Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Unable to Please Everyone, Bahrain Caves to Advocates of a New Crackdown

King Hamad congratulates 'Adal al-Ma'awdah on his recent trip to Syria

For the last post, I made the mistake of waiting for the court decision announcing the fate of Bahrain's political opposition leaders. Delayed now until September 4, chances are it will be postponed again--so no point in waiting a second time. As it turned out, however, Bahrain was indeed greeted with a prison sentence in time for the 'Eid holiday, namely that of BCHR president Nabeel Rajab. Once thought "off-limits" due to his international visibility, Rajab was given a three-year term for (ostensibly at least) participation in "illegal" gatherings. (See here for commentary by Jane Kinninmont and Toby Jones.)

In fact, Rajab's untouchability ended when he repeated the mistake of his BCHR predecessor 'Abd al-Hadi al-Khawajah, which is of course calling out Khalifa bin Salman. Just as Al-Khawajah's public criticism of the prime minister at the 'Uruba Club in 2004 earned him a trip to prison and the enduring enmity of the Bahraini premier, so it seems has Rajab's. In keeping with the times, Rajab's comments were delivered via Twitter on June 2, when he suggested that the pro-Khalifa rallies held by residents of Muharraq happened only because individuals were paid to attend. As Human Rights Watch documents, this "insult" against the good people of Muharraq earned Rajab a three-month sentence, to which was subsequently added the additional offense of organizing and participating in unauthorized demonstrations. The lesson: don't mess with Khalifa bin Salman--or Texas.

An artist's rendering of the Rajab courtroom

That said, Rajab's prosecution also serves a wider purpose: to appease those citizens who continue to demand a harsher crackdown on protest activities. Faced with two separate (and wholly unfamiliar) groups of politically-active Sunnis--those who simply want a tougher government stance against protesters, and those who desire a larger say in politics generally--the state has sought to appease the former in order to undermine the latter's appeal. So far, the strategy seems to be working well enough, with new Sunni movements like TGONU and Sahwat al-Fatih showing little desire to challenge the state directly. (Independent activists such as Mohammad al-Zayani, Mohammad Al Bu Flasa, and 'Isa Town MP Usama al-Tamimi are obviously another story; and for this they have earned the condemnation of some of their Sunni compatriots.)

One may wonder long this result will prevail. Having now caved to this social pressure (in addition, no doubt, to pressure from more security-minded members of the Al Khalifa), King Hamad is sure now to hear more of the same: "Why doesn't the interior ministry hold accountable other opposition leaders who also have organized illegal rallies?" "Why is the state afraid to go after 'Ali Salman and 'Isa Qasim himself?" And, of course, "How can the government think of reopening 'dialogue' with al-Wifaq and other opposition societies while the latter continue to practice violence and conspire against the nation?" (One shutters to think what would happen in the event of an acquittal for the opposition leaders.) One will find many similar questions simply by browsing the editorial page of Al-Watan. Or, for instance, in this popular thread on Bahrain's largest Sunni forum, titled "The king is the one responsible for what's happening today":

In the short term, then, throwing a political bone to citizen advocates of a security crackdown is a useful way to (1) diffuse some public pressure; and (2) change the subject away from the more thorny issue of the larger political role of Bahrain's Sunnis. Yet, in the long term it succeeds only in perpetuating the country's larger political crisis by foreclosing alternative options. By adopting a security response to what is a political problem, Bahrain is further radicalizing a Shi'a population already exasperated by a decade of violence confrontations with the state, thereby necessitating additional security measures, and feeding into a vicious cycle. At the same time, this radicalization leaves the government with no viable partner in dialogue, since al-Wifaq cannot be expected to convince the February 14 Coalition and like-minded movements of the efficacy of any political settlement. From the state's perspective, why bother holding talks with al-Wifaq if the group is unable to control its own constituency?

Yet, in fact, the problem is even more complicated than this, for even if the state had a willing and able interlocutor, still no dialogue could proceed. This is due to the newfound political expectations of Sunni groups, who as witnessed in March of this year are sure to reject any hint of political discussions, either (1) because there can be no dialogue until the opposition ends protest activities; or (2) because there can be no dialogue without the participation of Sunni societies. About the first objection the government need not worry so much, since it is essentially a different form of the same complaint already expressed by many Sunnis: namely, that the state--or King Hamad, or his secret U.S. advisers, or whomever--is too lenient with the opposition. It is the latter suggestion, however, that is simply intolerable from the ruling family's perspective: the idea that it should join representatives from all segments of Bahraini society at the political bargaining table--that it should sit together, as if equals, to plan the country's political future.

