Monday, September 19, 2011

(Traffic) Circles of Violence

Following a particularly violent week of police-protester showdowns and renewed calls for international--i.e., U.S.--attention (see also Elliot Abrams' piece today in The Atlantic), things unfortunately appear ripe in Bahrain for another round of confrontations. This is all the more so with the approach of at least three big events that could serve as possible flash-points: Saturday's by-election (the polls technically open tomorrow for absentee voters); the release of the BICI's final report and recommendations; and the Palestinian UN-membership vote. The latter, of course, is not a Bahrain matter per se; yet pro-Palestinian rallies (or anti-U.S. rallies, given the likely outcome of the vote) have a way of transforming into something more domestically-focused. Remember what happened at the al-Quds Day protests a few months ago?

For now, though, we can leave aside the BICI's likely findings and the Palestine UN vote as potential sparks for violence, especially since there is already a showdown brewing for Saturday's by-elections--and not simply in the polling booths. On top of the official boycott by opposition political societies, anti-government activists have organized a vehicle procession for Sept. 21 to mark the official opening of the polls. It's been dubbed "Operation Ring of Dignity" (if you have a better translation, let's hear it). Behold:

As you can see, the automobile procession is supposed to begin around the Seef Mall, pass near (or above, I guess) the holy ground of the Pearl Roundabout, head into Manama, pass my old apartment in Gudaibiyyah, head up Exhibition Road for some cheap hookers, go through the Diplomatic Area and then finally back out toward Sanabis. All of this is supposed to happen between 7 and 10 AM.

For the audio/video learners in the audience, organizers have provided a video tutorial as well:

If you'd already guessed that the Bahraini authorities are not impressed with this "operation," you'd be right. A Gulf Daily News story--"Bid to Disrupt Poll Traffic Rapped"--suggests that tomorrow's drive-in is a trial run for Saturday. Yet, given the limited geographical area of the rally path--protesters wisely seem to be avoiding Muharraq, al-Riffa', and other Sunni-dominated and mixed areas--a more accurate title would be: "Bid to Possibly Disrupt Traffic to One or Two Polling Stations Rapped."

(Incidentally, an "invitation" for Sunni participation was also posted to a popular pro-government forum. The response, shall we say, was not positive. Among the photos posted in the thread include the following portrait of two well-known Shi'a-lovers with the caption: "If my own foot became Shi'i, I would cut it off and throw it to the dogs.")

Still, the symbolic significance of the plan is enough to have ruffled the feathers of Bahrain's government. The Ministry of Interior has already issued a strongly-worded statement "warn[ing] against disturbing public order or threatening peoples' safety." The pro-government press is also getting in on the mix, attributing the operation to Hizballah--er, I mean al-Wifaq--and its terrorist supporters:

Additional articles condemning the opposition's traffic-related terrorism include:

And, even better:

which urges the government in the name of "some candidates" to open hotlines to call in the arrest of al-Wifaq terrorists with only a few clicks on your mobile phone.

Hotline Operator: "Sir, what is your emergency?"

Terrorized Voter: "Yes, I am stuck in traffic and would like to call in a drone strike on opposition targets currently blocking Exhibition Avenue."

Hotline Operator: "Right away, sir, and please remain calm. Be assured that your government has recently procured the latest TOW missiles from the United States for precisely these sorts of situations. Stand by for launch."

Among these "threatened voters" to which Al-Watan refers is, judging by his recent entourage, Sh. 'Abd al-Latif Al Mahmud. At a National Unity Gathering rally on Saturday, he was spotted with a "bodyguard" escort that included several apparent members of the Bahraini World Wrestling Federation, including (on the far left) the Arab cousin of Hacksaw Jim Duggan and several other people who look ironically as if they're heading to an 'Ashura 'azzah procession.

Not to be outdone, a pro-Shi'a group out of Iraq calling itself the Imam Hadi Brigades is the newest to take up the Bahraini cause as shown in the following action-packed promotional video (I can't embed it so you'll need to click on the still image below; update: it seems like the video may have been pulled?):

One will remember a similar (if more Jackass-like and less al-Qa'ida-like) video put out by a Bahraini group called the Faruq Militia whose members went around spray-painting witty slogans over anti-regime graffiti in Shi'a villages.

Let's hope that both groups stay away from polling stations.

