Monday, December 12, 2011

What If Bahrain Has a Sunni Awakening?

Fully recovered from this weekend's tear-gassing and non-arrest arrest with Nick Kristof in Sitra, I'm back on Monday for a fresh start. (Speaking of which, there are reports that Bahrain's reformed police--what with its new "code of conduct" and foreign advisers--still is not so reformed as to stop killing civilians in its attempts to break up demonstrations in residential areas. Yesterday a six-day-old girl in the village of Bilad al-Qadim reportedly died from tear gas inhalation.)

Also over the weekend was published my forward-looking article on Bahrain for Jane's Intelligence Review that I alluded to in the previous post. The article, which I see was printed with the title "Gulf apart - Bahrain faces political and sectarian divide," is unfortunately only available to Jane's subscribers. Indeed, even I have not seen the final version and will not until I receive a physical copy of the January issue of the magazine sometime this week.

The basic idea of the piece may be easily summarized, however. It develops three possible medium-term scenarios and their implications for Bahraini stability. These are: (1) some sort of political solution that satisfies the government and opposition; (2) continuation down the current path of political stagnation and low-level street violence; and (3) a second comprehensive crackdown. For those who visit here often, it may come as little surprise that I identify the middle scenario as the most likely. This is not for a lack of imagination or reluctance to make a more decisive prediction. Rather, it is because I fail to comprehend how the other two--in particular the mutually-agreeable political solution--could arise in practice.

There is no need to review all the reasons why a substantive political reform-for-an end to protests sort of deal remains a difficult one to achieve in Bahrain. The past 10 months have illustrated the depth and breadth of these. In short, the king/CP camp appears to lack the will and/or (due to pressure from society, more conservative Al Khalifa members, and Saudi Arabia) the ability to offer real political change; while, at the same time, it is not clear that the formal opposition (i.e., al-Wifaq) even enjoys a sufficiently influential position to end street protests in return for any government political concessions.

As for the other less likely option--another comprehensive military/security crackdown--this would require either (1) a much reinvigorated opposition able to organize protests on the level of February and March necessitating another security response; or (2) a more fully-empowered hawkish camp within the Al Khalifa led presumably by the prime minister, which would undertake a second crackdown even in the absence of large-scale protests. Of the two causes, the latter I think is both the more likely and obviously would be the more worrisome inasmuch as it would signal the complete political relegation of the king and his supporters.

Still, though, I think even this possibility is remote. For one thing, another crackdown would undermine the government's carefully-crafted narrative of having undertaken political reforms and engaged in societal "reconciliation" via the National Dialogue, parliamentary by-elections, and BICI. Furthermore, and more to the point, a second crackdown would end the country's hope of retaining what remains of its appeal as a Gulf banking and business hub. As investors fled 1980s Lebanon for the more politically-stable yet still socially-relaxed Bahrain, so would they would be booking their flights to Dubai should tanks again roll through the Financial Harbor. Most large multinationals rode out the storm of February 2011; they are unlikely to sit through another one in February 2012.

Of course, much of the difference in possible outcomes depends on how far the opposition can use the momentum of the BICI report to its tactical advantage, namely by resuming more organized and large-scale demonstrations in place of the various youth-led protests and petty acts of road sabotage that the street movement has recently devolved into. Cognizant of its portrayal as a religious organization masquerading as a political society, al-Wifaq seems to have avoided overt politicization of the 'Ashura' festival (although, of course, the holiday itself is at bottom a political holiday rooted in a political-cum-religious disagreement). Indeed, the only real incident seems to have been the clashes in Muharraq involving Sunni and Shi'i citizens. Riot police showed up eventually of course, but the point is that 'Ashura' was not used as a platform for launching political action, as it well could have been.

In their first Friday sermons after 'Ashura', however, both 'Isa Qasim and 'Ali Salman vigorously reiterated the opposition's political demands and, importantly, the need to return to the streets in order to achieve them. Indeed, the language is so strong that one popular opposition forum thread is titled, "Is al-Wifaq returning to the people?" 'Ali Salman is quoted extensively on opposition forums here, while a video of the relevant portions of 'Isa Qasim's speech is below.

