Monday, December 5, 2011

Manama Vice: In Post-BICI Bahrain, More Commissions + Bad Foreign Cops = Reform

I return today to dispel rumors that I was injured in the bus "bombing" in front of (i.e., half a football field away from) the British Embassy in Ra'as Ruman. According to the BNA, the cause of this explosion has now been "unveiled," if by unveiled you mean we now know that it resulted from "an unknown type of explosive device" whose size "is difficult to determine at present." I can assure you that I had nothing to do with it, though it appears the same can't be said about Iran, whom British media have already identified as the culprit given its long history of placing small explosive devices under the front driver's-side tires of parked buses in the middle of the night. Just in case, Crown Prince Salman yesterday paid a visit to the Embassy along with Sh. Rashid, both of whom seem somehow to have made it out alive.

In fact, I have been busy finishing a longish piece on Bahrain for Jane's Intelligence Review, which should please those who were asking for a more forward-looking analysis of Bahrain's political future. Less pleasing, though, will be the fact that you will probably need a subscription to read it, though I will try to figure out a way to make it available if perhaps with some delay.

In the meantime I didn't feel too badly about failing to update here owing to Toby Jones' great post-BICI analysis for Carnegie's "Sada" blog (not to be confused with "Sada al-Malahim," the weekly newsletter of Yemen's al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula). Though I am probably less sanguine than he is about the prospect that the BICI will reinvigorate the opposition (and so augment pressure on the government for reform) to any meaningful extent, I can't disagree with anything in the article.

Since his piece was written, however, I think that the government's additional responses to the BICI give a clear indication of its basic strategy going forward. In short, Bahrain's rulers have seized upon the report's most sensational aspects--accusations of systematic "excessive force" and torture--to make the argument that the BICI's findings demand above all a reorganization and re-training of its security services to make sure that these sorts of things don't happen again. The alternative, of course, is to attempt to satisfy the opposition's demands for structural reforms so that daily confrontations between protesters and police are avoided in the first place. To put out its political conflagration, that is, Bahrain is claiming that it simply needs better fire-fighters, rather than a plan for extinguishing the embers that continue to fuel it.

Exhibits A and B in this plan are two former chiefs of police from Miami and Britain, who will be paid large sums of money to "re-train" Bahrain's security services on the proper ways to deal with street protests. This training will presumably include sessions on how not to shoot people in the face with shotguns, how not to run over them with cars, and how not to fire tear gas canisters into their unventilated homes.

For an apt description of Miami's John Timoney, a man once called "America's worst cop," one need only read this disturbing piece by The Guardian's Matthew Cassel. Cassel reproduces part of an article written in 2003 when anti-globalization activists descended on Miami to protest a meeting of The Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. He writes:
After leading the head-bashing of protesters as Philadelphia's police commissioner during the Republican party's national convention in 2000, Timoney was hired by Miami and given more than $8m to introduce a level of police brutality unlike any we had ever seen in the US.

In the weeks following the protests, journalist Jeremy Scahill wrote:

"No one should call what Timoney runs in Miami a police force. It's a paramilitary group. Thousands of soldiers, dressed in khaki uniforms with full black body armour and gas masks, marching in unison through the streets, banging batons against their shields, chanting, 'back … back … back'. There were armoured personnel carriers and helicopters."

Journalists who were not embedded with the police were deliberately targeted. I myself was hit with teargas and rubber bullets and chased by police who tried to detain me and confiscate my photography equipment. The suffocating display of a violent police force became known as the Miami model, elements of which were frequently used in following years against other large-scale demonstrations in the US.

Now the Miami model is coming to Bahrain.
Perfect! Police reform you can believe in! And what about the second foreign police reformer from Britain, John Yates? He must be a great hire too, right?

Indeed. Reuters tells that Yates
resigned from his senior post at the Metropolitan Police Service earlier ... in July over his role in a police investigation into the alleged illegal accessing of voicemails by journalists at the now defunct News of the World newspaper.

He had in 2009 decided not to re-open investigations into the practice, but a new probe launched in January found police had 11,000 pages of evidence which had not been thoroughly examined by detectives.
It is clear, then, that Bahrain is covering all of its bases. If you are going to bring in a expert trainer in police brutality then you are definitely going to want someone specialized in illegal wire-tapping and police surveillance as well, not to mention someone who recognizes the need to withhold a page or two (or 11,000) of evidence for reasons of political expediency.

Despite the sarcastic tone here, however, Bahrain's continued refusal to address of even acknowledge the more fundamental implication contained in the BICI report and indeed the main lesson of the uprising more generally--namely the need for concrete steps that "address[] the grievances of groups which are, or perceive themselves to be, deprived of equal political, social and economic rights and benefits"--means that its new fire-fighters will have a steady diet of fires to put out. And not simply involving the government and opposition.

On the seventh night of the politically-charged religious festival of 'Ashura', hundreds of Sunnis and Shi'is clashed in Muharraq's al-Hayaak neighborhood along the route of an 'azzah procession of Shi'a mourners. (For a good description of 'Ashura' in Bahrain, see Khuri's well-known account--starting on p. 69--or Chapter 3 of my dissertation.) Officials quoted in a Gulf Daily News story claim that authorities had urged organizers to change the route of the procession to avoid passing by Sunni homes, but they failed to oblige.

