Thursday, June 30, 2011

Bahrain to the Opposition: "Would You Like a Fact-Finding Commission to Go with That Dialogue?"

Spurred by months of international criticism and domestic political stagnation, the government in Bahrain is finally trying to piece things back together, or at least to give the appearance of doing so. This effort is aimed primarily at its observers abroad; though, as Laurence Louër points out in this excellent Arab Reform Bulletin piece, Bahrain's rulers are also attempting to make sure that they do not lose their relatively small but powerful constituency of long-time pro-government Shi'a families. (Hence, for example, King Hamad's June 21 personal visit to the majlis of the late Ibrahim Hamidan.)

The most obvious of these window-dressing measures is of course the July 2 faux National Dialogue, in which 300 mostly non-political delegates will talk over each other at the 'Isa Cultural Center and then submit their watered-down, least-common-denominator recommendations to King Hamad for a prompt filing in the circular receptacle, as my 5th-grade teacher used to say--that is, in the garbage can. For those further interested in this futile process, see the list of attendees recently published in Al-Wasat:


As noted before, of this five-column monstrosity, only the middle third column consists of participants from political societies. And, of these societies, only 2 of 15 currently have representation in parliament. So, all in all, the National Dialogue should prove an efficacious path to substantive political reform in Bahrain.

Yet the dialogue initiative is not alone. Indeed, over the past few days Bahrain has sought to address almost systematically each of the main criticisms levied against it for its handling of the post-February 14 period.

  • Just three days after a June 25 report that FIFA will be investigating Bahrain's arrest of players on its national football/soccer team, authorities very quietly announced the release of an unspecified number of detained athletes, along with all but 14 of the doctors and nurses facing trial (the trial is still on, however).

  • Five days after the widely-condemned sentences handed down by a military tribunal to Bahrain's 21 opposition leaders on June 22, authorities announced the transfer of some cases against anti-government activists (though not those of the doctors/nurses or the al-Wifaq MPs) to civilian court.

  • Two weeks after the U.S. Department of Labor agreed to consider a complaint by the AFL-CIO contending that Bahrain's March and April firings of those suspected of demonstration participation violated the U.S.-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement, the Bahraini government dispatched its Ministers of Labour and Industry and Commerce to the U.S. for meetings with--you guessed it--senior AFL-CIO officials along with those from the State Department.

  • News of the phased withdrawal of "most of" the Saudi military forces in Bahrain was conveniently leaked to Western media this week, while the Arabic press in Bahrain (e.g., Al-Ayam) continues to the deny the report, citing anonymous Saudi officials of its own.

  • Several weeks after agreeing "in principle" to a UN-led inquiry into Bahrain's post-February crackdown, Bahrain announces instead its own, government-sponsored but still "independent" commission to investigate claims of human rights abuses "by both sides"--that is, by the government and by protesters.

    While no one can question the integrity of those who will comprise the committee--all of them being very respected internationally--one must assume that the government has its reasons to prefer its own commission to one headed by a third party like the UNHCHR. If nothing else, it will be much easier to say "thanks but no thanks" to the recommendations of a group of people working at your own behest than to the United Nations.

    Nonetheless, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has already given her blessing to the committee. But, then again, how could she not?, what with Bahrain being a sitting member of the UN Human Rights Council and all. Along with Saudi Arabia. And Libya. And Russia. And China for God's sake. A real Who's Who? of human rights defenders.

About these clearly very deliberate PR moves by the Bahraini government two things stand out.

The first is that, at the same time that the authorities take pains to announce publicly their intention to investigate the acts of violence, vengeance, and injustice undertaken during the previous months, these same acts continue unabated. As I write, today's protest in Jidhafs organized by the February 14 coalition is being teargassed by riot police. (And tomorrow's rally in al-Diraz led by al-Wifaq may get a similar treatment.) Furthermore, the appeal hearing for the 21 opposition leaders due to take place this week has been postponed to a much more politically-convenient date in September, which avoids the need to announce the verdicts in the days before the National Dialogue, especially as the government attempts to woo al-Wifaq and its supporters. Finally, several more high-profile (and controversial) trials have still yet to go forward or issue verdicts, including the military trials of the 48 doctors and nurses; and of former al-Wifaq MPs Matar Matar and Jawad Fayruz.

