Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Five Things the Past Year Has and Hasn't Taught Us about Bahrain, Part I

In the six days remaining until February 14, one can expect a healthy dose of anniversary analyses claiming to explain what has occurred in the previous year, what it means, and what to expect going forward. In fact, the Associated Press got a jump on its competitors last week when it launched the preemptive strike of Bahrain uprising coverage in this article by Brian Murphy and Reem Khalifah carried in several newspapers: "Bahrain's year of unrest fed by sectarian rifts and region's rivalries." Many more can we expect on, say, the night of February 13. (Of course, since the Bahraini government has denied entry to journalists seeking to cover the anniversary, who knows what sort of coverage we will actually get.)

I will not attempt to compete with this media cacophony here. Neither will I review in detail the last week's events, although admittedly there are some interesting story lines. These include the obvious plan among some (see recent announcements by Nabeel Rajab and al-Wafa') to reoccupy the Pearl Roundabout (hence the postage stamp-like banner above--"All of Us Are Returning"--and the similar one below); several cases of attacks on foreigners, including a British man who had several of his fingers lopped off with sword when he evidently got lost in the village of Karranah late one night; and the ambiguous return of one M. Cherif Bassiouni, who is back in black in order to assess how far Bahrain has implemented the BICI's recommendations. (By my count, that makes at least three different committees--the others having been appointed by the King and Prime Minister, respectively--looking into Bahrain's post-BICI reforms.)


Still other items include an (I think facetious) article in the Bahrain Mirror with the headline, "The Al Khalifa Decide to Surrender Bahrain to Saudi Arabia: Announcement of Bahrain's Union with Saudi Arabia." Of course, even if sarcastic, the headline is perhaps not too far off the mark in any case. The political risk analysis firm Executive Analysis concluded in one of its assessments near the end of last year that Bahrain "has now effectively become a Saudi protectorate."

And finally, it took ten months or so, but the editorial board of a major U.S. newspaper has finally pointed out the patent contradiction in the U.S.'s position on Syria in light of its position on Bahrain. The Washington Post notes the irony of its demonization of the Russian and Chinese vetoes of the recent U.N. Security Council resolution out of concern for their political-military interests in Syria, given the U.S.'s own reluctance to apply any meaningful pressure on Bahrain out of concern for its... political and military interests in that country. For the record, I pointed this out immediately following President Obama's first statement on Syria's crackdown in April 2011, in the form of a "Middle East Politics Quiz."

In any case, the purpose of this post is offer something different than either the standard "Bahrain one year later" analysis; or a "week in review" piece that I sometimes have a tendency to write here. Rather, I think it's useful today to distinguish between the things that the past year in Bahrain has taught us about the country and the region, and the things that the uprising perhaps highlighted but that ultimately we knew already. This is all the more useful because I suspect a majority of the articles ready to be deployed in the next six days of pre-anniversary Bahrain coverage will tend to focus disproportionately on the latter category. Since this post is likely to be a long one, I will deal only with the first half here.

What We Have NOT Learned about Bahrain
in the Past Year


#1. That Bahrain's Shi'a are unhappy

This first point is perhaps too obvious to include in the list. Still, causal reporting of Bahrain's uprising tends to give the impression that the events of February 14 and the year-long aftermath sprang out of nowhere; that Bahrain's Shi'a had finally "had enough" and used the window afforded by the Arab Spring to make their displeasure known, to spectacular effect.

There is no need to devote much time to debunking this storyline, deliberate or not, as any serious study of Bahraini politics would point to a long history of political conflict, whether between Shi'a and state, Sunna and state, or Sunna and Shi'a. Indeed, sectarian unrest in the otherwise-obscure "principality" of Bahrain made such headlines in 1955 as to occasion an article by Qubain in the Middle East Journal meant to "examine the nature of these tensions and to evaluate their seriousness for the future." In the contemporary period, Shi'a-state tension in Bahrain can be dated to the ascension of King Hamad in 1999, when the latter's failure to deliver on promised political reforms gave birth to an organized campaign led by newly-repatriated opposition figures that would eventually coalescence to form al-Wifaq. The political development (or non-development) of the subsequent decade has been treated at length by both Bahraini (e.g., 'Abd al-Hadi Khalaf) and Western scholars, including in Ch. 3 of my dissertation.

