Monday, December 31, 2012

When What Happens in the Villages Doesn't Stay in the Villages

While conducting my survey of Bahraini citizens in 2009 I spent a good amount of time in the island's (mainly Shi'a) villages, attempting to convince potential respondents that my field interviewers and I were not government spies and so on. As a consequence, I was afforded an interesting opportunity to witness first-hand village life, and the everyday difficulties that this geographical, socioeconomic, and in many ways political isolation entails.

One elderly villager in the seaside Shi'a enclave of al-Malikiyya told how he was banned from fishing in the bountiful waters adjacent to the village when large palace compounds were erected all along the Western coast. When asked about a dilapidated fence blocking what looked to be a beach in Sitra, villagers recounted how a young boy had drowned when sand was illegally dredged from the shore, creating a steep drop-off. The fence, they said, was the municipality's solution. And, in the northern village of Karranah, a resident complained bitterly that the police themselves refuse to enter unless to make an arrest or to chase away teenagers burning tires. Even in the event of a simple car accident, he explained, exasperated, the police demand that villagers themselves drag the damaged vehicles to the main (al-Budaiyi') road for examination, so that any facts of the incident gained by observing the wreckage or through interviewing witnesses are necessarily lost.

As a result, many of the Shi‘a villages, though the capital and most ministry headquarters be but five miles away, have learned to operate to a startling degree independently of the state, referring disputes to local notables, aiding poorer residents through the local village charity, and undertaking infrastructure repairs and construction. They also, as one might expect, have come to have little trust in the state's various agents, in particular the police--and this well before their brutal role in suppressing the February 14 uprising. Several questions in my 2009 survey asked respondents to indicate their level of trust in several government institutions, among them the police. Predictably, Shi'a respondents expressed little confidence in the latter, with only 7% indicating "a lot of trust" in the police and only 25% even a "moderate" level of trust. Instead, nearly half of all Shi'a respondents said they had "no trust at all." And this, again, was nearly two years before February 2011.

In stark contrast, very few Sunnis--a combined 15%--expressed anything less than "moderate" trust in the police. Indeed, the police earned more trust among Sunnis than any other institution inquired about in the survey save for the prime ministership. (The others were the parliament, political societies, and the courts.) This too is perhaps unsurprising, given the survey's other finding that 13% of all Sunni households had at least one member (husband or wife) employed in the police or armed forces.

Of course, it may also have something to do with the fact that, with the exception of Ebrahim Sharif, Mohammed Al Bu Flasa, and a handful of others, Sunni citizens are not regularly and needlessly harassed, insulted, and/or assaulted by police. Even apart from the disproportionate involvement of Shi'a in protest and opposition activities, the extreme isolation of many/most Shi'a communities would seem to embolden police, encouraged by presumed anonymity and impunity to adopt the slogan of another sin city: "What happens in the Shi'a villages stays in the Shi'a villages."

Except, that is, when someone records it on a cell phone camera and posts it to YouTube. In that case, you get the following, which France24 has dubbed "the police slap heard all over Bahrain." The setup according to the cameraman:
That day, Haider was on his way to visit his aunt, who lives very close by, which is why he didn’t have his papers on him.

The neighbourhood where his aunt lives was full of policemen, because Bahrain was preparing to host the Gulf Cooperation Council summit [on December 24 and 25] and the government feared that protests might take place.

What you don’t see in the video is that a policeman first stopped Haider’s car and asked him to step out of the car. Haider agrees, but refuses to leave his child alone in the car. The tension is palpable, which is why the eyewitness decided to film the scene from his window [the video begins before the father enters the frame, as if the cameraman was indeed waiting for something to happen].
And the video:

The Interior Ministry has since been reported to have detained the offending officer, presumably to reprimand him for drawing negative attention to the country's now-reformed police force (not to be confused with reprimanding him for slapping the villager). Conveniently for Bahrain, this also coincides with another legal case against "rogue" policemen.  Yesterday two officers were given seven years in prison each for the beating to death of Kareem Fakhrawi, who in April 2011 dared to complain to police about the demolishing of his house by... the police. For those keeping track, the seven-year sentence is only three times shorter than the 25-year sentences handed to several of the opposition leaders last June by closed military tribunal, and about infinity times shorter (infinity divided by 7) than the life sentences given to 'Abd al-Wahhab Hussain, Hasan al-Mushaimi', Muhammad al-Miqdad, 'Abd al-Jalil al-Singace, and four other main opposition figures.