Rather than risk having to deny Sunnis the opportunity to participate, and thus the possibility of a concerted political mobilization around this specific issue, the Al Khalifa have opted instead simply to abstain from holding any new dialogue. Indeed, as evidenced by this Gulf News report on the prospect of new "talks" with "local political societies," it seems that the word "dialogue" is now being avoided altogether. Sponsored by Justice Minister Khalid bin 'Ali, these new "talks" (if one can call them that) were evidently held during Ramadan with "several formations" and aimed "to receive their feedback on the developments in the country and their views on ways to promote reconciliation following months of tension." To put this vague initiative in more precise terms, Sh. Khalid offered the following:
“We urge all political societies to actively participate in the promotion of positive attitudes supportive of the evolution and advancement of political action. The exchange of views by all constituents and segments of society through communication and joint meetings at the national level can significantly contribute to enhancing mutual confidence and understanding in political aspects, and enhance gains and advancement as well as building upon achievements realised through constitutional institutions.”
Well that sure clears things up. My suspicion is that the "initiative" actually consisted of Sh. Khalid or someone from the MoJ visiting a few Ramadan majalis held by political figures.

In short, Bahrain's ruling family sorely misses the time when its "several [political] formations" existed and operated along established lines: a bothersome but far from revolutionary Shi'a bloc in al-Wifaq; two Sunni Islamist political societies happy to expend more energy fighting al-Wifaq than advocating their own policy agenda; and an "illegal" Shi'a opposition whose leaders could be imprisoned and pardoned every year or so in time for the Bahrain Grand Prix. Yet in continuing down the road of its present security-based strategy, Bahrain's rulers are only cementing an opposite future, ensuring that their once-agreeable political arrangement will be that much more impossible to resurrect.

Update: An appeals court has now thrown out the original charge stemming from Rajab's tweet "insulting" the prime minister and the good folks of Muharraq. Unfortunately, as additional charges of organizing and participating in "illegal" rallies have since been added, this doesn't do him much good. If you're following along, then, the proper technique here is the following:
  1. Arrest someone for saying something you don't like
  2. While the person's in jail, think of another charge that is easier to defend
  3. Convict on second charge
  4. Acquit on first charge
  5. The person remains in jail
  6. ???
  7. Profit
Update 2: Here's one for you. One of the individuals who testified at the recent congressional human rights hearing on Bahrain--a certain Walid Maalouf--has stirred up controversy with his remarks on the purported relationship between al-Wifaq and Hizballah. Maalouf, whom the Tom Lantos Commission website describes as a "former US Public Delegate to the UN" and "Former Director [of] Public Diplomacy [at] USAID" (and a Lebanese Christian, apparently), offered the commission some "facts between the so-called opposition in Bahrain and Hezbollah." Among these are:
3. Bahraini youth are seen receiving Al Qaeda and Hezbollah-style training. They crawl under barbed wire and walk in a paramilitary fashion. The fire and explosions heard are to highlight the mujahedeen fearlessness; they want to prove that they are unstoppable and can overcome any challenge. It shows their readiness to fight and die.

4. According to a confidential Bahraini Government Report submitted to the United Nations, specific evidence was presented linking Bahraini citizens to Hezbollah training camps in Syria.

5. In April 2011, Bahrain expelled 20 Lebanese citizens with known associations to Hezbollah.
Shit, barbed wire? And walking "in paramilitary fashion"! Well you've got me there--that must be a fact if barbed wire and paramilitary-walking is involved. What about repelling down drain pipes with only the use of a hose? Oh, and a "confidential Bahraini Government Report?" You mean like the kind of report that offers no independently-verifiable information and led the BICI to conclude that there was no external involvement in the uprising? Wow, tell me more! Wait, you're saying Bahrain deported random Lebanese citizens for supposed links with Hizballah? So has the UAE--some 120 families in 2009-2010 alone, per this HRW report. So is the UAE's al-Islah (Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated) opposition also in cahoots with Iran and Hizballah?

I'm unclear as to why this testimony, which was given more than three weeks ago, is just now being picked up by the media in Bahrain. (Of course, al-Wifaq now has a statement on its website rejecting the claims.) The irony, obviously, is that while Maalouf was busy talking about the relationship between Assad, Hizballah, and al-Wifaq, members of al-Asalah were planning a trip to Syria to share notes with the Free Syrian Army on how best to tackle the Safavid threat. And in this case, Maalouf need not even investigate the paramilitariness of their walk, since they proudly posted photos of the meeting on Twitter.

