Thursday, November 24, 2011

BICI Final Report: What Now?

It's grant-deadline season here in Doha, so I won't pretend to have read yet all or much of the BICI's final report. Thanks to many individuals who apparently have, though, there's little reason to stay up at night scanning the entire 500+ pages.

Already we have a "Cliff's Notes" version; a "What's next for Bahrain?" sort of piece in Foreign Policy; an angry response from Bahraini pro-governments calling the report "one-sided"; and a Washington Times article analyzing the BICI's finding of a lack of Iranian involvement in the uprising (a finding the King summarily rejected at the press conference), which also serves to offer a nice quote-of-the-day from Bahrain's Ambassador to the U.S. The relevant portion reads:
“The Iranians were propagandists,” Mr. Bassiouni said. “You can’t expect them not to want to take advantage of a situation like that. … But to say they were funding, they were agitating? We found no evidence of that. Now whether the government has [that evidence] and is not showing it to us, I can’t tell.”

In an interview Wednesday, Bahraini Ambassador to the United States Houda Nonoo defended the government’s claims of Iranian involvement. She pointed to Iranian state media provocations and official statements calling Bahrain Iran’s 14th province.

But asked for evidence of direct material support, she hedged. “We don’t have that evidence, but it’s there,” Ms. Nonoo said. “It’s not evidence you can touch or see physically, but we know it’s there.”
Which, even if she didn't know it, is actually a paraphrase of Homer Simpson: "Facts schmacts. You can use facts to prove anything that's even remotely true."

Beyond the entertainment provided by Houda Nonoo, we also have another good New York Times piece from Anthony Shadid that in one line gets to the real crux of the matter going forward:
Mr. Bassiouni, in a view echoed by American officials, had hoped the report would empower government officials who are perceived as more moderate. But the outcome will depend in large part on the strength of the resistance to the report’s recommendations within the ruling family.
Finally, Mansur al-Jamri squared off with Bahrain's Finance Minister Sh. Ahmad (looking quite finance-like sans thawb and dishdash) on PBS Newshour. The video of the 10-minute segment is below:

In general, then, it seems that the report fell somewhere between the two extreme interpretations offered since the BICI's creation--that its toothless final product would reflect the commission's being altogether co-opted; and that it would be used as a mandate for King Hamad to undertake some much-needed political house-cleaning. The reality seems to more closely approximate the latter, though, to refer again to Anthony Shadid's prescient line quoted above: " the outcome will depend in large part on the strength of the resistance to the report’s recommendations within the ruling family."

King Hamad has vowed to punish those found guilty of abuse; yet as the report fails to identify culpable officials by name (having evidently "ran out of time"), each case brought forward by King Hamad (or the post-BICI investigative committee that will be formed) will be fought tooth and nail by conservative Al Khalifa factions. In his Washington Times interview discussing Iranian involvement, for example, Bassiouni says of the Interior Ministry:
“It is no excuse for a superior officer to say, ‘I didn’t know,’ when it it is the duty of that officer to know,” he said. “So if you have a situation in the Ministry of Interior where torture goes on for three months - and you’re speaking of numbers in the hundreds - there’s no way that mid-level or superior officers did not know. And if they didn’t know, they’re derelict of their duties.”
In other words, senior Ministry of Interior officials--including perhaps Sh. Rashid himself--are guilty either of overseeing systematic abuse and torture, or of extreme administrative negligence. Yet how optimistic should one be that King Hamad is willing and able to go after Sh. Rashid (and by implication his Al Khalifa allies in the Ministry of Defense)? Some indication may be offered by the composition of the post-BICI investigative body, but on this point it is difficult to be optimistic.

Similarly, the BICI recommends that Bahrain develop "a national reconciliation program that addresses the grievances of groups which are, or perceive themselves to be, deprived of equal political, social and economic rights and benefits." Which sounds an awful lot like a second round of "National Dialogue," whose first iteration clearly (given the selection of al-Dhaharani as chair as well as the main result of the dialogue: more power to the prime minister) was co-opted by Khalifa bin Salman. So, apart from the existence of a new report that confirms what everyone already knew but does not name names, what has changed since August that makes a second dialogue more likely to result in actual political reform than the first? Has the crown prince really regained enough political standing to restart government-opposition talks?

In the end, the reason the BICI report presented such a unique opportunity for the country is that it could help resolve its most debilitating problem, which is internal dissension within the ruling family, a stalemate that continues to preclude any meaningful change. It remains to be seen how far the post-BICI implementation commission will go in undercutting the position of Al Khalifa hawks, but the lack of specific implications tied to individuals will, again, make such an effort a much more difficult one.

