Saturday, September 24, 2011

Back to Square One: What Has Changed in Bahrain since February?

I debated waiting to post until the results of today's vote were in, but since I'll be traveling--and, more fundamentally, since the actual results will make no difference anyway--I figured I may as well just go ahead now.

In the spirit of the timely return to the presidency of both 'Ali Abdallah Salih (thanks, Saudi) and Vladimir Putin, it's a useful question to ask at this point what exactly has changed in Bahrain since February? This is even more appropriate as among the main purposes of the by-elections is to do away with one of the remaining outward scars of the events of February and March, namely a dysfunctional--in the sense of lacking half its members, not in the sense that it is typically dysfunctional--lower house of parliament. (For a useful overview of the by-elections see this Al-Jazeera English segment:)

In this regard yesterday's (and today's, according to organizers) attempted "Return to Marytrs' Square" is instructive. Certainly, the timing and scale of the events of late February are orders of magnitude greater than this latest try at restarting mass protests. All the same, the similarities in response to the events are striking. The main difference seems to be that the police and military have been much more resolute in preempting rather than reacting to planned protests, sealing off the rally paths (which of course are all well-advertised online) before events can spiral out of control. A similar thing happened, to name one other example, with the planned February 14 movement protest outside of the U.S. Embassy back in late July.

Thus, as summarized in The Washington Post:
Bahraini police set up checkpoints and patrolled key roads Saturday in a massive show of force during highly charged parliamentary elections that Shiite-led opposition groups have vowed to boycott.

The heaviest security was around Pearl Square in the capital Manama, which was once the hub for Shiite protesters demanding greater rights from the ruling Sunny monarchy. The area was ringed by barb wire and lines of armored police vehicles amid calls by anti-government factions to try to reclaim control of the site.

Unfortunately, however, the dissimilarities with February--when Bahrain's police and military required a confidence boost from Saudi ground forces in order to take decisive action against protesters at the Pearl Roundabout--seem to end here. As in February, riot police yesterday continued their standard tactics of firing tear gas at close range and into peoples' homes in the already-claustrophobic Shi'a villages, as one sees in the following video:

Also as in February, Bahrain TV was quick to return to its Friday sectarian programming schedule, which included bringing back the same personalities used to shame "national traitors" (as documented well in AJE's "Shouting in the Dark"). One such individual, Sa'id al-Hamad, hosted a program yesterday in which he urged "loyal citizens" to identity protesters--actually, "agents of a foreign country"--from among photographs aired in the segment. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the director of Bahrain TV is today reported to have resigned/been sacked without explanation.)

Similar appeals have appeared on pro-government forums (I don't have a Facebook account so I can't speak to that). This thread, for example, posts dozens of photos and says, "My brothers and Sisters, I expect all of you to try to identify these people from the Pearl Roundabout and mention their names, regions, and addresses."

One can find similar threads with additional photos as well.

Here: let's try one of our own. Can someone please identify this individual seen terrorizing women and children at the City Center Mall yesterday??? Please provide mobile number along with home address (including all private islands and/or palaces owned):

Much like the cancellation of student scholarships, harassment of teachers/professors (see the new HRW report on this), mass sackings, trials of doctors and lawyers, and other post-February events, the Bahraini government is also exploring more creative ways to punish those responsible for spoiling their glorious by-elections. An article in Al-Ayam, for example, cites a high-level source as suggesting that monetary and other penalties may be imposed for those who fail in their national duty by refusing to vote, noting that "tens" of other countries around the world have similar laws. Yeah, "tens" of other countries like Kazakhstan and Belarus.

In addition, authorities have also threatened prosecution for Twitter and Facebook posts calling for protests and other anti-government activities (including, presumably, electoral boycott), and have banned photography or video-taking "in the vicinity" of polling stations, presumably to mask dismal voter turnout.

