Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Sunni Islamists Testing Political Boundaries Altered (Or Not) by the Uprising

The main subject of today's post is illustrative in that it follows conveniently from the main conclusion of the previous one. There, I argued that Bahrain's renewed crackdown on political protest--its effective ban on rallies, the recent arrest and prosecution of Nabeel Rajab, and so on--stems not primarily from the state's relationship with the Shi'a-led opposition, but from its tenuous balancing act involving Bahraini Sunnis.

The latter (excluding those from tribally-aligned families who have remained essentially apolitical even following the uprising) fall into two basic camps: (1) those who have used the opportunity of their post-February 2011 political mobilization to press for a harsher security posture vis-a-vis the opposition; and (2) those who have used it to articulate a wider political agenda independent of the state's dealing with protesters. So, in order to limit the appeal of the latter group, the government has sought to appease the former.

Yet the line between the two is of course blurred, as is the boundary beyond which acceptable petitioning among Sunnis becomes (from the standpoint of the government) unacceptable protest in its own right. This is all the more opaque as the true nature of Bahrain's largest post-February Sunni movements--the National Unity Gathering and Sahwat al-Fatih--itself remains ambiguous. Neither has demonstrated a willingness or desire to challenge the state directly on any specific matter of policy. As a result, it continues to be difficult to refute those who accuse the movements of being either an extension of existing political powers (al-Asalah and/or al-Manbar) or of (some faction of) the government.

To attempt to grasp the true significance of Bahrain's "Sunni Awakening," then, one can do little more than sit back and observe the progression of the ongoing political disorder. I have written previously that one possible litmus test will be the (eventual) restart of government-opposition dialogue. If Sunni groups remain insistent upon a seat at the bargaining table, one may be persuaded one way; if they relent and fail to press for their own political demands, one can be perhaps safe in forming the opposite opinion. The only problem is that renewed dialogue does not appear to be on the horizon.

Very interesting, therefore, is a development reported (Arabic here) last night. One will recall a recent post here that examined the controversy surrounding the building of a new Catholic Church in 'Awali, and indeed the relocation there of the church's entire Gulf vicariate, on land donated by King Hamad. As far as I can tell, the "controversy" was fueled almost exclusively by Sunni Islamists, who objected to the decision not only on religious grounds but also because it was seen to evince the government's (or at least King Hamad's) capitulation and/or thralldom to the West. (Unless I've missed something, Al-Wifaq and Shi'i clerics have stayed quiet about the issue. Update: According to this Washington Post story, 'Isa Qasim also has expressed opposition to the church, asking why resources should be diverted at a time when demolished Shi'a mosques have still yet to be rebuilt.) Recently, some 68 of Bahrain's Sunni clerics issued a statement carried in Akhbar al-Khaleej that called on "those who are responsible for order in this land to pull back the grant and the permission":

Now, one of the leading critics of the new church, Sh. 'Adal Hasan Al Hamad, has been removed from his longtime position as imam of the Nusuf Mosque in East Rifa' following a combative Friday sermon in which he repeated in harsher language the message of the 'ulama' statement. As reported in this informative Global Voices article, Al Hamad's sermon
described the land donation and allowing the church to be built as "Pro-Christian" and "an attempt to please Western nations." He urged worshipers to express their opposition, reminding them that they have previously drawn a "red line when it came to the leadership of this country" [in reference to their stand against the events of 2011] while the "rightful religion of Allah is far more superior and worthy of their support." He warned that “Silence in such matters could drag divine consequences."
In addition to the full (.mp3) audio of the sermon (as well as of previous Friday sermons), Al Hamad's website includes a thematic outline, which includes the following four questions:
  1. "What is the justification for building the church in Bahrain?
  2. Is Bahrain an Islamic state?
  3. Is this a test of the people in the country, and will we pass the test?
  4. Do you know, O listeners, the hypocrites in the country?"

Now, someone at the Ministry of Justice has a real sense of humor. Rather than bar Al Hamad from giving Friday sermons altogether, instead Sh. Khalid has offered him a lesson in religious tolerance and multiculturalism. Having spent 25 years at a grand mosque in an almost exclusively Sunni neighborhood of East Rifa', Al Hamad has been relocated to a much smaller mosque in Tubli, which depending on the exact location is either mixed or exclusively Shi'i. (Hopefully for him, his new home--Sheikha Kanoo Mosque--is not in the village portion of Tubli!)

