Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Why October is Not Bahrain's "Decisive Month"

You'll have to forgive the relative lack of updates as I continue to settle into new quarters. Today, though, I couldn't help but write in response to a view that has popped up in recent days--both in Western and Bahraini media--to the effect that October is set to be a "decisive month" for Bahrain politically, what with its shiny new parliament, National Dialogue "visions" to be enacted, and the BICI's final report and recommendations to be released.

In typical ALL-CAPS fashion, the Gulf Daily News proclaims this--whatever "this" is--to be Bahrain's "defining moment":

"Bahrain stands on the threshold of a new phase requiring everyone's best efforts to emerge triumphant from this defining moment. The Premier said this yesterday as he received the National Dialogue report."
Which makes sense since the Prime Minister is poised to become the main beneficiary of the National Dialogue recommendations via the proposed transfer of the power of ministerial selection to his office from that of the king.

Yet Bahraini media outlets are not the only ones promulgating this argument that somehow October will usher in the sort of political reconciliation that everyone has been waiting for since February. One of Bahrain's American PR advisers--he is introduced euphemistically thus: "Tom Squitieri is a journalist and is also working with the Bahrain government on media awareness"--writes for The Huffington Post, for example, the following (the first paragraph I've annotated it for your convenience):
Thus anger [among Bahrain's opposition] without a purpose. Foot soldiers for puppet masters with a greater agenda [Iran?]. Driven of course by personal desires, personal visions and inspiration from sources near [Al-Wifaq?] and far [Iran??]. Legitimate anger, but anger vulnerable to manipulation [Iran???], a truism in struggles around the world.

There may be hope: Henderson [a Bahrain commentator] discovered some shades of the gray area in the new candidates being elected. "Perhaps surprisingly, some middle ground and cultural diversity has survived the political polarization," he reported.

The government has promised reform. Parliament is to introduce laws to tackle concerns about ministerial accountability and corruption. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has also asked an independent commission to investigate abuses and has formed a compensation fund.

October could prove to be the decisive month.

As soon as Monday, the government committee in charge of following up implementation of National Dialogue recommendations may announce the mechanisms and priorities to meet citizens' expectations for reforms in the political, economic, social and legal categories. ...

That starts the month. Looming at the end of October is the independent commission's report on the actions and issues stemming from the protests in February and March. It is widely expected that the report will highlight abuses carried out by the security forces AND the protesters.
Wow, so not only are those who don't support Bahrain's wise leadership mere teenage "foot soldiers for puppet masters with a greater agenda," but Bahrain's new parliament without an opposition is actually going to increase the country's "cultural diversity" (which after all is a good substitute for political diversity), presumably through the manufactured election of additional female MPs; the National Dialogue recommendations will somehow meet "citizens' expectations for reforms"; and the BICI report will offer the satisfying conclusion that BOTH sides are responsible for what happened in February and March, so can't everybody just get along? (On this last point, note that I predicted exactly this outcome on July 26 after the BICI was first announced.)

In reality, of course, there is little reason to believe that October in Bahrain will differ from any of the previous months, much less on account of the conclusions of the National Dialogue and BICI. This is because:
  1. As we've discussed already, the main upshot of the National Dialogue recommendations is the further entrenchment of the position of the prime minister, who (assuming this "recommendation" is accepted by King Hamad) will now have the power to appoint his own ministers. The other Dialogue recommendations being touted as "reforms"--enhanced abilities to question ministers in parliament--are not particularly useful when the entire legislature consists of pro-government societies and parliamentarians. Somehow I doubt MPs will use their newfound ability to quiz ministers to forward a reformist agenda.

    The more fundamental problem with this argument that the National Dialogue recommendations being codified will somehow serve to "meet citizens' expectations for reforms" is that the proposed "reforms" have been well-known for some months now, and people don't seem particularly satisfied. So why should we expect that to change once they are officially made law?

