For the last post, I made the mistake of waiting for the court decision announcing the fate of Bahrain's political opposition leaders. Delayed now until September 4, chances are it will be postponed again--so no point in waiting a second time. As it turned out, however, Bahrain was indeed greeted with a prison sentence in time for the 'Eid holiday, namely that of BCHR president Nabeel Rajab. Once thought "off-limits" due to his international visibility, Rajab was given a three-year term for (ostensibly at least) participation in "illegal" gatherings. (See here for commentary by Jane Kinninmont and Toby Jones.)
In fact, Rajab's untouchability ended when he repeated the mistake of his BCHR predecessor 'Abd al-Hadi al-Khawajah, which is of course calling out Khalifa bin Salman. Just as Al-Khawajah's public criticism of the prime minister at the 'Uruba Club in 2004 earned him a trip to prison and the enduring enmity of the Bahraini premier, so it seems has Rajab's. In keeping with the times, Rajab's comments were delivered via Twitter on June 2, when he suggested that the pro-Khalifa rallies held by residents of Muharraq happened only because individuals were paid to attend. As Human Rights Watch documents, this "insult" against the good people of Muharraq earned Rajab a three-month sentence, to which was subsequently added the additional offense of organizing and participating in unauthorized demonstrations. The lesson: don't mess with Khalifa bin Salman--or Texas.
That said, Rajab's prosecution also serves a wider purpose: to appease those citizens who continue to demand a harsher crackdown on protest activities. Faced with two separate (and wholly unfamiliar) groups of politically-active Sunnis--those who simply want a tougher government stance against protesters, and those who desire a larger say in politics generally--the state has sought to appease the former in order to undermine the latter's appeal. So far, the strategy seems to be working well enough, with new Sunni movements like TGONU and Sahwat al-Fatih showing little desire to challenge the state directly. (Independent activists such as Mohammad al-Zayani, Mohammad Al Bu Flasa, and 'Isa Town MP Usama al-Tamimi are obviously another story; and for this they have earned the condemnation of some of their Sunni compatriots.)
One may wonder long this result will prevail. Having now caved to this social pressure (in addition, no doubt, to pressure from more security-minded members of the Al Khalifa), King Hamad is sure now to hear more of the same: "Why doesn't the interior ministry hold accountable other opposition leaders who also have organized illegal rallies?" "Why is the state afraid to go after 'Ali Salman and 'Isa Qasim himself?" And, of course, "How can the government think of reopening 'dialogue' with al-Wifaq and other opposition societies while the latter continue to practice violence and conspire against the nation?" (One shutters to think what would happen in the event of an acquittal for the opposition leaders.) One will find many similar questions simply by browsing the editorial page of Al-Watan. Or, for instance, in this popular thread on Bahrain's largest Sunni forum, titled "The king is the one responsible for what's happening today":
In the short term, then, throwing a political bone to citizen advocates of a security crackdown is a useful way to (1) diffuse some public pressure; and (2) change the subject away from the more thorny issue of the larger political role of Bahrain's Sunnis. Yet, in the long term it succeeds only in perpetuating the country's larger political crisis by foreclosing alternative options. By adopting a security response to what is a political problem, Bahrain is further radicalizing a Shi'a population already exasperated by a decade of violence confrontations with the state, thereby necessitating additional security measures, and feeding into a vicious cycle. At the same time, this radicalization leaves the government with no viable partner in dialogue, since al-Wifaq cannot be expected to convince the February 14 Coalition and like-minded movements of the efficacy of any political settlement. From the state's perspective, why bother holding talks with al-Wifaq if the group is unable to control its own constituency?
Yet, in fact, the problem is even more complicated than this, for even if the state had a willing and able interlocutor, still no dialogue could proceed. This is due to the newfound political expectations of Sunni groups, who as witnessed in March of this year are sure to reject any hint of political discussions, either (1) because there can be no dialogue until the opposition ends protest activities; or (2) because there can be no dialogue without the participation of Sunni societies. About the first objection the government need not worry so much, since it is essentially a different form of the same complaint already expressed by many Sunnis: namely, that the state--or King Hamad, or his secret U.S. advisers, or whomever--is too lenient with the opposition. It is the latter suggestion, however, that is simply intolerable from the ruling family's perspective: the idea that it should join representatives from all segments of Bahraini society at the political bargaining table--that it should sit together, as if equals, to plan the country's political future.