The irony of the decision has not been lost among critics of the move. The aforementioned article notes a Tweet by Jamal Ibrahim Al-Najem:
"For his speech on the largest church in the Gulf and after spending more than a quarter of a century in East Riffa, Dr Adel AlHamad is moved to a Shia Area in Bahrain! We are All Adel Hassan!"
A similar sentiment echoes across various media. One popular Arabic-language article by blogger Rashid Ahmad Al-Rashid describes the situation as "A Tale from Another Planet with the Minister of Justice!" Elsewhere, on Twitter, Muhammad Khalid writes that "[t]he Sunnis of Bahrain reject moving the preacher of the Nusuf Mosque Dr. 'Adal Al Hamad to another mosque under any pretext":

Then, in another Tweet,Khalid goes even further:
"The transfer of Dr. 'Adal Al Hamad to another grand mosque is injustice against him and Sunnis as a whole and a test [case] for something larger that will soon shock the Sunni street. Be prepared."
Sunni Internet forums are no different.
  • One popular thread calls for an end to Sunnis' "political closeness" with the state, saying, "We are with the leadership... We are with the government... But we are against the ongoing persecution against Sunnis simply to satisfy the traitors [i.e., the opposition] and the West!"

  • Another insists that "the Sunni opposition will tip the scales in the future!!"

  • Yet another announces a Sunni "gathering" this Friday at Al Hamad's new mosque in Tubli, presumably to protest his relocation.

Incidentally, this means that Bahrain will have at least three demonstrations on its hands on Friday, as al-Wifaq and other opposition societies already are on the books for their "Freedom and Democracy" rally along the familiar path of Budaiyi' Road; and the February 14th Coalition is holding week-long festivities--including a Molotov cocktail assault on a Sitra police station--in the run-up to next week's verdict in the opposition leader trial.

So, then, what to make of all of this? First, the government's message seems to be clear, and is something along the following lines: "Sunnis, we are happy to hear your complaints about the opposition, and have even tolerated with good humor a year's worth of complaints about our supposed hypocrisy in dealing with the opposition. But just because we've given you a bit of what you wanted--Nabeel Rajab's in jail; and in a week or so his friends' sentences will be renewed--don't think that you can dictate wider policy, especially when it threatens to hamper the international image we are seeking to cultivate and the international relationships that we depend on."

It is in this sense, I think, that Muhammad Khalid describes Al Hamad's removal as "a test [case] for something larger that will soon shock the Sunni street." Indeed, Al Hamad too refers to a "test" of Sunnis in his offending sermon, when he asks, "Is [the church issue] a test of the people in the country, and will we pass the test?" Whether this "something larger" refers to anything specific--say, a new government-opposition dialogue; or simply another item on the long list of percieved wrongs against Bahrain's Sunni community--it's hard to say. But inasmuch as any solution to Bahrain's political impasse requires resolution first of the government's "Sunni problem," it will be interesting to observe what, if anything, comes next.

A final question, which is admittedly pure speculation on my part, concerns the role of Saudi Arabia. Obviously, Bahrain's room to maneuver politically depends critically on the view from Riyadh. But, as Simon Henderson wrote only two days ago, there is renewed speculation about the health of King 'Abdallah (and even of the newly-anointed crown prince), who has left the Kingdom reportedly for treatment in New York. Thus, does the fact that the Saudis may soon have something much larger to worry about than avoiding possible government concessions in Bahrain--namely, a full-blown succession crisis--offer King Hamad, the crown prince, and their friends in the State Department a new window of opportunity to make some political progress?

Update: Two additional links that I forgot to incorporate. A first is an article by 'Abd al-Hadi Khalaf for the NYT's "Room for Debate" feature. A second is a new Chatham House paper by Jane Kinninmont (does she sleep?) on Kuwait's "experiment in semi-democracy."

Update 2: As a commenter notes, Sh. Rashid has now backed off his decision to transfer Al Hamad after "meeting with a number of Sunni sheikhs and 'ulama'." (Note that today was the planned Sunni "gathering" in support of Al Hamad.) Perhaps the political boundaries have indeed shifted in Bahrain.