Update: speaking of car-related Bahraini opposition videos, here's another for the planned "Return to Martyrs' Square" on September 23-24, i.e. the days before and of the polls. Perhaps Wednesday is just a trial run after all.

Update 2
: CNN Arabic has additional coverage of what it's calling the "Blockade of Manama."

Update 3: The weekly "demonstration notice" from U.S. Embassy Manama notes two additional rallies planned for this week that I hadn't heard about previously. A first is set to take place on Thursday in Tubli (site of last weekend's al-Wifaq "festival"; perhaps the Feb. 14 people are holding a counter-rally). The second--for Friday and Saturday--is a planned "attempt to return to the Pearl Roundabout" which the Embassy describes as "potentially violent." Yes, just slightly.

Update 4: The AP has a story (see also Al-Jazeera English here) on the so-called "Blockade of Manama," which seems to have gone off without violence (although 18 people were arrested for traffic violations):
Traffic has been brought to a crawl on many Bahrain highways after calls by pro-reform groups to flood the roads with cars in a show of strength before parliamentary elections later this week.
And its participants have issued an English-language statement. We will have to wait and see whether they go through with their plans for Friday and Saturday (see Update 1) to "Return to Martyrs' Square." Contrary to today's car blockade, that is unlikely to go off without violence.

Finally, Enduring America hosts an article originally posted to the blog Al-Bab that outlines some of the U.S. propaganda efforts of Bahrain's Washington-based PR firm Qorvis. If fairly common knowledge at this point, still it makes for a good read.

Update 5: Rally-goers in Tubli have unveiled a mini-Pearl Roundabout. In other news, two dozen full-size government bulldozers have been relocated to Tubli.

And see Max Fisher in The Atlantic: "Obama's UN Address and the Bahrain Exception."

Update 6: 'Ali Salman's address at the Tubli rally today has been posted online. Otherwise, everyone seems to be bracing for tomorrow's "Return to Martyrs' Square." The government has already posted a mean-looking armored personnel carrier in front of Salmaniyyah Hospital, and security checkpoints have effectively sealed the area of the Pearl Roundabout from the outside.

For their part, protesters are circulating on several forums "an easy way to break police car windows" using spark plugs (go figure), which evidently is common knowledge thanks to the Internets. So tomorrow may witness the ultimate showdown between spark plugs and armored personnel carriers. My money's not on the spark plugs.

Update 7: By all accounts, the attempt to take back the (empty ground that once housed the) Pearl Roundabout is not getting too far, as one might have expected. Here's a video from one of the rally paths (there are four; see maps of attack vectors here) through the City Center Mall, where protesters were greeted with jeers and insults from pro-governments chanting "The people want Khalifah bin Salman."

And though it's obviously not the focus here, we cannot fail to mention the latest favor of the Saudis to the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, which is their timely release of 'Ali 'Abdallah Salih back to Yemen. Yemenis join Bahrainis in saying thanks again!


  1. Very good article Justin,

    To me i see the regime in Bahrain in a lose-lose situation. When they try to sooth the pro-democracy group the pro-government group attack and this is evident with the Riffa3 gathering which was titled "The National Guards are a red line". It seems whoever the regime tries to please they are beat down by the opposing side. What will this mean for the future of Bahrain?

  2. quoute:
    Hotline Operator: "Sir, what is your emergency?"

    Terrorized Voter: "Yes, I am stuck in traffic and would like to call in a drone strike on opposition targets currently blocking Exhibition Avenue."

    Hotline Operator: "Right away, sir, and please remain calm. Be assured that your government has recently procured the latest TOW missiles from the United States for precisely these sorts of situations. Stand by for launch."

    = win.

  3. "When They Were Kings" on King Hamad,8

  4. Justin, this is what you're looking for:

    It's not a counter-rally; rather a re-scheduled rally (now with more force as other political societies are co-sponsoring it) in addition to al-Wefaq. It was re-scheduled as al-Wefaq learned of Martyr Jawad, whom died of tear gas suffocation and invited everyone to attend the funeral march instead.


    Obama's UN Address and the Bahrain Exception: Why is the U.S. treating this Arab state so differently than the others?

  5. Re: "When they were kings" article on King Hamad. What's up with the photo of Khalifah bin Salman? Hopefully not a mix-up with King Hamad or else FP needs some new editors.

  6. Justin, they need some new editors :-)

  7. Indeed: notice that it's now changed to one of King Hamad.


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