So it's been a great week for evidence of police reform in Bahrain.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

National Day in Bahrain: Yet Another Thing People Can't Agree Upon

Although Bahrain formally gained independence from Britain on August 15, 1971, it marks its National Day--technically, "National Day and Day of Coronation"--on December 16, the day on which Sh. 'Isa officially assumed the throne. In protest of this seeming desire to elevate the monarchy above independence, members of the opposition (and probably others) routinely mark a shadow "National Day" on August 15 and deride that celebrated in December.

Thus has some poetic Bahraini photoshopper hit upon the following pun addressed to King Hamad: "The people wish you the best seat [jaloos] on the occasion of Coronation Day ['eid al-jaloos]."

And, on the other side, a National Day paean to King Hamad's sons Nasr and Khalid, who express their patriotism the old fashion way: by jumping out of an army helicopter:

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

With New Plans for Dialogue, February 14 Uprising May Come Full Circle

How fitting it would be if Bahrain's uprising were finally resolved in the same manner in which it originally was not resolved--with a political deal brokered by the crown prince--an appropriately absurd result to highlight even more starkly how far the turmoil, bloodshed, and political posturing of the previous two years accomplished *literally* nothing.

The most decisive moment of the uprising was of course the two days March 12 and March 13, in which time Sh. Salman failed to coax opposition leaders to the bargaining table despite offering a generous seven-course menu of thorny political issues that he, and by implication King Hamad, was ostensibly prepared to discuss.  Al-Wifaq demanded the government first agree to an elected constitutional assembly empowered to revise the 2002 charter, and got nothing.  The ill-fated Coalition for a Republic demanded--well--a republic, and got thrown in jail.  And, finally, senior Al Khalifa conservatives demanded that the king's son (as my friend Jeremy Cochrane's dad used to say) stop horse-assin' around, and got in touch with their friends from Saudi Arabia to help put an end to all that crazy dialogue talk.  

Now, nearly two years later, history may be on the brink of (hopefully not) repeating itself, with Crown Prince Salman issuing a surprise call for renewed political talks at last week's appropriately-named Manama Dialogue conference.  While some criticized the event both for its percieved legitimation of the government's position as well as for the seeming lack of attention on Bahrain at a forum on regional security (I will acknowledge that I underestimated its usefulness and, later, the seriousness of Sh. Salman's announcement), it seems--and I've heard from some who would know--that Bahrain was indeed on the agenda.

Sh. Salman's Speech

Of course, the sudden transmutation of the crown prince into a relevant political figure in Bahrain does not guarantee that this latest attempt at dialogue will fair any better than the last.  There are, however, some reasons to be encouraged.  In semi-particular order:

1.  A senior and (more or less) neutral royal is finally taking the lead.

Following Sh. Salman's very public March 2011 failure, the government set out to ensure that it would not be embarrassed again.  To this end, its choices of sponsor for subsequent dialogues--or what it called dialogues--were either powerless to broker any actual agreement (Khalifa Al Dhaharani, during the National Dialogue); or so uncompromising that it could be sure not to lose face (Sh. Khalid bin Ahmad, earlier this spring).  The problem with Al Dhaharani, and with the entire National Dialogue, should be clear enough.  The main problem with Sh. Khalid was that he was hopelessly partisan: not only does he despise the opposition (and Shi'a generally), but he is an active supporter of one segment of the Sunni counter-opposition.  This leads directly to encouraging sign number two.

2. Bahrain's Sunnis will not be excluded.

The most recent attempt to restart dialogue sponsored by Sh. Khalid ultimately was scuttled because it was stuck in the old paradigm of backdoor talks between the government and opposition.  Entirely excluded from the negotiating table, that is, were representatives from Sunni society, and this despite Sunnis' decisive role in checking the momentum of the uprising in February and March 2011.  Upset that the state would seek to negotiate without their input, the National Unity Gathering and Sahwat al-Fatih both rallied against the still-theoretical dialogue, and it was never to be heard from again.