Update 3: And someone points out this "documentary" on the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain.

Update 4: Still more documentaries. This Bahrain Mirror story describes a new video titled "The King and the Corruption of the State" making its way around the YouTubes. What's new, you ask? Well, this one comes not from the opposition but, purportedly at least, from Bahraini Sunnis. Subtitled "The Sunni response to the king of Bahrain," this thing is two hours long!

Part 1

Part 2

Update 5: A post in Bahrain's main Sunni forum casts doubt upon the origins of the aforementioned videos critical of King Hamad. It notes that the poster of the video--and of several previous critical videos--is based in the UK, a main center of the traditional opposition. Even if it is a fake, however, the video remains interesting in that it signifies a more concerted effort among activists to appeal (even if through propaganda) to disaffected Sunnis.

Update 6: No surprise here: "Bahrain court upholds sentences of opposition leaders." Why start another fight with security-minded Sunnis and royals if you don't need to?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Unable to Please Everyone, Bahrain Caves to Advocates of a New Crackdown

King Hamad congratulates 'Adal al-Ma'awdah on his recent trip to Syria

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.

An artist's rendering of the Rajab courtroom

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:
  1. Arrest someone for saying something you don't like
  2. While the person's in jail, think of another charge that is easier to defend
  3. Convict on second charge
  4. Acquit on first charge
  5. The person remains in jail
  6. ???
  7. Profit
Update 2: Here's one for you. One of the individuals who testified at the recent congressional human rights hearing on Bahrain--a certain Walid Maalouf--has stirred up controversy with his remarks on the purported relationship between al-Wifaq and Hizballah. Maalouf, whom the Tom Lantos Commission website describes as a "former US Public Delegate to the UN" and "Former Director [of] Public Diplomacy [at] USAID" (and a Lebanese Christian, apparently), offered the commission some "facts between the so-called opposition in Bahrain and Hezbollah." Among these are:
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.

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.
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?

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.

Update 3: The New York Times reports that U.S. arms sales tripled in 2011 to more than $66 billion, thanks mainly to high demand from Gulf states. The Arab Spring and Iran hysteria is good for biz!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Why Bahrain's Sunni Political Societies Are Unpopular—Among Sunnis

Naïve as I am, I was waiting to post here until the much-awaited verdict in the civilian retrial of Bahrain's main opposition leaders, scheduled for today. For some reason I had forgotten that the criminal justice system in Bahrain moves above all according to political expediency. Thus, at a time when rumors of yet another "new political dialogue" are rife, and when Bahrainis are waiting in anticipation of what King Hamad might reveal about this in his upcoming Ramadan/National Day address, it is perhaps no surprise that the sure-to-be-polarizing court decision was postponed until September 4. Remember the month-long postponement of the BICI's final report? (Also, announcing prison sentences for the country's political opposition on the eve of National Day is probably not the best idea.)

Of course, as the opposition has already scheduled rallies across the island today to coincide with the announcement, I suppose that demonstrators will have to be content to protest the postponement of the trial rather than the outcome itself. (NBC News' "Photo Blog" records some scenes from protests earlier this week.) Which is too bad because the February 14 folks had some really nice electronic fliers to mark the occasion:


With no news about the fate of the opposition leaders, then, the real story of the past week in Bahrain is a rather odd series of developments around the issue of religious tolerance. First, following other recent blasphemy cases in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, a Bahraini blogger was sentenced to two years in prison for "insulting a religious icon," namely the prophet's wife Aisha. In fact, it sounds like this "blogger" was actually just a plain old Internet troll. A report in the Gulf News tells that he "often entered specific sites to insult Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) companions and wife." Evidently Bahrain's Internet police have not visited the forums of opposition and pro-government activists lately. That's probably a good thing, as the judicial system already suffers from chronic delays as it is.

One current thread on the main Sunni board asks, "Have the Jews become more merciful than the Shi'a?" Evidently a group of "moderate Jews" in the U.S. has allowed Sunnis to pray in a synagogue when their own mosque was full. By comparison, the author writes, "The Shi'a issue fatwas to kill Sunnis, in revenge for [the martyrdom of] Hussain, as they unjustly claim. So have the Jews really become more merciful than the Shi'a with respect to Sunnis?" So the poster succeeds in insulting at least two different religions--the Shi'a, for being terrorist murderers, and the Jews, for being arguably "less merciful" even than the Shi'a.

