Sunday, October 9, 2011

Wa'ad, 'Amal, al-Wifaq?: Bahrain's New Parliament May Spell an End to Legal Opposition

A few weeks ago I wrote an article that asked "What has changed in Bahrain since February?" The article aimed to dispel the idea promulgated in the run-up to the by-elections that Bahrain had somehow turned a political corner, what with its new "culturally diverse" (not to say politically diverse) parliament, upcoming "big events" in October such as the BICI final report and implementation (that is, decree) of the National Dialogue recommendations, etc. It looks like I should have saved a Microsoft Word template for the article, since I am essentially going to have to re-write it again following the events of the past few days.

To say it again: the only thing that has changed in Bahrain since February is the relative reluctance on the side both of the government and the opposition to engage in direct confrontation. Apart from its main consequence--that the political disagreement dividing the country continues to augment every day--this post-February stagnation also means that violence, death, and a return to the mass protests of the spring are always only a happy riot police trigger-finger away.

Thus the events of this weekend, when, as the NYT does a good job of reporting (as opposed to, say, the Occupy Wall Street protests), a teenager was shot and killed with police buckshot. As usually happens, the funeral procession itself turned into an even larger protest, which led to more clashes with riot police. And repeat.

The Interior Ministry is launching a full investigation into the killing since, as it claims in its official press release, there are conflicting reports of the cause of death:
a report by forensic experts of the Public Prosecution indicat[ed] that the death was the result of an injury by a police birdshot and another report of Bahrain International Hospital attribut[ed] it to a severe drop in the blood circulation and the respiratory system that led to heart failure.
Hrm, a 16 year-old boy killed by small shards of metal puncturing his entire body (graphic photo) or a totally unrelated condition that led to heart failure? Yeah, I think I am going to have to go with option number one.

Not only did this weekend bring news of additional loss of life, moreover, but also that of additional loss of freedom. In the first place, it turns out that the "civilian retrial" announced proudly by the Bahraini government following the widespread condemnation of the sentences handed to the embattled medical workers in fact is just an ordinary appeal, as explained by Bahraini lawyer Muhsin al-Alawi on Al-Jazeera English. I guess it's just another case of those darn bureaucratic mix-ups that people in Bahrain are always talking about. I mean, don't you hate it when you're a doctor on trial for trying to save the lives of dying people in a hospital and then your 15-year sentence is revoked, but then you learn later that actually your quashed sentence is actually just an appeal? Yeah, me too.

More generally, the past several days have seen so many sentences handed down to protesters and others in the opposition that the aforementioned lawyer Muhsin al-Alawi has created an online spreadsheet just to keep track. The current tally: over the past 12 days, 208 civilians were sentenced to a total of 2,483 years in prison. Which is just under 1 year in prison per person per day, or roughly the team average of the 2011 Cincinnati Bengals.

The conclusion: there seems to be an inordinate amount of kidnapping going on in Bahrain, especially kidnapping of armed policemen by unarmed protesters. I'd be interested to know how that works exactly.

Of course, if you'd read only the pro-government press since Thursday, you'd have no idea that any of this even occurred. The day after tens of thousands marched on Friday to protest the country's newest death by birdshot, the prime minister took the opportunity to hail the "new era" inaugurated by the National Dialogue recommendations. The GDN quotes him as saying:
"These visions cement national unity and promote Bahrain's political, social, economic and legal construction. ... We will overcome all challenges facing the march of development and prosperity thanks to our sincere intentions and national unity."
Apart from "national unity," which I think everyone would agree describes contemporary Bahrain perfectly, the post-National Dialogue era also is an era of social tolerance and women's rights, as you can see from this photograph of Bahrain's newest female MPs:

The usually very good Habib Toumi at the Gulf News describes the four as "the golden quartet that will take the voices, and aspirations, of women into the lower chamber of the bicameral parliament," whose opening session is today. Curiously, there is no mention of the metallic properties of the upper chamber of the bicameral parliament, whose role it is to negate these "voices and aspirations" raised perfunctorily in the lower house.

Not to be outdone, "The Marshall" Khalifah bin Ahmad also showed off his women-loving abilities over the weekend:

Finally, we have a widely-circulated interview with Bahrain's Justice Minister carried in the popular Egyptian daily Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' in which he reveals that, among other things, (1) Bahrain is already a constitutional monarchy because it has a monarchy and a constitution (check and check); and (2) that the Al Khalifa "wouldn't mind" a Shi'i prime minister.

As a follow-up to the question about the constitutional monarchy, which he clearly aced, he was asked, "To put it another way, are you worried that a Shi'i winning an election for prime minister would serve to loosen the control of the Al Khalifa?"

بمعنى آخر.. هل تخشون من أن تفرز الانتخابات رئيس وزراء شيعيا الأمر الذى يسحب البساط من تحت أقدام آل خليفة؟

His response:
آل خليفة فى البحرين ليس لهم إلا وضع اجتماعى باعتبارهم العائلة التى ينتسب إليها جلالة الملك ووضع تاريخى أيضا، وهذه هى الملكية الدستورية، وبالعكس تماما العائلة لا تخشى ذلك.. كل ما نخشاه هو تقسيم البلد على أساس طائفى، ولا يمكن أن نصف رئيس الوزراء على أساس دينه بل بكفاءته، وكانت الحكومة حريصة على غض البصر عن المذهب والدين فى اختيارها للمسؤولين.