By contrast, the crown prince's new initiative will reportedly take the form of "a conference on human rights that would bring together Shia and Sunni parties and pave the way for a political dialogue." 'Ali Salman also is said (in the same Financial Times article) to have agreed to three-way talks.  Certainly, many Sunnis will continue to oppose on principle any government talks with the opposition.  They will (and, as will be discussed shortly, already are) decrying the weakness and stupidity of a government that negotiates with "terrorists."  Yet, as demonstrated already in the case of Sh. Khalid's failed initiative this spring, a sizable proportion of Bahraini Sunnis will welcome the opportunity to articulate their own political grievances and vision, something they have not often had the occasion or liberty to do.

3. The United States is not involved.

Somehow, the crown prince was able to achieve a two-for-one coup at the Manama Dialogue.  If his plan to resume talks remains the top headline, not far behind is his alleged "diplomatic flap" and "public slap against Washington" (per the Associated Press).  As described by Simon Henderson,
U.S. diplomats at the conference ... were surprised when [the crown prince -- ]previously seen as the royal family's leading reformer -- failed to mention the United States by name when listing allies that have provided critical support during the disturbances. He also spoke of countries that "selectively" criticize Bahrain's leadership, without citing specific examples.
Aww SCHNAP! Not citing examples? I bet he didn't show his work either.

Henderson continues,
Meanwhile, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who led the U.S. delegation, emphasized "the urgent challenges of Iran's reckless behavior." On reform, he stated, "There is no one-size-fits-all approach to such transitions or reform processes; much will depend on local circumstances and the quality of local leadership." However, he also noted that "Long-term stability, and enduring security, depend on the full participation of all citizens in political and economic life; the belief of all citizens that their peacefully expressed views are heard and respected; [and] the conviction of all citizens that they share a stake in their country's future." In the email text of the speech distributed by the State Department, the three mentions of the word "all" were each in bold type.
Ya, that's right, you heard him: bold!

Like others, Henderson concludes that "[t]he exchange suggests that the gap in perceptions between Washington and Manama is as wide as ever"; and that, "[g]oing forward, two dangers threaten U.S.-Bahraini relations. The first is that Iran will attempt to further weaken the relationship; the second is that Washington has made seemingly little effort to repair it."

All together, now: GOOD!  If there is one sure-fire way to derail any attempt at political compromise in Bahrain, it is by involving--or even hinting at the involvement of--the United States.  Do we somehow need to be reminded of the "Ayatollah Obama" columns in Al-Watan?  And of the National Unity Gathering rally against the quadrilateral terrorist axis of Iran, al-Wifaq, Hizballah, and the United States?  And of the defense minister's explicit claim of a U.S.-Iranian conspiracy behind the uprising?

In fact, I would hazard that this public "affront" is a bit of well-calculated political theater aimed at (1) ensuring Bahrainis that the U.S. is not involved in the crown prince's initiative; and (2) distancing him from the U.S. altogether--indeed, maybe even earning him a few points with (the mainly Sunni) critics of American "interference" in Bahrain.  It is certainly a more clever crown prince comeback plan than sending him home from Washington with a few spare helicopter parts and humvees.  And since the State Department has already tried that twice, and failed twice, perhaps a change of strategy is even to be expected here.

4. The formal opposition is on board but remains defiant.

Here we have another delicate balance that must be achieved if dialogue is to succeed or even proceed: the formal opposition (i.e., al-Wifaq) must remain defiant enough to be seen as representative of and, from the state's perspective, in relative control of the protest movement, while at the same time not so provocative as to aid in the (inevitable) mobilization of security-minded citizens and royals against the intitiative.  'Ali Salman's fiery but still moderate speech last Friday--in which he lectured and corrected those chanting the familiar "down with the regime" slogan--is seen to indicate that al-Wifaq has now grasped the importance of this dialectic.