So as not to leave out Christians from the discussion, we move on to the next item on the topic of religious tolerance in Bahrain (and indeed in the wider Gulf). A few days ago, the Catholic Church announced that it is relocating its Gulf vicariate from Kuwait to Bahrain, ostensibly because "the country’s location is more accessible for meetings." It might also have to do with the fact that "King [Hamad] and royal family have granted 9,000 square meters of land, which will be used to build a larger church in Awali and to host the vicariate’s apostolic headquarters." For its part, Bahrain can now, as it already did on August 7, point to the vicariate “as a testament to the Kingdom’s religious and cultural openness.”

Moreover, the move might also have something to do with the fact that a Kuwaiti Salafi MP, Usama al-Munawir, announced his intention to submit a bill that would ban non-Muslim places of worship in the country. After facing criticism, he graciously "moderated" his plan to include only a ban on the construction of NEW non-Muslim places of worship. What tolerance!

Not to be outdone, and fresh off his liaison with fellow Salafis in the Free Syrian Army, president of al-Asalah and head of Bahrain's Parliamentary Committee on U.S. Hatred 'Abd al-Halim Murad has expressed his objections to the new church. Posting once again on Twitter--someone seriously needs to tell him to stop using Twitter--he said, inter alia, that "the 'ulama' agree that the building of churches in Muslim countries is haram"; that "the Arabian Peninsula is the domain of Muslims and churches may not be built in it"; and "the Arabian Peninsula is the cradle of Islam, and the sound of church bells cannot drown out the call to prayer." (The Manama Voice has a longer article here.)

Murad insists that al-Asalah will bring up the matter in parliament. Of course, objections of this sort from Bahrain's Sunni societies are not new. It was only recently that they clashed openly in parliament with Minister of Culture Shaikha Mai for her (what they deemed) overly-provocative "summer of culture" festival. Previous initiatives have centered around the banning of alcohol, crackdowns on prostitution, and of course the infamous Arab Big Brother television program that was filmed in Bahrain for only a short time in 2004 before being forced off the air due to public outcry.

In this case, however, the object of criticism would seem to be much more innocuous. In the first place, the location of the new church, 'Awali, is essentially a gated expatriate compound in the far south of the island (or, rather, as far south as you can go before hitting military fences). Absent the announcement, chances are no one would even have known the church was there, especially someone who lives on the opposite end of ANY ENTIRELY DIFFERENT ISLAND (Muharraq), as Murad does. Further, given that Murad just returned from Syria, a country notable for its until-now peaceful coexistence of Jews, Christians, 'Alawis, Sunnis, Druze, etc., it seems that he somehow left with the opposite lesson. Perhaps his friends in the Syrian Free Army wish to ban churches in Syria too?

Whatever the case, Bahrain's Internet tricksters are having a bit of fun with the faux controversy, as seen in the graphic at the top of this post depicting what appear to be Latvian Orthodox incarnations of Al Mahmud, Muhammad Khalid, Jasim al-Sa'idi, and 'Adal al-Ma'wadah.

Neither does King Hamad escape the photoshop treatment. Apparently some citizens predict that Bahrain's "commitment to cultural and religious openness" will soon extend to Tibetan Buddhism as well. This could make for an interesting situation, as it would likely spur criticism from the Chinese, from whose "interference" the Saudis would then need to defend Bahrain. So 2013: the year of the Sino-Saudi-Irano conflict?

The political analyst in me might be tempted to say that al-Asalah's recent expressions of religious intolerance--and threats to bring the matter into parliament--are somehow connected to the country's changing political dynamics. Perhaps the relative empowerment of Sunni groups in the post-February 14 period has afforded Murad and others greater independence from the state. In the end, however, al-Asalah's latest publicity stunt demonstrates only that Bahrain's formal political parties continue to do a poor job of representing ordinary Sunni citizens, the vast majority of whom I am confident have more pressing policy goals than the blocking of new churches--ending corruption, socioeconomic inequality, and unsustainable immigration policy, for starters. Is it any wonder why both al-Asalah and al-Manbar performed so badly in the 2010 elections?

