Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Why Didn't We Think of This Before?: A Pro-Government Shi'a Party!

The Bahraini government would seem to be so pleased with the favorable outcome (from its perspective) of the National Dialogue that it is taking the principle to the next level. If the main lesson there was that you can effectively fight dialogue with more dialogue--that is, drown out the voices of the actual political opposition by inviting everyone and his cousin to the discussion table--then why not extend this notion to Bahrain's wider political arena? Well, why not?

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.

“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.”
"Garbage?" Ouch!

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:
  1. Sh. 'Isa Qasim (1, 1, 1)
  2. Sh. Hussein Najati (2, 2, 3) -- since stripped of his citizenship
  3. Sh. Muhammad Sanad (3, 10, 2)
  4. Sh. 'Abd al-Jalil al-Miqdad (4, 6, 4) -- serving a life sentence
  5. Sh. 'Abd al-Hussain al-Sitri (5, 7, 7)
  6. S. Jawad al-Wada'i (6, 3, 9)
  7. Sh. Hamid al-Mubarak (7, 8, 5)
  8. S. 'Abdallah al-Ghurayfi (8, 5, 8)
  9. Sh. Ahmad Al 'Asfour (9, 4, 10)
  10. Sh. Muhsin Al 'Asfour (10, 9, 6)
Not only does Muhsin Al 'Asfour thus sit at the bottom of Bahrain's Shi'i clerical hierarchy (though I guess he's bumped up a few spots now by default as others are deported and jailed), but his "Influence" rating is a mere 9. Further, the description of him (which might by now be out of date) is equally unflattering:

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..


  1. Justin, this all seems too convenient (the BJDM). I almost feel like al-Wefaq has come up with this idea of setting up something in the UK under a completely different name to bring attention to Bahrain's happenings so that it is not accused of contacting foreign countries or anything like that.

    I must say; rather smart..

    As for the pro-government Shi'a party, I'm actually pretty glad its happening because some of the sectarian rhetoric in Bahrain will decrease. At least now we can clearly say, "Look! It's the issues; not the sect!"

    Thank you government.. another successful move!

    You may also find this interesting, which you've probably looked at already:

  2. No, I hadn't seen this story, though I heard that the government was making its own documentary.

  3. AlJazeera English is now saying that they will be airing the documentary on thursday with a roundtable discussion.

  4. Khalifa Bin Salman 2, Everyone Else still 0

    Since the wholly owned Iranian subsidiary, Al Wefaq,is stealing names for its new satellite office in London, I thought I would do the same. Sorry Justin.

    Al Asfoor would do better to get himself and his followers joined with Al Mahmouds national unity gathering. That would be a far more effective message than what he is trying to do.

    He called Ali the office boy Garbage? This is the stuff of tabloids! Love it.

  5. Sal.. ever so optimistic and Prince Khalifa loving. Lol! What would we do without you.. Indeed, a day without a post from Sal, is like a day without laughter.

    I notice your posts have become much shorter to our disappointment. Less things to laugh about.

    It seems like you are aware of Bahraini politics, and as you know, this sell-out has no political following. In fact, his position is rather vulnerable and will end up making a fool of himself like Dr. al-Magabi did.

    Anyhow, your tribalism and injustice will fall & shatter into history's garbage. This barbaric Middle Age tribalism will end Mr. "wholly owned Iranian subsidiary".

    Justin, you, once again, missed the February 14 rally. This time, it's in Sanabis:

  6. Ah, I knew I missed it but couldn't find the flier in the 5 minutes I looked last night. I guess I should just save their Facebook page.

    Anyway, if they are in Sanabis, and al-Wifaq is in Bu Quwah, who is planning a rally at the Pearl Roundabout then?:

    Demonstration Notice- August 10, 2011

    - On Thursday, August 11th, there will be a march to the GCC Roundabout (formerly known as the Pearl Roundabout)"

  7. Justin thank you for the update on the February 14th terrorist group. A name that echoes no differently than a group once known as Black September, different month, same terror.

    This is a militant division of Iran's wholly owned subsidiary in Bahrain, the image they try to portray is that they are separate. But no two snake heads, part of the same body.

    Nonetheless, this terrorist organization needs to be hunted down and neutralized. Their prevailing shadowy existence is an indication of their cowardice as it is a reflection of the inadequate and ineffective intelligence and security apparatus we enjoy in Bahrain. But then again infiltrating terrorist organizations does take years, how long did it take the US to find and kill that s.o.b OBL?

    No one should understand better our challenge with this menace to civilization than our allies. Feb 14th in Bahrain is what 9/11 is to the US, what 7/7 is to the UK, and or what the Brevik attakcs are to Norway.

    The government should up its game a notch and start deploying internationally accepted anti terror tactics against Feb14th, and even some that are border line acceptable - rendition, waterboarding, targeted assassination, and indefinite detention as a minimum. Extreme but we have our own war on terror that demands an unequivocal response. Tear gas is not enough with these street rats that is the truth, or to borrow my favorite phrase from our friend Sheikh Al Asfoor, "garbage"

  8. @Sal: Really, we get it. It's more useful when you're offering your "inside information." Any of that you'd like to share? Where were you on this 'Asfour story?

  9. Asfoor's actions are as you simply put it opportunistic. However, they are sanctioned and backed by royalty and thats all that matters. He has been asked to step up to the role his family has historically played as pro-govt Shia and like a good son he has obliged.

    I personally think that anyone with the slightest bit of intelligence and understanding of the local political scene will see right through it! Not credible.

    What would be credible is for the national unity gathering to start including Shia in highly visible roles and then going after the elections.

