Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Dialogue is Dead. Long Live the Dialogue.

Today marks the final session of Bahrain's National Dialogue, which ended on an appropriate note with a special session dedicated to ex-patriot participants. This is appropriate, of course, in that it highlights how ridiculous the whole process was. The end result?: if you would believe the Bahrain News Agency, at least, a set of "recommendations" reached by "consensus" that would "further enhance the powers of the elected parliament." The newest of these measures as per the BNA are the following:
  1. "The presence of ministers will be required when MPs debate issues related to their respective ministries"; and

  2. "MPs will be able to question ministers during the parliamentary sessions rather than in specific committees. The Parliament will be entitled to initiate discussions on any theme in addition to the agenda."
So, assuming these "recommendations" were to be accepted by King Hamad, ministers would actually have to show up to parliament when issues under their purview are discussed; they can be questioned in the general assembly; and discussions won't be limited to agenda items.

All of which revisions are very nice; but unfortunately none of them even approaches the heart of Bahrain's political impasse, which revolves around the opposition's demands for an elected government, electoral redistricting, and empowerment of the lower house vis-a-vis the Shura Council. If these sound familiar, it is because al-Wifaq has invoked these demands explicitly in the names given to its weekend "festivals." One was a rally for "Fair Districts" and one was for "An Elected Government":



Yet, as the BNA notes, "Delegates did not reach consensus on a number of further suggestions, including whether the Shura Council should be granted the same powers as the Parliament, and whether the responsibility for law-making and oversight should be restricted to the elected chamber." Imagine that. In the end, then, whether or under what circumstances parliament can question ministers is a secondary matter compared to the method of selection of those ministers; the process by which the parliament itself is elected; and whether or not any parliamentary decision regarding the ministers can simply be overturned by the appointed upper house.

Moreover, as discussed previously, the most far-reaching "recommendation" to emerge from the National Dialogue is not even any of these newest ones cited above, but an earlier one. Nearly a week ago the Gulf News reported that "[p]articipants agreed that the king should choose the prime minister who will select his ministers, a change from the current situation where the monarch appoints the prime minister and the ministers." That is to say, more fundamental than the modalities of questioning ministers is the appointment of ministers in the first place, which delegates have suggested be moved from the king's prerogative into the domain of the prime minister.

It is at this point that we would do well to recall the next stage in the National Dialogue, which is codification of some or all--or none--of these suggestions by royal decree from King Hamad. Does anyone want to bet how he will deal with the suggestion to transfer the appointment of ministers to his uncle? (On the other hand, I think it goes without saying that, should he indeed agree to such a concession, one would have to conclude that his intra-family position is even more vulnerable than is now assumed.)

In order to punctuate just how far the National Dialogue failed to resolve any of Bahrain's problems, al-Wifaq and the National Unity Gathering held yet another set of dueling rallies over the past few days. Al-Wifaq's took place on both Friday and Saturday. The former was the latest edition of al-Wifaq's "Our National Demands" festival. Lebanon's Daily Star quotes 'Ali Salman as saying, "Our demands remain the same. An elected government, elected parliament, one vote for each citizen and independent judiciary." The Saturday event featured the heavyweight combo of Sh. 'Isa Qasim and S. 'Abdallah al-Ghurayfi, speaking about the destruction of Shi'i mosques as part of the post-February crackdown.

The counter-rally of the National Unity Gathering, on the other hand, happened Monday night in 'Arad, with organizers claiming a 50,000-strong turnout. The purpose of the meeting, according to one of its organizers in a statement to Al-Watan, was "the issue of the National Dialogue and the positions the Gathering adopted with respect to its overall vision for comprehensive reform in the Kingdom, in addition to its vision for the future." A more cynical view from the Bahrain Mirror is that the gathering aimed to "intimidate other national constituents [i.e., al-Wifaq] who are demanding an elected government." As evidence of this is offered the conspicuous presence of 'Adel Flaifel, a once-feared colonel in the Bahraini state security service relieved of his duties in 2002 after pressure from human rights organizations accusing him of torture.

