Wednesday, April 11, 2012

When Ruling Family Divisions Come to Society: Bahrain's New Civilian Police

There must be something about the start of summer in the Gulf, the knowledge that it's only the beginning of a five-month period of being more or less uncomfortable, that gets people particularly riled up. A few days after a homemade bomb exploded in al-'Akar in a deliberate targeting of police officers, now Sunni groups seem to be striking back in what threatens to become a repeat of last summer's open sectarian conflict that culminated in the Battle of UOB.

Certainly, part of the reason for heightened tensions is the continued controversy surrounding the case of al-Khawajah, and especially demonstrators' desire to play spoiler for the still-upcoming--but increasingly-uncertain--Formula 1 race. Yet, underlying these immediate causes, I think, is a deeper one, which is a growing recognition among ordinary people that--rumors of renewed "dialogue" notwithstanding--Bahrain's social, economic, and political crisis is unlikely to end anytime soon, and for reasons that are utterly beyond the reach of everyday citizens.

Or, "for a reason," I should say: namely, a crisis of political leadership--a hopelessly fractured ruling family--that is fomenting in turn a fractured population of various political constituencies. For the Bahraini who supports "the state," the question is whom exactly does one support: the king and crown prince? "The marshal" and his brother in the royal court? The prime minister? 'Abd al-Latif Al Mahmud? Muhammad Khalid? The Al-Fatih Awakening? And likewise for Bahrainis of "the opposition": is one convinced by the path of dialogue pursued by 'Ali Salman and al-Wifaq? Does one choose to follow Sh. 'Isa Qasim? Does one identify with the nebulous "February 14 Coalition?" Or does one retreat to more local identities tied to individual villages?

The upshot is not simply political indecision born of internal Al Khalifa squabbling (though, as the case of 'Abd al-Hadi most recently revealed, there is of course that too.) No, the real consequence is what happens when these rivalries are transferred to society at large, when, say, the "pro-government" supporters of Khalifa bin Salman pursue a strategy that undermines the initiatives of King Hamad. While the latter can attempt to marginalize the influence of these citizens, he is loath to go after them directly as they operate on some level at the pleasure of the prime minister. In the end, the contradictory positions of the various Al Khalifa factions are institutionalized in respective societal constituencies pushing and pulling in opposite directions, further augmenting the political clusterf-ck that is Bahrain.

Thus, for example, at the same time that the Bahraini government officially pursues "police reform," some citizens are showing their support for an even more aggressive approach with protesters by taking policing into their own hands, apparently with immunity. (Although I will note that we haven't heard much from 'Adal Flaifel since followers of his Military Society clashed with 'Ashura' procession-goers in January, so maybe Sh. Rashid has finally shut him up. [Oops, wrong: see Update below.])

Last night, a car driven by a Shi'i was overrun and literally flipped over by renegade citizens near the ALBA roundabout, apparently because it had a picture of Khalifa bin Salman hanging upside down in the window. The driver, still trapped inside, lay bleeding while local residents gathered to take photos and mock him. These were later joined by police, who eventually dispersed the crowd. (A fuller narration--in Arabic--is here, as well as many reactions by Sunnis abhorring the episode.) The scene is captured in a five-minute video on YouTube:

Photos of the melee were subsequently uploaded to a pro-government web forum along with a statement by "The Youth of East and West Rifa' and 'Isa Town," seemingly taking credit for the act. The statement takes the form of an ultimatum that threatens,
"1. If there is not a cessation of vandalism within the next 24 hours, and if the necessary steps [to end it] are not taken [i.e., by police], then the Rifa' Youth will get involved, using guns, against all traitors to the nation."

"2. There will be an end to the [presence of] traitors in the streets of Rifa'. ... [They] will be killed ... if the chaos does not end.

"3. Any traitor who undertakes any vandalism ... will be tortured ... until death.

"4. After the expiration of the specified time [i.e., 24 hours], if the necessary steps are not taken on the part of the regime's armed forces to stop the chaos and demonstrations, then the armed Rifa' youth will arm themselves fully and go into the streets to kill the traitors."

Later in the thread, "Sunni youth" coalitions based in other areas--al-Zallaq and Muharraq, for example--added their approval and asked for specific directions.