What was surprising about the scenes of February and March, then, was not that such an opposition would mobilize, but that it was able to mobilize on such an unprecedented scale.

#2. That Bahrain's opposition is fragmented

Neither is it news that Bahrain's Shi'a-led opposition is now in February 2012 clearly divided between a formal opposition in al-Wifaq that continues to hold out hope for a negotiated political bargain, and a youth-dominated street movement that prefers to (attempt to) inflict political and economic damage on the regime rather than to engage with it. Fragmentation has been the natural state of Bahrain's opposition in the "contemporary" period referenced above. Disagreement about whether to participate in Bahrain's 2006 parliamentary elections precipitated the split between the al-Wifaq of today and the offshoot al-Haqq Movement (and later al-Wafa'), which eschewed any formal political involvement as tantamount to co-optation. For this, the leaders of these "hard-line" movements are now serving life sentences following the post-February crackdown.

More recently, even the ill-fated dialogue offered by the crown prince in March was never to involve a monolithic "opposition" but instead some half-dozen societies representing diverse political views, a diversity that indeed served to hasten the collapse of the talks after several groups opted out in order to form an uncompromising "Coalition for a Republic."

#3. That the state would resort to violence in response to demands for reform

According to the authoritative database compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, between 2000 and 2009 Bahrain ranked number 11 on the list of top military spenders as a proportion of GDP. And given that (despite what the government would have one believe) Bahrain faces no immediate external threat--especially so long as Bahrain remains only a stone's throw from Saudi Arabia and the Fifth Fleet remains based in al-Juffair--a majority of this expenditure is aimed at the domestic front, through the funding of disproportionately large and well-equipped police and intelligence services.

Now, if one thought the BICI's documentation of torture in Bahrain were disturbing, one ought to read about the Bahrain of the 1990s, when the country again faced a Shi'a uprising. Then, however, security services enjoyed an even less restrictive carte blanche via more nebulous "state security" laws, and British-born intelligence adviser Ian Henderson was busy cementing his reputation as the "Butcher of Bahrain," a title he earned over the course of 32 years at the head of Bahrain's secret police. So, even if 2011 proved a more deadly year than those of the 1990s uprising, the cause is not a change in the Bahraini government's position on the use of violence in dealing with political opponents.

#4. That Bahrain's leadership is divided

Anyone who's seen The Lion King knows what happens when a deceased king's uncle meets his nephew-turned-fledgling-king. In short, something like this:


Or, in non-animated form:


And, since The Lion King has been out since 1994, it should have given everyone at least five years warning about the intra-Al Khalifa competition for political influence that would unfold in Bahrain.

More seriously, while part of the dominant narrative of post-February Bahrain involves the coming to power of more conservative elements of Bahrain's ruling family--in particular Khalifah bin Salman and the khawalid--when conducting research in the country in 2006-2008 I found that even then most political activists and ordinary citizens alike assumed that Bahrain's prime minister of four decades was really the one running the show. Indeed, of more than one hundred questions included in my mass political survey of Bahrainis, only one question--asking about a respondent's level of trust in the office of the prime minister--proved so sensitive that it became questionable whether it could be asked at all. Many ordinary people--Sunnis and Shi'is--responded with varying degrees of seriousness, "What, are you trying to get me thrown in jail?"

Although it is clear, therefore, that Bahrain's response to the February and March crisis signaled the clear influence of less conciliatory factions of the Al Khalifa (and their friends in Saudi Arabia), cause and effect should not be confused here. Rather than playing an independent causal role of its own, in other words, more likely is that the crisis simply revealed the existing distribution of power within the ruling tribe.

#5. That Bahrain's underlying political conflict is an intractable one

Though in some ways related to point #1 made already, it bears anticipating here the observation, the spirit of which is sure to be repeated consistently in the upcoming anniversary analysis onslaught, that "Wow, Bahrain's government and opposition have been in a standoff for a year now, and they still haven't resolved it!" In fact, they've been in the same essential standoff for a decade now. Its resolution has been made more difficult, certainly, by one phenomenon that IS a new development since February 2011 and that will be discussed below, namely the mobilization of ordinary Sunnis. But the nature of the government-opposition conflict itself has not changed since King Hamad's ascension and subsequent renege on promises of political reform, as discussed already.