Hence, at the same time that it is saying, "You know, we should really form a commission to investigate all the bad things that have happened," the same bad things are still happening.

The second observation one may make is that all the measures announced so far, including the National Dialogue and the "fact-finding committee," represent an attempt to return to the status quo ante, to the state of affairs prior to February 14, as if this everything after this date were a mere aberration. Thus the trials of "those responsible," the "national dialogue" to reconcile society, and a backward-looking investigation into "what happened."

The problem is that the question is not "what happened" but "what is happening." That is to say, the protests, if sparked in the immediate sense by events outside Bahrain, were a culmination of a political conflict that has been brewing for decades, and that is no closer to resolution (and will not be any closer at the conclusion of the National Dialogue, even if al-Wifaq does participate) than when protests began on February 14.

The government is acting as though all that remains is to dialogue in the coming weeks, finish up trials in the next few months, elect a new parliament in late September, release the findings from the "independent commission" sometime in October, and then things should be back to normal by the new year. Voilà!

Yet, as Toby Jones has recently observed, "Events seem to have gone too far and too fast for some kind of quick fix through talks." Dialogues and commissions, while nice, are no substitute for actual political reform to address actual political grievances of actual political constituencies. Unfortunately, as Louër argues in her Carnegie piece, the ever-expanding Sunni-Shi'i (and inter-Al Khalifa) divide occasioned by the February 14 uprising will render such a process that much more difficult.

Update: so it turns out that those reports that al-Wifaq would not participate in the National Dialogue because it "missed the deadline" for agenda submission were indeed wrong after all. Talking on BBC Radio (at 2:53) with Jane Kinninmont of Chatham House, two-term MP Jasim Husain says he expects al-Wifaq to announce its participation at its festival today in al-Diraz, which makes some sense since its title as announced on Internet fliers is "Our National Demands." (There is an 'Ali Salman press conference scheduled tonight for 7:30pm.)

Moreover, Sh. 'Isa Qasim today in his Friday sermon (audio; English summary) welcomed the king's fact-finding mission and paved the way for al-Wifaq's participation in the dialogue, saying that although the dialogue is not genuine, the group is under pressure to take part and that involvement would not be "a betrayal of religion," as one forum-goer summarizes. This should make for an interesting event today in al-Diraz, since many are not happy with the decision, likening it to al-Wifaq's agreement to participate in the 2006 elections that led to its splintering.

Finally, the Gulf Daily News reports some new details today on the format of the dialogue itself, which will include 181 (!) different agendas, 16 moderators, and four different "halls" (political, social, economic, and human rights). And decisions will be sought "through consensus rather than by taking a formal vote." Consensus among 300 participants from 100 different societies? That should be no problem, right?

Update 2: it's official.

4 comments:

  1. I like the quote you have about the battle of Karbala i think it proves you really know what your talking about when it comes to Bahrain and the role of religion and politics.

    On that note Yazids army on the left:
    http://twitpic.com/5ddoca

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  2. I read one of your previous posts. You say that Al-wefaq is seen my political analysts as "moderate" and "oppressed" and by not joining the dialogue they may lose this view. If this is true, then it is very likely Al-Wefaq joined the dialogue to ensure this view isn't lost.

    In the beginning of June they said the dialogue would end before August (Ramadan). This would be good for Al-Wefaq because it would quickly prove that the dialogue is a shame. However lately i haven't been hearing any news regarding the end date.

    I think the government could use the "dialogue period" to breath which could be a problem for the opposition.

    My question is when will the dialogue end date? Is it still before Ramadan (August)?

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  3. Hello,

    According to Bloomberg, "the forum ... will meet three times a week until the end of July." So they should be done by Ramadan and, indeed, only have 12 more sessions total. So 12 sessions divided by 181 submitted 'visions' means they only need to tackle about 15 agenda items per day!

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  4. The link is:

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-07-02/bahrain-begins-national-dialogue-between-opposition-loyalists.html

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