An intrepid photographer has uploaded some shots from the rally here.
While it does not seem to have featured anything as striking as a 20-foot banner with the flags of the U.S., al-Wifaq, Iran, and Hizballah (such as that of two weeks ago in Busaiteen), judging by the posters held by some of the participants, there must have been a healthy dose of U.S.-bashing. We have this guy, for example, with his imaginative and colorful "No to the [U.S.'s] New Middle East" sign.


There also seemed to be a healthy contingent of Saudi flags, as well as a reporter from Al-Arabiyyah. I wonder if anyone from the opposition is decrying this blatant Saudi interference in Bahrain's sovereign affairs?

I for one would have liked to see a nice-sized flag made from the following graphic floating around on pro-government forums and Facebook pages, showing the al-Wifaq logo along with that of the Third Reich. This photoshop, which gives new meaning to the already-terrible term "Islamo-fascism," is part of a new pro-government series with the slogan, "ash-sha'ab yurid isqat al-wifaq." Which is catchy.


The real reason for this article, though, and the inspiration for its title, is speculation--originally reported in CNN Arabic but now given longer treatment at the Bahrain Mirror--that King Hamad is already mulling "a new initiative to solve Bahrain's crisis," hopefully one with a non-zero chance of succeeding. (Of course, aside from any new public "initiative," there are almost certainly discussions ongoing behind closed doors, likely including representatives of al-Wifaq.)

The CNN Arabic story cites
reports that [the king] plans to issue a message to the people of Bahrain before the end of this July that will probably include a new initiative for a new phase of reform.
It continues,
With no clear details of the new political initiative, observers say there are indications that it will include the return of all fired from their jobs without exception, as well as the release of a number of prisoners.
(On this account, note yesterday's high-profile release (Arabic here) of Muhammad Al Bu Flasa, a Sunni (Salafi, no less) who disappeared just hours after giving an anti-government address at the Pearl Roundabout on February 15. His release now comes presumably after his completion of a 5-month terrorist re-education (and de-Shi'ification) program such as the governments in Yemen and Saudi Arabia give to former members of al-Qa'ida.)

Members of the opposition, however, do not seem sanguine about the chances that the king's address in the run-up to Ramadan is likely to go beyond the "visions" (i.e., recommendations) resulting from the just-completed dialogue. The Bahrain Mirror quotes former al-Wifaq MP 'Ali al-'Ashiri as saying in response to the reports,
The visions are obvious things, and probably the king's speech will just include some ready-made points known to them [al-Wifaq] beforehand, like the things agreed to at the Dialogue, such as a review of the electoral districts.
He continues:
The call for dialogue doesn't correspond to the situation in reality and on the street. There needs to be progress toward the political and security situation in the country before the [dialogue] initiative. No initiative can succeed without these preliminary steps, which were absent from the first version of the dialogue.
Whether or not the speculations of CNN Arabic are correct that the king will announce a new dialogue initiative, it is clear that the regime will attempt to persuade observers that the just-commenced Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) into the post-February crackdown is yet another step down the road toward political and societal reconciliation. Indeed, the Gulf Daily News reports today (in all caps no less) that "ALL WILL BE REVEALED," this according to the prime minister. And the BICI even has its own website, so you know it's really going to get to the bottom of things.

If I may be so bold as to predict the outcome of the investigation, it goes something like this:
  1. The government did X, Y, and Z wrong.
  2. But the protesters did A, B, and C wrong.
  3. So really both sides were partially at fault, and what Bahrain needs is some sort of process to reconcile the two wronged parties (proceed to National Dialogue #2!).
And so the saga continues.

Update: for those who have questioned (in the comments) my closing predictions with the argument that the BICI's mission does not extend to violations by protesters, you may wish to see the Bahrain New Agency's coverage of the National Unity Gathering's 'Arad rally, which it uses as an opportunity to not-so-subtly hint at exactly this point. Indeed, the entire coverage of the demonstration highlights only the need for an inquiry into demonstrators' behavior:
Thousands of people braved the heat last night to attend a massive rally in Arad called by the National Unity Assembly.