Really, then, with the indiscriminate use of force against protesters; witch-hunts on Bahrain TV and pro-government social media; and threats of punishment for online activity and electoral boycott; all that is left to recreate the atmosphere of February, March, and April is an op-ed from Yusif Al Bin Khalil claiming that the United Sates and its Iranian ally is trying to overthrow the Bahraini regime.

Oh wait, here we go:

What is it that set off Al Bin Khalil this time? Another vaguely-critical sentence from Obama, of course. He writes,
To the U.S., apart from Al Wefaq, other Bahrainis have no demands; their view points and interests are not important. In short, in his speech before the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama summed up the American attitude. He said he would like to strengthen the ties and cooperation with Bahrain. He would like, though, that some change happen, mainly the relating to Al Wefaq demands.

Otherwise, how can we can we explain Obama’s statement when he says: “In Bahrain, steps have been taken towards reform and accountability. We’re pleased with that, but more is required.” The expression “more is required” is in my opinion the heart of the American attitude.

Is the royal family departure required so that Al Wefaq could govern Bahrain?
So three little words from Obama--"more is required"--are enough to show government supporters that "Washington is determined to overthrow the Bahraini regime." Al Bin Khalil would have done better to criticize Obama's sentence on semantic grounds, since the notion that "more is required" implies that ANYTHING AT ALL has changed in the first place. Whereas clearly nothing--fundamentally-speaking--has.

Thankfully, Glenn Greenwald of Salon offers a more accurate interpretation of these same words from Obama in his tongue-in-cheek article "U.S. not 'standing idly by' in Bahrain."

He writes in conclusion,
In fairness, the U.S. is fulfilling President Obama's pledge that it will "not stand idly by" in the face of a tyrant's oppression of his own people, as the U.S. is actively feeding that regime new weapons; that, by definition, is not "standing idly by." In his U.N. address, President Obama praised the regime ("steps have been taken toward reform and accountability") but then powerfully added: "more are required"; he also then equated the two sides: the government's security forces and democracy activists on whom they're firing and otherwise persecuting ("America is a close friend of Bahrain, and we will continue to call on the government and the main opposition bloc – the Wifaq – to pursue a meaningful dialogue"). I think it's important to remind everyone that the reason there is so much anti-Americanism in that part of the world is because they're primitive, ungrateful religious fanatics who Hate Our Freedom.
Indeed. And they can't even speak American.

Monday, September 19, 2011

(Traffic) Circles of Violence

Following a particularly violent week of police-protester showdowns and renewed calls for international--i.e., U.S.--attention (see also Elliot Abrams' piece today in The Atlantic), things unfortunately appear ripe in Bahrain for another round of confrontations. This is all the more so with the approach of at least three big events that could serve as possible flash-points: Saturday's by-election (the polls technically open tomorrow for absentee voters); the release of the BICI's final report and recommendations; and the Palestinian UN-membership vote. The latter, of course, is not a Bahrain matter per se; yet pro-Palestinian rallies (or anti-U.S. rallies, given the likely outcome of the vote) have a way of transforming into something more domestically-focused. Remember what happened at the al-Quds Day protests a few months ago?

For now, though, we can leave aside the BICI's likely findings and the Palestine UN vote as potential sparks for violence, especially since there is already a showdown brewing for Saturday's by-elections--and not simply in the polling booths. On top of the official boycott by opposition political societies, anti-government activists have organized a vehicle procession for Sept. 21 to mark the official opening of the polls. It's been dubbed "Operation Ring of Dignity" (if you have a better translation, let's hear it). Behold:

As you can see, the automobile procession is supposed to begin around the Seef Mall, pass near (or above, I guess) the holy ground of the Pearl Roundabout, head into Manama, pass my old apartment in Gudaibiyyah, head up Exhibition Road for some cheap hookers, go through the Diplomatic Area and then finally back out toward Sanabis. All of this is supposed to happen between 7 and 10 AM.

For the audio/video learners in the audience, organizers have provided a video tutorial as well:

If you'd already guessed that the Bahraini authorities are not impressed with this "operation," you'd be right. A Gulf Daily News story--"Bid to Disrupt Poll Traffic Rapped"--suggests that tomorrow's drive-in is a trial run for Saturday. Yet, given the limited geographical area of the rally path--protesters wisely seem to be avoiding Muharraq, al-Riffa', and other Sunni-dominated and mixed areas--a more accurate title would be: "Bid to Possibly Disrupt Traffic to One or Two Polling Stations Rapped."

(Incidentally, an "invitation" for Sunni participation was also posted to a popular pro-government forum. The response, shall we say, was not positive. Among the photos posted in the thread include the following portrait of two well-known Shi'a-lovers with the caption: "If my own foot became Shi'i, I would cut it off and throw it to the dogs.")

Still, the symbolic significance of the plan is enough to have ruffled the feathers of Bahrain's government. The Ministry of Interior has already issued a strongly-worded statement "warn[ing] against disturbing public order or threatening peoples' safety." The pro-government press is also getting in on the mix, attributing the operation to Hizballah--er, I mean al-Wifaq--and its terrorist supporters:

Additional articles condemning the opposition's traffic-related terrorism include:

And, even better:

which urges the government in the name of "some candidates" to open hotlines to call in the arrest of al-Wifaq terrorists with only a few clicks on your mobile phone.

Hotline Operator: "Sir, what is your emergency?"

Terrorized Voter: "Yes, I am stuck in traffic and would like to call in a drone strike on opposition targets currently blocking Exhibition Avenue."

Hotline Operator: "Right away, sir, and please remain calm. Be assured that your government has recently procured the latest TOW missiles from the United States for precisely these sorts of situations. Stand by for launch."

Among these "threatened voters" to which Al-Watan refers is, judging by his recent entourage, Sh. 'Abd al-Latif Al Mahmud. At a National Unity Gathering rally on Saturday, he was spotted with a "bodyguard" escort that included several apparent members of the Bahraini World Wrestling Federation, including (on the far left) the Arab cousin of Hacksaw Jim Duggan and several other people who look ironically as if they're heading to an 'Ashura 'azzah procession.

Not to be outdone, a pro-Shi'a group out of Iraq calling itself the Imam Hadi Brigades is the newest to take up the Bahraini cause as shown in the following action-packed promotional video (I can't embed it so you'll need to click on the still image below; update: it seems like the video may have been pulled?):

One will remember a similar (if more Jackass-like and less al-Qa'ida-like) video put out by a Bahraini group called the Faruq Militia whose members went around spray-painting witty slogans over anti-regime graffiti in Shi'a villages.

Let's hope that both groups stay away from polling stations.

Update: speaking of car-related Bahraini opposition videos, here's another for the planned "Return to Martyrs' Square" on September 23-24, i.e. the days before and of the polls. Perhaps Wednesday is just a trial run after all.

Update 2
: CNN Arabic has additional coverage of what it's calling the "Blockade of Manama."

Update 3: The weekly "demonstration notice" from U.S. Embassy Manama notes two additional rallies planned for this week that I hadn't heard about previously. A first is set to take place on Thursday in Tubli (site of last weekend's al-Wifaq "festival"; perhaps the Feb. 14 people are holding a counter-rally). The second--for Friday and Saturday--is a planned "attempt to return to the Pearl Roundabout" which the Embassy describes as "potentially violent." Yes, just slightly.

Update 4: The AP has a story (see also Al-Jazeera English here) on the so-called "Blockade of Manama," which seems to have gone off without violence (although 18 people were arrested for traffic violations):
Traffic has been brought to a crawl on many Bahrain highways after calls by pro-reform groups to flood the roads with cars in a show of strength before parliamentary elections later this week.
And its participants have issued an English-language statement. We will have to wait and see whether they go through with their plans for Friday and Saturday (see Update 1) to "Return to Martyrs' Square." Contrary to today's car blockade, that is unlikely to go off without violence.