    On another front, since you ask about inside info, I can assure you negotiations between King, CP and Wefaq, are proceeding positively. Big annoucement before election nomination deadline.

  10. Don't you mean: between King, CP, al-Wifaq, and 'Asfour? Haha

  11. No, Justin.. I think he means King, CP, wholly owned Iranian subsidiary al-Wefaq, and the good son al-'Asfour.. Lol.

    What a joke.. Terrorist organization? If I remember correctly, the 9/11 attacks, the 7/7 attacks and the Norway attacks were by people killing others and the state hunting the killers down.

    So perhaps in this case, the killers would be the state apparatus and the people would begin a terrorist hunt and hunt down the state? Please clarify Mr. IRAN IRAN IRAN (aka let's all bow down to our "father", the king).

    Oh.. and we already have worse torture techniques in Bahrain than what you describe. We also do have an anti-terror law Mr. Prince. Lol..

    Bassiouni is continually being criticizes by opposition leaders.. Here's another piece by AbdulHadi Khalaf:

    In addition to the piece by Nabeel Rajab:

    Wait, before you comment Mr. IRAN IRAN IRAN.. Let me guess.. They're Iranian minions and terrorist backers? Yes, as Justin put it.. We got it ;-)

  12. And Justin, to answer your question about the march to Martyrs' Roundabout, it will start on Sanabis from where the February 14 group is gathering Thursday night and will move towards the roundabout. That's why they chose Sanabis.. It's one of the closest villages to the roundabout. So the US embassy's information is accurate:

    "On Thursday, August 11th, there will be a march to the GCC Roundabout (formerly known as the Pearl Roundabout)."

    I like how the US embassy puts it "(formerly known as the Pearl Roundabout)", as opposed the government rhetoric of.. "It was always called GCC roundabout." Yeah, right..

  13. Hi Justin,

    My question is about democracy in the arab world in general but specifically Bahrain. I read an article in the foreignpolicy saying that it would take 60 years before a website like freedomhouse would call us "free" or "democratic".

    That is to say that democracies aren't built in a day and that there are many struggles ahead. Do you think that would be true in Bahrain. Would we really need to wait 60 years before our country would be truly democratic?

    To me democracy is in the blood of Bahrainis. We've been fighting for it since 1880.

  14. Solid article as always Justin. Just out of curiosity, how many readers are you getting per day?

    @Sal: I can't believe someone as 'smart' as you would suggest that the National Unity Gathering should include Shia Muslims. Do you have any idea how many of their hardliner followers will they lose by this move? It goes against the entire idea behind their "gathering" to begin with, it was and still is supposed to represent the "Sunni Muslims of Bahrain".

  15. Our TGNOU are also organising a demonstration in Muharraq Friday after the noon prayer , against the brutal attack on protest in Syria, they want to deport the Syrian ambassador:

    There is no word if this is a "cars" march, but I doubt anyone would this distance.

    The Syrian Embassy is in Mahooz , not Muharraq. But it seems this TGONU are not able to orgnize any event outside their "base".

  16. * I doubt anyone would (walk) this distance

  17. Maybe that's why they're doing it at night!

  18. @Anon: around 200 on non-post days and 300-500 on post days. The "Bureaucratic Mix-up" article was especially popular and got around 800. (This is unique readers and not "hits.") During February, March, and April, though, it wasn't uncommon to go above 1,000. Back then, though, BahrainOnline would have ~5,000 people online at once (according to their statistics), compared to less than half that now.

  19. Oh wait you said after noon prayer. Sorry. I was thinking of the Feb. 14 march to the Pearl.

  20. That's funny about the Syrian Embassy protest in Muharraq. If I recall correctly, though, the Syrian Embassy is quite close to the U.S. Embassy (I used to live around the corner in Umm al-Hasam). Perhaps they were worried about their followers going for a little post-rally rally in front of the American Embassy..

  21. Interesting article Justin! Well in regards to Mohsin Al- Asfoor's attitude, the majority of Bahraini Shiias do not respect him because he is one of the government's servants. He and his family get benefits from the government ( cash, lands, high posts in gov). What is more essential to Shiias is where the person stands, the quote you are posting on top of your blog says it all, he selected to be in Yazid's Camp and I am sure nobody will vote for him except his family members. He would not dare run for election if the government would not have ordered him to do that.

    Regarding the gathering near the Syrian embassy, it shows how racist Sunnis are. They encouraged and celebrated the killing of protesters in their Country but they are protesting against the same crime in Syria!! Is killing Bahrainis justified just because they are Shiias, and killing Syrians is unacceptable because they are Sunnis?
    What had happened in Bahrain since 14 Feb made me more convinced that the pro-governments are really acting like salves of the king and they would go to the extreme and be criminals just to satisfy him. In the long run Bahrain will be run by Al-Qaeda Mobs and I am sure the USA interests will be their first target. We will see another copy of Ben Laden!

  22. Lailat iljum'a (sorry no Arabic keyboard) - lailat here is used like Christmas eve, meaning the night before. Don't know if that's just a Bahraini use...

    Mohsen Al-Asfoor's credibility in the Shia community is practically nill, after this I've even heard calls from people demanding matams and mosques to turn him away- I don't think that will happen but he certainly holds no sway.

    I really hope these negotiations between the King, CP and Wifaq are more than rumour- but I wonder why now? why did we have to have the charade of the national dialogue first? And if they are finally happening, I wonder if the prisoner releases are in exchange for agreeing to participate in the elections...

  23. It seems not- Wifaq announced today they won't be participating in the by elections.

  24. What a shame after two and a half hours of being interviewed that Shaikh Al Asfoor had to be severely misquoted by the journalist! Nothing like the odd incorrect use of words to stir up a storm.