Monday, October 31, 2011

A Gulf NATO?: What the New U.S.-GCC Security Partnership Means for Bahrain

The biggest piece of Bahrain news since the previous post does not come from Bahrain at all, where, apart from random acts of violence and sabotage perpetrated presumably by would-be revolutionaries continuing to fight the good fight--including a Molotov cocktail thrown at the home of Sameera Rajab and motor oil thrown on roundabouts which continues to hold up traffic--not much seems to be going on in-country.

Sure, there was another "Right to Self-Determination" rally from the Feb. 14 folks, and 'Adel Flaifel's militia--er, "Military Society"--registration took place Sunday as scheduled. And of course al-Wifaq (or "Bahraini Hizballah") continues to get slammed in the pro-government press--e.g., here, here, here, here, and here. Finally, BICI chief Bassiouni has given a long interview with the Egyptian Al-Masri Al-Youm at the very end of which he states that "despite the few number of cases, it is clear that there was a systematic policy" of torture in Bahrain. So this is perhaps a sign of things to come.

But the real story comes via the New York Times, which reported over the weekend (sorry, I had things to do):
The Obama administration plans to bolster the American military presence in the Persian Gulf after it withdraws the remaining troops from Iraq this year, according to officials and diplomats. That repositioning could include new combat forces in Kuwait able to respond to a collapse of security in Iraq or a military confrontation with Iran. ...

With an eye on the threat of a belligerent Iran, the administration is also seeking to expand military ties with the six nations in the Gulf Cooperation Council — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. While the United States has close bilateral military relationships with each, the administration and the military are trying to foster a new “security architecture” for the Persian Gulf that would integrate air and naval patrols and missile defense. ...

“It’s not going to be a NATO tomorrow,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic negotiations still under way, “but the idea is to move to a more integrated effort.”
Enter Sh. Khalid, who it turns out was not in Washington so much for "a charm offensive" (as Foreign Policy portrayed the visit) but as the one being charmed:
“They’re worried that the American withdrawal will leave a vacuum, that their being close by will always make anyone think twice before taking any action,” Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, said in an interview, referring to officials in the Persian Gulf region.

Sheik Khalid was in Washington last week for meetings with the administration and Congress. “There’s no doubt it will create a vacuum,” he said, “and it may invite regional powers to exert more overt action in Iraq.”

He added that the administration’s proposal to expand its security relationship with the Persian Gulf nations would not “replace what’s going on in Iraq” but was required in the wake of the withdrawal to demonstrate a unified defense in a dangerous region. “Now the game is different,” he said. “We’ll have to be partners in operations, in issues and in many ways that we should work together.”

It's too bad the Times reporter didn't also solicit the opinion of Bahrain's Defense Minister, as the Marshall could have informed him that in fact the Bahrain uprising was "by all measures a conspiracy involving Iran with the support of the United States," which at least as of July 6 was his official position. This of course would have raised the possibility that the U.S. and its co-conspirator Iran are looking to "work together" with the Gulf states in order to combat the influence of... Iran, a paradox so deep that it would have caused the universe to explode (or, such as is predicted to occur on the upcoming date 11/11/11, open a portal to another universe).

In any event, I think the Bahraini government can stop worrying about the delayed U.S. arms sale, which I have a feeling now will somehow go through.

In case the profound irony of the present situation is not apparent, let's review: the United States government needs the help or at least the cooperation of the GCC countries to counteract a regional military imbalance that it itself has created. Thanks to the U.S.-led regime changes in Iraq and Afghanistan, an emboldened Iran is now exerting increased influence over neighbors that once served precisely to hold it in check. Indeed, Iraq is now viewed by Gulf countries as little more than an Iran Jr., dominated if not altogether controlled by Shi'a politicians and their friends across the border. (Just yesterday, for example, Bahrain extended its suspension of all Gulf Air flights to Iraq. And earlier this year GCC leaders rejected an Arab Summit planned to take place in Baghdad, arguing that the "atmosphere was not right" following high-level statements of support for Bahrain's uprising.)

It is difficult to know how far the Obama Administration's view of Iraq differs from this, but it cannot be happy with the fact that its surprise wholesale withdrawal from the country by year's end was largely a result of Shi'a politicians (and clerics, i.e. Muqtada al-Sadr) refusing to extend immunity to those soldiers and trainers who the U.S. wished to stay on. Having thus created its own monster, the U.S. is now looking for ways to contain it. Amazing.

So, apart from the fact that the Bahrainis are going to get their $53 million in TOW-equipped Hummers, what can we say about this post-Iraq security architecture in the Gulf, both as it relates to Bahrain and more widely?

The easiest immediate response to this story is something like: "Well, so much for democracy in Bahrain and in the Arab Gulf. The U.S. seems to have bought into this year's rampant Iranophobia [especially now that Iran has teamed up with the Mexican drug cartels!] and will never support the popular anti-government oppositions in the region. It will use this GCC non-NATO NATO to ensure the continuity of the Gulf regimes."

Except that--news flash--the United States was never going to support such movements in the first place, which would necessarily mean abandoning altogether the notion of monarchism in the Gulf. Further, its current military cooperation with each of the Gulf states (save perhaps for Oman) is already extensive. (Indeed, well before the events of February the American naval base in Bahrain was in the middle of a massive expansion more than doubling its size.)

The question, then, is really: what does the U.S. hope to gain from such a new "security architecture" that it does not have already?

About this one can only speculate, but I will refer to a post from April 20 in which I argued that perhaps the biggest change brought about by the "Arab Spring" was the GCC's increased cooperation, activism, and above all independence from the United States. I wrote then:
"the Arab Spring has set the stage for the emergence of a more unified, more vigorous, and more independent GCC under the leadership of Saudi Arabia, a political-cum-military alliance designed explicitly as a regional counterweight to Iran and its assumed proxy states in the Levant. Whether in its unprecedented intervention in Bahrain or, more recently, its conspicuous participation in air strikes in Libya, this revitalized GCC operates on the principle that, if they can no longer count on U.S. government support, perhaps they ought to start leaning more on each other."
Perhaps, then, the U.S.'s new "security architecture" is an attempt to reverse this trend, to reign in the newfound politico-military independence of the Gulf states--which has only increased since April via the proposed expansion of the GCC to include Morocco and Jordan, presumably for military/intelligence purposes--and bring them back into the U.S.-led fold. In this sense, a new U.S.-GCC alliance would be aimed primarily at trying to avoid a GCC-Iran confrontation rather than preparing for one, by helping to ensure that one or more Gulf states do not inadvertently start a conflict that they cannot finish.

Still, it is reasonable to expect that, in return for their increased military cooperation with the U.S. and the public backlash that tends to result, Gulf rulers will expect something in return. (The Times tells that a vote on the proposal is set to occur at the next GCC meeting in Riyadh in December.) Sure, they will get more military hardware and security guarantees. But will Gulf governments also demand more freedom to operate on the domestic front? Is Sh. Khalid (or, more to the point, King 'Abdallah) likely to have said, "Sure, we can probably help you out, but how about telling President Obama to lay off Bahrain in his speeches about democracy in the Middle East?"

Perhaps. But, again, such statements from Obama and Clinton, while nice, are immaterial. Real political change in Bahrain depends primarily on one thing only: the redistribution of influence and power among the various Al Khalifa factions. What Bahrain requires from the U.S. is not perfunctory statements but a concerted effort to help the king and crown prince regain the positions they lost since February, an initiative that will take Saudi cooperation as it will involve the relative sidelining of their favorite Al Khalifa, the prime minister.