The confrontation, broken up only after the arrival of riot police (or, by other accounts, made worse by the police's violence against procession-goers), left many injured and much property destroyed, prompting a visit yesterday by the Crown Prince and Interior Minister (on their way to the British Embassy) and a column by our friend Yusif Al Bin Khalil titled "Our Local Chaos." Some indication of this may be gleaned from the many photos here:

Along with several videos posted to YouTube, including this one showing a stand-off between Sunni and Shi'i rock-throwers:

And this longer (8 minute plus) video:

Still more disturbing is that the confrontation seems to have been planned in advance, with one Twitter account, Eti7ad_Alqadsia (see Comment 1 for explanation), inciting Sunni residents of Muharraq to take action to stop the procession. The Bahrain Mirror reports the involvement of 'Adal Flaifel, who was present at a subsequent meeting involving the Crown Prince, the Minister of Interior, and the heads of the funeral processions. While the story describes the meeting in intimate detail and is worth reading at length, the upshot is that Flaifel was told harshly to leave security up to the Ministry of Interior and to stop the actions of his group.

Finally, the Bahrain Mirror report also contains a funny exchange involving one of the procession heads and the Crown Prince. The former says in reference to the Sunnis who attacked the procession that it is strange to find 'azzah participants holding photos of the prime minister and chanting "The people want Khalifah bin Salman." The Crown Prince is said to have smiled and replied, "These [people] are few."

Speaking of Khalifa bin Salman, he has given a lengthy interview to the Kuwaiti newspaper/magazine "Policy." A summary is available via the Bahrain Mirror, which describes the interview with the title: "The Prime Minister Launches a Violent Campaign against the Bassiouni Commission, and Describes the King's Acceptance of It as 'Good-Intentioned.'" The subtitle of the full interview in "Policy" is a more cordial: "There are those who resent the BICI report because it 'faults' the government and ignores the criminals."

Perhaps as a way to make sure these 'faults' do not translate into concrete punishments of officials, the prime minister's office has organized a post-BICI "working group" separate from the "national commission" announced by King Hamad on November 26. This working group, to be headed by Deputy PM Muhammad bin Mubarak, will report to the cabinet this week on how best to implement the BICI's recommendations. At the risk of reading too much into this, it seems that we may have dueling commissions under the patronage of the king and prime minister, respectively, aimed presumably at checking the actions of the other. As one would expect, the commission attached to the prime minister's office seems to have a much wider (and clearer) mandate than the King's "national commission" of mostly former and current Shura Council members.

Finally, meanwhile, the main pro-government web forum Mamlakat al-Bahrain was hacked, though apparently by a non-Bahraini group linked to a forum called "Noor Fatema," which I'd not heard of previously. Its front page was defaced with various pro-Shi'a images along with graphic photos of dead children, as you would expect.

Update: the Bahrain Mirror is running a shortish interview with 'Ali Salman recorded on the sidelines of a conference he attended in Doha.

And following months of trashing the king in his column for his perceived weakness in dealing with protesters, Al-Watan's Faisal al-Shiekh is making up for it today with the mother of all ass-kissings: "Our love and high esteem, Hamad." Yes--today at least.

Update 2: Some new, uprising-inspired 'azzah music for this year's 'Ashura' has been passed along to me:

Update 3: Another first-hand account of John Timoney's "Miami model" in action. And yet another from Florida's St. Petersburg Times dating to 2003.

Also, an interesting exposé in The Independent: "Special undercover investigation: Executives from Bell Pottinger reveal 'dark arts' they use to burnish reputations of countries accused of human rights violations." Only surprise is that Bahrain does not pop up explicitly as a client.

Update 4: Maybe a bit too much wishful thinking, but:

Update 5: A Cartoon Movement comic on Bahrain's social tensions after the revolution: "Lines in Ink. Lines in the Sand." By cartoonist Josh Neufeld.

Update 6: More police restructuring. Not so much political restructuring.


  1. Excellent post!

    correction: Eti7ad_Alqadsia is not "Holy Union" Qadisiyyah refers to the battle where Arabs won over the Persians

  2. Ah well it's hard translating transliterated Twitter names. Thanks!

  3. Hello Justin,

    I noticed you didn't mention the oppositions next move? Could you provide us with some insight as to what they are planning?

  4. I didn't mention it because I think it's not clear. They have a certain amount of leverage following the BICI revelations, though I think less than others are assuming). The Foreign Minister's public rejection of a U.S. diplomat's offer to mediate talks suggests that the two sides are not talking at present, despite previous rumors that behind-the-scenes negotiations were ongoing. If it's true that there is no dialogue at all right now, and the government continues to give no indication that serious political reforms are on the table, then the formal opposition (i.e., al-Wifaq) ultimately will be forced to make a choice: continue hoping for a change in the state's position or attempt to revive popular pressure as a way of getting them to the negotiating table. (The youth-dominated street movement in any case will continue, but they really don't enter into the equation of a possible political solution.)

  5. A more difficult question Justin... Who has more to lose if the regime continues wasting time instead of implementing real reform?

    Theres always a chance things "explode" again and then it will be the regime asking for dialogue instead of the opposition.

    What do you think?

  6. Hello Justin,

    I don't know if this would interest you but this is what happened in Bahrain during february and march from the perspective of a teacher who taught in Polytechnic. I think part 3 is most shocking. Admission based on sect? wtf? Its education not the military!!!

  7. Thanks for these amazingly well-researched blogs and your insightful opinion. Further to the previous comment about students:

    Not only were students dismissed.
    * They were denied transcripts of studies to date at UOB.
    * Many were barred for life from all education institutions in Bahrain
    * All reinstated students will have a record on their transcipts that states they were dismissed
    * Reinstated students did not have scholarships renewed

  8. Hi Justin,
    I loved reading this piece! Well written! :)

    Wilson Peter
    Dating Service Miami


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