To know this one need only look at the date currently being awaited with much apprehension: February 14, 2012, which not incidentally marks the 10-year anniversary of Bahrain's 2002 Constitution, promulgated unilaterally by King Hamad and, for regime opponents, a document symbolic of the country's aborted political reform initiative. Supposed to outline a constitutional system in which an elected lower house of parliament would be endowed with supreme legislative authority, in fact the text established a bicameral system dominated by an unelected upper house along with ethnically-gerrymandered electoral districts ensuring pro-government control over the elected body.

Accordingly, when one looks at the demands of the formal opposition in Bahrain--which unlike in some other Arab Spring countries are not vague calls for "reform" but specific constitutional changes--they stem precisely from this original betrayal (from the opposition's point of view) of King Hamad. They include fair electoral districts, an empowered lower house of parliament, an elected government, and so on. Of course, such demands are no more likely to be entertained today than a decade earlier in 2002. For Bahrain's fundamental constitutional problem is this: the country has gone as far as it can with fake political reform. Yes, there is a parliament; yet it has no independent lawmaking ability. Yes, there are political "societies"; but the notion that these would compete for political influence with the ruling family--or rather, that the ruling family would stoop to their level--is utterly foreign. As Khuri describes of Bahrain’s first-ever parliamentary elections in 1972-73 (pp. 225),
Like all other ruling families in the Gulf and Arabia, Al-Khalifa of Bahrain consider government a legitimate right that they earned historically by defending the island against external aggression—a “right” that must not be subjected to “the fluctuating, controversial moods of public opinion,” as one Al-Khalifa sheikh put it. Members of the ruling family were not permitted to run for election because they were aloof from politics, above the National Assembly and the appeal to public opinion.
This same sentiment--of a ruling family "aloof from politics" and "above" the legislature and public opinion--rings as true today as it did in 1973. Hence a recent work of Bahraini political cartoonist Bazzaz:


Many hurdles impede progress toward a political solution in Bahrain: opposition among Al Khalifa conservatives and their Saudi backers; the fear that any deal will be rejected by those in the opposition outside the sway of al-Wifaq; as well as the likelihood of backlash by a newly-mobilized Sunni community. But the government's structural inability to agree to opposition demands without moving Bahrain's fake democracy qualitatively down the road toward real democracy is perhaps the greatest obstacle of all. This has not changed since 2002.

What We Have Learned about Bahrain
in the Past Year


Continued in the next post..

19 comments:

  1. A very well written article , as is usually expected from Dr Justin.In regards to the topic , I agree with the all of the points mentioned except the first one , I think the narrative presented by the media (even "independent" arab media mind you) is that of sunni state Vs marginlised shia .Therefore when a foreigner is asked for the reason of the protests in Bahrain , he would either reply that the shia of Bahrain are ungratful (narrative of some arab propaganda machines) or would say they feel marganilised . All in all as much as I agree with the rest of the article , I belive the point that has been made very obvious is that the shia in Bahrain are "unhappy".

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  2. @Ahmad: Sure, but my point (here as with the others) is that this isn't something new we've learned since Feb. 2011. Bahraini Shi'a on the whole have been unhappy for some time, and have been making it well known to the government for some time. (My own survey had to be delayed for several months after the heads of the opposition societies except al-Wifaq were arrested in late 2008, and Sh'a villages were inaccessible due to protests, riot police lock-down, etc.) The difference of Feb. 2011 was simply the scale of protests and of course the larger regional context.

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  3. I would like to add to this already great article (thanks Justin) that the classical opposition (Alwefaq and the remaining societies) have utterly lost the influence they once had. Why? quite simple! They have been part of the corrupted political system and they have indeed played the biggest role in "solidifying" it. In other words, thy are part of the problem, not the solution!

    With the introduction of the "Lulu Charter" by the Coalition Youth of 14 Feb Revolution, I think we will see dramatic political changes as the young revolutionaries have started to turn their attention on the political aspects of the revolution.

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    Replies
    1. Lulu Charter, if one reads it carefully it basically says that we will turn into a republic and be run by Qum in Iran. the so called Youth of 14 feb, are playing the violence game and hence you see it clearly with these gangsters using molotovs to attack the police and residents. What you have not learned yet is that the police will have a different strategy to deal with these guys..so far it has been purely teargas. wait and see what they will use next..

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    2. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=377424&l=898f11cbaf&id=127086590722192

      see above link how so called the 14 feb guys threatening the foreigners by killing them.