Finally, Enduring America hosts an article originally posted to the blog Al-Bab that outlines some of the U.S. propaganda efforts of Bahrain's Washington-based PR firm Qorvis. If fairly common knowledge at this point, still it makes for a good read.

Update 5: Rally-goers in Tubli have unveiled a mini-Pearl Roundabout. In other news, two dozen full-size government bulldozers have been relocated to Tubli.

And see Max Fisher in The Atlantic: "Obama's UN Address and the Bahrain Exception."

Update 6: 'Ali Salman's address at the Tubli rally today has been posted online. Otherwise, everyone seems to be bracing for tomorrow's "Return to Martyrs' Square." The government has already posted a mean-looking armored personnel carrier in front of Salmaniyyah Hospital, and security checkpoints have effectively sealed the area of the Pearl Roundabout from the outside.

For their part, protesters are circulating on several forums "an easy way to break police car windows" using spark plugs (go figure), which evidently is common knowledge thanks to the Internets. So tomorrow may witness the ultimate showdown between spark plugs and armored personnel carriers. My money's not on the spark plugs.

Update 7: By all accounts, the attempt to take back the (empty ground that once housed the) Pearl Roundabout is not getting too far, as one might have expected. Here's a video from one of the rally paths (there are four; see maps of attack vectors here) through the City Center Mall, where protesters were greeted with jeers and insults from pro-governments chanting "The people want Khalifah bin Salman."

And though it's obviously not the focus here, we cannot fail to mention the latest favor of the Saudis to the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, which is their timely release of 'Ali 'Abdallah Salih back to Yemen. Yemenis join Bahrainis in saying thanks again!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Women-Friendly Bahrain

Still some two weeks out from Bahrain's upcoming by-elections, and the results are already pouring in. In classic democratic fashion, 3 of the 18 vacant seats (that's 1 in 6 or about 17% for those of you counting) are already filled, and all without that pesky process of actual voting. The procedure, in case you're the ruler of an autocratic regime who likes to give the impression of political liberalism, works something like this:
  1. Recruit a lot of people to sign up as candidates so that it looks like the elections are SERIOUS BUSINESS.
  2. Decide which of the candidates are right for you.
  3. Politely suggest that the other candidates drop out (or, if you must, allow your preferred candidate to run unopposed).
  4. Your candidate wins.
  5. ???
  6. Profit!!
Yet by far the best part of this pre-election election procedure is that you can cherry-pick your MPs from among various under-represented social groups that the people and countries who observe international elections care about, including women, ethnic and religious minorities, and so on. Sure, it's nice when you appoint, say, a female Jewish ambassador to the United States from among your country's 36-strong Jewish community; or when you appoint a female Christian to head your delegation to the UN, but obviously it comes off as a bit more genuine if you can give the impression that such individuals are actually popularly-chosen rather than appointed by royal decree.

Thus it is clear that the Bahraini authorities have hit the jackpot with their newest first-female-something-in-the-Gulf, Sawsan al-Taqawi, who has just been declared the winner of the second Northern Governorate constituency (not sure about the location here off-hand; anyone?) after her opponents pulled out of the race. (Imagine that.) Somehow, despite her winning by default, al-Taqawi has received a congratulatory cable from King Hamad claiming that
This success is the result of the progress achieved by Bahraini women in all areas and their participation in the nation's overall development and their determination to contribute to building the future of the country.
I guess among the many areas where Bahraini women have "achieved progress" is in mastering the art of registering their names as electoral candidates, since that is all al-Taqawi did. They also have gained proficiency in the creation and deployment of large campaign posters. This one reads: "Sawsan al-Taqawi: You may as well vote for me, because I'm going to win either way."

Yet we've not even reached the real kicker: not only is al-Taqawi the second elected female MP in the Gulf (second only to Bahrain's own Latifah al-Gaoud, who in 2006 and 2010 won unopposed in Bahrain's Southern sixth district--aka "the unpopulated sixth"), but al-Taqawi is also a Shi'i, which makes her the first Shi'i MP not affiliated with al-Wifaq.