Rather than risk having to deny Sunnis the opportunity to participate, and thus the possibility of a concerted political mobilization around this specific issue, the Al Khalifa have opted instead simply to abstain from holding any new dialogue. Indeed, as evidenced by this Gulf News report on the prospect of new "talks" with "local political societies," it seems that the word "dialogue" is now being avoided altogether. Sponsored by Justice Minister Khalid bin 'Ali, these new "talks" (if one can call them that) were evidently held during Ramadan with "several formations" and aimed "to receive their feedback on the developments in the country and their views on ways to promote reconciliation following months of tension." To put this vague initiative in more precise terms, Sh. Khalid offered the following:
“We urge all political societies to actively participate in the promotion of positive attitudes supportive of the evolution and advancement of political action. The exchange of views by all constituents and segments of society through communication and joint meetings at the national level can significantly contribute to enhancing mutual confidence and understanding in political aspects, and enhance gains and advancement as well as building upon achievements realised through constitutional institutions.”Well that sure clears things up. My suspicion is that the "initiative" actually consisted of Sh. Khalid or someone from the MoJ visiting a few Ramadan majalis held by political figures.
In short, Bahrain's ruling family sorely misses the time when its "several [political] formations" existed and operated along established lines: a bothersome but far from revolutionary Shi'a bloc in al-Wifaq; two Sunni Islamist political societies happy to expend more energy fighting al-Wifaq than advocating their own policy agenda; and an "illegal" Shi'a opposition whose leaders could be imprisoned and pardoned every year or so in time for the Bahrain Grand Prix. Yet in continuing down the road of its present security-based strategy, Bahrain's rulers are only cementing an opposite future, ensuring that their once-agreeable political arrangement will be that much more impossible to resurrect.
Update: An appeals court has now thrown out the original charge stemming from Rajab's tweet "insulting" the prime minister and the good folks of Muharraq. Unfortunately, as additional charges of organizing and participating in "illegal" rallies have since been added, this doesn't do him much good. If you're following along, then, the proper technique here is the following:
- Arrest someone for saying something you don't like
- While the person's in jail, think of another charge that is easier to defend
- Convict on second charge
- Acquit on first charge
- The person remains in jail
3. Bahraini youth are seen receiving Al Qaeda and Hezbollah-style training. They crawl under barbed wire and walk in a paramilitary fashion. The fire and explosions heard are to highlight the mujahedeen fearlessness; they want to prove that they are unstoppable and can overcome any challenge. It shows their readiness to fight and die.Shit, barbed wire? And walking "in paramilitary fashion"! Well you've got me there--that must be a fact if barbed wire and paramilitary-walking is involved. What about repelling down drain pipes with only the use of a hose? Oh, and a "confidential Bahraini Government Report?" You mean like the kind of report that offers no independently-verifiable information and led the BICI to conclude that there was no external involvement in the uprising? Wow, tell me more! Wait, you're saying Bahrain deported random Lebanese citizens for supposed links with Hizballah? So has the UAE--some 120 families in 2009-2010 alone, per this HRW report. So is the UAE's al-Islah (Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated) opposition also in cahoots with Iran and Hizballah?
4. According to a confidential Bahraini Government Report submitted to the United Nations, specific evidence was presented linking Bahraini citizens to Hezbollah training camps in Syria.
5. In April 2011, Bahrain expelled 20 Lebanese citizens with known associations to Hezbollah.
I'm unclear as to why this testimony, which was given more than three weeks ago, is just now being picked up by the media in Bahrain. (Of course, al-Wifaq now has a statement on its website rejecting the claims.) The irony, obviously, is that while Maalouf was busy talking about the relationship between Assad, Hizballah, and al-Wifaq, members of al-Asalah were planning a trip to Syria to share notes with the Free Syrian Army on how best to tackle the Safavid threat. And in this case, Maalouf need not even investigate the paramilitariness of their walk, since they proudly posted photos of the meeting on Twitter.
The difference?: the Free Syrian Army is a political faction/terrorist organization we (i.e., in the United States) support; Hizballah is a political faction/terrorist organization we don't support.