  2. Similarly for the BICI, the cat has been out of the bag on its likely "findings" ever since Bassiouni's ill-judged statements to Reuters some time ago, when he all but revealed the main conclusion of the investigation, namely that "[t]here was never a policy of excessive use of force or torture... that doesn't mean it didn't happen. I think it was a case of people at the lower level acting, and there not being an effective chain of communication, control." He also described the mass detentions of Bahrain's post-February crackdown as a "bureaucratic mix-up." Oops--I hate when that happens!
Thus, as with the codification of (some or all of) the National Dialogue recommendations, Bahrainis already know what to expect from the BICI. The only way that either event will make October a "decisive month," then, is if either produces a positive result that is unexpected--say, if King Hamad refused to grant the power of ministerial selection to the prime minister; or if the BICI offered a significantly more damning report than has been indicated so far. Short of either of those two things, October will be business as usual.

And business as usual, as we've seen, means almost daily protests and confrontation. After the recent failed attempt to return to the Pearl Roundabout, the so-called "Blockade of Manama," and last weekend's 9th "Right to Self-Determination" rally, the newest of these planned events is the nicely-named "The Tsunami of Manama," another vehicle procession to take place today and Thursday mornings through the Financial District. (I think protesters have smartly figured out that you're a lot less likely to be shot while in a vehicle.)

The full instruction pamphlet is here, though I cannot be held responsible for any tsunami-related injury you may suffer as a result of reading it:

Folks over at the pro-government forum have already taken to calling the operation "The Tsunami of Filth" (which rhymes with al-Manama in Arabic), and have posted many appropriate illustrations to that effect:




Bahraini Sunnis have also discovered a 1989 Bollywood film that shares the name with the Arabic word for "tsunami," and have been circulating the movie poster online:

And a final one that's unrelated but funny anyway:

"Hello? Ok, I've got the teargas canister in my hand. What do I do with it?"

Here, then, is the real reason why October is not Bahrain's "decisive month": because both sides continue to be divided, and continue to fight under the banner of competing narratives that are as entrenched as ever. If one is looking for a "decisive" month, perhaps a more likely candidate is December, when 'Ashura' is set to begin on the 5th. Even in peaceful times a venue replete with intermingling religious and political rhetoric, this year's festival has the makings of a very heated and politically-charged affair.

Update: The other question to be answered--not necessarily in October but presumably soon--is the legal standing of al-Wifaq now that it is no longer in parliament but persists in holding weekly "festivals"--i.e. political rallies--and so on. The government already tried famously to disband the society back in April, but given that it then occupied 18 seats in parliament, the U.S. and Western condemnation was swift, and eventually the government backed off. No longer, however, does al-Wifaq have an electoral mandate to help guarantee its legal standing, a situation that will continue for at least several years until the next election. And, as the recent fate of the Islamic Action Society indicates, this is a precarious position.

And, indeed, signals of increased government pressure are already emerging. The latest is an extended segment on Bahrain TV in which the crown prince threatens al-Wifaq in strong terms.

I guess he didn't enjoy 'Ali Salman's keynote at last week's al-Wifaq festival:

Update 2: Also, don't forget to read up on the looming "Irano-Bahraini Conflict"(what a name), as described in a new "paper" in the prestigious Central European Journal of International and Security Studies by one Mitchell Belfer, who also happens to be the journal's editor and founder. Despite reading like an apology for the Bahraini government (I wonder how much one would have to pay Mr. Belfer to get a paper published in his CEJISS?), in the end the essay's conclusions sound suspiciously like all the other Iran rhetoric spouted since February: that Iran "inspired" and "gained" from the uprising:
Indeed, Bahrain has been so markedly internationally ostracised for its (state) actions against the self-proclaimed ‘Pearl Revolutionaries’ that few have adequately reflected on the revolution and are content to lay blame on ‘heavy-handed’ Bahraini security forces and the military intervention of Saudi Arabia. This has, in effect, veiled the dynamic international elements, namely Iran, which inspired and geopolitically gained from the revolution.
So in fact this "Irano-Bahraini Conflict" is not so much a conflict as a neighboring rival country benefiting from the internal conflict of another, which sounds a lot everyday politics. *Yawn* By this definition, I guess we should also be talking about the great Irano-Iraqi and Irano-Afghani wars, since Iran has likewise benefited from the U.S. invasions and subsequent internal conflicts of both countries.