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    3. Pearl Revolution Political Center!!! Hahahahaha!! These desktop monkeys take themselves so seriously!! Political Center! Listen little chimps, no one cares about you and you represent no one other than yourselves. Ok, my bad, maybe some turban wearing sheep loving Iranian somewhere, BUT THATS IT! SO SHUT IT AND TAKE A SEAT!! Revolution? Political Center?!? HAHAHAHA

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  4. @Anon's and @Sal: Aren't there forums somewhere for comments such as these?

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    Replies
    1. The last comment shows the depth (lack of!) of intellectual engagement to which the pro-regime elements are willing to go. Any serious attempt to codify the political and civil aspirations of of the 14feb coalition such as the Lulu Charter are so far above the heads of the name-callers and paranoia-mongers there is no point in engaging them. That is precisely the point the youth of Bahrain have made.
      Thanks for your usual great analysis Justin.

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  5. one sided analysis, that's why you are grateful to justin.I wonder who is behind justin !!!! any guesses ?

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  6. @Anon: My guess is the sworn enemies of Bahrain within the Department of Political Science at the University of Michigan.

    A 'one-sided analysis' is unlikely to point out a British man losing a few fingers in a sword attack in Karranah, amirite?

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  7. Who are the Khawalid?

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  8. @Anon: Bahraini term meaning "the Khalids," i.e. the followers of Khalid bin Ahmad (Royal Court Minister) and his brother Khalifah bin Ahmad (Defense Minister).

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  9. @Justin Gengler

    Thank you for continuous writing about Bahrain.

    You wrote a lot about the situation in Bahrain, described how the government is abusing human rights, killing, lying to media, etc... But you wrote a little about the solution for Bahrain's crisis

    What should Bahrainis do? Should they continue participating in Al Wefaq's weekly protest forever? or should they just make more of Molotov cocktails and through them on the police?

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    1. I think its because what justin is doing here is an analysis of the situation rather than suggest solutions to this party or that.

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  10. “Religion and Politics in Bahrain” is a well articulated post that has encapsulated the reality of the region. I would like to add that Bahrain is byproduct of regional anomaly, portioned by United States. Bahrain as nation is brutally oppressed to the core since 1783. The citizens of this country lack critical thinking and leadership and often resort to violence as they lack the skill to express themselves in media due to censorship. As a result the social fabric has been completely destroyed and this is why we see what we see today!

    Shad Mujib
    www.facebook.com/shad.mujib

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  11. Dear sir ,with due respect and submission that i am a citizen of Bahrain by birth. i am giving you an information about the up coming dangerous situation is going to happen by some of the outsider people leaving in Bahrain.in previous Bahrain clash they did a lot of clashing work between ssia and Sunni Muslim aggressively and they did 80% success for the reason Bahrain clash happened to the way of president wake out,

    This time they have worked too much to get 100% success, by the forcefully walk out of the government.they have lots of false document, passport,paper,license,
    offensive document etc which they have got from the person who instruct them to do the work.

    My hardly request as a citizen of Bahrain to the defensive minister of Bahrain, please stop their plan and capture them all and find out who is the instructor to destroy our peaceful country Bahrain.

    As a journalist i have been able to collect some persons identity and one person contact number, below is his contact information
    Md. Masud Alam Tutul
    Rumko group of company,Manama, Bahrain
    official number - +973 17725804,+97333214816

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  12. Dear sir ,with due respect and submission that i am a citizen of Bahrain by birth. i am giving you an information about the up coming dangerous situation is going to happen by some of the outsider people leaving in Bahrain.in previous Bahrain clash they did a lot of clashing work between ssia and Sunni Muslim aggressively and they did 80% success for the reason Bahrain clash happened to the way of president wake out,

    This time they have worked too much to get 100% success, by the forcefully walk out of the government.they have lots of false document, passport,paper,license,
    offensive document etc which they have got from the person who instruct them to do the work.

    My hardly request as a citizen of Bahrain to the defensive minister of Bahrain, please stop their plan and capture them all and find out who is the instructor to destroy our peaceful country Bahrain.

    As a journalist i have been able to collect some persons identity and one person contact number, below is his contact information
    Md. Masud Alam Tutul
    Rumko group of company,Manama, Bahrain
    official number - +973 17725804,+97333214816

    ReplyDelete