Sunday, October 23, 2011

Is Bahrain's Bassiouni Commission a Political Power Play?: A Conspiracy Theorist Interprets the BICI

Since the BICI was announced back in June, it has not received particularly comprehensive or serious treatment here for the simple fact that I have viewed it as just another piece of an orchestrated PR campaign from a Bahraini government that was reeling over a few months' worth of bad publicity. This was reflected in the title of my first article discussing the BICI--"Bahrain to the Opposition: 'Would You Like a Fact-Finding Commission to Go with That Dialogue?'"--the sarcastic spirit of which has continued ever since.

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--Laurence Louër--expressed a similar sentiment in a June 29 Arab Reform Bulletin for the Carnegie Endowment. She begins, for example:
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. ...

Yet the national dialogue and scheduled elections are no more than panels in Bahrain’s democratic veneer.
Hence others have shared my sardonic skepticism. Louër's 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.

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.")


  1. I'm waiting for your comment, 1st Anon...

  2. Justin,
    A thoughtful piece as always. Government aside, what would be really fascinating would be the analysis of the intrigues within the Al Khalifa clan.
    There was a struggle in the late '80s, during Isa bin Salman's rule, regarding the respective roles of Ali bin Khalifa, Hamad bin Isa and Salman bin Hamad. On the face of it, Isa's line prevailed.
    However, Khalifa bin Salman is undoubtedly the patriarch and I don't believe the King would take him on as the majority of the 2000+ family members, who want to hang on to power, would be against it. You will recall that King Faisal was assassinated by a nephew in 1975.
    Now that would really put the cat amongst the pigeons!

    On a related subject, does anyone know how many palaces the PM has in Bahrain? I met a contractor 10 years ago who claimed it was 15.
    Beep beep beepbeep.

  3. I for one percieve the individual named Khalifa bin salman to be politically invincable , even if some of the hardline faction were weakned by the report (the attempts at weakening them on the ground right now seem to be having the oppisite effect with lolyalists) , it would still mean very little change in political capital as the strongest heads would still be in their offices and nothing constitutional has actually changed (except for Khalifa to have gained more power because of the dialogue) . So as far as I see it , no matter how far the report goes it still wont go far enough to shift the scales enough for the king to be able to implement any real reforms ( should he actually want to go heads to heads with khalifa in the end) .


    This video is interesting, eh?

  5. Justin + Iran sitting on a tree...


  7. @Anon: Thanks, I'd read this. Unfortunately, the premise of the piece is that King Hamad and his "reformist" Al Khalifa camp are responsible for some sort of a "political liberalization" in Bahrain. All of that seems out of the window now.

  8. Nice post Justin, good analysis. Its going to be good to have you close by in Qatar. Hopefully you won't consider returning to Bahrain during these difficult times.

  9. Hi Justin. Nice post. May i recommend your next post be titled "What next for Bahrain"? Seriously is this situation sustainable?

  10. @Anon: Perhaps. But isn't that essentially the purpose of Hokayem's recent Atlantic piece?: i.e., there isn't much the U.S. (or at least the State Dept.) can do to change the policy of the Bahraini government, and the Bahraini government seems content with the current minimum level of instability, so why should be expect something to be "next" apart from more of the same?

  11. @Other Anon: No need to return to Bahrain--unless I could hitch a ride on one of those Hizballah weapons-smuggling ships you always hear about.

  12. Hi Justin, Did you notice the poll? 55% dont support and 45% do support. I was quite surprised. I would have arabs would be more ignorant. I would have predicted 20% Support and 80% don't. Maybe there is a chance for democracy in the arab/muslim world.

  13. how much would it take for you to switch from the "صفوي" agenda to the logical agenda?

  14. America's Unsavory Allies
    A look at the some of the bad guys the U.S. still supports.,2

  15. @Anons: Sorry I still don't have reliable Internet at home, so it's tough to keep up on the weekends. What poll do you refer to?

    "How much would it take for you to switch from the "صفوي" agenda to the logical agenda?" -- No idea what this means.

  16. I'm referring to the Poll by Al-Jazeera arabic. In the beginning of the debate between Sameera and Marzooq the correspondent says that a poll in which 270,000 voters voted forcing them to remove it from Al-Jazeeras website to stop the site from crashing.

  17. Take a look at this interview. Bassiouni declares that systematic torture occured in Bahrain.

  18. It's a long interview. Want to offer a quote?

  19. Justin, (This is the same Anon who started his comments with "Justin," in previous posts. Sorry for being away for so long.)

    I'm surprised he said there were a small number of cases, but anyhow, there's more to this story.

    There's something that you addressed in your previous posts that's worth more attention than analysts are giving. You did a good job to highlight it though:

    In S. Hadi al-Mossawi's recent presentation in Wa'ad's headquarters (excellent presentation... you should read up on it), Dr. Munira Fakhro brought up a critical issue in the Q&A session (she was the first person to address a question).

    She said that she was very surprised with BICI's report delay, especially as she had spoken to one of the investigators a few days before the delay announcement, and the investigator had said that they've finished the report, it's being printed and they've packed and traveling in a couple of days. She even said that the report will be around 700 pages long and the summary will be about 200 pages. And of course, plans were underway for a celebration and all that. Of course, in the meanwhile, the report had been leaked... (surprise, surprise)

    Then she said Sh. Abdul-Latif al-Mahmood comes out the next day with a statistic along the lines of 6 or 7 thousand people who were traumatized by the events and all that. Then... there's news of the report being delayed.

    S. Hadi did not confirm or deny what Dr. Fakhro said, but he gave a different story. He said the commission had first announced that mid-October would be the last day to present any evidence for their review. Later, the commission tells them that they're over-whelmed with work and the last day will actually be the end of September. Human rights workers were disappointed because they had drawn their plans based on the mid-October deadline, by the commission said there's really no room for extension, so the guys re-worked their plans based on the new date.

    Then, they realized that the commission was still taking in reports and interviews even after the new deadline (end of September). Not only that, but the media expert in the commission met with S. Hadi only a few days before the presentation, which was not only past the late September deadline but also past the mid-October deadline.

    Long story short, it seemed from S. Hadi's face that what Dr. Fakhro was saying is not completely untrue. I personally think there seems to be a "power struggle" within the commission itself, in addition to the external "power struggles", so to speak.

    Anyhow... there seems to be quite a cloud over this commission, especially with the Bahrain Mirror pieces, this and more to come.

  20. Thanks as always for the first-hand account and information. Glad to have you back. I've linked to your comment from my new post so that others will be sure to notice it.