The problem, of course, apart from the Saudi reluctance to budge at all on Bahrain in view of domestic repercussions, is that the other competitor to King Hamad's power represents the very institution that is likely to gain considerably from increased U.S. security cooperation, namely the military and its head Sh. Khalifah bin Ahmad (and the khawalid more generally). (This is assuming that by then he will have forgotten about the U.S.-Iranian conspiracy to overthrow his country.)

A nice opportunity to begin to try to do this, as I just wrote last week, is the BICI's report on human rights abuses during the post-February period. (If the next sentence doesn't make sense, then click on the previous link.) This is because such a move (a BICI "power play") would appear to be--and to some extent would be--the result of Bahrain's own domestic initiative rather than some U.S. or foreign machinations to alter the country's internal balance of power. As noted earlier, Bassiouni's admission reported today of systematic torture in Bahrain may be a positive hint in this direction. We shall see in a few weeks.

Finally, it is worth noting that this new Gulf "security architecture" is not a done deal. As mentioned above, GCC leaders are expected to vote on the initiative at next month's meeting in Riyadh. And to what extent can one expect members such as Oman and especially Qatar--states that have long maintained cordial relations with Iran--to sign up to a new alliance designed explicitly against it? One imagines that the Qataris in particular cannot be too excited about the proposal. In the first place, their main source of state revenue comes from a massive gas field in the north of the country that is shared with Iran, the continued exploitation of which depends accordingly on maintaining those good relations.

More generally, the Arab Spring has witnessed a Qatar acting increasingly independently of other GCC members--in particular its big brother Saudi Arabia--and gaining no little international notoriety for it. Indeed, among the main political beneficiaries of the past year has been Qatar. (Incidentally, I have a FP Mideast Channel article to this effect that should appear sometime today.) Will its leaders be happy now to take a backseat once again to yet another U.S.- (and inevitably Saudi-) led initiative?

Update: A lot of text and no pictures make Homer go crazy. Here are a few nuggets to make up for it. The first: a video from your favorite Bahraini Shi'a thespians reenacting a police beating at a checkpoint in al-Rifa' (see here for background):

A flattering photo of King Hamad sent by an e-mailer:

And some Bahraini pro-governments tell 'Ali Salman that holding rallies in al-Budaiyi', Muharraq, or al-Rifa' is "a red line" (see Update 3 below). OoooooooooOoh.

Update 2: If one would believe this story in Al-Masri Al-Youm, perhaps the U.S.'s new Gulf "security architecture" includes an expanded GCC. Visiting Cairo apparently to woo the Egyptians away from Iranian influence, Bahraini FM Sh. Khalid is quoted as saying that "Egypt should be at the top of Arab countries to join the GCC over the coming period." I don't think Egyptians will be holding their breath.

Update 3: Political protest in Bahrain somehow seems to have devolved into vehicle-based acts of annoyance (such as the aforementioned oil poured on roundabouts) rather than actual demonstrations. Which is ironic because now that the weather is finally starting to get nice, people are remaining in their cars, whereas during the heat of summer they were attending weekly rallies. The shift probably has something to do with the lower likelihood of being shot while driving a car as compared to say, walking down the street or charging the Pearl Roundabout.

In any case, the newest of these "protests" is the "Manama Tsunami #3" planned for tomorrow, Thursday, which again is just an attempt to clog the roads with cars. (Evidently there is a standing order for a Manama Tsunami every Thursday. The fact that we have now reached the third iteration with no discernible results would seem to suggest that a new strategy may be in order.) The full schedule of activities for the week--dubbed "the week of destabilizing the regime's economy"; good luck with that-- is here:

Of course, regime supporters will not take this lying down. Pro-governments in the Sunni neighborhoods of Muharraq, al-Riffa', and al-Budaiyi' are organizing a counter-car-rally: "a blockade ... to stop the terrorists" from carrying out their evil plot to cause traffic disruptions. The effect of the counter-effort, presumably, will be to disrupt traffic even more--an appropriate parable of Bahraini politics. A full list of the (dozens of) intersections to be defended is here. This should turn out well.

In other news, the Manama Voice reports a "serious dialogue" between "the government" and "the opposition," presumably al-Wifaq, which the National Unity Gathering is already decrying. (Incidentally, the National Unity people are also claiming curiously to have sent a "delegation to foreign and Arab countries to meet with political party and civil society leaders.") According to the Bahrain Mirror, government and opposition sources are both "denying the existence of any dialogue between them," which is exactly what one would expect them to do in any event.

Update 4: For those following the BICI commission saga, see the following insights offered yesterday by an anonymous commenter.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Is Bahrain's Bassiouni Commission a Political Power Play?: A Conspiracy Theorist Interprets the BICI

Since the BICI was announced back in June, it has not received particularly comprehensive or serious treatment here for the simple fact that I have viewed it as just another piece of an orchestrated PR campaign from a Bahraini government that was reeling over a few months' worth of bad publicity. This was reflected in the title of my first article discussing the BICI--"Bahrain to the Opposition: 'Would You Like a Fact-Finding Commission to Go with That Dialogue?'"--the sarcastic spirit of which has continued ever since.

It should be noted that in this I was and am not alone. The Bahrain scholar from whose work I have benefited perhaps the most--Laurence Louër--expressed a similar sentiment in a June 29 Arab Reform Bulletin for the Carnegie Endowment. She begins, for example:
Still holding on to its democratic façade, the Bahraini regime has called for a national dialogue to begin on July 2, while simultaneously orchestrating wide-ranging violations of basic human rights. King Hamad announced the formation of a “fact-finding committee” to investigate the cause of the uprisings in Bahrain in a June 29 speech, in an apparent gesture to encourage opposition participation in the dialogue. ...

Yet the national dialogue and scheduled elections are no more than panels in Bahrain’s democratic veneer.
Hence others have shared my sardonic skepticism. Louër's view may have changed since then, of course; the point is that the timing of the commission--not to mention the subsequent resignation of some half of its members; the leading interviews by Bassiouni scrutinizing the actions of protesters at least as much as those of Bahrain's authorities; and now the abrupt one-month postponement of the final report announced yesterday--has not served to inspire confidence that the commission will achieve its stated goal of making accountable those responsible for the post-February crackdown.

Today, however, I am going to take a different tact and discuss an alternative interpretation of the commission that the conspiracy theorist in me has been mulling since the beginning. (I have spent a lot of time in the Middle East, after all, in particular in the home of conspiracy--Yemen--where I have learned, among other things, that: you should never drink cold water because it will give you the flu; there is a haunted house on 26th of September Street where if you try to sleep there you wake up on the curb; the Americans released some sort of pestilent fly upon the Yemeni villages that bites people and makes them sick; and so on. A friend of mine with an inflamed appendix was also told that she was pregnant, but this was not so much a product of conspiracy as of Yemeni doctoring.)

In any case, the alternative theory--of which I've since heard similar rumblings from others--is this: that the primary (or at least extremely useful secondary) purpose of the BICI is to help rid Bahrain's government of the king's competitors. That is, by implicating senior figures in the police, armed forces, and power ministries whose loyalties lie foremost with the prime minister, the khawalid, etc., the BICI can be put to very pragmatic use in (re-)consolidating the position of the king and crown prince, which clearly has taken a beating since February.

Now, we're obviously not talking about individuals at the minister-level--much less about the king's main competitors themselves: Khalifah bin Salman, Khalid bin Ahmad, and so on. The idea is that by rooting out the mid- and lower-level supporters of these less compromising factions of the royal family that exist within Bahrain's agencies and armed services, the king could effectively undercut his competitors' power without confronting them directly. Indeed, the act would be done not by King Hamad himself but by an independent commission, with the former ultimately playing his usual role of "national benefactor" by ridding the government of these unscrupulous individuals. Heck, if he wanted to take his kingly makramat a step further, he could even pardon these individuals after some time, as happens (or at least used to happen) routinely with political prisoners.