Its chairman Dr Abdullatif Al Mahmood used the event to welcome an independent inquiry into Bahrain's unrest and urged participants to report any rights violations to its own fact-finding panel, to be submitted to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry.

An independent inquiry into Bahrain’s unrest has been urged to probe alleged violations by political movements.

That was one of the key messages to out of a rally attended by thousands in Muharraq last night.

It was organized by National Unity Assembly and its chairman Dr. Abdullatif Al Mahmoud said any investigation must look into claims that certain political groups were involved in disrupting health and education system denying key rights to citizens.
So, are we still convinced that my prediction is so off?

Update 2: The king has just given his anticipated pre-Ramadan speech about the Dialogue, the (English) text of which is here. In true Arab Gulf fashion, the only operative paragraph seems to be the following, which announces new economic benefits for public sector employees (rather than, say, political reform):
As we are aware of the economic challenges we have to live with, and as we are keen on upgrading the citizens' standards of living, we ordered the government to take the necessary actions regarding increasing salaries of civil, military and retired government employees and to expedite the other matters pertaining to all citizens' living that have been included within the National Dialogue views.
He also seems to imply that the "reforms" agreed at the Dialogue will indeed be undertaken: "In order for the national consensus views to materialize by activation through our constitutional institutions, we have ordered the executive and legislative authorities to take the necessary actions." But this statement seems somewhat vague perhaps due to translation.

Update 3: The Bahrain Mirror has a good analysis of the implications of the new "reforms"--namely the transfer of the power to appoint ministers to the prime minister from the king. It essentially makes the same point we've been making here.

19 comments:

  1. Lol... I really enjoy your insight. Thanks Justin. شكرا جاستن. How do you write your name in Arabic?

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  2. Depends. Bahrain Mirror spells it without any long vowels (http://bhmirror.hopto.org/article.php?id=1459&cid=79), but in Yemen I used to put an 'alif after the j like you do.

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  3. Here's a little prediction for you, based on the fact that I've known the king and his entourage since we were all teenagers, although I've not seen them for a number of years and am still "behind the veil" so to speak. Shaikh Khalifa will retire to his residence in Saudi Arabia, and Hamad will appoint his cousin and current Minister of the Royal Court, Khalid, as the new P.M., a job he has long coveted. That's change you can sure believe in.

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  4. I think real change is not important, what is more a national security priority is the containment of Iran's wholly owned subsidiary, Al Wefaq, and its minions. I believe under the all so godly name of democracy and civil empowerment we will just be increasing the channels for them to further penetrate and undermine the nation. Let us be careful and appreciate that the Hezboallah-hugging crowd that follows Al Wefaq, are hardly the Jeffersonian democracts of the day. What lurks beneath is a sinster puppet show, where the strings run all the way back to Tehran.

    Dialogue, investigation, change in PM or govt, all irrelevant. What is relevant is how does Bahrain keep doing what its doing, while containing and controlling this evil. Having the US Navy's 5th Fleet is one way, Saudi's having your back is another, but we need more, much more internal control.

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  5. No surprises there with the dialogue not producing any actual "suggestions". Personally I'd keep an eye out for the Commission of Inquiry.

    @Sal Rahim: Ah yes, the "evil" Iran and Velwyat Al-Faqih, and Hezbollah, and their sinister plot to control the world through Bahrain, and the story of their secret alliance with the US and Israel. Guess you're not too bored to write up about this conspiracy again, eh?

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  6. I do not subscribe to the whimsical theory that there is a US and Israeli alliance underpinning the Iranian hand in Bahrain. That is an argument that is on weak ground.

    However, plenty of precedent and indication of Iranian support for their wholly owned subsidiary, Al Wefaq. Never bored or tired of defending my nation and its royal establishment, just being a good citizen.

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  7. @Anonymous: Well, if your prediction is correct, that's some good inside information.