Indeed, in the very week of the report's release, at least two additional protesters have been killed during demonstrations, both by "runaway" police vehicles. If the state is unable to reign in Bahrain's security forces in the very run-up to a report documenting Bahrain's out-of-control security forces, then should we really change our expectations now? The king can revise or even repeal the country's nebulous Anti-Terrorism Law, for example, but will that really put an end to arbitrary detentions and the arrest of political activists?

When Sh. Rashid or other top security officials are retired (or moved to, say, the Ministry of Environment); or when Crown Prince Salman announces a new dialogue initiative with opposition leaders that doesn't include 5,000 participants, I will be the first to acknowledge my mistake.

Update: A new commission to study the findings of the commission. Anyone see where this is going?

Update 2: A start, anyway: "Bahrain replaces national security chief." What about Sh. Rashid?

And evidently the U.S. has not learned its lesson about "interference" in Bahrain's affairs. Expect about 14 op-eds in Al-Watan tomorrow decrying this story about the attempts of an unnamed "U.S. diplomat" to mediate government-opposition talks.

Finally, al-Wifaq has rejected participation in the government's post-commission commission, supposedly on grounds that no serious actions had been taken since the release of the report. Perhaps the dismissal of Sh. Khalid bin 'Abdallah was meant as a signal.

Update 3: Check that. The national security head was "fired" only in the sense that he was moved to the National Security Council and made special security adviser to the king.

The Interior Ministry (along with the GDN) has hailed sweeping "reforms" that include highly progressive measures such as bringing "international experts ... to help develop Bahrain's police force and a code of conduct." As opposed to, say, just making a policy proscribing the use of shotguns against protesters.

Finally, in a new interview with Al-Hayat, Bassiouni has called "regrettable" al-Wifaq's rejection to take part in the government's post-commission commission, a line picked up quickly by the BNA.

Update 4: Based on his Washington Times op-ed yesterday, former 5th Fleet head Vice Admiral Charles W. Moore clearly has not read the BICI report. Ironically, the Washington Times is the same newspaper that published the article (linked above) on the BICI finding of no Iranian involvement in the Bahrain protest movement. Someone get Moore a copy of the report.

Update 5: What he said.

Update 6: Instead of giving the opposition a (political) reason to stop protesting, Bahrain seems content in its post-BICI "reforms" to change the way it deals with demonstrators by hiring new Western police advisers.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Pre-BICI Realpolitik: Can King Hamad Keep Bahrain Safe from Terrorists?

With only a week remaining before the unveiling of the BICI's final report (assuming it isn't postponed again), doubt and rumors about its substance continue to fuel a good bit of pre-release political posturing on all sides. While many in the opposition continue to view the entire Bassiouni commission as a mere pawn of the regime--hence the nice photoshop to the left that someone passed along--others in Bahrain continue to give a much different impression.

Crown Prince Salman, speaking last weekend in Abu Dhabi where he was jealously attending its grand prix, told reporters, for example:
"There are certainly things that happened in the country that nobody is proud of. But we have an important report coming out on November 23 and that will really give us a narrative of the truth that we can accept and move on."
The less moderate factions of the royal family and their friends in the press are far less sanguine about the likely outcome of November 23. Admittedly, this is helped in part by the plans of the February 14 coalition for a "Black Day of Anger"--black referring to the color of the smoke that will emanate from the large quantity of tires that they plan to burn in the middle of Bahrain's roads.

Such opposition plans for more annoying street clogging maneuvers have led to the following argument in the pro-government media: (1) if the opposition is planning such demonstrations, it must understand that the report will implicate PROTESTERS as being in the wrong during the February/March uprising, and not the government; and (2) the state should use this opportunity to execute a new crackdown--and why not bust out 'Ali Salman's car windows while we're at it? (Presumably then we would require a new BICI to investigate THAT crackdown, and the cycle continues indefinitely.)

Thus, Yusif Al Bin Khalil writing in Al-Watan:
These days, we hear analyses, predictions and dissertations from all walks of life about what the fact-finding committee report could include and the coming steps that would follow. Amid these expectations, some use very strange arguments. So, we should wait until the report is released; then we can reinforce the law and take strict security measures among which is the curfew or isolating some villages in the Northern Province! ...

All these theses aim at being ready to face a probable condemnation--if it happened--from the fact-finding committee and therefore the sooner the report will be released, the more ready Al Wefaq supporters will be ready to refuse its recommendations. ...

Being ready for the report results and for the post-report period needs total conviction and modification of many concepts the first of which is the “amnesty” concept and the “waiver” concept which has become phobia to many people. And as soon as people hear of an arrested person being released, they get disappointed and think again that an amnesty and a waiver will take place.
In sum: the BICI will vindicate the government, which should then take no pity on those who cannot accept the result--a clear swipe at King Hamad and his penchant for royal pardons of political prisoners. (More on this latter point in a second.)