Yet Bahrain's stability going forward does not depend on the actions of the opposition only. As critical--if not discussed here as much as it perhaps should be--are the strategies and political calculations of the country's Sunnis, most of whom are made nominally pro-government by default. Indeed, Bahrain is the only place in the Arab world where the Muslim Brotherhood (via its political society al-Manbar al-Islami) takes on a pro-government posture, which demonstrates the extent to which Bahrain's demographic realities and fears of Shi'a empowerment have necessitated political alliances that probably would not exist otherwise.

Although the government has capitalized on (and helped to cultivate) a vicious anti-Shi'a/anti-Iran sentiment that has served to focus the ire and suspicions of ordinary Sunni citizens upon their Shi'a co-nationals in the opposition, to what extent does this represent a viable long-term strategy to avoid political reform? Certainly, the current extent of social and political polarization may give the impression that the government may succeed indefinitely. Why might we be persuaded to believe otherwise?

Not-so-unrecent History

Among the virtues of Khuri's unparalleled Tribe and State in Bahrain is its extended discussion of Bahrain's High Executive Committee (later called the National Union Committee), a coalition of Sunni and Shi'i notables organized in 1954 in the wake of sustained sectarian conflict. Of course, the group's reformist agenda, its successful organization of general strikes, and more fundamentally the threat of concerted political action that crosses sectarian lines landed its members in jail or in Egypt. (Cf. my article on Ebrahim Sharif and Muhammad Al Bu Flasa, "The Most Dangerous Men in Bahrain.") The point is that this sort of cooperation as a response to heightened communal tensions is not unknown to Bahrain. (A full Wikipedia article is here.)

An Opposition-less Parliament

Without the parliamentary presence of al-Wifaq, whose social and political initiatives were always an obvious target of pro-government blocs, there is now the distinct possibility that Sunni members of the majlis al-nuwab will now be held accountable for accomplishing something other than holding al-Wifaq at bay. This Twitter exchange between one current MP and Sunni constituents illustrates this development (click for a magnified view):

As summarized by one of the angry constituents: "The motto of our MPs: 'We didn't hear you.'"

Economic Realities

One of the interesting findings of my Bahrain mass political survey is that, while the political opinions and behaviors of Bahraini Shi'a are not influenced by their level of economic satisfaction, those of Sunni citizens are. Variation in support for the Bahraini government among Shi'a citizens is unrelated to material well-being, in other words, whereas among Sunnis material considerations are quite important in determining political opinion and behavior. Take, for example, the question of participation in political demonstrations. The graph below shows the effect of economic satisfaction on demonstration participation in Bahrain, by confessional membership.

One sees that whereas a (+/-1 standard deviation) difference in reported economic satisfaction has a near-0 effect on Shi'a respondents, its effect is large and statistically-significant (at the 90% confidence level, given the limited sample size) among Sunnis. Put in substantive terms, the estimated likelihood of demonstration participation for a Sunni of “very good” household economy is 7%, all else being equal, of “good” economy 16%, of “poor” economy 29%, and of “very poor” economy 45%. Among Shi‘is, by contrast, the estimated probability of demonstration increases from 48% among those who report “very good” economy to 51% among those with “very bad,” a change that in any case is not statistically-distinguishable from 0. Poorer Bahraini Shi'a, it turns out, are no more likely to demonstrate than are any other Shi'a. Yet poorer Sunnis are much more likely to do so.

