It should be noted that in this I was and am not alone. The Bahrain scholar from whose work I have benefited perhaps the most--
Still holding on to its democratic façade, the Bahraini regime has called for a national dialogue to begin on July 2, while simultaneously orchestrating wide-ranging violations of basic human rights. King Hamad announced the formation of a “fact-finding committee” to investigate the cause of the uprisings in Bahrain in a June 29 speech, in an apparent gesture to encourage opposition participation in the dialogue. ...Hence others have shared my sardonic skepticism. view may have changed since then, of course; the point is that the timing of the commission--not to mention the subsequent resignation of some half of its members; the leading interviews by Bassiouni scrutinizing the actions of protesters at least as much as those of Bahrain's authorities; and now the abrupt one-month postponement of the final report announced yesterday--has not served to inspire confidence that the commission will achieve its stated goal of making accountable those responsible for the post-February crackdown.
Yet the national dialogue and scheduled elections are no more than panels in Bahrain’s democratic veneer.
Today, however, I am going to take a different tact and discuss an alternative interpretation of the commission that the conspiracy theorist in me has been mulling since the beginning. (I have spent a lot of time in the Middle East, after all, in particular in the home of conspiracy--Yemen--where I have learned, among other things, that: you should never drink cold water because it will give you the flu; there is a haunted house on 26th of September Street where if you try to sleep there you wake up on the curb; the Americans released some sort of pestilent fly upon the Yemeni villages that bites people and makes them sick; and so on. A friend of mine with an inflamed appendix was also told that she was pregnant, but this was not so much a product of conspiracy as of Yemeni doctoring.)
In any case, the alternative theory--of which I've since heard similar rumblings from others--is this: that the primary (or at least extremely useful secondary) purpose of the BICI is to help rid Bahrain's government of the king's competitors. That is, by implicating senior figures in the police, armed forces, and power ministries whose loyalties lie foremost with the prime minister, the khawalid, etc., the BICI can be put to very pragmatic use in (re-)consolidating the position of the king and crown prince, which clearly has taken a beating since February.
Now, we're obviously not talking about individuals at the minister-level--much less about the king's main competitors themselves: Khalifah bin Salman, Khalid bin Ahmad, and so on. The idea is that by rooting out the mid- and lower-level supporters of these less compromising factions of the royal family that exist within Bahrain's agencies and armed services, the king could effectively undercut his competitors' power without confronting them directly. Indeed, the act would be done not by King Hamad himself but by an independent commission, with the former ultimately playing his usual role of "national benefactor" by ridding the government of these unscrupulous individuals. Heck, if he wanted to take his kingly makramat a step further, he could even pardon these individuals after some time, as happens (or at least used to happen) routinely with political prisoners.
But what evidence is there to support such a view of the BICI? Admittedly, not much, apart from a few circulating rumors. The first--which seems to be fairly well-accepted--is that it was King Hamad himself who was the most enthusiastic backer of the BICI idea (contra a Bahraini-staffed commission). The second--which is much more uncertain--involves a supposed list of "30 names" of individuals to be targeted during the investigation. Yet no one seems to have actually seen the list, or to know exactly which names are on it.
When the BICI was first announced I had the opportunity to speak with an individual (who I presume to be) well-informed about the nature of the commission. I was assured that my speculation was indeed conspiratorial and moreover baseless, a response that went far toward shaping my subsequent impressions (and discussion here) of the commission. Still, a part of me remains convinced that the BICI represents a great opportunity for political maneuvering that cannot be lost on Bahraini or American officials.
I normally try to stray from making prescriptive comments here, but in this case one need not be a Bahraini citizen to recognize that the country's interest does not lie in the further empowerment of the more radical factions of the Al Khalifa at the expense of the king and his son. And while no one believes that any non-Bahraini entity (whether the BICI or the ICC) will succeed in removing the heads of these factions themselves, nonetheless the BICI offers a golden opportunity to weaken their relative positions via some good-old-fashioned political scheming--an art in which both Bahrain's rulers as well as their friends in Washington are quite well-adept.
Before ending, though, it must be admitted that yesterday's one-month postponement of the BICI's final report does pose a difficult puzzle for our political power-play interpretation. For if the BICI was meant all along as a tool with which to dispose of certain political rivals (and moreover a plan likely known to the U.S.), then presumably its findings would have been forceful enough to have pleased international observers looking for "justice to be done" in Bahrain. But the timing of the postponement announcement--just a day after the United States made its planned $53 arms sale conditional on the BICI findings--would seem to imply the opposite: that, were the report released in a week as planned, its relative weakness might have jeopardized the deal.