But what evidence is there to support such a view of the BICI? Admittedly, not much, apart from a few circulating rumors. The first--which seems to be fairly well-accepted--is that it was King Hamad himself who was the most enthusiastic backer of the BICI idea (contra a Bahraini-staffed commission). The second--which is much more uncertain--involves a supposed list of "30 names" of individuals to be targeted during the investigation. Yet no one seems to have actually seen the list, or to know exactly which names are on it.

When the BICI was first announced I had the opportunity to speak with an individual (who I presume to be) well-informed about the nature of the commission. I was assured that my speculation was indeed conspiratorial and moreover baseless, a response that went far toward shaping my subsequent impressions (and discussion here) of the commission. Still, a part of me remains convinced that the BICI represents a great opportunity for political maneuvering that cannot be lost on Bahraini or American officials.

I normally try to stray from making prescriptive comments here, but in this case one need not be a Bahraini citizen to recognize that the country's interest does not lie in the further empowerment of the more radical factions of the Al Khalifa at the expense of the king and his son. And while no one believes that any non-Bahraini entity (whether the BICI or the ICC) will succeed in removing the heads of these factions themselves, nonetheless the BICI offers a golden opportunity to weaken their relative positions via some good-old-fashioned political scheming--an art in which both Bahrain's rulers as well as their friends in Washington are quite well-adept.

Before ending, though, it must be admitted that yesterday's one-month postponement of the BICI's final report does pose a difficult puzzle for our political power-play interpretation. For if the BICI was meant all along as a tool with which to dispose of certain political rivals (and moreover a plan likely known to the U.S.), then presumably its findings would have been forceful enough to have pleased international observers looking for "justice to be done" in Bahrain. But the timing of the postponement announcement--just a day after the United States made its planned $53 arms sale conditional on the BICI findings--would seem to imply the opposite: that, were the report released in a week as planned, its relative weakness might have jeopardized the deal.

Of course, it may simply be that the commission really is too backlogged with testimony and interviews to meet the original deadline, as per the official explanation. Perhaps so. The good news is that we now have another month to speculate.

Oh: and if anyone out there has a copy of this mysterious "30 names" list, let's see it.

Update: As alluded to by one commentor, a clever YouTube video has been making the rounds that uses Bassiouni's statements from a Sept. 18th interview with Al-Hayat TV to "accuse" King Hamad of crimes against humanity. The idea is that, when Bassiouni's (and the king's own) words are applied strictly to the case of the Bahrain, one is left with no other conclusion but that.

And, in an unexpected move, Bahraini authorities are evidently preparing to shut down BTV. A GDN headline announces, "CLAMP ON FAKE NEWS."

Update 2: In a column discussing Interior Minister Rashid bin Abdallah's recent interview with Al-'Arabiyya (English transcript), Al-Watan's Hesham Al-Zayani (a relative, presumably, of the GCC SecGen) calls for the inevitable: an outright ban on al-Wifaq's weekend "Our National Demands" rallies. He writes:
I have particularly liked [the minister's] declaration: “We can’t speak about peaceful and non-peaceful demonstrations; we rather speak about legal and illegal ones.” This is reality. We would like to inform the state that allowing demonstrators to occupy roundabouts and sleep there has been a terrible mistake. If an illegal demonstration occurs, the Ministry of Interior must not be tolerant. Developed countries will surely do the same.
Note the language here--"We would like to inform the state ..."--which gives the impression that such an initiative represents the "demand of the people" rather than a plan originating with the government itself. This is the same sort of approach taken some months ago when the National Unity Gathering was making "demands" of King Hamad. Al-Zayani continues,
Similarly, we ask the Ministry of Interior about the rationale behind allowing gatherings for Al Wefaq (Bahraini Hezbollah) every Friday. I think that people are still angry at these gatherings and at offering them licenses. No one knows the reason. Does the state like another crisis?
How long, then, until this same rationale is extended to distinguish between "legal" and "illegal" political parties, the former being the ones who choose to "take part in the political process," as they say, and the latter the ones that do not--say, by boycotting elections? (See my recent prediction along these lines here.)

On a related note, it seems that regime thugs in Egypt don't like al-Wifaq any more than Bahraini pro-governments do.

Update 3: As announced here, registration for a new "Military Society" (led by 'Adel Flaifel and obviously targeting Sunnis) will open after evening prayer on Oct. 30. What could possibly go wrong?

And the Bahrain Mirror has more on the ill-fated al-Wifaq visit to Cairo, including this picture of protesters decrying these "Agents of Iran" and "Iranian interference in Bahrain":

In another quite interesting Bahrain Mirror piece, finally (bad Google translation), 'Abbas Busafwan claims that King Hamad has expressed worry to his Intelligence Minister over the safety of the crown prince. Yet the threat, he tells, is not from some Iranian assassination plot involving the Russian mob but from among Bahrain's own hard-liners, who see Salman as too conciliatory and likely to compromise (or as having already compromised) their own position.

Update 4: Khalil al-Marzuq faced off against Shura Council member Sameera Rajab on Al-Jazeera for three-quarters of an hour yesterday. The proof:

Update 5: In the aftermath of the Al-Jazeera debate in the video above--which I happened to catch on my way home from work; very contentious--the home of Sameera Rajab was reportedly attacked with Molotov cocktails.

Update 6: A NYT report from Anthony Shadid with a self-explainatory title: "In Rubble-Strewn Sitra, Faces of the Young Foretell a Grim Future for Bahrain."

From Foreign Policy: "America's Unsavory Allies." Guess who made the list?

Update 7: More details are emerging about today's "registration drive" for 'Adel Flaifel's new militia, er, I mean "military society". The GDN reports that it will be "a society of retired military and security personnel, which will work to protect their interests and hopes to advise the government on key issues." No word yet whether Ian Henderson will return to Bahrain as an emeritus adviser.

Update 8: Perhaps in a sign of things to come, BICI chief Bassiouni has given an interview with Al-Masri Al-Youm resulting in the following exchange (in the very last question, incidentally):

Q: "Are the justifications [for torture] offered by the Bahrain authorities enough for you?"

A: "لا يمكن إطلاقاً تبرير التعذيب على أى وجه من الوجوه، وبرغم قلة عدد الحالات، فمن الواضح أنه كانت هناك سياسة منهجية (One can never justify torture in any manner whatsoever, and, despite the small number of cases, it is clear that there was a systematic policy.")

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Arms Deal Controversy a Sad Microcosm of U.S.-Bahrain Relations

As if there were not already enough domestic and international scrutiny making life (not to mention neutrality) difficult for Bahrain's BICI, the United States via its inept legislature has succeeded in adding more, by making the proposed U.S.-Bahrain arms sale conditional on its findings. The latter will be revealed privately to King Hamad and presumably others on October 30 and thereafter publicly (see this report from the BBC's Frank Gardner).

The WSJ piece linked above calls the delay a "partial victory"; of course, this is true only in the sense that delaying being stabbed in the face for an hour or two is also a "partial victory." Whatever "victory" there is here stems only from the delay itself--the diplomatic slap on the wrist from the U.S.--rather than from any hope that the deal will not eventually go through.

In the first place, the BICI is at bottom a U.S. initiative. (I have it on good information that the ruling family had first proposed a Bahraini-staffed inquiry that was rejected by U.S. diplomats on grounds that it would be viewed as inherently biased. King Hamad was personally convinced of the BICI arrangement.) In the second place, absent a bigger U-turn than the ones perpetrated by Qatari drivers, the results of the BICI's investigation are essentially now public knowledge, between Bassiouni's infamous Reuters interview in August and comments made just this week on Chicago public radio. Said simply: there's no need to wait until October 30 to find out the results of the BICI investigation.