Yet, if this is the official media line, recent government actions would seem to betray a much different calculation, and certainly not one premised on BICI exoneration. I refer of course to the state's most recent "terrorist cell" break-up, the convenience and vagueness of which invites a repeat of my article from March: "Sound Familiar? More Terrorist Plots." In fact, I have done the government the favor of creating a terrorist flowchart template for use in future busts, based on the famous Al-Watan version referenced in the previous link. It simply requires the entry of a new date, new names for the "terrorists," and some stock photos. Then you just hit PRINT and--bam!--another terrorist cell has been dismantled.

A curious thing about this most recent cell break-up, however--apart from the fact that, as the Guardian reports, the BNA's official announcement "gave no further information on the suspects or other details to support the allegations"--is that it would seem to contradict another of the Bahraini government's positions: namely, that the opposition's activities inside the country, not least the February uprising itself, are choreographed by Iran. For why, then, would these terrorist suspects attempt to travel to Iran (via Saudi, Qatar, and Syria, supposedly) in order to organize a cell that would then RETURN to Bahrain (somehow) to carry out attacks? Indeed, if the government is correct in its claims that the opposition has secret arms caches and training from Hizballah and/or Iran, why don't these armed, trained "terrorists" who are ALREADY IN BAHRAIN simply carry out their attacks?

Complementing this dubious story is an even more blatant fabrication: a Nov. 8 statement supposedly released by a Bahraini outfit calling itself the "Supporters of the February 14th Revolution" in which the group threatens U.S. and Western interests in Bahrain and the Gulf while praising Iran. This, of course, was meant to solicit a reaction among Western observers along the lines of that reported in Al-Watan:

"Oh no, a crowd of obviously non-Bahraini Khomeini supporters! This article and its implications must be true!"

Finally, there is today's news that investigators analyzing Bahrain's newest terrorist cell have uncovered a "hit list" that apparently includes such high value targets as BTV news anchors. One hopes that such revelations do not introduce some bias into the station's coverage of events in Bahrain!

More seriously, the substance and timing of this "terrorism" onslaught cannot be unrelated, one suspects, to the anticipation surrounding the BICI report. Certainly, Bahrain's terrorist "bust" was announced amid the IAEA report on Iran's nuclear program and the attendant saber-rattling. But the intended audience seems to be domestic as much as international. The lesson: Bahrain faces real and growing internal and external threats, and the state needs to take more decisive action to guard against them.

Here we return to the earlier point regarding King Hamad and his perceived leniency in dealing with the opposition. Al Bin Khalil writes, recall, that
"[b]eing ready for the report results and for the post-report period needs total conviction and modification of many concepts, the first of which is the concept of 'amnesty' and 'pardon,' which has become phobia to many people. And as soon as people hear of an arrested person being released, they get disappointed and think again that an amnesty and a waiver will take place."
Now, this same point is made even more forcefully, for example, in an article in today's GDN, "Putting Bahrain together again." It begins:
Previously known as one of the best destinations for expats and the financial hub of the Middle East, 'Business Friendly' Bahrain is now rocked with sectarian-fuelled tension and violence and has become a place to avoid, with main highways routinely blocked with oil slicks and makeshift barricades.

I would like to examine whether the King and, perhaps more importantly, his advisers can repair the damage.

Very few would doubt His Majesty King Hamad's sincerity and genuineness. All who meet him are struck by his openness, kindness and true passion to do the right thing for his people. The question is: does he have the right people around him, right advisers to put Bahrain together again?

Then, after a lengthy introduction of the BICI investigation:
It seems to me that those advising the King have been too quick to adopt the commission's suggestions and dare I suggest have not fully thought through the consequences. Indeed, have they made matters worse? What was the immediate consequence of medical personnel being released? Rioting increased and roads were blocked with oil slicks and chains. As a further consequence, the pro-government faction felt dismayed and became concerned that Bahrain's legal system had been sacrificed for international brownie points. Surely, the King's advisers considered and fully evaluated the likely reaction to adopting the commission's suggestions? I wonder. ...

The future for Bahrain shouldn't be in the hands of the King's advisers alone. Voices from all segments of Bahrain's society need to be involved in the healing process and in this regard it would seem more beneficial to implement recommendations of National Dialogue - recommendations which emanated from a wide representation of Bahrain's society, not just advisers.

I am confident that Bahrain will get back together again, but it needs more than the King's advisers to do this.

(For a similar if less pointed sentiment from Bahrain's Chamber of Commerce and Industry, see the Nov. 11 article "Enough is Enough.")