At a time when most Bahrainis are eagerly awaiting King Hamad's annual Ramadan address for some sign of substantive political progress, Salafi MPs are waging political war on "deviant" religions in Bahrain, and physical war in other countries altogether. If such are its priorities, perhaps the group might do Bahrain the favor of recusing itself from any upcoming political dialogue, and leave the difficult task of social and political rebuilding to those sincerely interested in tackling it.

Update: So much for a dramatic announcement in the king's Ramadan/National Day speech (BNA summary). Quite far from it, as the biggest substantive discussions involved the OIC summit in Mecca, the Palestinian issue, which "is the central issue for joint Islamic action," and ending the violence in Syria. Strangely missing from this discussion of political action and crises elsewhere, then, was discussion of political progress in Bahrain apart from vague references to the importance of "dialogue." Video with English subtitles:

Update 2: An interesting story from Computer World oddly related to all this: al-Asalah's Salafi friends in Saudi Arabia are objecting to the creation of a variety of new specialized top-level domains (TLDs) for the Internet, including .gay, .wine, .porn, .sexy, .bar., and, wait for it, .bible. Their objection is quite odd, since it would be FAR easier to block content at the *.gay or *.bible level than to block millions of .com hosts serving up objectionable material.

Update 3: In light of the three-year prison sentence handed BCHR head Nabeel Rajab yesterday, perhaps we now know the reason for the postponement of sentencing for the rest of the opposition leaders. Namely, there is only so much bad news Bahrain wishes to give at one time. This New York Times article offers a fine summary of the case and, more usefully, connects the decision to King Hamad's recent Ramadan address. Unfortunately, Bahrain's "reformist" king is beginning to sound eerily like his uncle:
Mr. Jishi noted that representatives of several foreign governments, including the United States, were in the courtroom when the verdict was read. “They are sending a message,” Mr. Jishi said of the government, adding that a speech given by the country’s king earlier in the week — in which the monarch spoke of a duty to “protect peaceful, good-natured citizens who do not seek to usurp power” — reinforced the message. ...

In his address to the nation two days ago, the king again suggested that the protests in Bahrain were part of a foreign plot. "The kingdom of Bahrain has always remained throughout the ages a coveted place for the greedy, however, our people knew how to persistently tackle the enemy and to unite their ranks, consolidate their discourse and allegiance to the ruler and crush the ambitions of foes," he said.

The monarch added: "We have had to endure this year through challenging conditions due to hostile ambitions and foreign intervention which are yet to cease. We stood as united front in the face of strife mongers. We faced them with determination and persistent willpower as our duty and responsibility makes it imperative to defend this homeland, we will maintain our national unity and protect Bahraini people."
Update 4: Ken Katzman of the U.S. Congressional Research Service writes in Open Democracy on (the distinct lack of) "Security Sector Reform in Bahrain."

Monday, August 6, 2012

Bahraini Salafis Fighting the Infidels Wherever They Find Them

Murad (#2) showing up the Syrians with his ironically-long hipster beard

With the 2014 parliamentary elections a mere 28 months away, Bahrain's Salafi bloc al-Asalah is making a strong push for the hearts and minds of the country's God-fearing (and Shi'a-hating) citizens. Looking to improve on its disappointing performance in 2010, al-Asalah has adopted the Obama strategy of campaigning outside of your home country. Then-candidate Obama delivered rousing speeches in Berlin, London, and other capitals; al-Asalah is in Syria hanging out with the Free Syrian Army.

The above photo was posted to Twitter "from inside Syria" by two-term MP 'Abd al-Halim Murad, showing the latter along with al-Asalah's former head Sh. 'Adal al-Ma'awdah and current deputy Hamad al-Muhannadi. All are shown posing and breaking bread with rebel fighters.

More notable than this, however, is the language Murad uses (again on Twitter) to describe visit, which he says is in support of "the falcons of al-Sham [i.e., either the Levant or Damascus itself]" against "the hated Safavids" [i.e., Shi'a]:

The irony here hardly needs pointing out: al-Asalah, which has spent the last 18 months complaining of foreign interference in Bahrain's affairs, and of al-Wifaq's supposed collaboration with Shi'a groups abroad, is now openly--indeed proudly--involving itself in another country's political-military conflict in collaboration with co-sectarians. After campaigning to have al-Wifaq disbanded for violating Bahrain's Political Societies Law, which bars society members from also being affiliated with any "foreign organization," the bloc is now seemingly treading this same line itself.