In fact, in an online exclusive, we here at Religion in Politics in Bahrain have obtained an early copy of the secret BICI final report, which we post here for your benefit:

Don't ask how we managed to obtain it.

Despite the futility of the temporary delay, however, this entire arms deal hullabaloo is quite instructive in representing a perfect microcosm of U.S.-Bahraini relations and the various, disparate actors at play. We may start on the Bahraini side.

Moderate Government and Supporters

The basic strategy here is to spin any actual or perceived U.S. criticism in a positive light, and to find some way to refocus the discussion away from domestic politics to some sort of international intrigue, presumably involving Iran and its efforts to destabilize the country. If possible, it is useful to locate a sentiment or better yet quotation from some American official lending support to this "look at Iran!!" line of argument. As opposed to the Crazy Government and Supporters camp, however, there is no attempt here to claim that the U.S. with its criticism is attempting to overthrow the Bahraini government, threaten the Arab Gulf more generally, or occupy and/or oppress Arabs everywhere.

With its short, hysterical headlines constructed from out-of-context quotations, the Gulf Daily News is a great representative of this camp. Rather than focus on the facts of the matter--the delay of the arms sale--today's GDN ran with a two (2) word quotation from a visiting U.S. congressman (whom we'll get to later) combined with a healthy dose of Iran-hysteria:

Government Crazies and Supporters

As noted already, the strategy here among the government crazies is fundamentally different than that of the moderates. Whereas the latter attempt to distract attention away from negative developments, the former actively acknowledge them with the purpose of connecting them to some larger Western or foreign conspiracy against Bahrain. To wit, we have yesterday's column from Al-Watan's Yusif Al Bin Khalil decrying the "extremist" "anti-Bahrain trend in the USA":

And I'm sure if one scrolled through the pro-government forums one would find like-minded sentiment galore.

U.S. Government

Yet, even more than illustrate the difference between Bahrain's own political factions, the present arms deal episode reveals the extent to which internal U.S. government divisions (known more euphemistically as "checks and balances") complicate the United States' relationship with Bahrain, among other countries. The immediate cause of the arms sale delay revolves around a clash of sorts between the State Department and a couple of Democratic senators. The State Department's official response to the latter, who have been raising a stink in the Senate lately on the topic of the Bahraini arms sale, is below:

The conflict is essentially that Senators Wyden et al. don't like the idea of the Bahraini government firing U.S.-provided anti-tank missiles into the camps at Pearl Roundabout, while the State Department is evidently comfortable with this. Otherwise it is difficult to interpret the latter's spokesman, Victoria Nuland, who said on Friday:
"This sale is designed to support the Bahraini military in its defence function, specifically in hardening the country against opposition groups and potential attack or nefarious activity by countries like Iran."
Well, I suppose deploying TOW-equipment Humvees is ONE way of "hardening the country against opposition groups." The State Department might also consider offering the Bahraini government supersonic Ramjet missiles in case the opposition ever gets hold of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier with an AEGIS Ballistic Missile Defense System. Oh, wait, that's right: they don't even have BB guns.

Indirectly involved, moreover, is the Defense Department, for whom the significance of a few additional Humvees and TOW missiles is not that these will somehow help "defend Bahrain"--I think its defense is probably in pretty good shape with a 69-acre American naval base a half-hour outside the capital--but that it will help ensure continued military cooperation, in particular continued assurance that its basing arrangements do not fall victim to one of those "bureaucratic mix-ups" for which Bahrain is notorious.

Apart from the obvious conflicts of interest between the U.S. Congress, State, and DoD, moreover, we also now have conflicting messages emanating from at least the first of these institutions, in the form of random U.S. congressmen with little to no knowledge of Middle East or Gulf politics visiting Bahrain and saying stupid things.

Providing the fodder for the GDN's aforementioned "Iran to Destroy the GCC" story, Democratic Representative Eni F. H. Faleomavaega is quoted as saying during "a lecture on Bahrain's importance at the Alumni Club in Adliya,"
"Iran's aim is not just to rule Bahrain, but to destroy the GCC alliance. ...

"Since its inception in 1981 the GCC countries have been a thorn in Iran's side....

"If Iran succeeds in splitting off even one country in the GCC states, in my opinion the alliance will disappear as its member states are picked off one by one."

And where, might you ask, does Representative Eni F. H. Faleomavaega's GCC politico-military analysis credentials come from? Why, from his position as "former chairman of the US House Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on Asia and the Pacific"--Asia and the Pacific, that is, because he is actually a NON-VOTING DELEGATE to the House of Representatives from AMERICAN SAMOA, which for Bahraini readers is a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean which, much like Bahrain, was thought useful as a base for U.S. naval operations.

Thus the case of Representative Faleomavaega is apparently the inverse of that of Sarah Palin, whose familiarity with Russo-American relations stemmed famously from Alaska's proximity to Russian Siberia. Faleomavaega's expertise on Bahrain, then, follows from the reverse principal: that his home is as far as geographically possible from Bahrain (not to mention that he is also as uncongressional as possible while still technically being a part of congress).

No doubt Faleomavaega was convinced by Khalifah bin Salman's impassioned address to the visiting delegation in which he "stressed the importance of dialogue – as a strategic choice – and the protection of human rights and liberties as the cornerstone of Bahrain’s reform policies."

In sum, this month's arms deal controversy is a great illustration of the intricacies of the U.S. relationship with Bahrain. Bahraini government opponents must be content with a "partial victory" that in fact is merely a delayed defeat; moderate supporters fall back into the cognitive dissonance of a skewed interpretation of the U.S. position; and government crazies ring the alarm bells on the impending American amphibious assault of Bahrain. On the American side, confusion and mixed messages reign, with the result that, despite a lot of huffing and puffing, no policy positions actually change. Unfortunately, it seems to be a system that works for everybody.

Update: A truly mind-bending photo(shop) of plain-clothed 'Ali Salman and Mahmud Ahmedi Najad has just arrived in my inbox.

Update 2: The Bahrain Mirror in running a story (in Arabic) summarizing the current state of expectations surrounding the BICI report, along with suggestions for making it more forceful than most people (apart from our commentor 1st Anon) assume it will be.

And in tactical news, the Feb. 14 folks have organized a new "operation," dubbed Operation Arrows of Dignity, which is an apt name given the following instructional photograph posted in the forum thread announcing it:

There area in question, if you can't tell, is the huge roundabout next to the Seef Mall, which protesters are planning to occupy Pearl Roundabout-style starting on Saturday, which marks the opening of some sort of international jewelry exhibition at the nearby Bahrain Convention Center. The U.S. Embassy is already warning citizens against going anywhere near the Seef Mall, which the government will likely have to blow up (where are the TOW missiles when you need them!?) if the opposition succeeds in occupying the roundabout.

As indicated on the map above, the main reason organizers have hit on this roundabout is that, unlike the Pearl Roundabout which is out in the middle of nowhere, the Seef Roundabout abuts three different Shi'a-dominated areas--Jidhafs/Sanabis; al-Daih/al-Musalla; and Karbabad/Karanah--the latter being less than a few hundred yards away.

The problem, of course, is that if I can find out about this attempt to storm the Seef Roundabout then so can everyone in the Bahrani Interior Ministry, not to mention in even more unseemly services. If the Feb. 14 people were very clever, they would do a double deke and show up on Friday instead--say, right before Friday prayer when no one is looking. The Bahraini government is lucky I am not an opposition commander!