"The Al Khalifa in Bahrain only have a social place as the family from which His Highness the king comes, and also [they have] a historical role. And this is constitutional monarchism. On the contrary, the family is not afraid of that.. the only thing it's worried about is division of the nation on the basis of sect. And you can't describe the prime minister on the basis of his religion but on the basis of his qualifications. The government doesn't take into account sect or religion in its choice of officials."
What is it about interviews with Egyptian newspapers that brings out the crazy in Bahraini cabinet ministers?

(Speaking of interviews, don't miss the first interview with outgoing Al-Jazeera head of programming Wadah al-Khanfar, who offers details about the channel's muted coverage of the Bahrain uprising.)

Meanwhile, while the Al Khalifa are busy playing their strictly "social and historical" roles--none of them, evidently, are involved in politics; can someone look that up?--and choosing officials on the basis of merit, the pro-government press (clearly invigorated by the crown prince's recent remarks) continues to pave the way for the seemingly inevitable illegalization of al-Wifaq, or more commonly now "Bahraini Hizballah." In fact, the front page of Al-Watan English is so full of anti-al-Wifaq stories that I don't even need to take screenshots of individual articles.

One finds just on the main page:

And so on. The final article details a proposal from the new "socially diverse" parliament (no mention of how many of the "golden quartet" support the measure) for a
strict ban on demonstrations and riots--just as was the case in Great Britain. ... They also called on the state to tighten its grip on demonstrations and protest, aimed to sow hatred, propagate lies and push youngsters to commit acts of vandalism and chaos, and escalate the situation in line with the objectives of Al Wefaq and Issa Qassim.
But more importantly:
The Parliament and Shura Council members stated that 'Bahrain has to learn the lesson well. The trouble makers are not politicians and their associations are not political, either. They are using the labels just as a cover to conceal their dirty, strong desire to destroy the country and ruin its economy.'
So here we have the operative lines: al-Wifaq is no longer (or never has been) a political organization, nor its leaders politicians. Ergo, it should be treated like any other group operating outside the law, namely as an illegal "terrorist" entity. How much longer until al-Wifaq joins the likes of Wa'ad and the Islamic Action Society?: dissolved--or, better yet (from the state's view), "restructured" with a new leadership from among pro-government Shi'a families?

If ever there were a time for the U.S. to send the message that it is serious about political progress in Bahrain and taking a first step toward resolving the Gulf's festering sectarian problem, now is it. Yet, save for the two senators who have submitted a resolution to block the impending arms sale to Bahrain, it seems the U.S. government--in particular the State Department--feels it has bigger things to worry about. Its calculations may change if the recent unrest in al-Qatif spread to elsewhere in Saudi Arabia.

Update: Undeterred by this weekend's violence, the February 14 coalition has a full schedule of events planned already for the coming days.

Update 2: You knew this was coming. From the GDN:
In another development, a ballistic test conducted by a CID forensic expert has revealed that the pellets extracted from Mr Al Qattan's body have failed to match those used by the Interior Ministry. The Northern Police Directorate had reported small clashes between security forces and protesters in Abu Saiba, insisting that no shotgun pellets had been fired to disperse them. Earlier, a forensic report said the teenager died from wounds sustained from shotgun pellets, or birdshot.
So: during a confrontation with riot police, this 16 year-old was shot by random masked gunmen firing the same ammo from the same weapons as the riot police--but was not shot by the riot police?

Update 3: Though off-topic here, I recommend to those interested the following New York Review of Books article on "The Strange Power of Qatar," which examines the motivations behind the country's disproportionately active foreign policy.

Update 4: A commentator points out this systematic rebuttal of the "Irano-Bahraini conflict" thesis being promulgated these days by one Mitchell A. Belfer--most recently via WSJ op-ed, a summary of which the Gulf Daily News is running today.

Update 5: Some enterprising individual has put together a comprehensive report (including illustrative before and after photos) summarizing the post-February destruction of Shi'i mosques, mawatim, and shrines.

And check out this "a present from the Sunni loyalists of Bahrain to the February 14th Shi'a":

Update 6: Brian Dooley writing in Foreign Policy offers another comprehensive dismantling of the "Irano-Bahraini conflict" thesis.

Update 7: See Bahrain: THIS is how you make up a fake Iranian terrorist plot! Among other things, you forgot the Mexican drug cartels. (I won't say any more about this joke of a story. I refer you to the (admittedly normally infuriating) NYT comments.)

Update 8: I recommend this Jane Kinninmont piece in CNN: "Is a New Arab Order Emerging?"


  1. Good "article" on Bahrain

  2. Thanks. This is a good article indeed--especially appropriate as the GDN is running a story today based on the WSJ op-ed called "Bahrain 'victim of Iranian plot'":


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