Monday, February 20, 2012

The Anti-National Dialogue

Call it a Formula 1 miracle: a day after tickets went on sale for Bahrain's (now slightly postponed) race, Al-Wasat reports that the royal court has contacted three opposition societies--Wa'ad, Hasan Madan's Progressive Tribune, and the Nationalist Gathering--to join al-Wifaq in "a dialogue" with the government. Of course, the news here is not that these three groups have been invited to join talks--only Wa'ad has any significant following at all--but rather the seeming confirmation of recent rumors that opposition-government talks are actually ongoing. Presumably the inclusion of these (secular) societies is meant to allow the government to deny engaging with "the Shi'a opposition" per se. It's unclear who will be buying this.

Indeed, if last summer's National Dialogue was a failure precisely because it was designed to fight dialogue with more dialogue--that is, to include so many voices that participants inevitably could only agree upon the lowest common denominator of recommended "reforms"--then this current iteration involving the government, al-Wifaq, and the three secular societies may rightly be called the Anti-National Dialogue. And this Anti-National Dialogue is likely to fail also, though for the opposite reason.

In reaching out only to the "moderate" opposition (I guess that means al-Wifaq is not a Bahraini Hizballah after all?), there are perhaps more parties excluded from this initiative than are included. Without even mentioning the exclusion of al-Haqq, al-Wafa', and 'Amal al-Islami as their respective leaderships continue to sit in prison, the government seems to be under the odd impression that the majority of Bahrain's political opponents today are under the sway of al-Wifaq. As the visceral reactions to the Al-Wasat story in this opposition forum thread indicate, however, few are praising al-Wifaq's effort to return to the negotiating table. Even fewer, perhaps, are confident in the genuineness of the government's re-engagement, coming as it does conveniently in the run-up to the Formula One race, as always seems to happen in Bahrain.

One may judge for himself whether Bahrain's activists seem likely to accept an al-Wifaq brokered deal. The following graphics come from a popular thread outlining "the Opening [فتح] of the Pearl Roundabout" via a new campaign of "holy attack." A grenade sporting the slogan of this new "stage" of protest:

A brilliant military strategy overlaid with the words, "This is [how they did it] in Vietnam":

Even more brilliant strategies for the "opening" of the Pearl Roundabout (probably too advanced for us to appreciate here):

Finally, something right out of the playbook of Stormin' Norman himself:

In short, the vast majority of those involved in the street movement could care less about any dialogue involving the government and al-Wifaq, and indeed may simply be incited by it to act even more violently. Although one would imagine that this is already the operating assumption of all parties, the fact that the government is even willing to talk to al-Wifaq implies that both sides believe the latter can ensure the acquiescence of "the street" in the event of any agreement. Anyone taking bets on that? Because I want in.

As obvious and basic as this question is, an even greater potential roadblock is the inevitable push-back from the other side of society, i.e. from among ordinary Bahraini Sunnis unhappy to be excluded from any eventual deal struck by the government and the formal "opposition" (of which, for the sake of the argument, we may say there is some non-zero possibility). Indeed, conspicuous in their absence from Al-Wasat's report on the Anti-National Dialogue are Bahrain's newly-mobilized Sunni groups--at the very least, the National Unity Gathering, but also other groups such as the Al-Fatih Awakening.

Quite apart from the likely possibility that Sunnis will reject any compromise with the opposition, this is a delicate situation for the government, whose basic problem is this: if Sunni groups were allowed to participate in some three-way talks involving the government and al-Wifaq, it may turn out that they have more in common with their Shi'a "enemies" than they realized. Indeed, already they agree on much. The lingering fear among reformist Sunnis is that through their efforts they will inadvertently enable a Shi'a agenda from taking hold; but if both sides can fashion their demands for institutional reform in such a way that protects against or precludes this possibility, then the possibility for coordination may not be so far-fetched.

Because the Bahraini government must avoid at all costs a dialogue at which al-Wifaq and the National Unity Gathering sit in the same room, expect it to reach out separately to Sunni leaders. If the latter are smart (and if they really have not yet been co-opted, as other Sunni movements like the Al-Fatih Awakening claim) they will insist on taking part alongside al-Wifaq, whatever their ideological differences and personal aversions.

Conveniently for Bahrain's Sunnis, the National Unity Gathering is already scheduled to have a mass rally tomorrow on the anniversary of the first counter-revolutionary gathering at the Al-Fatih Mosque. The rally's slogan: "Al-Fatih is the Nation's Shield"--as opposed to, say, the Peninsula Shield? I suspect that the government's dialogue with al-Wifaq, with Wa'ad, but not with Sunni groups will be a prominent topic of conversation.

It is indeed true that the National Unity Gathering played a fundamental role in checking the momentum of protests in February and March, thereby (in the famous words of Khalifa bin Salman) "standing united as a bulwark defending their country against subversive conspiracies." Yet in the intervening year things have changed. While Bahrain's rulers seem confident in their ability to return to the status quo ante, I'm not so sure that most Sunnis will agree. More and more, the latter perceive that their previous "arrangement" with the government--whereby they support the state against the opposition and ostensibly receive benefits in return--was not such a great bargain after all.

In the first place, apart from preferential employment practices in a few key ministries and the armed forces, Sunnis didn't seem to enjoy such a preponderant share of state benefits anyway. The government, forced always to deal piecemeal with the latest Shi'a grievance, seemed destined to expend more time and resources on precisely those who oppose it, rather than upon "loyal" Sunni subjects.