If all this sounds like an empty boast, a recent statement by the Ministry of Interior would seem to indicate otherwise. On Friday, the ministry essentially acknowledged the ownership of unlicensed weapons among civilians when it "affirm[ed] that those with unlicensed weapons or ammunitions should immediately approach the Licenses Office at the General Directorate of Crime Detection and Forensic Science." Obviously this implies illegal ownership among Sunni citizens, since in the first place no "license" would be granted legally to a Shi'i citizen, and any Shi'a thought to possess these would simply be hunted down and arrested as terrorists.

This popular Sunni involvement in policing is not limited to al-Rifa', however. Another video posted to YouTube shows a mob of citizens outside the (sole) entrance to the exclusively-Shi'i village of Nuwaidrat, (former) home of Sh. 'Abd al-Wahhab Hussain.

Meanwhile, conservative writers (Al-Zayzani in Al-Watan) as well as with Sunnis in parliament continue to call for more "support" for the security forces. The latter held a "closed-door meeting" with Sh. Rashid yesterday in which they "demanded the Interior Ministry use tougher measures to deal with saboteurs after Monday’s attack in Eker."

Finally, also tends to happen whenever tempers flare, there is renewed rumor of U.S. involvement in the conflagration of the past week. As reported on the pro-government Dilmun Times, some MPs in parliament are
call[ing] for the US Navy to be questioned following rumours that its personnel were in the area before the attack.

“A few days ago we heard about US Navy personnel’s involvement in some incidents in Bahrain and the bomb used to attack the policemen in Eker is clear evidence that reflects that,” claimed MP Abdulla Bin Howail during the parliament session yesterday.

Conveniently, "The Marshal" Khalifa bin Ahmad just met with the U.S. Ambassador yesterday, so perhaps he had a chance to ask Krajeski--in addition to his thoughts on the Irano-American-Al-Wifaq-Hizballah alliance--about his knowledge of U.S. marine involvement in the bombing in al-'Akar. I would have loved to have been at that meeting.

Update: Scratch that bit about 'Adal Flaifel. I missed this story in the GDN in which he plays the part of "military affairs analyst" regarding the explosion in al-'Akar. He offers, inter alia, the following (unbiased, of course) appraisal:
"Based on my 29 years of experience as an intelligence officer, this is certainly guerilla warfare and those men behind it are trained in Lebanon and Iran."
Update 2: The U.S. is taking notice.

Update 3: As Simon Henderson notes in his excellent article, "Bahrain on the Brink Jeopardizes U.S. Interests in the Gulf," yet another act of retaliation in response to the Nuwaidrat bombing was an attack against the (Shi'a-owned) Jawad 24-hour Supermarket. A security camera captured the incident, including what appears to be police participation (or passive collusion):

Update 4: Amnesty International has offered a preview of its anticipated April 17 report on Bahrain's (non-)implementation of reforms following the BICI. Helpfully, they have made the actual report unnecessary by aptly summarizing the situation in the first paragraph:
Despite the authorities’ claims to the contrary, state violence against those who oppose the Al Khalifa family rule continues, and in practice, not much has changed in the country since the brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters in February and March 2011.
Update 5: Missed this over the weekend: careful Bahrain observer Kristian Coates Ulrichsen writes for the Mideast Channel, "The hollow shell of security reform in Bahrain."

Update 6: Al-Wifaq and others in the formal opposition kick off a week of protests in the run-up to the Formula One. Until now, anyway, there has been no announcement of an Occupy Sakhir movement.


  1. another video of the thugs with the police near Nuwaidrat

  2. Justin do you predict the currently ongoing violence could have an effect on whether the F1 race gets cancelled or not?

  3. It would seem not:

    Remember, Bahrain has already paid the money. They don't want to lose their ~$40 million two years in a row.

    1. It will have an effect; it already has. F1 politics will probably see the race being cancelled at the 11th hour.

      Besides losing another $40 million, the Bahraini authorities may not wish for the race to be cancelled, as it would mean losing the following year's race. Taken from the BBC, 'the [F1] rules state that any race that has to be cancelled two years on the trot cannot be put back on the calendar the following year unless there is an argument for force majeure'.

      If that were to happen- and I'm just speculating here- it could potentially allow the F1 commercial rights holder to cancel the contract 3 years early (it being set to end in 2016). Losing their one and only global sports event is perhaps something that they dearly wish to avoid.

  4. There are a lot of F1 fans who are incensed about the decision to go forward with the race. I came up with this: 6 Reasons to Boycott the Bahrain F1 Grand Prix. Feel free to share this with others!


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