Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Winning the Battle, Losing the (Media) War: Hunger Strike Edition

It seems that the Western media and senior U.S. officials have finally realized that the problem in Bahrain did not miraculously solve itself--go figure. Helped no doubt by the lack of (or backward) progress in Libya, international attention has once again been re-focused upon Bahrain, and once again the Bahraini government is getting slammed in the press. And, relatively-speaking, by Hillary Clinton, who spoke specifically of Bahrain's need to accelerate political reforms in her speech at Tuesday's opening of the U.S.-Islamic Forum in Washington.

Not only this, but everyone knows that the traditional media are suckers for hunger strikes, and Zainab al-Khawajah's seems to be doing the trick, getting wide coverage at CNN (who since its journalists in Bahrain were arrested probably needs no excuse to run an anti-Bahrain story), the New York Times, and elsewhere. (Also, it doesn't hurt when her sister, Maryam, braves secret service to accost Hillary Clinton after her speech in Washington.)

Further, it's clear that almost a half-dozen people dying in your prison in less than 2 days is also something you should try to avoid if you're an authoritarian government. Especially if the people who are dying are facing ambiguous charges, haven't been given access to lawyers, appear as if they've been beaten and/or tortured, and if you're attempting to give the impression that they are the terrorists.

The two most recent casualties, for example, were a blogger, Zakariya al-Ashiri, and a businessman associated with al-Wifaq, Kareem Fakhrawi. The latter disappeared a week ago after failing to return home from a police station "where he had tried to complain about his house being demolished by police." What can you say about that?

Last but not least, the New York Times is running a page 1 article today on the embattled Salmaniyyah Hospital, which is described as "an apparatus of state terrorism":
At least a dozen doctors and nurses have been arrested and held prisoner during the last month, and more paramedics and ambulance drivers are missing. Ambulances have been blocked from aiding wounded patients, according to health care workers and human rights advocates.
(For those who write in to say I am biased: I am aware that this is a contested interpretation. The article linked here contains the government's side of the story as well, so find it there.)

Yet for all this renewed media coverage, I would wager that what really has begun to turn the tide in favor of a stronger U.S. position on Bahrain is the realization that, as I wrote some weeks ago, if the main driver of U.S. policy here (apart from the whole navy base thing) is its fear of Iranian influence growing in the region, the best way to make sure that Iranian influence DEFINITELY grows in the region is to allow a Mideast-wide Sunni-Shi'i split to fester as a result of political stagnation in Bahrain.

Not only this, but the lingering conflict has created new international divisions (GCC versus Lebanon, GCC versus Iraq) and altered power relations (a seemingly more unified and U.S.-independent GCC) that did not exist previously. Indeed, with oil at $130 a barrel, the GCC states may begin to feel that the West needs them as much as or more than they the West.

Thus we see today that GCC countries are demanding the cancellation of the upcoming Arab summit because it is to be held in Iraq, whose Shi'a politicians and population have been rallying in support of Bahraini Shi'a in recent weeks. Bahrain has already strained relations with Lebanon for pro-Shi'a statements by Hizballah leaders, cutting air routes to Beirut and deporting Lebanese nationals in Bahrain for "security" reasons, a move that has forced Sa'ad Hariri to go to Bahrain personally to attempt to mend relations.

More generally, as aptly captured in the title of this al-Arabiyyah piece--"War of words over Bahrain rattles region"--it is clear that the crackdown in Bahrain has only made the Arab Gulf and wider Middle East MORE rather than LESS vulnerable to Iranian "meddling," as we like to say. Bahrainis know it, we here at Religion and Politics in Bahrain know it, and it seems the Obamaman is coming to know it. Now if we could just convince the Pentagon...

All of this bodes rather poorly for the Bahraini (or Bahraini Arabian) government, or at least for its continued unchecked lock-down of the entire island. The problem is, once the government finally comes around (or is pushed back) to the negotiating table, who will be there to meet them from the opposition? And who from among the Bahraini population--from those who have been harassed at checkpoints, fired from work, whose family members have been arrested, injured, or killed--are likely to be satisfied with what the state is offering? And if they're not, what are they going to do about it? The current situation has the look of a vicious circle.

Update: see also the previous editions of this fan-favorite segment:

Winning the Battle, Losing the (Media) War (the original)

Winning the Battle, Losing the (Media) War: Al-Wasat Edition

Update 2: As noted by an intrepid commentator, my suspicion that we are beginning to see a subtle change in the U.S. position gets some evidence in this statement overnight (for me) from the State Department, which offers the diplomatic trifecta: "we are deeply concerned ..."; "we'd strongly urge the government of Bahrain to ..."; and "we call on the Bahraini government to ..."


  1. Hi, I was trying to find a way to contact you privately...I am wondering if you are available to speak to the media?


  2. Very good analysis. Thanks.

  3. Do you have a twitter account ? we need you on twitter , good job Justin :)

  4. It seems the article has made its way around Twitter without my help.

  5. Ah yes but we need to add your distinctiveness to the Collective

  6. Interesting article.

    The great Cairo speech of Obama was intended to destabilize Iran.

    But ever since that speech all US allies (off course not so good people but still better than Iran) are destabilized while Iran stands strong and mighty suppressing its unrest.

    That is the ironic big picture.

  7. @Anonymous: Indeed. It also helps when your two historical threats on either side (Iraq and Afghanistan) have been taken care of for you.

  8. Thanks Justin. Bahraini people needs your help. The Bahraini government I mean Saudi army and Pakistani police are killing people for no reason only because they are Bahraini's. And lying to the media. Most of Bahraini in the villages stay at home most of the time keeps doors closed suffering from their own government because they are demanding some of their rights. Thanks again and please help Bahrain and Bahraini people.

  9. Also interesting in light of statements by the US State Dept expressing deep concern about deaths of detainees. Is the US going to crank the pressure up a notch?


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