or playing paper football during the sessions.

Likewise, in his Friday sermon today, Sh. 'Isa Qasim was equally dismissive of the talks: "This dialogue process is twisted and the way it is conducted indicates that there is no meaningful substance. ... The aim is to delay reforms and democracy." And, at least according to a poll at CNN Arabic (which asks, "Do you think that the National Dialogue will succeed in solving the current crisis in Bahrain?"), a healthy majority seems to agree: