Wednesday, January 25, 2012

One Year Later, A Bahrain Transformed

With less than three weeks left until the expected fireworks of February 14, it is striking to observe just how little things seem to have changed one year after the start of Bahrain's uprising. There is renewed "concern" about the future of the Formula One race. The U.S. Embassy is relocating its staff to avoid being caught up in violence--to say nothing of smoke from burning ties. Al-Watan is running exposés with updated news on "US-Wefaq coordination against the regime," which evidently includes American support for a reoccupation of the Pearl Roundabout. The Bahraini economy continues its twelve-month "rebound." And this is to say nothing of the lack of progress on the social and political fronts, which of course goes without saying.

Yet things are not the same in Bahrain. In the first place, and as treated at length in my recent article for MERIP, the previous twelve months have witnessed just not one revolution but two, the second corresponding to the political mobilization of Bahrain's Sunni citizens. Begun as a mere counter-movement to check the momentum of Shi'a protests in February and March, this "Al-Fatih Awakening" (as some Sunnis now have taken to calling it) has since taken on a political life of its own. It has benefited from but at the same time helped promote the advancement of conservative elements within the ruling family at the expense of those percieved as more willing to compromise. In so doing, it has further complicated an already intractable political crisis by making nearly impossible any substantive government concessions to the opposition. (For a recent example, see the Al-Fatih Youth Union's rejection of the state's so-called "reconciliation document.") Whether this Sunni awakening will move beyond its current obstructionist role to forward a coherent political agenda of its own, it remains to be seen. Yet, now awakened, it is unlikely that ordinary Sunnis in Bahrain will soon be content to return to their more traditional role of political spectators.

The second obvious change in Bahrain since February 2011--especially obvious in recent weeks--is the fragmentation of the opposition. Certainly, given the history of intra-Shi'a schism in Bahrain, headlined by al-Haqq's 2005 split from al-Wifaq over the question of parliamentary participation, this division should come as no surprise. To be sure, even the Crown Prince's "dialogue initiative" in the days before the Saudi intervention was to involve six different opposition groups. The difference now, though, is that whereas the al-Haqq split from al-Wifaq was a disagreement over political tactics, increasingly the current split between the formal opposition and the nebulous Feb. 14 Coalition seems to signal a disagreement over resistance tactics: i.e., violence vs. non-violence. Witness, for example, yesterday's "Operation: Bahrain Fist": a day of Molotov-based "holy defense" advertised by the Feb. 14 folks (which despite its nice looking Internet flier didn't seem to come to much).

Thus the easy characterization would be that the formal opposition in al-Wifaq remains committed to non-violent means of effecting meaningful political change in Bahrain, while the Feb. 14th youth have largely abandoned peaceful protest. Complicating this straightforward picture, however, are the recent words of Sh. 'Isa Qassim, who in last Friday's sermon now famously called upon worshipers to "crush" any police officer seen "abusing a woman." The BBC quotes him as saying also, "Let us die for our honour," and asking "How do those who do this to people expect the people to remain silent and not defend their rights and honour?"

I admit that I haven't listened to the entire sermon myself, but the operative bit is here:

On the one hand, calling upon activists to defend women being abused by police officers is not exactly incitement to terrorism--though Bahrain's Sunni parliamentarians would beg to differ, and both they and the contributors for Al-Watan would like to see 'Isa Qassim indicted for war crimes. (And, at least according to the Bahrain Mirror, the Al Khalifa family council is considering actions against him.) Last I checked, however, his speech still is less egregiously inflammatory than that of Salafi imam Sh. Jasim al-Sa'idi during last March's notorious Battle of East Riffa'. You decide:

Candidate #1:

Candidate #2:

It's close, but I'm still going to go with the guy brandishing the sword.

Joking aside, 'Isa Qasim's directive admittedly begins down a slippery slope. Once the principle of non-violence is replaced by that of "non-violence except in the following circumstances," it's likely not too long before additional circumstances begin to be added. For its part, al-Wifaq has attempted to clarify (if not necessarily disown) the words of its spiritual leader, with 'Ali Salman telling listeners in al-Dair that the call is limited to "the defense of honor," though warning that "if they engage in violence, everyone will be destroyed."