More generally--and here I quote from Chapter 5 of my dissertation--
In only two of [the] six models of political action [investigated in the dissertation] is household economy a significant predictor of direct or indirect participation, and there only among Bahrain’s Sunnis. Shi‘a citizens protest, sign petitions, attend public inquiries, and vote in elections not on the basis of economy, not because they seek redress for economic grievances, but on principle. Their political engagement stems not from material dissatisfaction but from dissatisfaction with the regime as a whole, wherein they find themselves limited as a group in political power and social standing on the basis of ethnicity. Only among Sunnis, then, do we have evidence that better economy elicits more political quiet. This also implies on the other hand that Bahrain’s rulers do not earn a free pass from Sunni citizens merely on account of shared ethnicity. For their near-unwavering support, and for their help in keeping the government’s fiercest critics at bay, ordinary Sunnis expect something in return.
The question, then, is how long the government will remain capable financially of buying Sunni political support? The state can always blame society's economic woes on the destructive effects of the opposition's continued protest activities, yet even prior to the uprising the state was in no fiscal position to provide for all of its citizens, Sunni or Shi'i. In interviews with several (now-former) Sunni parliamentarians, for example, I was told that it was not Bahraini Shi'a but the country's Sunnis that had most cause for political complaint. Quoting again from my thesis:
When asked about the causes of Shi‘a frustration in Bahrain, all three retort that, in fact, it is the Sunnis who have equal or greater cause for complaint. “[The Shi‘a] villages used to be not cared for and were very backward and under-developed,” notes ‘Ali Ahmad. “Now a majority of the [government’s] projects—in housing, for example—they are targeted toward the village areas.” Samy Qambar makes the same observation, saying,
There is an area [in my district] of al-Rifa‘ known as “Lebanon” that is one of the poorest regions of Bahrain. So it not simply that the Shi‘a are poor and Sunna rich. The challenge of poverty and socio-economic inequality [in Bahrain] is not just a Shi‘a issue or an issue based on religious differences. We [al-Manbar al-Islamïi] are working in the parliament to the raise the quality of life of these people as a whole—not just Sunnis or just Shi‘a.
The most emphatic response, however, came as usual from ‘Isa Abu al-Fath. “Look,” he began,
the Shi‘a need to understand that none of the GCC governments pay attention to their publics—it’s not just them who are ignored. Even for us Sunnis—who represents us in the government? The Shi‘a—at least they have [Muhammad ‘Ali bin Mansur] al-Sitri, who is a special advisor to the King [for legislative affairs]; they also have several [Shi‘i] ministers. Who do the Sunnis have? We are the ones suffering—more than them. ...
When ‘Isa Abu al-Fath laments that “we Sunnis” have no one in the government (i.e., in the executive branch) to represent “us,” he is not being disingenuous but simply excludes as a matter of course the members of Al Khalifa and many other political elites from among the allied families, who, while obviously Sunni, are above all of the ruling, tribal class, assumed to represent ordinary Sunnis no more than does Muhammad al-Sitri. While this is not to endorse his claim that the Sunnis “are the ones suffering,” Abu al-Fath’s argument is informative to the extent that it provides a possible explanation for our empirical observations. Ordinary Sunni Bahrainis, he says in essence, are poorly-repaid for the allegiance they show the Al Khalifa: disproportionately supportive of the government, they lose out on the majority of its benefaction to the very side that opposes it. This follows of course not from malice but from the dictates of political expediency, which say that when resources are scarce, better to spend them where they are likely to matter most. If Sunnis can be expected to remain supportive of the status quo, whether due to natural disposition, out of ethnic affinity, or so as not to give political ground to their rivals, why then offer them benefits that might be used to win additional friends from among today’s enemies? When one is the Democratic nominee for president, in other words, what use spending campaign dollars in New York?
These interviews like my Bahrain mass survey was conducted in 2009. Yet I would submit that the intervening two years have done little to change this dynamic. For indications of this one may look no further than today's Al-Watan, where our friend Yusif Al Bin Khalil offers some reminiscence on the hard-line newspaper's fourth anniversary (my emphasis):

Despite the media, political and security challenges faced by the newspaper, it has preserved the same original approach it adopted from the beginning. I think I can confirm the newspaper has never gone out of the track developed by its founders. ...
Al-Watan maintained its personality though many disagree with it, and it has proved to be able to be part in the difficult media game today. The recent crisis revealed another dimension in the newspaper as a media project; it is evident that the approach adopted by Al-Watan has managed to be a balancing factor in the crisis, and proved a truth that was a hypothesis a few years ago. The truth is this: in the Bahraini society, we cannot deal with one party only and neglect the others.
We can in no way exclude any of the components that make up this society.
Al Bin Khalil's message, I think, is clear, and it is the same that I heard from Sunni political leaders when I sat down with them in 2009.