Update 3: Sh. Khalid is channeling his inner child and telling Obama in a WSJ interview to "stand up to Iran" for its fake assassination plot, which is now inspiring even more sensational stories based on "unnamed sources" about the growing belligerence of Iran's al-Quds Force, which is reportedly now teaming up with Burmese human trafficking rings to target the Bolivian chargé d'affaires in London.

Update 4: Big update. As alluded to by several commentors, the BICI report due date has rather suddenly been pushed back nearly a month to November 23, purportedly due to the sheer volume of complaints and testimonies. Yet many have interpreted the step as a tacit admission that the original report due an a week's time would have disappointed those not only in the opposition but more importantly in White House, perhaps so much so (the logic goes) as to jeopardize Bahrain's arms purchase from the U.S. I plan to write more on this topic tomorrow, so for now I'll leave it at that.

Sh. 'Isa Qasim spared no words in last Friday's sermon, whose main lesson (coming a day after the death execution of al-Qaddafi) was that all dictators will meet his fate. From the Iranian-based Ahl al-Bayt:
“The dark end and the murder of the ousted Ghaddafi sends a clear message to all dictators and reminds them that the dictators era would expire at the end of the day,” Sheikh Isa Qassim, the most senior Bahraini shia leader said in his Friday speech.

Bahrain’s opposition Party Al-Wefaq spiritual leader said “despotic regimes should take lessen from his [Gaddafi’s] fate and should know that they will come up with the same destiny; so, if they don’t want to be cursed and damned by nations, they should think of their own people’s interest and step up efforts to meet their demands.”

Sheikh Qassim castigated women’s detention by the ruling regime of Bahrain and said “Bahraini prisons are full and the government has become so rude that freedom-seeker women are incarcerated and separated from their children.”
The video (via al-Wifaq's YouTube channel):

Finally, I've come across an interesting blog post detailing the various "arts and crafts" of the Bahrain revolution, including shoes made with rubber bullets, things made with tear gas canisters, etc. You might want to check it out.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Bahraini Opposition: At Once Too Radical, and Not Radical Enough

Much is being made of a new joint statement (titled "The Manama Document": Arabic; English) released by five of Bahrain's remaining opposition groups--the Islamic Action Society would have made six, but it's hard to help craft joint statements when your organization has been dissolved and you're sitting in prison--and unveiled with great fanfare at a press conference in Umm al-Hasam presided over by 'Ali Salman. Despite a blunt preamble decrying the authoritarianism, corruption, and other deficiencies inherent in Bahrain's present system, the statement outlines what should be by now a familiar list of demands:
  1. An elected government with mechanisms to confirm and remove ministers;
  2. Revised electoral districts (see my map of the current, ethnically-gerrymandered districts) and increased independence of electoral institutions;
  3. A new single-chamber parliament with sole lawmaking powers;
  4. A fair and transparent judiciary; and
  5. An end to Shi'a exclusion from the police and armed services.
Moreover, the statement also singles out three other issues--political naturalization, discrimination, and media impartiality--that it says must be tackled "concurrently." But since, again, these are the same demands that al-Wifaq and others have been forwarding for the past few months, this portion of the "Manama Document" should not have caught anyone off-guard.

As far as I can tell, the domestic and international attention the statement has received is a function mainly of its timing, coming as it does in the same week that Bahrain introduced its new elected parliament and supposedly started down its path toward political normalcy. That the country's opposition groups have now reaffirmed their commitment not only to the demands themselves but also to continued popular protest as a way to achieve them seems to have served as a useful reminder that, notwithstanding some well-placed PR in recent days and weeks, the political deadlock in Bahrain has not actually been resolved.

Yet despite this overt attempt to rally and reinvigorate the opposition, rather than renewed confidence one senses in this "Manama Document" not a small whiff of desperation--and for good reason. At the same time that al-Wifaq and its leadership (which with the partial exception of Wa'ad is the only group that matters of the five) has come under intense government pressure in recent weeks for being nothing more than a Bahraini Hizballah--at the same time, it is also in real danger of losing its core constituency to groups and movements seen as more effective and/or less willing to compromise on what some still see as the core aim of the "revolution," namely the unconditional end of the Al Khalifa monarchy. In other words, the moderate opposition is caught between Charybdis and Scylla: a government skewering it for being too radical, a constituency threatening to abandon it for not being radical enough.

The first of these--the precarious position of al-Wifaq as a tolerated opposition movement now that it has shirked "the official channels of politics," as they say--was discussed at length in the previous post, so little more needs to be said. I will add only that I have since received some unofficial confirmation from sources in Bahrain of my suspicions expressed there that al-Wifaq risks being targeted again for wholesale dissolution such as was attempted in April.

In the meantime, one need not look far to find evidence of the government's media blitz against al-Wifaq--and since yesterday against its "Manama Document" statement. Employing its typical indefinite noun + passive verb headline construction, the Gulf Daily News reports "Group condemned":
A BAHRAINI opposition group has been blasted by the government, which accused it of trying to impose its will on the rest of the population.

The Information Affairs Authority (IAA) said Al Wefaq National Islamic Society had "no right" to force its demands or dictate its conditions on the nation.

Etc., etc. You can fill in the rest.

Al-Watan's coverage is even better. Sawsan al-Sha'ir's editorial from yesterday starts, "Hezbollah is the last one entitled to speak of national unity. Its structure, history, mindset and practices have nothing to do with national unity. On the contrary, they all tend to thwart it."

And her article from today: "The statement published by Hezbollah titled “Political Societies” reveals that the party is still far away from reality."

Still others, of course, abound. (Also, don't miss the other popular pro-government link going around: MEMRI's English translation of some Bahraini cleric's sermon from March in which he says that the uprising will lead to a "state of the Mahdi.")

Yet even if al-Wifaq somehow manages to avoid the fate of Wa'ad, the Islamic Action Society, and other now-defunct political societies, still it must face a no less difficult uphill battle in convincing ordinary Bahrainis that it remains their best hope for achieving political reform. And, as evidenced by the considerable popular push-back in response to its "Manama Document," one gets the impression that this argument is becoming harder and harder for the group to make.

One well-commented post on an opposition forum is titled, "Sh. Abd al-Wahhab Hussain warns the people against the Manama Document." Another discusses to a great deal of popular agreement "The Secretary General and His Fatal Mistake." Still another implores readers to "save the revolution from some of the political parties." Finally: "The Manama Document or the Humiliation Document?" ("humiliation" rhymes with "al-Manama" in Arabic). And so on.

Two details in particular have caught the attention of these and other commentors: first, the abandonment of the slogan "Fall of the Regime" for the obviously more measured "Reform of the Regime," which the statement identifies as one of the opposition's guiding principles. In fact, however, this change was made at least as early as mid-August, as it forms the basis of this post's title.

The second and more substantively important part of the statement not lost on commentors is its proposed "Road to a Solution":
Undoubtedly, the wrong practices of threatening people demanding reforms and democracy could not [succeed]. Hence, the only [way] forward is that of a dialogue between the authorities and opposition forces for the goal of achieving democracy, based on the seven principles outlined by the crown prince on 13 March 2011. Amongst others, the principles press for a government representing the will of the people, an elected parliament with comprehensive powers, and fair electoral districts. Still, the dialogue should take place with international guarantees.

[The] outcome of the dialogue should lead to a new constitutional framework resulting from [majority] approval via a constituent assembly, [which is] the best possible option, or a referendum, as put forward by the crown prince on 13 March 2011.
In other words, the parties to the statement (all of which were part of the seven-group alliance formed in February at the height of unrest that ultimately rejected unconditional dialogue with the crown prince) are now asking--begging, even--8 months later for the chance to take Salman's deal.