Meanwhile, most other activists seem content to poke fun at the controversy, repeating in jest the phrase "crush him" (اسحقوه)--with extra Arabic و s for good effect. (Hence the Bahraini police whack-a-mole cartoon at the top of this post.)

Bahrain's third major transformation since last February is the logical consequence of the first two. An increasingly forceful Shi'a-led opposition combined with a Sunni community roused from political dormancy has given rise to a nation split utterly and with very few exceptions along Sunni-Shi'i lines, which is indeed saying something considering the extent of Bahrain's longstanding societal chasm prior to the uprising. Writing in Al-Watan, Hesham Al-Zayani purports to call this split what it is: "a clear sectarian, ideological war."
As it is obvious for all Bahrainis now, Wilayat Al Faqih has planned this ideological war. I am not addressing the state today; it has got its own policies and plans. I am rather addressing the honorable Bahrainis, because any ideological war can be won only through unity and through the same tactics used by those who want to uproot others. What happened to us made us more conscious and less romantic, and if one stabs me, I will never trust him again because this will be a naïve act on my part.
Unfortunately for Al-Zayani, instead of focusing on how to defeat the opposition, these "honorable Bahrainis" seem rather to be engaged in an internal ideological war of their own. The Bahrain Mirror reports new tensions between the Al-Fatih Youth Union and the National Unity Gathering. Reportedly, NUG leaders refused to allow members of the former to address crowds at a recent rally meant to bring together supporters of the two groups, and indeed would not even receive their representatives. Oh snap! So much for Sunni unity.

Update: Another interesting bit out of 'Ali Salman's address in al-Dair is his saying that al-Wifaq has "not yet" decided whether to organize a return to the hallowed ground of the Pearl Roundabout in time for Feb. 14. Of course, given that the state has had about 11 months to figure out how to stop them, it's doubtful whether al-Wifaq or anyone else could pull such a thing off anyway. But it will be interesting to follow al-Wifaq's language as the date nears, in particular following 'Isa Qasim's rhetorical escalation amid growing sentiment that the group is out of touch with the majority of the opposition.

Update 2: In a strongly-worded, hand-written letter, Muqtada al-Sadr has warned the Bahraini government against any action in punishment of 'Isa Qasim for his "crush him" sermon. This comes amid growing speculation that another security crackdown--one likely involving the arrest of previous untouchables like 'Ali Salman and 'Isa Qasim--may be in the offing.

Meanwhile, others are busy pointing out that Al Mahmud and other "Sunni awakening" leaders have on several occasions said things no less incendiary, such as in this address in Hamad Town in March at the height of mass protests.


  1. 34 Top Middle East Experts on Obama’s Biggest Mistakes

    Bahrain included of course.

  2. Great pictures, great story, great work in there, GREAT BLOG. You've got my respect, congratulations for all your work on this blog, yours sincerlly Robert from Romania !!!

  3. unfair to say there has been no political progress, government has done a lot since BICI report - not to mention the BICI report itself which, whatever you think of the reasons for its inception, was very clearly not a whitewash. An Arab King sat and listened to legal experts tell him that his government had killed and tortured etc. etc. You may scoff, but in the bounds of reality and what we're used to from other Arab governments this is a virtual revolution and unparalleled...

    The government, as I understand it, is now undertaking huge legislative and even constitutional reform (c/f the King's speech on 15 january 2012). Fine if you don't think they go far enough or if you think that someone high up in government should be held accountable for the govt's failures (which none yet has), but unfair to say that nothing at all has happened:

    website describes the progress of implementing BICI's recommendations.

    Great article otherwise.

    1. By "huge" I assume you mean royal decrees long enough to fill up several pages in a pro-government newspaper. has been treated (and also scoffed at) previously.

  4. great pics dude we rule