    However, Khalid bin Ahmad is not exactly the king's cousin. They are from quite different parts of the family tree altogether, as you'll notice from the diagram here:

    http://www-personal.umich.edu/%7Ejgengler/docs/al.khalifah.family.tree.pdf

    Second, I understand that the PM is close to the Saudis, but if he were going to retire why wouldn't he just retire to his huge private island resort of Jiddah off Bahrain's western coast?:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jidda_Island

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  8. Sal Rahim never stops amusing us with his beautiful Iran conspiracy theories.

    Reminds me of John McCain's song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o-zoPgv_nYg

    Perhaps a newer version is needed... Bomb, bomb bomb; bomb, bomb Wefaq. Bomb, bomb bomb; bomb, bomb Wefaq!

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  9. Well, there is essentially such a slogan already (the one cited in the article):

    الشعب يريد اسقاط الوفاق

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  10. Ouch, all great until the conclusion. How did you miss the part where the commission said they will only be looking into government transgressions, and nothing to do with individual protestor actions.

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  11. Yea, well, you can't win 'em all. That said, the underlying prediction stands.

    Indeed, Bassiouni himself seems to be trying to let people down gently before he even gets started. Reuters quotes him as saying:

    "The risk is that there are too many high expectations of what we may be able to accomplish."

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/07/24/us-bahrain-investigation-idUSTRE76N2LP20110724

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  12. Justin that quote on Bassiouni's part relates to the rest of his statement which refers more to the implementation of the recommendations the commission will put forward. He has not in anyway downgraded the work he and his team will be doing. Basically if it is a factor that he can control he will deliver, I believe he was referring to the more exogenous conditions in this equation.

    Besides, Bassiouni and his work, should be nothing more than a footnote to the real and underlying initiatives being taken to ensure that Iran's wholly owned subsidiary in Bahrain, Al Wefaq, is weakened and kept in check. Unlike Syria or Libya, the only solution to Bahrain's problems is a security one. No different to the communist threat or fascist threat or right wing extremist threats that the West once faced from within. Or as our Norwegien friend has shown, might still even exist.

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  13. @Sal: Right about Bassiouni. His next sentence in the quote is: "It becomes a matter of internal significance to act on the recommendations."

    I didn't mean that he or anyone on the commission--whose members seem to be universally in high regard--will not attempt a thorough or non-partisan investigation. As you say, "if it is a factor that he can control he will deliver."

    Yet, isn't it the point exactly that there will inevitably be many things out of his control, which he is here recognizing? The procedure here is a repeat of the dialogue: come to some conclusions, submit them as recommendations to the king, and wait to see whether he will act on any of them. Like everyone else, Bassiouni recognizes that this is not necessarily a formula for success.

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  14. Justin - if you did basic research on the BICI, then you would see how far off you are on your predictions. They are here to look at human rights violations since Feb committed by the government and its agents of operation during the state of national security. So they won't be blaming protesters for anything. Also I think - more out of ignorance of the people involved and the kind of work they do - you seriously underestimate them. You are not alone. Many here in gov and military are in for a monumental shock.

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  15. Perhaps, although, again, Bassiouni's statement that "[t]he risk is that there are too many high expectations of what we may be able to accomplish" doesn't sound like he's preparing to shock and awe.

    I hope I am wrong in any case.

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  16. The shock and awe has already happened and passed. That was the appointment of an independent commission to begin with, the act itself should be viewed as reconciliatory. Never in the history of Bahrain, or any Mid East state for that matter, has such a step been taken. This is a new precedent, I hardly see the dictator of dictators in Syria or Yemen taking such a step. Think regal, think polished.

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  17. Not exactly shock and awe if they are serving at your pleasure. Appointment of a binding arbitration committee from the UN would have been more like you describe.

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  18. its very hard to trust a committee from a king who doesn't keep to his words, there so much history and betrayal between him and ppl.
    and the first order of business by the committee has not been implemented yet (return sacked workers)i dont think the king will implement anything from their report especially if it incriminate one of the royal family members.

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  19. I love this kind of reporting. Although it is a serious problem we are going through, Justin's angle on it is always full of humour and wit. More enjoyable to read than the gloom and doom we have reported here. To ALL my Bahraini compatriats, chill out and wish the best for the Country and ALL the Bahrainis. God Bless you all

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