Even more to the point is another Al-Watan article by Hesham al-Zayani about a new youth-based Sunni movement called "The Al-Fatih Youth Union" (a reference to the large Sunni counter-protests in February and March) that is attempting to capture the momentum--and followers--of the National Unity Gathering, which has been quiet lately. He writes,
Some circumstances prevented me from attending the youth gathering at Al-Fateh Mosque last Friday after the Friday prayers. Although social networks did not promote for this gathering in a good way and although there was only limited presence of media, this gathering managed to gather about 7000 young men and women. ...

The Al Fateh Youth Union came out without any political ideology or being adopted by any political associations. It is a gathering of some young people who do not want to be associated with any existing political trend.

They are fed up with the fact that those who have always supported the entity of Bahrain, Arabism, sovereignty and the Royal family are being fooled because their loyalty is taken for granted; therefore they are treated as a (reserve division). These are serious mistakes which we will never know what they will lead to.

What the state has not realized is that the movement is now in the hands of young people and those who are trying to exclude them will be strongly resisted and no one will predict what is going to happen. The fear barrier of taking to the streets has been broken. Things are developing in a spontaneous and enthusiastic way with the purpose of making patriots’ voices heard by the state.
As for the likelihood of a "Sunni awakening" in Bahrain? Perhaps still not great. Yet, as al-Zayani writes of the post-uprising changes in Bahraini politics, "we will never know what they will lead to."

Update: On the occasion of King Hamad's arrival in Britain to recruit more of the country's crack police trainers, 'Ali Salman has sat for an interview with the BBC's Frank Gardner in which he says that al-Wifaq is willing to hold direct talks with the king. And I am willing to host a syndicated television program where I am paid many dollars to discuss Bahraini politics.

Update 2: Lot of Bahrain news this morning. First, a King Hamad interview in the Telegraph.

Next, yesterday's Doha Debate--the season finale--which is sure to make the Bahrainis love Qatar even more than they already do:

Evidently the original pro-government participants--including FM Sh. Khalid and the Minister for Human Rights--failed to show, leaving only the Saudi editor of the Arab News and Abdullah al-Dirazi (one of the members of the king's post-BICI follow-up committee) to spout the Bahraini government line. The result, as reported today in the Gulf Times: 78% in favor of the motion that "This house has no confidence in Bahrain's promises to reform." Imagine that. The program is set to air Dec. 17-18 on BBC World News.

Finally, London's Chatham House will host an event on post-BICI Bahrain today (agenda here) that combines an interesting cast of characters. The second panel pits 'Ali Salman against Abd al-Latif Al Mahmud, the third Maryam al-Khawajah versus Suhail al-Qusaibi. Sparks will fly.

Update 3: A friend passed along this song out of the UAE glorifying the slaughter of Shi'a. Don't you hate that when you're trying to come up with new song lyrics and all you can think about is religious genocide?

Update 4: The Occupy Movement comes to Bahrain: "Occupy Budaiyi Road."

Update 5: If nothing else, yesterday's Chatham House event on Bahrain proved that even Al Mahmud and the National Unity Gathering can look reasonable when dressed in London chic.

Update 6: Nick Kristof has finally found the time to write about his tear-gassing and non-arrest arrest in Bahrain last week mentioned in the introduction. Now with video:

And a bit off-topic perhaps, but a good read for all those (like myself) who were wondering what ever happened to those February protests in Oman: "How the Arab Spring Skirted Oman."

1 comment:

  1. Proof for all of you who think the BICI report isnt being implemented.

    what more can you ungrateful citizens ask for?


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