As you see from the following video excerpt (others are on al-Wifaq's website here), his voice says pissed off and maybe a bit crazy, but his words say coherent and reasonable.  That's what al-Wifaq needs to aim for, as eventually they will (if talks are successful) be asked to convince their own constituents to accept the deal they have bargained. (You can follow the opposition forum debate over his speech here.)

It looks like al-Wifaq and the rest of the formal opposition will keep the pressure coming, with another (now-illegal) rally planned for Friday titled "The People's Demand is Democracy":

5. Hardliners are flipping out. 

Finally, perhaps the most encouraging sign that Sh. Salman's new dialogue initiative may actually come to something is that security-minded citizens and Al Khalifa conservatives are already desperately rushing to the offensive. Indeed, Al-Watan's editorial page today is going an impressive 4-for-4 on anti-crown prince dialogue stories, including one by anti-American specialist-turned-editor-in-chief (and personal spiritual and menu adviser of this blog) Yusif Al Bin Khalil.  In another, Hisham al-Zayani asks, "What is the price of dialogue?" Still another by Faisal al-Shaikh is titled "America to al-Wifaq: Don't bring down the system, but!," and seems to be getting good play on Sunni message boards, which are filling up with posts about "the coming dialogue." A final article by Sawsan al-Sha'ir also focuses on alleged U.S. sponsorship of the proposed talks. (And this is AFTER Sh. Salman's "public slap against Washington"!  Do I require further evidence for point #3 above?)

Thus, if one assumes that this vehemence is roughly in proportion with perceptions of the likelihood that Sh. Salman will succeed at least in initiating talks, then one should be fairly optimistic.  With his out-of-the-blue resurrection, the crown prince has caught Al Khalifa hardliners off guard.  

Of course, it goes without saying that Sh. Salman still faces an uphill battle.  Whether Saudi Arabia would accept any political reform next door at a time when it faces its own domestic challenges--and a looming decision regarding succession--remains a question.  So too is the U.S.'s willingness to exert real pressure against potential spoilers within both the Al Khalifa and the Al Sa'ud.  I am told that, from the tone of U.S. participants at the Manama Dialogue, U.S. patience may indeed have reached a breaking point, and that unusual and potentially important meetings took place.  I suppose we shall have to wait and see.

Update: 'Ali Salman talks to the BBC (with audio), suggests British mediation if talks with crown prince fail.

Freelance journalist Reese Erlich, whose reporting from Bahrain has recently been made an NPR segment, now has a new three-part series in The Global Post called "Bahrain: The Forgotten Uprising."

Update 2: Good stuff from The Economist:
More tellingly, Sunnis are no longer mere cheerleaders for the Al Khalifas. Inter-sect marriage rates are still sharply down, but the boycott Sunnis waged on Shia merchants is petering out. Sunni thugs who went on pogroms armed with swords have retreated back to Muharraq, an island suburb of Manama. And many Sunnis are increasingly voicing the same socio-economic grievances as Shias. They gripe about the lack of affordable housing, the low pensions, utility hikes and the ruling family’s penchant for grabbing land and power. “We feel the Al Khailfas are defending their own interests, not Sunnis,” says a member of the National Unity Gathering, a Sunni caucus. Ten of the 22 cabinet posts are filled by royals. The country’s prime minister, an uncle of the king, has spent 41 years on the job, longer than even Libya’s late Colonel Qaddafi.

So nervous do the Al Khalifas seem of their people—Sunnis and Shias alike—that they disinvited both from a security studies conference held earlier this month in the capital. The organisers opted for pliable migrant worker drivers to ferry delegates, not local ones who might speak their minds. And while giving the podium to Syria’s Sunni opposition, they kept Bahrain’s Shia ones safely away with road-blocks defended by armoured cars. Fittingly for a conference called the Manama Dialogue, Bahrain’s supposedly reformist Crown Prince launched the event with an appeal for an internal dialogue as “the only way forward”. But given that few of his subjects were present, it seemed primarily aimed for international consumption.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

If the World Got Serious about Gulf Reform, Who Would Buy Our Stuff and Host Conferences?