The difference?: the Free Syrian Army is a political faction/terrorist organization we (i.e., in the United States) support; Hizballah is a political faction/terrorist organization we don't support.

Update 3: The New York Times reports that U.S. arms sales tripled in 2011 to more than $66 billion, thanks mainly to high demand from Gulf states. The Arab Spring and Iran hysteria is good for biz!


  1. An accurate analysis Justin. But I do not think that there is a plan B that actually works. The royals are doing their best to keep evil from flourishing more than it has already done so and for that we must commend them. "A" for effort.

    "All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing".

    1. If the Bahrain regime spent as much effort on actually reforming as it does on appearing to reform, the country would be a paradise by now.

  2. @Sal: Out of curiosity, what exactly is this "evil" you continue to mention? Certainly protesters even in February and March 2011 were in no position to take over the state--maybe the Pearl Roundabout, or LuLu Hypermarket, or even the Financial Harbor, but not the state itself. Ultimately, guns are needed for that (and don't say that al-Wifaq snuck in super secret Iranian wooden guns or whatever--I'm talking about actual guns, or at least large-scale military defections. And that wasn't happening either.). After all, the entire southern half of the island is essentially a gated military base; plenty of space for the ruling family to camp out. Hell, I'm sure the U.S. could have even put them up in a D.C. hotel a la the Al Sabah during the first Gulf War; once things calmed down, they could be cooly flown back in and reinstalled with no harm done (in the Kuwaiti case, with a new parliament as compensation for those who got their democratic hopes up).

    Let's be honest. The most demonstrations were ever going to accomplish is enough international attention (for claims of discrimination, for those killed/injured, etc. etc.) combined with enough stress on the economy to force the government's hand in negotiations. Maybe a few new ministers, even the prime minister. Far more than they will ever get now, of course, but not exactly "evil."

  3. Justin - The "evil" I refer to is the constant tactic by Al Wefaq and its friends (Iranian sponsored or otherwise) to create a false sense of crisis, turmoil and instability in the country. Their use of violent methods, molotovs, tire burning, road blocking etc, is precisely to deepen and exacerbate that false sense of crisis. They know their nightly village protests are not having much of an impact and the reality is the vast majority of the island has continued to get on with life and conduct business as usual. That is the evil I am speaking about.

    Its the evil that seeks to distract the Bahraini people from continuing to build their economy, increase prosperity,attract FDI, improve quality of life and all those nice things. Its the evil that seeks to encourage youth to get on the streets than into schools, libraries, sports halls etc. Its the evil that has created an entire generation of street thugs and misinformed youth, who will in the end amount to nothing and enjoy wefaqi induced deadbeat lives. Its the evil that has misled its flock (thinking about sheep here) into thinking that political change will improve their lives.

    No the only thing it will improve is Wefaq's position and its thirst for power (how different are they from the National Socialists in Germany in 1923 and their Munich Putsch [except for the beer hall, of course]???). The common village people do not realize and completely miss the point that you cant eat democracy, you cant feed off an elected government, and you certainly cant buy things with it - which in today's materialistic age is the obsession of youth - buying things. But a flourishing and wealth creating economy can (who said its the economy stupid?). Lets take a look at other small states for inspiration, consider Singapore, Hong Kong, or closer to home, Dubai, hardly an oasis of democracy and human rights, but in the age of global competitiveness they got it right. Money Matters Most.

    Notice my argument here is largely about Wefaq, because I believe that evil is what goes out of its way to create a wholly owned entity that then is called Feb 14th. Controlled, influenced and ordered by Wefaq and its turban wearers. Great thinking there - a sort of Toyota - Lexus or Nissan - Infinity type branding arrangement to segment their market and diffuse association. No different.

    Evil lurks everywhere, and let us not dismiss it as people dismissed the National Socialists of Germany. See what a mess they created.

  4. The best answer to Sal is this video:

    Not all people are materialistic as you are, and definitely the Bahraini protesters are not. This is what you need to understand, "I would rather die with dignity than live in humiliation".

    "a king who opens fire on his own people doesnt have the right to be king" -Nicholas D. Kristof (NYT reporter)

  5. You quote Nick Kristof. Enough said.

  6. Justin -

    If Waleed Maalouf had a facebook page, I would give him a big juicy "LIKE".

    1. @Well you're in luck, as he has an entire eponymous website ( complete with graphics of the Statue of Liberty. A true democrat (everywhere but in Bahrain), I'm sure.

    2. Excellent, might write to thank him for his noble deeds

  7. Maalouf got himself some good punches for his propaganda shit. Some are so desperate to find themselves reasons (lies) to justify putting their interests before principles.


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