I'll give you a second to wrap your mind around that.

Apart from al-Taqawi, finally, winners have also been declared in Muharraq's sixth district ('Abbas al-Madi) and the Central sixth (Jawad Hussain) after the withdrawal of their opponents.

With three seats already down and the likelihood of others to follow, then, there's a good chance that Bahrain's authorities won't even have to rig the elections through (among other means) "general" polling centers located at strategic points such as the Saudi Causeway and the airport, five of which are rumored to be deployed this time around. Because if you're a tribesman from the Saudi branch of the al-Dawasir making the trek to vote in the Bahraini elections, it's a real time-saver to have a polling center right on the causeway. You can vote, grab a quick bite to eat, and then head back to Dammam.

Undeterred by the country's first Shi'i MP from outside its ranks, finally, al-Wifaq continues to fight the good fight using the tried and true method of weekly Friday festivals-cum-rallies. Now in its 11th iteration, this week's National Unity Friday will take place in Tubli under the headline "The Will of the People." (Incidentally, I once traded t-shirts with a Yemeni wearing a shirt from 'Ali 'Abdallah Salih's re-election campaign that has the very same slogan. I have not yet worn the shirt.) That's a 4:30pm start, people, so let's get there on time.

In any event, whatever you might say about al-Wifaq's National Unity festival campaign, you can at least be happy with the improvement of this week's electronic flier, which goes old-school with its photo of the members of Bahrain's leftist National Union Committee of the 1950s, whose mixed Sunni and Shi'i membership sought to unify both committees against the country's rulers. (For more on this see Khuri's book.) Grade: 8.5/10.

Update: the Bahraini government could certainly use the positive PR of its "second woman MP of the Arab Gulf" right about now. The Independent is running a front-page article criticizing Bahrain's invitation to a British arms show (see also the related opinion piece, "A Regime We Should Not Do Business With"). This follows the well-circulated Sept. 9 editorial in The Washington Post titled "Bahrain Needs U.S. Attention Now."

Finally, people digging through the newest round of Wikileaks cables have uncovered additional nuggets from the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain, in particular the three-part series "Political Islam in Bahrain" and the two-part series "Bahraini Political Scene," both of which are making their way around the Internets via a Twitter account, @Absology, specializing in the Bahrain-related Wikileaks cables.

The mostly historical "Political Islam in Bahrain" (from 2006):

Part I: Haven't found this yet..
Part II: Islamists Succeed in Promoting Agenda in Parliament
Part III: The Liberals Strike Back

The more royal family politics-focused "Bahraini Political Scene" (from 2006):

Part I: Government Harasses Democracy Activists as Elections Approach
Part II: Royal Family Conservatives Tighten Reins on Politics

Update 2: Add to that today's front-page article in the New York Times: "Bahrain Boils Under the Lid of Repression."

Update 3: And a funeral procession in Sitra for the most recent dead demonstrator has morphed into a full-blown rally (sound familiar?); see video below. The AP summarizes the ensuing clashes with riot police.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ethnic Conflict and Political Mobilization in Bahrain and the Arab Gulf

Following a successful defense on Thursday, I'm posting as promised the chapters of my dissertation, which focuses particularly though not exclusively on Bahrain.

For those only interested in getting an overview of the thesis without actually reading it, I've posted the abstract:

It reads:
This dissertation challenges the prevailing rentier state interpretation of political life in the countries of the Arab Gulf, a theoretical framework little changed for more than a quarter century. It does so by evaluating for the first time the fundamental claim of rentier theory to understand the individual-level drivers of political views and behavior among ordinary citizens of rent-based regimes, in particular its assumption that individuals are content to forfeit a role in political decision-making in exchange for a tax-free, natural resource-funded welfare state. By this conception, citizens’ degree of economic contentment is the key variable influencing the extent of their political interest and demands for participation; normative support for their governments; and, ultimately, the overall stability of their regimes, with other, non-material factors playing no important systematic role at the individual level.