Unfortunately, things don't work like that. In the first place, the crown prince is only now starting to recover from the devastating political damage caused by the failure of his February attempt at dialogue. His renewed participation at this point is almost certainly out of the question. More fundamentally, however, that deal was offered at the height of the anti-government movement's bargaining power; whereas we're now arguably at the height of the government's.

In this I am reminded of a Yemeni antique shopkeeper who, when I told him his $100 price tag was too high but that I might change my mind later and return, said in reply: "If you come back tomorrow the price will be $400."

Al-Watan and Sawsan al-Sha'ir have one thing right, anyway: the Bahraini opposition's statement is "still far away from reality." And sadly, that political reality now appears stacked against them.

Update: Bonus coverage from Al-Watan: one of Bahrain's several al-Dawasir MPs has called upon al-Wifaq to condemn the fake Iranian terrorist plot against the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Because well, you know, al-Wifaq are Shi'a and Iran is Shi'a. No word whether he is also asking them to apologize for the Iranian hostage crisis.

Update 2: So this update is going to have to be a doozy. First, Bassiouni gave another interview over the weekend--you would think he would have learned by now--to a local Chicago public radio station (his home university is DePaul) in which he seemed to cast principal blame upon protesters and doctors for Bahrain's post-February events and expressed support for the trials and verdicts that have proceeded thus far. (Direct link to .mp3 audio here.) Like everyone else, the Gulf Daily News was quick to pick up on his comments, today reporting: "Commission head backs death penalty verdict." Anyone want to take bets as to the conclusions of the BICI final report?

Next, Bahrain TV aired an extended news segment/documentary purporting to reveal what *REALLY* happens in Bahrain's villages during protests, etc. The video immediately caught peoples' attention for a comically fake segment in which a BTV "reporter" supposedly tries to interview some thuggish looking Shi'a youth, who dance around like monkeys and gently throw rocks (I can almost hear the cameraman say, "Don't actually hit us, you idiots!"). I suggest you watch the video (or at least the thug interview starting at 4:45):

The segment is so hilariously done, in fact, that some intrepid young Shi'a actors have taken it upon themselves to create a mock version:

From the BBC, Frank Gardner has somehow earned the good graces of the Bahraini leadership, who not only received him personally on a visit to the parliament's opening ceremony (his report here), but also has managed to ride around with riot police and visit a detention facility.

A new contender has emerged to take the place of the once notorious pro-government Bahrain Independent blog run by Saqer al-Khalifah and friends: the Bahrain Views website (any relation to Riffa Views?) which has published the results of its (I assume) 2-year empirical investigation into Iran's foreign agenda titled "Iran Orders Attacks on Saudi Interests Worldwide."

Finally, from The Economist, a cartoon for the road:

Update 3: Another good watch, even if you don't read Arabic: a militant anti-Iran/-Shi'a Sunni group has produced a 20 minute-long "Letter to the Gulf Rulers" calling for tough action against the Shi'a traitors/heretics/bad guys:

Update 4: A Eurasia Review piece offers some updates on the U.S.'s proposed weapons sale to Bahrain. The headline says it all: "Bahrain PM Says Supports Human Rights, As US Arms Deal In Offing." Khalifa bin Salman is quoted as telling a visiting U.S. congressional delegation--the point of which is presumably that the Obama Administration can now say it sent a "fact-finding team" to Bahrain to make sure its hummers and TOW missiles will be put to good use--that the $53 million contract is "aimed at protecting the country from a potential attack 'or nefarious activity by countries like Iran.'"
Which is approximately as disingenuous as his other quotation mentioned in the piece: “[the PM] stressed the importance of dialogue – as a strategic choice – and the protection of human rights and liberties as the cornerstone of Bahrain’s reform policies.”
Well, at least he is honest in saying that he's not interested in dialogue apart for its strategic political value.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Wa'ad, 'Amal, al-Wifaq?: Bahrain's New Parliament May Spell an End to Legal Opposition

A few weeks ago I wrote an article that asked "What has changed in Bahrain since February?" The article aimed to dispel the idea promulgated in the run-up to the by-elections that Bahrain had somehow turned a political corner, what with its new "culturally diverse" (not to say politically diverse) parliament, upcoming "big events" in October such as the BICI final report and implementation (that is, decree) of the National Dialogue recommendations, etc. It looks like I should have saved a Microsoft Word template for the article, since I am essentially going to have to re-write it again following the events of the past few days.

To say it again: the only thing that has changed in Bahrain since February is the relative reluctance on the side both of the government and the opposition to engage in direct confrontation. Apart from its main consequence--that the political disagreement dividing the country continues to augment every day--this post-February stagnation also means that violence, death, and a return to the mass protests of the spring are always only a happy riot police trigger-finger away.

Thus the events of this weekend, when, as the NYT does a good job of reporting (as opposed to, say, the Occupy Wall Street protests), a teenager was shot and killed with police buckshot. As usually happens, the funeral procession itself turned into an even larger protest, which led to more clashes with riot police. And repeat.

The Interior Ministry is launching a full investigation into the killing since, as it claims in its official press release, there are conflicting reports of the cause of death:
a report by forensic experts of the Public Prosecution indicat[ed] that the death was the result of an injury by a police birdshot and another report of Bahrain International Hospital attribut[ed] it to a severe drop in the blood circulation and the respiratory system that led to heart failure.
Hrm, a 16 year-old boy killed by small shards of metal puncturing his entire body (graphic photo) or a totally unrelated condition that led to heart failure? Yeah, I think I am going to have to go with option number one.

Not only did this weekend bring news of additional loss of life, moreover, but also that of additional loss of freedom. In the first place, it turns out that the "civilian retrial" announced proudly by the Bahraini government following the widespread condemnation of the sentences handed to the embattled medical workers in fact is just an ordinary appeal, as explained by Bahraini lawyer Muhsin al-Alawi on Al-Jazeera English. I guess it's just another case of those darn bureaucratic mix-ups that people in Bahrain are always talking about. I mean, don't you hate it when you're a doctor on trial for trying to save the lives of dying people in a hospital and then your 15-year sentence is revoked, but then you learn later that actually your quashed sentence is actually just an appeal? Yeah, me too.

More generally, the past several days have seen so many sentences handed down to protesters and others in the opposition that the aforementioned lawyer Muhsin al-Alawi has created an online spreadsheet just to keep track. The current tally: over the past 12 days, 208 civilians were sentenced to a total of 2,483 years in prison. Which is just under 1 year in prison per person per day, or roughly the team average of the 2011 Cincinnati Bengals.

The conclusion: there seems to be an inordinate amount of kidnapping going on in Bahrain, especially kidnapping of armed policemen by unarmed protesters. I'd be interested to know how that works exactly.

Of course, if you'd read only the pro-government press since Thursday, you'd have no idea that any of this even occurred. The day after tens of thousands marched on Friday to protest the country's newest death by birdshot, the prime minister took the opportunity to hail the "new era" inaugurated by the National Dialogue recommendations. The GDN quotes him as saying:
"These visions cement national unity and promote Bahrain's political, social, economic and legal construction. ... We will overcome all challenges facing the march of development and prosperity thanks to our sincere intentions and national unity."
Apart from "national unity," which I think everyone would agree describes contemporary Bahrain perfectly, the post-National Dialogue era also is an era of social tolerance and women's rights, as you can see from this photograph of Bahrain's newest female MPs:

The usually very good Habib Toumi at the Gulf News describes the four as "the golden quartet that will take the voices, and aspirations, of women into the lower chamber of the bicameral parliament," whose opening session is today. Curiously, there is no mention of the metallic properties of the upper chamber of the bicameral parliament, whose role it is to negate these "voices and aspirations" raised perfunctorily in the lower house.