The even greater irony, if such is possible, is that both al-Asalah in general and Murad in particular have turned their attention more recently to the political "interference" of the United States, especially via its double agents at Embassy Manama. One will recall, for instance, this photo from less than two months ago, captioned (in Al-Watan) with Murad's accusation in parliament: "[The U.S. ambassador to Bahrain] is either a Wifaqi or the ambassador for Tehran!"

Except, wait: who is it again that, according to a recent New York Times headline, is "focused on forcibly toppling the Syrian government," including via "increasing aid to the rebels and redoubling efforts to rally a coalition of like-minded countries?" That would be the United States. I'm afraid that for his next outburst in parliament Murad is going to need a larger sign, one big enough to fit the qualification: "Ambassador: Leave Us Alone (unless we're talking about Syria in which case it's fine but seriously stay out of Bahrain)."

On the other hand, all of this cross-border cooperation between Gulf Sunni Islamists in the wake of the Arab Spring should be fodder for an interesting research project for someone who wishes to undertake it--a sort of Sunni companion to Louer's Transnational Shia Politics. In the Bahraini case I am thinking, e.g., of Kuwaiti professor 'Abdallah al-Nafisi's address at a Sahwat al-Fatih rally during the February 14th anniversary festivities in 2012. But see also Kristian Ulrichsen's article yesterday on the recent crackdown undertaken in the United Arab Emirates, where it is not transnational Salafism but the Muslim Brotherhood that poses a challenge to the state.

Update: My sources inside Syria can neither confirm nor deny that al-Asalah's presence in the country precipitated the defection today of the Syrian prime minister.

Update 2: CNN Arabic has picked up this story in an article titled "Manama: Controversy Following Bahraini MPs' Visit to Syria." It lists a fourth individual--Faysal al-Gharir--as another al-Asalah member who made the trip. Aside from that, I had also forgotten that al-Ma'wadah is the current vice president of parliament, which the article notes. Probably not the best role model for Bahrain's budding democrats.

Update 3: The government finally speaks, though says little. A BNA statement:
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the entry by a number of Bahraini members of Parliament (MPs) to Syrian territories had taken place without any prior knowledge or coordination with the Ministry and without their having submitted any application for permission nor informing the Ministry ahead of that visit.

And emanating from the Kingdom of Bahrain's keenness on the safety of all Bahraini citizens abroad, the Ministry urged all citizens and officials in the Kingdom to avoid travelling to armed conflict zones and to take the necessary precautionary measures to ensure their physical safety which is of paramount importance to the Kingdom's Government.
Which boils down to: "Next time, let us know--and stay safe!" What, no Ministry of Justice investigation into al-Asalah? Shocker!

Update 4: In a public lecture in Hamad Town, 'Adal Ma'awdah tells of his harrowing exploits with the Free Syrian Army, including the time they ate lunch together, and posed for a photo together, and that other time they posed for a photo while eating lunch:

Update 5: Bam! Three months later, The Washington Post slams the U.S.'s entire Crown Prince Salman resuscitation strategy in Bahrain.

Update 6: Syrian state television has picked up on the Bahraini MP story, airing a 2 1/2-minute segment titled "Al Khalifa Terrorism in Syria":

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Bahrain Understands the Need for Further (Police) Reforms

All in all, it's a pretty good time to be the Bahraini royal family. In the past 18 months, it's successfully defended itself against one Irano-American coup (the uprising), one Saudi coup (GCC union), and, though somewhat less successfully, one internal coup (compliments of Khalifa bin Salman and the khawalid). Moreover, as seen from the graph above, the government has also been relatively successful in defending against undue media attention, though much of this is a result of competing storylines elsewhere in the region.

Thanks to Google, we can see that at only one time in the previous year has Bahrain (almost) stolen attention away from Syria and Iran (to say nothing of Egypt, which I couldn't even include here because it obscured the other results), namely during April's Formula 1 race. Since then, Bahrain has faded both from Google searches and more markedly from news reference volume (the lower half of the graph). Civil war in Syria and prospects of war with Iran are, I suppose, rather more interesting--and, more to the point, more likely to generate ad revenue.

