Friday, March 25, 2011

Will al-Wifaq Accept Kuwaiti Mediation?

Amid rumors -- and at this point just rumors -- that al-Wifaq will agree or has agreed to Kuwaiti mediation of the conflict in Bahrain, it is worth considering the likelihood of the scenario, and the extent to which it would offer a viable path out of the current crisis.

Kuwait signaled its willingness to serve as arbiter between the Bahraini government and opposition more than a week ago, with reports emerging to this effect as early as March 18. On March 21 the Kuwait Times reported that
A delegation of prominent members of Kuwait's civil community is awaiting instructions from His Highness the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah in order to travel to Bahrain to hold joint talks with members of the kingdom's leadership and opposition in order to avert further confrontation there.
This "civil community" delegation, says the article, would include leading Kuwaiti Shi'a figure 'Ali al-Matruk.

But how likely is such a Kuwaiti role in ending the political crisis in Bahrain?

On the one hand, one might suppose that Kuwait is rather well-positioned to play the part of peacemaker. Since the onset of demonstrations in Bahrain the Kuwaitis have attempted to toe the line between solidarity with Bahrain's government and protesters, a balancing-act driven of course by its own social circumstances--by the fact that Sunni-Shi'i relations there have remained, now as historically, relatively more amicable than elsewhere in the Gulf.

Thus, for example, Kuwait initially resisting contributing to the GCC's "Peninsula Shield" force, attempting instead to dispatch a medical convoy, which was at least initially refused entry at Bahrain Airport (sources disagree about whether it was eventually allowed to enter). Finally, after considerable political pressure from Kuwait's Salafi parliamentarians (as we discussed here), the country did dispatch a naval force, though it's not clear how many warships Bahraini protesters currently possess. The over/under on that is 0.5, and I'd take the under.

Yet in the end, of course the matter is not up to Kuwait. As quoted above, the delegation is "awaiting instructions"--that is to say, they are awaiting an invitation from Bahrain. How likely is it, then, that the Bahraini government and more importantly the opposition would agree to Kuwaiti mediation?

The events of today--what was billed as the Second Day of Rage--may offer some indication. It seems clear that the turnout failed to match expectations (despite a heavier-than-normal police presence), and that a large part of the reason was the position of al-Wifaq. Distancing itself from this Day of Rage II, the society said that it "affirms the need to protect safety and lives and not to give the killers the opportunity to shed blood." The thousands who gathered for the Friday sermon of Sh. 'Isa Qasim, accordingly, did not continue on to a customary post-prayer rally; they simply returned home.

As always seems to happen, then, we have seemingly reached the point where al-Wifaq and other (Shi'a) opposition societies diverge, with al-Wifaq opting for participation via the standard political channels, the latter groups continuing their rejection of the whole process on principle. Of course, with al-Musheimi', Sh. 'Abd al-Wahhab, and Ebrahim Sharif all in state custody, al-Haqq, al-Wafa', and Wa'ad are themselves operating with reduced organizational power.)

Even if it hasn't (or won't) agree(d) to Kuwaiti mediation, then, it is apparent that al-Wifaq will soon be heading back to the bargaining table. The question is how many are likely to follow them.

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