Update 3: Quote of the day from the Saudi Interior Ministry on the Shi'a mini-uprising in al-Qatif:
"A group of instigators inspired by a foreign country gathered in al-Awwamiya village near Qatif at 9pm on Monday and tried to undermine security."
Prince Nayf is now pledging to respond with an "iron fist." Isn't he getting a bit too old for that?

Update 4: In classic Bahraini government fashion, the widely-condemned sentences of the medical workers have now been suspended pending appeal in civilian court. This is a tried and true tactic:
  1. First do something really crazy sure to get attention (arrest Bahrain's most prominent blogger; move to dissolve al-Wifaq; shut down Al-Wasat, etc.).
  2. Back off from #1 after international outrage.
  3. Respond with something slightly less crazy than #1 that seems to international observers like a pretty good alternative by comparison.
  4. ???
  5. Profit!!
Finally, word on the street is that the U.S. Congress is "gearing up to fight arms sales to Bahrain." Let's hope they are better at fighting arms sales to Bahrain than they are drugs, crime, inflation, terrorism, budget deficits, wars in Afghanistan, etc.

Update 5: The author of the aforementioned "Irano-Bahraini war" paper has somehow succeeded now in getting an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal making the same argument about Iranian "subversion" in Bahrain.


  1. I agree to a great degree with you that October is greatly unlikley (or wont) be a decisive month for Bahrain , what im interested in however is how the political scene is gonna look like after the anticipated dissappointments of the BICI and the national diologue come to fruition , because Bahrain has rarley seen such complete stalemate. Anyway, it is safe to think that over the course of this month nothing that will tipp the balance will happen , however, as you have mentioned Ashura is going to probably be more eventful (even though I dont personally see it tipping the balance either). But in politics the historical lesson is anything is possible :)

  2. Remember that Khomeini's famous speech that led to the Islamic Revolution was given on the 10th night of Ashura =P

  3. The readers and the writer ignore the lessons of history: That is How long, can a government like Alkhalifa can survive, with a minimum dignity of international acceptance if it treats its own poor unarmed citizens like Israel treating Palestinians or the past colonial white regime of South Africa? If you read history (please do) the time is on the side of the people of Bahrain, and not US 5th. fleet backed regime of Alkhalifah. Their days are numbered like that of Mubarak and Saddam Hussain.
    Please go back to your history page now! It will happen for sure. We know it. Struggle must continue in all its phases. This is just Phase 2.
    ABU HAMAD, Manama, Bahrain

  4. I have to disagree with you there Abu Hamad, sure the downfall of any given regime is eventual, but ours relies on Saudia Arabia as much as Saudia Arabia relies on its stability, so I'm not betting any money that it will be 'falling' however that may happen in the following year or two.

    Just as a note: Please follow your own advice, the US 5th fleet didn't back anyone, if anything it tried to keep its hand out of the going-ons and try to keep to its own well-being, the sooner you we start seeing reason and logic in the world, the sooner we turn from pawns to players in the game of politics.

  5. From the Wall Street Journal op-ed Justin linked to:

    "Then in December 2008, 14 people were arrested on suspicion of planning a series of terror attacks against commercial centers, diplomatic missions and night clubs in Bahrain. The arrests unleashed still more violence. It was against this backdrop that Iran's Mr. Nuri called Bahrain Iran's "14th province," a statement greeted by joyous chants of agreement from Bahrain's Shiites."

    He's basically point blank stating that Bahrain's Shia (who are 3/4 of the population) are Iranian puppets. Someone should tell the Wall Street Journal editors that op-ed columns should only be given to grown up.