Of course, it may simply be that the commission really is too backlogged with testimony and interviews to meet the original deadline, as per the official explanation. Perhaps so. The good news is that we now have another month to speculate.
Oh: and if anyone out there has a copy of this mysterious "30 names" list, let's see it.
Update: As alluded to by one commentor, a clever YouTube video has been making the rounds that uses Bassiouni's statements from a Sept. 18th interview with Al-Hayat TV to "accuse" King Hamad of crimes against humanity. The idea is that, when Bassiouni's (and the king's own) words are applied strictly to the case of the Bahrain, one is left with no other conclusion but that.
And, in an unexpected move, Bahraini authorities are evidently preparing to shut down BTV. A GDN headline announces, "CLAMP ON FAKE NEWS."
Update 2: In a column discussing Interior Minister Rashid bin Abdallah's recent interview with Al-'Arabiyya (English transcript), Al-Watan's Hesham Al-Zayani (a relative, presumably, of the GCC SecGen) calls for the inevitable: an outright ban on al-Wifaq's weekend "Our National Demands" rallies. He writes:
I have particularly liked [the minister's] declaration: “We can’t speak about peaceful and non-peaceful demonstrations; we rather speak about legal and illegal ones.” This is reality. We would like to inform the state that allowing demonstrators to occupy roundabouts and sleep there has been a terrible mistake. If an illegal demonstration occurs, the Ministry of Interior must not be tolerant. Developed countries will surely do the same.Note the language here--"We would like to inform the state ..."--which gives the impression that such an initiative represents the "demand of the people" rather than a plan originating with the government itself. This is the same sort of approach taken some months ago when the National Unity Gathering was making "demands" of King Hamad. Al-Zayani continues,
Similarly, we ask the Ministry of Interior about the rationale behind allowing gatherings for Al Wefaq (Bahraini Hezbollah) every Friday. I think that people are still angry at these gatherings and at offering them licenses. No one knows the reason. Does the state like another crisis?How long, then, until this same rationale is extended to distinguish between "legal" and "illegal" political parties, the former being the ones who choose to "take part in the political process," as they say, and the latter the ones that do not--say, by boycotting elections? (See my recent prediction along these lines here.)
On a related note, it seems that regime thugs in Egypt don't like al-Wifaq any more than Bahraini pro-governments do.
Update 3: As announced here, registration for a new "Military Society" (led by 'Adel Flaifel and obviously targeting Sunnis) will open after evening prayer on Oct. 30. What could possibly go wrong?
And the Bahrain Mirror has more on the ill-fated al-Wifaq visit to Cairo, including this picture of protesters decrying these "Agents of Iran" and "Iranian interference in Bahrain":
In another quite interesting Bahrain Mirror piece, finally (bad Google translation), 'Abbas Busafwan claims that King Hamad has expressed worry to his Intelligence Minister over the safety of the crown prince. Yet the threat, he tells, is not from some Iranian assassination plot involving the Russian mob but from among Bahrain's own hard-liners, who see Salman as too conciliatory and likely to compromise (or as having already compromised) their own position.
Update 4: Khalil al-Marzuq faced off against Shura Council member Sameera Rajab on Al-Jazeera for three-quarters of an hour yesterday. The proof:
Update 5: In the aftermath of the Al-Jazeera debate in the video above--which I happened to catch on my way home from work; very contentious--the home of Sameera Rajab was reportedly attacked with Molotov cocktails.
Update 6: A NYT report from Anthony Shadid with a self-explainatory title: "In Rubble-Strewn Sitra, Faces of the Young Foretell a Grim Future for Bahrain."
From Foreign Policy: "America's Unsavory Allies." Guess who made the list?
Update 7: More details are emerging about today's "registration drive" for 'Adel Flaifel's new militia, er, I mean "military society". The GDN reports that it will be "a society of retired military and security personnel, which will work to protect their interests and hopes to advise the government on key issues." No word yet whether Ian Henderson will return to Bahrain as an emeritus adviser.
Update 8: Perhaps in a sign of things to come, BICI chief Bassiouni has given an interview with Al-Masri Al-Youm resulting in the following exchange (in the very last question, incidentally):
Q: "Are the justifications [for torture] offered by the Bahrain authorities enough for you?"
A: "لا يمكن إطلاقاً تبرير التعذيب على أى وجه من الوجوه، وبرغم قلة عدد الحالات، فمن الواضح أنه كانت هناك سياسة منهجية (One can never justify torture in any manner whatsoever, and, despite the small number of cases, it is clear that there was a systematic policy.")