Not to be outdone, "The Marshall" Khalifah bin Ahmad also showed off his women-loving abilities over the weekend:

Finally, we have a widely-circulated interview with Bahrain's Justice Minister carried in the popular Egyptian daily Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' in which he reveals that, among other things, (1) Bahrain is already a constitutional monarchy because it has a monarchy and a constitution (check and check); and (2) that the Al Khalifa "wouldn't mind" a Shi'i prime minister.

As a follow-up to the question about the constitutional monarchy, which he clearly aced, he was asked, "To put it another way, are you worried that a Shi'i winning an election for prime minister would serve to loosen the control of the Al Khalifa?"

بمعنى آخر.. هل تخشون من أن تفرز الانتخابات رئيس وزراء شيعيا الأمر الذى يسحب البساط من تحت أقدام آل خليفة؟

His response:
آل خليفة فى البحرين ليس لهم إلا وضع اجتماعى باعتبارهم العائلة التى ينتسب إليها جلالة الملك ووضع تاريخى أيضا، وهذه هى الملكية الدستورية، وبالعكس تماما العائلة لا تخشى ذلك.. كل ما نخشاه هو تقسيم البلد على أساس طائفى، ولا يمكن أن نصف رئيس الوزراء على أساس دينه بل بكفاءته، وكانت الحكومة حريصة على غض البصر عن المذهب والدين فى اختيارها للمسؤولين.

"The Al Khalifa in Bahrain only have a social place as the family from which His Highness the king comes, and also [they have] a historical role. And this is constitutional monarchism. On the contrary, the family is not afraid of that.. the only thing it's worried about is division of the nation on the basis of sect. And you can't describe the prime minister on the basis of his religion but on the basis of his qualifications. The government doesn't take into account sect or religion in its choice of officials."
What is it about interviews with Egyptian newspapers that brings out the crazy in Bahraini cabinet ministers?

(Speaking of interviews, don't miss the first interview with outgoing Al-Jazeera head of programming Wadah al-Khanfar, who offers details about the channel's muted coverage of the Bahrain uprising.)

Meanwhile, while the Al Khalifa are busy playing their strictly "social and historical" roles--none of them, evidently, are involved in politics; can someone look that up?--and choosing officials on the basis of merit, the pro-government press (clearly invigorated by the crown prince's recent remarks) continues to pave the way for the seemingly inevitable illegalization of al-Wifaq, or more commonly now "Bahraini Hizballah." In fact, the front page of Al-Watan English is so full of anti-al-Wifaq stories that I don't even need to take screenshots of individual articles.

One finds just on the main page:

And so on. The final article details a proposal from the new "socially diverse" parliament (no mention of how many of the "golden quartet" support the measure) for a
strict ban on demonstrations and riots--just as was the case in Great Britain. ... They also called on the state to tighten its grip on demonstrations and protest, aimed to sow hatred, propagate lies and push youngsters to commit acts of vandalism and chaos, and escalate the situation in line with the objectives of Al Wefaq and Issa Qassim.
But more importantly:
The Parliament and Shura Council members stated that 'Bahrain has to learn the lesson well. The trouble makers are not politicians and their associations are not political, either. They are using the labels just as a cover to conceal their dirty, strong desire to destroy the country and ruin its economy.'
So here we have the operative lines: al-Wifaq is no longer (or never has been) a political organization, nor its leaders politicians. Ergo, it should be treated like any other group operating outside the law, namely as an illegal "terrorist" entity. How much longer until al-Wifaq joins the likes of Wa'ad and the Islamic Action Society?: dissolved--or, better yet (from the state's view), "restructured" with a new leadership from among pro-government Shi'a families?

If ever there were a time for the U.S. to send the message that it is serious about political progress in Bahrain and taking a first step toward resolving the Gulf's festering sectarian problem, now is it. Yet, save for the two senators who have submitted a resolution to block the impending arms sale to Bahrain, it seems the U.S. government--in particular the State Department--feels it has bigger things to worry about. Its calculations may change if the recent unrest in al-Qatif spread to elsewhere in Saudi Arabia.

Update: Undeterred by this weekend's violence, the February 14 coalition has a full schedule of events planned already for the coming days.

Update 2: You knew this was coming. From the GDN:
In another development, a ballistic test conducted by a CID forensic expert has revealed that the pellets extracted from Mr Al Qattan's body have failed to match those used by the Interior Ministry. The Northern Police Directorate had reported small clashes between security forces and protesters in Abu Saiba, insisting that no shotgun pellets had been fired to disperse them. Earlier, a forensic report said the teenager died from wounds sustained from shotgun pellets, or birdshot.
So: during a confrontation with riot police, this 16 year-old was shot by random masked gunmen firing the same ammo from the same weapons as the riot police--but was not shot by the riot police?

Update 3: Though off-topic here, I recommend to those interested the following New York Review of Books article on "The Strange Power of Qatar," which examines the motivations behind the country's disproportionately active foreign policy.

Update 4: A commentator points out this systematic rebuttal of the "Irano-Bahraini conflict" thesis being promulgated these days by one Mitchell A. Belfer--most recently via WSJ op-ed, a summary of which the Gulf Daily News is running today.

Update 5: Some enterprising individual has put together a comprehensive report (including illustrative before and after photos) summarizing the post-February destruction of Shi'i mosques, mawatim, and shrines.

And check out this "a present from the Sunni loyalists of Bahrain to the February 14th Shi'a":

Update 6: Brian Dooley writing in Foreign Policy offers another comprehensive dismantling of the "Irano-Bahraini conflict" thesis.

Update 7: See Bahrain: THIS is how you make up a fake Iranian terrorist plot! Among other things, you forgot the Mexican drug cartels. (I won't say any more about this joke of a story. I refer you to the (admittedly normally infuriating) NYT comments.)

Update 8: I recommend this Jane Kinninmont piece in CNN: "Is a New Arab Order Emerging?"

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Why October is Not Bahrain's "Decisive Month"

You'll have to forgive the relative lack of updates as I continue to settle into new quarters. Today, though, I couldn't help but write in response to a view that has popped up in recent days--both in Western and Bahraini media--to the effect that October is set to be a "decisive month" for Bahrain politically, what with its shiny new parliament, National Dialogue "visions" to be enacted, and the BICI's final report and recommendations to be released.

In typical ALL-CAPS fashion, the Gulf Daily News proclaims this--whatever "this" is--to be Bahrain's "defining moment":

"Bahrain stands on the threshold of a new phase requiring everyone's best efforts to emerge triumphant from this defining moment. The Premier said this yesterday as he received the National Dialogue report."
Which makes sense since the Prime Minister is poised to become the main beneficiary of the National Dialogue recommendations via the proposed transfer of the power of ministerial selection to his office from that of the king.

Yet Bahraini media outlets are not the only ones promulgating this argument that somehow October will usher in the sort of political reconciliation that everyone has been waiting for since February. One of Bahrain's American PR advisers--he is introduced euphemistically thus: "Tom Squitieri is a journalist and is also working with the Bahrain government on media awareness"--writes for The Huffington Post, for example, the following (the first paragraph I've annotated it for your convenience):
Thus anger [among Bahrain's opposition] without a purpose. Foot soldiers for puppet masters with a greater agenda [Iran?]. Driven of course by personal desires, personal visions and inspiration from sources near [Al-Wifaq?] and far [Iran??]. Legitimate anger, but anger vulnerable to manipulation [Iran???], a truism in struggles around the world.

There may be hope: Henderson [a Bahrain commentator] discovered some shades of the gray area in the new candidates being elected. "Perhaps surprisingly, some middle ground and cultural diversity has survived the political polarization," he reported.