In a world of tightening state budgets and immense citizen scrutiny over government spending, the Gulf states have exploited the practical advantages of non-democracy to carve out a useful niche as hosters and buyers of things whose traditional sponsors and markets are either already saturated or simply no longer willing or able to spend the money.  Climate change conferences, advanced weapons systems, security forums, university campuses, luxury goods franchises, international sporting events, football clubs--these are just a few of the items that Gulf governments have found it useful to buy, rent, host, sponsor, and otherwise front the cash for.  This of course is a win-win situation for everyone, as Western companies and organizations secure sales, funding, and continued existence, while otherwise obscure countries in a scary-sounding region can introduce themselves to international audiences, gain a bit (or a lot) of good PR, and in some cases perhaps even a return on their investment.

Such endeavors may also, of course, work to the immediate or indirect benefit of Gulf citizens, as in the case most obviously of local branches of Western universities.  Yet, in case one should make the mistake of imagining that this--benefiting ordinary citizens--is the primary aim here, one need only look at Bahrain's recent embrace of American musicians (and good-looking people who happen to be dating American musicians and/or athletes but whose profession otherwise is unclear) in its latest attempt to show just how normal things are nowadays in Bahrain.  Here is where the aforementioned organizational advantages enjoyed by Gulf governments comes into play.  In the first place, the state's budget (and actual income, and spending) is anyone's guess, and in any event is not subject to public debate.  For the one who thinks this or that is a waste of money: too bad, that isn't your concern.  Second, and relatedly, who are you to tell us how to spend our resources?  Are you smarter than this $500/hour market research company we just hired to help improve our international image?  Ya, that's what I thought.

The December 1 visit of Kim Kardashian is especially illustrative because it's not clear who exactly wanted here there apart from teenage girls, Bahraini royals, and others willing to drop 500BD (~$1,250) for a seat at a private reception.  Certainly, the opposition was not impressed with the visit, which it considered a legitimation of the state's recent escalation of repression.  As Marc Lynch tells in a Foreign Policy column yesterday, the BCHR sent a critical open letter to Kardashian inquiring about her professed plans to meet with "local leaders." (See also the Washington Post's coverage here.)

But, as the video and photos below show, it was not simply the opposition that opposed the plan but also many Sunni Islamists, which organized a large protest in Al-Rifa', the sight of one of Kardashian's public appearances.

One sign, picked up by the NY Daily News, read: "[N]one of our customs and traditions allow us to receive stars of porn movies." (Bahrain's Sunni web forums similarly saw heated discussion about the appropriateness of Kardashian's visit.)

Interestingly, among these "porn movies" was a contribution by the Gulf Daily News, whose story on the visit achieved an impressive boob-to-text ratio:

Even Islamists in parliament attempted fruitlessly to block Kardashian's visit, whom, according to Al-Arabiya, they "describ[ed] ... as a woman with a 'bad reputation.'" The MPs, Sky News reports,
submitted an urgent proposal at the end of a parliamentary session where they referred to her as "an actress with an extremely bad reputation." ... But the motion was dismissed because other MPs [presumably government allies] quickly left the chamber.
Silly parliamentarians, thinking they can actually alter policies with which they disagree!

Fortunately, some in the United States are now openly questioning the complicity of international stars and organizations in forwarding the public relations agenda of countries such as Bahrain.  Already, the State Department canceled the planned upcoming "diplomatic tour" of some guy named Andrew W.K., who, as recounted in another informative Washington Post story,
announced on his personal Web site [in November] that “The US Department of State in partnership with the US Embassy in Manama, Bahrain, has invited Andrew to visit the Middle East to promote partying and positive power.” It continued, “Andrew will begin his journey sometime in December, 2012 and will visit elementary schools, the University of Bahrain, music venues, and more, all while promoting partying and world peace.”

The Post story continues,
Andrew W.K. tweeted late Sunday, “Shocked by the confusion over my trip to the Middle East? It’s NOT fake! I really am going there to party!” The Huffington Post reported he would be a cultural ambassador; W.K. later hinted that preparations had been ongoing for a year.

It now turns out that there was actually some truth to W.K.’s claims, though the State Department’s version of events is significantly different, and perhaps more plausible. It’s difficult to tell for sure, but it appears that what may have begun as a quiet event got blown out of proportion by a rock singer new to the subtleties of diplomacy, probably dooming the event, if it hadn’t been canceled already.