Yet this dissertation identifies and elaborates one important conditionality to the basic rentier premise that economically-satisfied Gulf Arabs make politically-satisfied Gulf Arabs: the existence of societal division along confessional (Sunni-Shi‘i) lines, a condition present in each of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain. Utilizing the results of over a dozen elite interviews and an original 500-household survey of political attitudes in Bahrain, along with parallel survey data from Iraq, I demonstrate that in societies in which confessional membership is politically salient, this shared identity offers a viable basis for mass political coordination in a type of state thought by its very nature to lack one. Under this condition, I show, the political opinions and actions of ordinary Gulf Arabs are not determined primarily by material considerations but by an individual’s confessionally-defined position as a member of the political in- or out-group. Moreover, I demonstrate, concerns about the national loyalty of the confessionally-defined political out-group—that is to say, about the perceived threat of Iranian-inspired Shi‘a emboldening—means that the latter community is disproportionately excluded from the rentier benefits of citizenship. In sum, in Bahrain and other Gulf societies divided along Sunni-Shi‘i lines, neither is the rentier state willing to offer its presumed material wealth-for-political silence bargain to all citizens, nor are all citizens willing to accept it.
For the full (366-page) version, click on the image below.

If 366 pages is too rich for your blood, however, you can choose from individual chapters, which are described in the introductory first chapter thus:
Chapter 2 offers a more expansive account of the conceptual framework introduced already, a theory of ethnic-based political mobilization in the Arab Gulf rentier states.

Chapter 3 gives additional substance to this theoretical account by studying the case of Sunni-Shi‘i conflict in Bahrain. Drawing insights from interviews conducted with some dozen Bahraini political and religious leaders—four of whom now face lengthy prison terms for their alleged roles in the February 14 uprising—this section describes how, in Bahrain, the individual-oriented politics of economic competition assumed to operate in allocative societies is superseded by an ethnic-based contest to determine the very character of the nation itself: its history and cultural identity; the bases of citizenship; and the conditions for inclusion in public service.

Chapter 4 supplies a practical and methodological preface to the analysis of my Bahrain mass survey, detailing the actual survey procedure, likely theoretical and methodological objections, and a first reliable look at Bahrain’s ethnic demographics since its 1941 census.

Chapter 5 employs the previously-unavailable data from my Bahrain mass survey to explore the determinants of political opinion and action among ordinary Bahraini citizens. It seeks to discover whether Bahrainis’ normative attitudes toward their government and the political actions they take for or against it are influenced foremost by material satisfaction, as per the rentier state hypothesis, or by ethnic affiliation and orientations, as argued herein.

Chapter 6
mirrors the Bahrain mass survey analysis with a parallel study of political opinion and behavior in Iraq. Using comparable survey data, this investigation aims to learn how far the individual-level relationships uncovered in the previous section are limited only to the Bahrain context or, on the contrary, obtain more widely.

Chapter 7 reviews the preceding, makes note of its limitations, and suggests how it might be extended as part of a larger revised Arab Gulf research agenda.
Finally, I've also uploaded the dissertation overview that I presented at the defense:

Get all this now before I somehow lose the ability to publish it thanks to the dysfunctional copyright regime of the United States.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Time Has Come

Despite reports that I attempted to sneak into Bahrain, was captured by Saudi border police, and eventually was shipped to Libya as a mercenary for Qaddafi's forces, actually I've just been moving out of my apartment in Washington and preparing for a dissertation defense on Sept. 8 in Ann Arbor. So updates may be few and far between until we finish our relocation to Doha toward the end of the month.

If anyone will be in Ann Arbor on the 8th and is interested in hearing more about my dissertation and/or Bahrain survey, it will be from 11:00am - 1:00pm in the Walker Room (#5664) on the 5th Floor of Haven Hall. I also plan to post the dissertation chapters online once the defense is over.