And, in the second place, staunch Sunni support for government initiatives--particularly in the parliament--masked displeasure with many state policies, including most notably mass naturalization of non-Bahraini Sunnis and the (mis-)utilization of land resources. Whereas government pressure led to the passing of an unpopular Sunni Family Law, al-Wifaq effectively blocked the passage of a Shi'a version. Sunnis, it seemed, continued to bear a heavy political onus while receiving disproportionately little in return save for assurance against a "Shi'i takeover," "terrorist plots," and "Iranian interference."

We are left, then, with two questions: Are Sunnis willing to return to the Bahrain of January 2011? And, if not, are they prepared to put aside their fear of cooperation (or at least coordination) with Shi'a in order to oppose a return to the previous political order?

Update: Pro-government Sunnis have released a video counterpoint to the recent Al-Jazeera documentary aiming to chronicle the violence of protesters:

Update 2: The Bahrain Mirror is reporting a bit more information on the royal court's invitation to dialogue, which it says is set to kick off in March. Representatives will include Hasan Madan (Progressive Tribune), Hasan al-A'ali (Nationalist Gathering), and Radi al-Musawi (Wa'ad). The article states that the government is willing to discuss the principles outlined in the opposition's "Manama Document," but that its two red lines are: an elected government, and the dissolution of the Shura Council. Does that mean booting the prime minister is on the table? Finally, there is still no mention of any participation from Sunni groups.

I also noticed that the Bahrain Mirror has translated my recent MERIP piece on Bahrain's "Sunni awakening," which for those more comfortable reading in Arabic is here.

Finally, another Formula 1 cartoon.

Update 3: Al-Jazeera's Listening Post program examines Bahrain's bid to control the message coming out of the country.

Update 4: In a letter to the head of the Bahrain International Circuit, Bassiouni has "commended" Bahrain on its use of the Formula 1 race to "promot[e] national healing and reconciliation." Until the race is over, that is.

Update 5: Writing in Al-Watan, al-Zayani articulates the Sunni position on the rumored government-opposition talks:
I find it important to draw the state’s attention not to make the unforgivable mistake which has been made for many years now and which consists of submitting to terrorism and making concessions at the expense of the interests of the nation and the main components [read: the Sunnis].
Update 6: A bit behind, but: Reuters: "Bahrain's Sunnis warn government over dialogue."

And Gulf commentator Sultan al-Qassemi shook the Bahraini Intertubes yesterday with his Tweet: "I was told by a Saudi researcher that an announcement is expected by the end of this year of some sort of "union" between Saudi & Bahrain." Union would be one word for it.

In any case, it is clear that such a "story" is a useful one to have out there as government-opposition talks resume. It reminds me of the title of a recent Bahrain Mirror article: "King Hamad to the People of Bahrain: It's Either Me or Riyadh!"


  1. Justin - I disagree with your analysis - it seems to me that the talks for you are either too inclusive or too exclusive. From a Bahraini point of view, I think that the talks are in the right place. Consider this: Firstly it is the Royal Diwan/Court driving the talks not the govt or any other part of the state. Secondly, Al Wefaq and the others are moderately tolderable and accepted as the mainstream oppostion. Thirdly, not to make this a complete give away, Haaq, Amal and the other terrorist organizations, represent a fringe. Fourth, the Feb 14th guys are nothing more than a bunch of kids that have impressive graphic design and video editing skills. They will be told be their elders, who are Wefaqis, to tow the line when the time comes. Lastly, the Sunnis in Bahrain have their default setting predisposed to support all govt action and requests. They will protest when told and sit nicely when told. They are controlled by the govt and everything else is big talk they cannot back up. Bahrain is on the right track, and history repeats itself, this is no different than how they resolved previous crises in the country, and you dont need anyone to tell you to expect otherwise.


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  3. @Sal: We shall see. You have more confidence than I that both sides can reign in their respective constituencies, which are far more polarized and mobilized than in previous crises in recent history. Do you really think Sunnis will once again "fall in line" as Bahraini Shi'a appear (rightly or wrongly) to reap the benefits? Will the street movement stop protests at the word of al-Wifaq? If not, will "moderate" Shi'a and al-Wifaq sit by as the state "deals with" them? Of course, you can ultimately answer yes to these questions, but that doesn't mean there isn't a discussion worth having.

  4. I think that it will be hard to moblize sunnis once more "against" the movement , the same way it happened last year , many of them were either moderetes who sympthisize with the oppisition or extremestes who are unhappy about the government being "lax" .When real reforms come however(if they come), I belive it will be much easier to convince sunnis of its validity by the government one way or ther other.As for shia's I think that many of them dont like the ways of the street being used by the smaller groups , but they suck it up because its pressure anyway . If reforms that topple the PM come , I heavily doubt they will find as much support as they do now.

    1. Agreed. The King in particular is not about to embark on another political adventure without already knowing the limits of what is achievable and what he is willing to sacrifice. Equally, this is a story of modulating expectations, and the opposition themselves will need to try and preserve their ability to get a deal done than failing again (think of their talks with the cp last year). The Wefaqis are all desperate to get back into the system as a group, and as individuals they and their families understand the cash and luxuries that system used to afford them when they were in parliament. Lets face it, they are politicians like anywhere else.

  5. Movement of history is not pro royal family in Bahrain so sooner it will realize the fact but the question is ; would it be clever to survive with minimum loss? Otherwise, I do agree that youth in streets would not care about any kind of dialogue so in the end thus opposition will bear some losses.


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