The picture since the beginning of 2011 is even more revealing. Interest in Bahrain spiked, obviously, in February and March, and since then has largely been on par (in terms of Google searches) with Syria. Iran is of course far ahead. More notable, though, is the bottom half of the graph. Although overall INTEREST in Bahrain (as measured by searches) has remained more or less equal with that in Syria, its volume of NEWS COVERAGE has been considerably less save for, again, during the Formula 1. Even the release of the BICI report at the end of November 2011 generated almost no bump in coverage.

Finally, the picture is still starker when one looks at interest and coverage within the United States specifically. We see that among policy wizards in Washington, D.C., Bahrain comes dead last (excepting February and March 2011) in search frequency behind Iran, Syria, and even Yemen.

Among the results (or causes?) of this trend is that Bahrain's rulers have been under no effective external pressure to take seriously citizens' demands for actual political reform. Instead, as the title of this post suggests, substantive political changes have been off the table, replaced by a nearly single-minded concern for police reform. (Yes, I know that "Bahrain has successfully implemented XX of the BICI recommendations.") Don't get me wrong: stopping security personnel from killing, torturing, and otherwise harming protesters is great. But even better would be to begin to address some of the underlying concerns motivating people to take to the streets for the past decade or more. What about that? Bahrain's head of security reports that in the past year "more than 700" policemen have been injured in clashes with demonstrators. In other news, "over 9,000 people were bitten by rattlesnakes after smacking them around with sticks."

In fact, Bahrain has seemingly come to the very same conclusion, although its solution is different. Rather than avoiding police-demonstrator clashes in the first place by starting to reduce the number of reasons people have for demonstrating, Bahrain has simply banned demonstrations. That's one way to go. Strangely, this new initiative is not included among those listed by Bahrain's Ambassador to the U.S. Houda Ezra Nonoo in her op-ed yesterday in congressional favorite The Hill, titled "Bahrain Understands the Need for Further Reforms." (See what I did there? She also apparently has a blog.)

Aside from her obligatory mention of "my story – that of a Jewish woman who rose on her merits to the top of Bahrain’s civil society," Nonoo rattles off several factoids about post-BICI police reform, including that "21 different police officers, including a lieutenant-colonel," have been prosecuted for abuse. No mention of the nationalities of these individuals, however, or an explanation for why those responsible for directing not only the 2011 crackdown but also previous crackdowns throughout the 2000s have not been held accountable. Indeed, the only high-level official to be "reprimanded" in light of BICI findings, former NSA chief Khalifa bin 'Abdallah, was simply shuffled around in the cabinet, reappointed as an adviser to the king at the rank of minister.

Other police-related moves in the previous month alone include: a new investigation into 15 police officers; a separate investigation announced by Sh. Rashid himself into "violations of personal rights committed during security officers crack-downs on protesters"; and a high-profile visit yesterday by Crown Prince Salman (dressed in full regalia, no less) to the Interior Ministry's Officers' Club, where he urged police to excerice restraint in dealing with protesters. Reuters, which has a useful analysis, quotes him as saying, inter alia,
"Force should not be used unless all alternative methods to the security approach are exhausted, and there should be no discrimination in dealing with all citizens of all affiliation and sect."
The entire video is available for your viewing pleasure:

I presume this is Step 37 of Sh. Salman's political comeback initiative. Good luck with that. At least he is earning some fair reviews in Al-Watan, no small feat. (Update: and in The Wall Street Journal.)

On the other hand, perhaps there is a more simple explanation, namely that both the crown prince and Houda Nonoo enjoy the ability of precognition. Just a day after their coordinated PR effort, the group Physicians for Human Rights released a scathing report on the widespread use of teargas in Bahrain. The New York Times opens with the following:
Despite a pledge to stop abuses by its security forces, the ruling Sunni minority in the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain is engaged in systematic and disproportionate use of tear gas on its restive Shiite majority, permitting police officers to routinely fire volleys at point-blank range at crowds and into homes and vehicles in Shiite neighborhoods.
Somehow, that sounds relatively less positive than Ambassador Nonoo's op-ed.

Oh, right, and there's also that little thing called the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission Hearing on the Implementation of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry Report--to be held today with participation from, among others, Assistant Secretary Posner as well as Matar Matar. I wonder if that has anything to do with it?