Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Death of Bin Ladin Somehow Fails to Solve Crisis in Bahrain

I'm now back in Washington; hence the lack of updates. From the way people have been reacting here, though, I would have thought that bin Ladin having been killed, in addition to incapacitating global terrorism and bringing gas back down to $50/barrel, would have somehow worked to solve the political crisis in Bahrain as well. Or it may just be that people are exaggerating the substantive impact of his death.

Anyway, after having been away from the news for a few days, three things seem to stand out.

First, the government strategy in dealing with "problem groups"--i.e., those that it would like to be rid of but cannot do so directly because it would garner too much (international) backlash--is now quite clear. And it seems to be a very effective one. This it has followed in at least three cases recently (bloggers, Al-Wasat, al-Wifaq) and another (the Bahrain Society for Human Rights) some time ago in September 2010. It goes something like this:

Step 1. Make a dramatic move guaranteed to earn criticism. (Example: arrest the most prominent of Bahraini bloggers, Mahmood al-Yousif; declare that Al-Wasat will be shut down; move to outlaw al-Wifaq).

Step 2. Once backlash has sprung, clarify that the earlier move was simply a misunderstanding! (Example: Mahmood just came in for a chat; Al-Wasat is not being shut down, just being reorganized; al-Wifaq is not being "dissolved," just being referred to the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs for "investigation.")

But at the same time, while attention is focused on the primary action, continue to enforce the substance of the move elsewhere. (I.e., arrest other, lesser-known bloggers in addition to Mahmood al-Yousif; arrest Mansur al-Jamri, deport anti-government columnists, and install a pro-government editor at Al-Wasat; move to arrest al-Wifaq members.)

Step 3. Wait for international media interest to wane after moderation of the original move while reaping the benefits of the less noticed actions/arrests.

Step 4. ???

Step 5. Profit!

The reason I bring this up now, of course, is that two members of al-Wifaq, Jawad Fayruz and Matar Matar, were arrested Monday. Among other things, I guess this explains why certain al-Wifaq resignations were accepted and others not. Probably not coincidentally, the resignations of MPs who speak the best English and on the best terms with foreign media and missions were those accepted, conveniently stripping them of their parliamentary immunity. And now authorities are taking advantage.

The immediate cause of the arrests is unknown (or indeed whether they are even under arrest; no one seems to know where the two are). Perhaps the government was not happy with al-Wifaq's response (via Sh. 'Ali Salman and Sh. 'Isa Qasim) to the announcement of the death sentence of the four protesters. The arrest of the two MPs, then, may be a message to al-Wifaq's clerical leadership, which if not untouchable is much more difficult to prosecute directly.

At the same time, moreover, we hear today the inevitable: that Al-Wasat is finally to close altogether, barely a month after the administrative coup that toppled its main editors and, equally, its credibility among readers. The last edition will appear on May 9, according to Reuters, whose source says that the closure comes "for economic reasons[;] the commercial viability was gone." This may be true strictly-speaking, but its commercial viability is only gone because its former subscriber base has fully abandoned it after the government takeover.

So on all accounts the government got what it wanted from its strategy above: Al-Wasat will close without being "shut down" officially; al-Wifaq members have been rather quietly arrested, setting a precedent for future crackdowns on the group; and of course the "predation" of foreign media and Internet users continues unabated.

The second thing that stands out from the past few days is the continued pressure by U.S. interest groups for a change in policy toward Bahrain. A few weeks ago, the group Physicians for Human Rights protested the detention and persecution of medical workers treating protesters at Salmaniyyah Hospital. (Incidentally, the government just announced that 23 doctors and 24 nurses will be tried on this account.)

Now, the AFL-CIO is getting into the mix, demanding the suspension of the U.S.'s free trade agreement with Bahrain in order to "send a strong message to Bahrain's leaders that 'their actions are moving in a very dire direction,'" according to the deputy director of the groups's international department.

How sad, then, that ordinary American citizens are more concerned about the political crisis in Bahrain than the U.S. State Department?

Finally, and relatedly (in that it illustrates why the latter should be more worried), the festering stalemate in Bahrain continues to shape regional Gulf politics in troubling ways. Amid rumors of the possibility of a permanent GCC military base in Bahrain (why not turn Bahrain into one big military base, really?), there is a timely article in Foreign Policy titled "Ahistorical Kuwaiti sectarianism" by a former Gulf Fulbright colleague, Lindsey Stephenson. The conclusion of the piece is that:
Kuwait will not become Bahrain in terms of outright violence, but if media in Kuwait continues to draw lines in the sand between the sects, these lines could very well become perforations over time, and perhaps more quickly if tensions in Bahrain continue to escalate. For a country located between the poles of Sunni and Shia Islam, a weakening of Kuwaiti national unity could translate into unwanted meddling and a loss of autonomy for the whole.
So, if Bahrain is shaping up to be the new Iraq, wouldn't it make sense to try to avoid another Bahrain?

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