As I've mentioned before, I will present a paper on the politics of public-sector employment in Bahrain, while Laurence's is titled "The political dimension of the labor market reform in Bahrain." It should be quite interesting. For those interested, I have uploaded my presentation slides here.
While I don't have too much time now to write on substantive matters, a few weekend developments deserve some attention. All relate to the same issue, namely the ongoing push among Bahrain's Sunni and "independent" (i.e. pro-government tribal) MPs to remove the sitting U.S. Ambassador for his--what else?--"interference in Bahrain's internal affairs." More specifically, according to al-Asalah MP 'Abd al-Halim Murad (from Muharraq):
"He is demanding the empowerment of Al Wefaq under the guise of democracy and human rights. ... The ambassador has since his appointment been particularly active in putting pressure on Bahrain and on threatening and blackmailing the country. His meetings with the opposition do not stop and the US interference in our affairs has reached unprecedented levels."Of course, by modern Interweb standards this story is old news. Yet coverage thus far has been superficial, and no one seems to be making the most obvious connection. A partial exception is regular Bahrain Mirror contributor 'Abbas Bu Sawfan, who offers an extended analysis (Arabic) in Thursday's al-Quds al-Arabi. The source of the anti-ambassador drive, he argues, is the royal patron of the Sunni groups in parliament, Khalid bin Ahmad. So his explanation revolves around Al Khalifa politics.
Which is perhaps true. But the more obvious observation is this: with the absence of al-Wifaq, Sunni groups in parliament have lost their raison d'être, which since 2006 has been precisely to obstruct any opposition efforts--legislative or otherwise. Indeed, it is not a coincidence that Bahrain is the only country in which the Muslim Brotherhood serves as a pro-government political faction. This is because it MUST be such if the opposition is to remain a minority in parliament.
A question--and, for the state, a problem--thus arises: if they need not concern themselves with blocking al-Wifaq, at whom exactly should (nominally) pro-government groups in parliament direct their energy? Since last fall's by-elections, the answer has been clear, with MPs assuming an increasingly confrontational stance vis-a-vis the government. They have blocked state proposals regarding the reorganization of the flagging Gulf Air; they have clashed on the streets and in parliament with (and even attempted to quiz) Bahrain's Culture Minister Sha. Mai for her purported support of "un-Islamic" events; and one Sunni opposition MP, Usama al-Tamimi, has been calling for corruption investigations into the practices of the ruling family (his business was subsequently attacked). In the second instance, the conflict was so severe that parliament was paid a visit by no less than Khalifa bin Salman, who urged "cooperation" between the legislative and executive branches.
The newfound concern among parliamentarians with the actions of the United States and its representatives in Bahrain is therefore at the very least a welcome development for the state, no longer the main focus of Sunni ire. But the main question, of course, is the nature of this shift in agenda. Pro-government movements and media have been decrying U.S. "interference" in Bahrain for more than a year, yet only now has the issue been taken up systematically by MPs. Has the sustained media onslaught finally served its purpose of encouraging popular action against Western influence (and precluding cooperation with the Shi'a and secular opposition)? Or is there more direct prodding on the part of the government--or, that is, on the part of certain members of the ruling family (which is Bu Sawfan's conclusion)?
This question becomes even more interesting when one notes the disparity between the actions of Bahrain's parliamentary blocs and other politically-active Sunni personalities. While MPs from al-Asalah and al-Manbar are busy petitioning the Foreign Ministry to convert the U.S. Embassy into a shrine to Muhammad 'Abd al-Wahhab, other Sunnis are reaching across the sectarian aisle to the opposition. Muhammad Al Bu Flasa, the Salafi former army officer who gained notoriety (and a 3-month detention) for his speech at the Pearl Roundabout in the early days of the uprising, has recently reappeared on the political scene. He was rearrested several weeks ago for what was called a "family dispute," and then last week requested the release of a video statement addressed "to the regime and to the people of Bahrain." (My understanding from this forum thread is that the video was actually recorded sometime in early 2011.)
Then, on Friday, Al Bu Flasa--along with outspoken opposition MP Usama al-Tamimi of 'Isa Town--visited several Shi'a villages. Al Bu Flasa turned up in a village in Sitra, while al-Tamimi went to Tubli and Nuwaidrat, the latter being the (somewhat claustrophobic) home village of al-Wafa' leader Sh. 'Abd al-Wahhab Husain. Not only did these two prominent Sunnis visit "dangerous" Shi'a villages, moreover, but they visited on the very Shi'i religious occasion of the birthday of the Mahdi. Both were received with much fanfare. (Pro-government Sunnis seem to be split. See this thread addressed "To those who criticize Al Bu Flasa.")
Al Bu Flasa apparently exiting/entering a mosque/ma'tam:
Al-Tamimi in Nuwaidrat, where he also visited a ma'tam:
Thus, as they say, is the battle for Sunni hearts and minds in Bahrain. As usual, the losers are ordinary Sunni citizens, as their MPs in parliament debate not corruption or political reform or economic revitalization but the nefarious role of Bahrain's most important Western ally (and probably the main reason why the political status quo was not qualitatively altered by the February uprising). And al-Asalah and al-Manbar wonder why they fared so poorly in the 2010 elections.
Also as usual, it will be up to charismatic Sunni activists outside the mainstream political fold--whether Ebrahim Sharif, Al Bu Flasa, al-Tamimi, or others--to see through the game of preoccupation that the state is so adept at playing. If not the Shi'a opposition, it is Iran, or the United States, that must be opposed--so long as it is not the government. In fact, anything sufficiently threatening (that is to say, an actor whose true interests are not easily discerned) will do the trick, such that it is likely that we will soon find tsunamis, earthquakes, and sharks on the list of foreign conspirators against Bahrain.
On the other hand, depending on one's view, Al Mahmud and other leaders of the new Sunni movements may have a more constructive role to play. Jane Kinninmont's recent Chatham House paper on Bahrain contained the following observation from a Sunni supporter (but not representative) of the National Unity Gathering: "We are not for the government, just temporarily allied with them" (p. 8, n26). I suppose we'll see about that.