“And here I thought we were going to get through this whole briefing without that point coming up,” State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland sighed when a reporter asked this afternoon about the W.K. confusion. ”So we had a Bahraini entity that approached the embassy about co-sponsoring a visit by this guy, who I take it is pretty popular there in Bahrain,” she said. “That was initially approved, and then when more senior management at the embassy took a look at this, the conclusion was that this was not an appropriate use of U.S. government funds.”
Now, bravely, Marc Lynch is (respectfully) questioning the wisdom of another high-profile international event-cum-public relations boon sponsored by Bahrain, namely the annual Manama Dialogue forum organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Last year's event was canceled amid BICI scrutiny, yet the 2012 event is set to kick off on Friday. Perhaps it is too late to change things now, but Marc's words deserve repeating in any case (and unlike Marc, I need not worry about a snub next year, as I am not allowed in Bahrain anyway):
The 2012 Dialogue is scheduled to begin on Friday, December 7. It boasts "the highest concentration to date of policy-makers involved in regional security," including "world-class journalists, experts and business leaders" (though not, presumably, Kim Kardashian). Canceling the Dialogue last year was the right call. I would like to see a case made for the value of resuming it this year, given that it sends a signal to the policy elite that it is once again legitimate and normal to do business in Bahrain. In terms of the rehabilitation of an unrepentant regime, what is the difference between resuming the Formula One race after a one year suspension, visiting to promote milkshakes, and convening a high profile regional policy forum?

I do not mean to single out the IISS, an organization for which I have great respect. In past years, by all accounts, the Manama Dialogue has been an outstanding event of its kind (full disclosure: I've been invited before but was never able to make it). But if we are going to hold Kim Kardashian to account, shouldn't we as a policy community do the same for ourselves? At the least, let's hope that the journalists and policy wonks who do take part in this regional forum take Maryam al-Khawaja up on her call to find the time during their visit to meet with activists and to draw attention to Bahrain's human rights and political issues.
Yes, that--and take Andrew W.K. up on his call for PARTYING, POSITIVE POWER, and of course WORLD PEACE!  (Not to be confused with Bahrain peace.)

Update: Kristin Smith Diwan breaks down Kuwait's post-electoral slide toward sectarian politics. If you're asking what that has to do with Bahrain, you missed this.

Update 2: An odd piece from two days ago that I just came across now in The Huffington Post.  It is written by a "research and advocacy officer" of the BCHR, and its opening paragraph reads,
While some commentators [with a link here to a blog post by me] have recently been ringing the death knell of the Bahrain uprising, there is one place where the Bahraini government and their apologists have entirely failed to impose their authority: online. Given the recent complete banning of public protest in Bahrain, online dissent has become increasingly important to a revolution that refuses to go away.
This is odd not only for the suggestion that I am a linkworthy "Bahraini government apologist," but also because the article in which I supposedly "ring[] the death knell of the Bahrain uprising" is, of course, online, where we are told "apologists have entirely failed to impose their authority." So: my post is at once a representative (and one presumes reasonably influential, if it is singled out here) piece of apologia, but at the same time entirely without influence or authority. Very strange.

The final bit of oddity comes later in the article in paragraph six, where Lubbock paraphrases a section from my dissertation regarding the ubiquity of Ahmad Al-Fatih--in fact, the bit: "al-Fätih" ( الفاتح ; literally, "the opener, conqueror") is copied directly.  Once again, it is odd that a non-authoritative Bahraini government propagandist could provide useful background material for an article decrying Bahraini government propagandists.

Update 3: A Bahrain riddle: if Crown Prince Salman calls for political talks where no opposition representative can hear him--say, in a closed-door meeting with foreign ministers at the Manama Dialogue--does he make a sound?

Update 4: Apparently the crown prince's call for renewed talks was serious after all, or at least 'Ali Salman is under that impression.  Reuters reports that the latter has been contacted "indirectly" but does not know when the talks would/will take place.  Speaking to Reuters, Salman said that al-Wifaq would enter dialogue without preconditions but wants a popular referendum on any deal.  Somehow I don't see that happening.