The government has promised reform. Parliament is to introduce laws to tackle concerns about ministerial accountability and corruption. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has also asked an independent commission to investigate abuses and has formed a compensation fund.

October could prove to be the decisive month.

As soon as Monday, the government committee in charge of following up implementation of National Dialogue recommendations may announce the mechanisms and priorities to meet citizens' expectations for reforms in the political, economic, social and legal categories. ...

That starts the month. Looming at the end of October is the independent commission's report on the actions and issues stemming from the protests in February and March. It is widely expected that the report will highlight abuses carried out by the security forces AND the protesters.
Wow, so not only are those who don't support Bahrain's wise leadership mere teenage "foot soldiers for puppet masters with a greater agenda," but Bahrain's new parliament without an opposition is actually going to increase the country's "cultural diversity" (which after all is a good substitute for political diversity), presumably through the manufactured election of additional female MPs; the National Dialogue recommendations will somehow meet "citizens' expectations for reforms"; and the BICI report will offer the satisfying conclusion that BOTH sides are responsible for what happened in February and March, so can't everybody just get along? (On this last point, note that I predicted exactly this outcome on July 26 after the BICI was first announced.)

In reality, of course, there is little reason to believe that October in Bahrain will differ from any of the previous months, much less on account of the conclusions of the National Dialogue and BICI. This is because:
  1. As we've discussed already, the main upshot of the National Dialogue recommendations is the further entrenchment of the position of the prime minister, who (assuming this "recommendation" is accepted by King Hamad) will now have the power to appoint his own ministers. The other Dialogue recommendations being touted as "reforms"--enhanced abilities to question ministers in parliament--are not particularly useful when the entire legislature consists of pro-government societies and parliamentarians. Somehow I doubt MPs will use their newfound ability to quiz ministers to forward a reformist agenda.

    The more fundamental problem with this argument that the National Dialogue recommendations being codified will somehow serve to "meet citizens' expectations for reforms" is that the proposed "reforms" have been well-known for some months now, and people don't seem particularly satisfied. So why should we expect that to change once they are officially made law?

  2. Similarly for the BICI, the cat has been out of the bag on its likely "findings" ever since Bassiouni's ill-judged statements to Reuters some time ago, when he all but revealed the main conclusion of the investigation, namely that "[t]here was never a policy of excessive use of force or torture... that doesn't mean it didn't happen. I think it was a case of people at the lower level acting, and there not being an effective chain of communication, control." He also described the mass detentions of Bahrain's post-February crackdown as a "bureaucratic mix-up." Oops--I hate when that happens!
Thus, as with the codification of (some or all of) the National Dialogue recommendations, Bahrainis already know what to expect from the BICI. The only way that either event will make October a "decisive month," then, is if either produces a positive result that is unexpected--say, if King Hamad refused to grant the power of ministerial selection to the prime minister; or if the BICI offered a significantly more damning report than has been indicated so far. Short of either of those two things, October will be business as usual.

And business as usual, as we've seen, means almost daily protests and confrontation. After the recent failed attempt to return to the Pearl Roundabout, the so-called "Blockade of Manama," and last weekend's 9th "Right to Self-Determination" rally, the newest of these planned events is the nicely-named "The Tsunami of Manama," another vehicle procession to take place today and Thursday mornings through the Financial District. (I think protesters have smartly figured out that you're a lot less likely to be shot while in a vehicle.)

The full instruction pamphlet is here, though I cannot be held responsible for any tsunami-related injury you may suffer as a result of reading it:

Folks over at the pro-government forum have already taken to calling the operation "The Tsunami of Filth" (which rhymes with al-Manama in Arabic), and have posted many appropriate illustrations to that effect:




Bahraini Sunnis have also discovered a 1989 Bollywood film that shares the name with the Arabic word for "tsunami," and have been circulating the movie poster online:

And a final one that's unrelated but funny anyway:

"Hello? Ok, I've got the teargas canister in my hand. What do I do with it?"

Here, then, is the real reason why October is not Bahrain's "decisive month": because both sides continue to be divided, and continue to fight under the banner of competing narratives that are as entrenched as ever. If one is looking for a "decisive" month, perhaps a more likely candidate is December, when 'Ashura' is set to begin on the 5th. Even in peaceful times a venue replete with intermingling religious and political rhetoric, this year's festival has the makings of a very heated and politically-charged affair.

Update: The other question to be answered--not necessarily in October but presumably soon--is the legal standing of al-Wifaq now that it is no longer in parliament but persists in holding weekly "festivals"--i.e. political rallies--and so on. The government already tried famously to disband the society back in April, but given that it then occupied 18 seats in parliament, the U.S. and Western condemnation was swift, and eventually the government backed off. No longer, however, does al-Wifaq have an electoral mandate to help guarantee its legal standing, a situation that will continue for at least several years until the next election. And, as the recent fate of the Islamic Action Society indicates, this is a precarious position.

And, indeed, signals of increased government pressure are already emerging. The latest is an extended segment on Bahrain TV in which the crown prince threatens al-Wifaq in strong terms.

I guess he didn't enjoy 'Ali Salman's keynote at last week's al-Wifaq festival:

Update 2: Also, don't forget to read up on the looming "Irano-Bahraini Conflict"(what a name), as described in a new "paper" in the prestigious Central European Journal of International and Security Studies by one Mitchell Belfer, who also happens to be the journal's editor and founder. Despite reading like an apology for the Bahraini government (I wonder how much one would have to pay Mr. Belfer to get a paper published in his CEJISS?), in the end the essay's conclusions sound suspiciously like all the other Iran rhetoric spouted since February: that Iran "inspired" and "gained" from the uprising:
Indeed, Bahrain has been so markedly internationally ostracised for its (state) actions against the self-proclaimed ‘Pearl Revolutionaries’ that few have adequately reflected on the revolution and are content to lay blame on ‘heavy-handed’ Bahraini security forces and the military intervention of Saudi Arabia. This has, in effect, veiled the dynamic international elements, namely Iran, which inspired and geopolitically gained from the revolution.
So in fact this "Irano-Bahraini Conflict" is not so much a conflict as a neighboring rival country benefiting from the internal conflict of another, which sounds a lot everyday politics. *Yawn* By this definition, I guess we should also be talking about the great Irano-Iraqi and Irano-Afghani wars, since Iran has likewise benefited from the U.S. invasions and subsequent internal conflicts of both countries.

Update 3: Quote of the day from the Saudi Interior Ministry on the Shi'a mini-uprising in al-Qatif:
"A group of instigators inspired by a foreign country gathered in al-Awwamiya village near Qatif at 9pm on Monday and tried to undermine security."
Prince Nayf is now pledging to respond with an "iron fist." Isn't he getting a bit too old for that?

Update 4: In classic Bahraini government fashion, the widely-condemned sentences of the medical workers have now been suspended pending appeal in civilian court. This is a tried and true tactic:
  1. First do something really crazy sure to get attention (arrest Bahrain's most prominent blogger; move to dissolve al-Wifaq; shut down Al-Wasat, etc.).
  2. Back off from #1 after international outrage.
  3. Respond with something slightly less crazy than #1 that seems to international observers like a pretty good alternative by comparison.
  4. ???
  5. Profit!!
Finally, word on the street is that the U.S. Congress is "gearing up to fight arms sales to Bahrain." Let's hope they are better at fighting arms sales to Bahrain than they are drugs, crime, inflation, terrorism, budget deficits, wars in Afghanistan, etc.

Update 5: The author of the aforementioned "Irano-Bahraini war" paper has somehow succeeded now in getting an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal making the same argument about Iranian "subversion" in Bahrain.