The Washington Times, which seems for some reason to have the inside scoop on all the pro-government news stories coming out of Bahrain, is reporting that well-known pro-government Shi'i cleric Sh. Muhsin Al 'Asfour has announced (from "his home in the affluent village of Saar"; wait, what??) the creation of a new political society to cater exclusively to pro-government Shi'a, one that aims effectively to fracture Bahraini Shi'a more systematically into pro-government and anti-government camps. Though he has not revealed too many details as yet, including the name of the new society, he says it does plan to run candidates in "selected constituencies" in the upcoming by-elections, i.e. in the wealthier Shi'a-populated districts (around 'Isa Town maybe?).
Al 'Asfour also has some rather nasty things to say about al-Wifaq and especially about 'Ali Salman:
"The question is what would happen if Wefaq came to power, especially acting on a foreign agenda,” he said, echoing government allegations of the party’s ties to Iran."Garbage?" Ouch!
“The answer is that we would end up somewhere along the lines of Lebanon. Bahrain would enter into a dark phase.”
Sheik al-Asfoor called Wefaq’s leader, Ali Salman, a religious lightweight.
“He went to Qom [the Iranian holy city] for seven years and worked as an office boy. He was regarded as a joke there,” Sheik al-Asfoor claimed.
“He wears the turban in Bahrain, but he used to wear pants and a shirt. He’s garbage.”
While Sh. 'Ali Salman is indeed no religious "heavyweight," Al 'Asfour's critique of Salman is a bit of a cop-out, since as he knows the de facto religious leader of al-Wifaq is not he but Sh. 'Isa Qasim. And, as the following Wikileaks cable makes plain, there he is quite over-matched. A cable from August 2008 (also here) evidently written by David Letterman reports the "Top Ten Shi'a Clerics in Bahrain," sorting them in terms of "Rank," "Influence," and "Scholarship," where closer to 1 is higher. This list is as follows:
- Sh. 'Isa Qasim (1, 1, 1)
- Sh. Hussein Najati (2, 2, 3) -- since stripped of his citizenship
- Sh. Muhammad Sanad (3, 10, 2)
- Sh. 'Abd al-Jalil al-Miqdad (4, 6, 4) -- serving a life sentence
- Sh. 'Abd al-Hussain al-Sitri (5, 7, 7)
- S. Jawad al-Wada'i (6, 3, 9)
- Sh. Hamid al-Mubarak (7, 8, 5)
- S. 'Abdallah al-Ghurayfi (8, 5, 8)
- Sh. Ahmad Al 'Asfour (9, 4, 10)
- Sh. Muhsin Al 'Asfour (10, 9, 6)
So, he is a pro-government cleric whose little influence comes from his family name and is widely perceived as being corrupt or at least economically (and politically) opportunistic. Al-Wifaq would seem then not to have so much to worry about. As Toby Jones is quoted as saying in the Washington Times piece, "a party led by Sheik al-Asfoor [sic] would be lucky to get one or two seats and would be more likely to take votes away from pro-government Sunni candidates than from opposition Shiite ones."
Still, the move is a clever one, as it puts more pressure on al-Wifaq (and perhaps on Wa'ad as well, which has also just decided to boycott) to take part in the upcoming by-elections, for fear--unrealistic or not--that its support may be undercut by a new competitor fishing explicitly for Shi'a votes. Well played, Bahraini government!
While we are on the topic of new Bahraini political societies, we cannot help but mention the new London-based Bahrain Justice and Development Movement--the Turks called, and they want their party name back--begun by the excommunicated members of al-Wifaq who've set up shop in London, including former MPs 'Ali al-Aswad, Jasim Hussain, and Muhammad al-Mizal. The aim seems to be a more serious and less bombastic alternative to the other London-based opposition movements, the Bahrain Freedom Movement and Khalas.
As implied above, this goes far in explaining the recent revocation of al-Wifaq membership of individuals outside the country. Their website (which is already blocked inside Bahrain) says that the group "was created just one month ago." So the timing makes sense.
Finally, we may point out that the Qataris seem to have caved to the Bahraini pressure about the powerful documentary "Shouting in the Dark," which was slated to be re-aired this week on Thursday and Friday. The New York Times is reporting, however, that "Al Jazeera English has squashed several planned rebroadcasts":
The decision this week to halt the repeats raised concerns among Al Jazeera’s staff members that the channel was succumbing to political or diplomatic pressure from Bahrain and its ally Saudi Arabia.Indeed, I was just at a public showing of the other recent Al-Jazeera English documentary--part of the "Fault Lines" series--and those present from Al-Jazeera insisted that political pressure from the Bahrainis would not alter the network's behavior. At least we can all take comfort in the inevitability of the Barbara Streisand effect in this case.
Oh, and by the way the U.S. also signed a five-year extension to its defense pact with the Bahrainis through 2016. Of course they did.
Update: a reader points to a Bahrain Mirror article with new information about the long-rumored Bahraini government-produced documentary said to be in the works and obviously meant as a counterpoint to the "fabrications" of the Western (and Qatari) media. It is reportedly to be produced by an unnamed "Spanish company." One can hardly wait.
Also, al-Wifaq's weekly rally #9 will take place Friday "between al-Sahla and Bu Quwah," wherever that is supposed to be. The flier is once again a disappointment. It's like they're not even trying anymore.
Update 2: I forgot to check Al-Watan English before I posted this. I almost missed out on this astute article from Yusif Al Bin Khalil, who asks what everyone is wondering: "Why is Qatar against Bahrain?"
Update 3: the February 14 are, as always, spurning al-Wifaq and holding a rally of their own. It is scheduled for Friday night in Sanabis, but the flier asks, "Do you want to return to Martyrs' Square?," which is interesting because the U.S. Embassy demonstration notice notes that "On Thursday, August 11th, there will be a march to the GCC Roundabout (formerly known as the Pearl Roundabout)." So I suppose "Friday night" means LATE Thursday night. Either way, I can't imagine they will be allowed easily to exercise their "right of return," as they call it. First the U.S. Embassy and now this. It seems the February 14 folks are looking for a fight wherever they can get it.
And here are your marching orders, in case you missed them:
Update 4: F. Gregory Gause has a great article in Foreign Policy on the "sectarianization" of the Arab Gulf, in particular of the Saudi-Iran rivalry.
Update 5: It appears that tonight's march to the Pearl Roundabout is not going so well..