In short, if the BICI represents--at least in no small part--an attempt by the king to regain some of his political influence shed over the previous 8 months, as I have discussed, then it is clear that his competitors are wise to the game, and are not content to take its intended result lying down. And protesters, in their continued acts of annoyance and road sabotage, are inadvertently aiding the cause of these less compromising Al Khalifa factions. The latter's aim is--and has been for some time--to paint a picture of a bleak security situation compounded by a king too indecisive and too weak to resolve it. How, then, can the state--more precisely King Hamad--punish (by BICI recommendation) precisely those individuals who did and continue to help most in keeping the country safe--officials in the police, army, and power ministries?

The answer being pushed by Bahrain's hawks within the ruling family and within the population more generally is: he can't.

At stake in the BICI final report is not simply Bahrain's international reputation, but its internal distribution of power. On November 23 and the days that follow--including critically the state's handling of the politically-charged Shi'a religious festival of 'Ashura' which will begin only a week later--we should have a much clearer indication of precisely how that intra-Al Khalifa struggle has played out.

Update: Another doozy from Al-Watan: "November 23: the cemetery of woes and knowledge."

Update 2: New video evidence has emerged showing Bahrain's Iranian-backed terrorist cell in action!

Update 3: When can we expect the next BICI report to investigate police conduct during the writing of the first report?

Bahraini authorities have given up on the "these bullets/cars don't match the ones on record with the Interior Ministry" excuse and are now using protesters' own tactics against them, claiming that the driver of the police vehicle that ran over this weekend's victim lost control due to oil poured on the road by demonstrators, on the face of it a not unreasonable explanation.

Update 4: The following timely cartoon is said to be from a Kuwaiti newspaper, though I can't find the source. I think the author forgot to draw the oil slick causing the rabid car to spin out of control, not to mention the AK-47 concealed by the violent "rioter."

Also timely is this article from Global Voices, which asks: "Bahrain: Are Police Cars Running over Protesters on Purpose?"

Update 5: A day before the BICI report and/or the "Black Day of Rage," Anthony Shadid writes in the NYT: "Bahrain Is Nervously Awaiting Report on Its Forgotten Revolt."

And Bahraini human rights group have attempted to preempt Bassiouni's commission with a report of their own, to be released today.

Finally, U.S. foreign policy leaders have sent a letter to Clinton urging her to push reforms in Bahrain.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

'Eid Programming Note, Literally

(The video above is now updated to the full (~12 min) segment.)

I'll be off for most of 'Eid, but I did not want to fail to mention an upcoming documentary on Bahrain from--wait for it--ESPN. The program, examining the post-February crackdown on sports figures, will headline a November 8th episode (the season finale) of E:60, a sort of "beyond the sports headlines" investigative series. If it's anything like the similar "30 for 30" series, it should be well worth watching. (Indeed, Bahrain's rulers must already be taking note. They've released at least one of the footballers involved--a 17 year-old Iraqi national from Al-Muharraq Club arrested seven months ago--in a supposed 'Eid al-Adha gesture of goodwill. What about not imprisoning teenage soccer players--or killing the elderly fathers of opposition leaders--in the first place?)

One hopes that members of Congress and/or President Obama, known to be a regular ESPN viewer, catches the program. The story may differ a little from the one reported to them by the Defense Department. Showtime is 7:00pm EST.

From the preview:
What if a country's biggest athlete, a legend, a hero, a player who brought the nation some of its biggest sporting moments, was at practice one day and was suddenly taken into custody by masked men? What if he was held for months, tortured, his career ended, banned from his team and for playing for his country, all because he expressed his political views? It's not a storyline from a Hollywood script -- that is what allegedly happened in Bahrain. Specifically, it's what Alaa Hubail says happened to him. Hubail is the most famous soccer player in Bahrain and says similar treatment was forced on his brother, Mohammad, also a member of Bahrain's national soccer team; and to Anwar Al-Makki, Bahrain's internationally ranked table-tennis champion. In a story largely ignored by the Western world, these athletes describe in detail the horrific torture they endured at the hands of their government -- a government that is allied with the United States despite allegations of human rights abuses against pro-democracy protestors. E:60 goes to the Middle East for the first time to investigate how athletes were caught up in the clash of democracy, freedom, repression and politics. Jeremy Schaap reports.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Qataris' Lesson in Revolution

Obviously this may not be of interest to everyone, but I have an article in Foreign Policy's Mideast Channel on democratization in Qatar. The piece is based on a few recent surveys I have helped administer here in Doha, and includes some results--in particular, Qataris' changing external threat perceptions--that are probably of wider interest to those who observe or study the Arab Gulf.