Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Uprising is Over. But What Is the Price of Bahrain's Victory?

For a recent publication on Bahrain, I was forced to go back and forth with an editor over the question of whether the February 14th uprising should be introduced in the present or past tense.  Is it correct to say that the uprising is over?, that is, or do the continued clashes between riot police and mostly-youthful protesters constitute a continuation, qualitatively-speaking, of the original movement of early 2011?

I took--and do take--the former position: the uprising proper has ended.  Or, rather, it was made to end by the sweeping security response initiated with the State of National Security and subsequently entrenched via Bahrain's effective "sectarianism as security" political strategy.  In this sense, the actual rebellion has long been over, and "major combat operations," as some like to say, essentially were concluded with the second clearing (and for good measure razing) of the former Pearl Roundabout.

Now, judging by the aforementioned debate with my editor, which incidentally I lost, such a view evidently is a controversial--or rather an uncomfortable and unpalatable--one to express.  To reference the "failed February 14 uprising" is seen as insulting the very memory of those who died, and who continue to die and risk bodily harm, in their pursuit of basic societal and political reform. In fact, however, it is simply to admit the overwhelming material and tactical superiority of one side over the other, a military dominance that students of insurgency and civil war have long noted.

As part of a cross-national study of civil war incidence, Fearon and Laitin (2005) examined the case of Bahrain as a sort of diagnostic check on their model of civil war, which predicted a "a negligible probability for civil war in Bahrain during the entire period of its independence from 1971-1999."  As they note in their introduction,
There has been no civil war in Bahrain, so our model did not let us down! There seems at first blush nothing to explain. A narrative of Bahrain’s political conflicts, however, allows us to address several themes. First, Bahrain’s contemporary history helps illuminate why there is no positive relationship between grievance level and civil war. Bahrain’s contemporary history reads like a litany of grievances; yet these do not easily translate into sustained violence.
While the authors offer a multidimensional response to examine this last observation--why grievances in Bahrain "do not translate easily into sustained violence"--they identify several tactical factors as being particularly important, in particular the extreme smallness of the community.  They continue,
In Khuri’s formulation (1980, pp. 245-6), Bahrain is a “metrocommunity,” a form of rule that requires intimate knowledge by the rulers of their constituents. He notices that the Al-Khalifah sheiks know practically every family in Bahrain, its history, its size, and its social status. They are thus able to micromanage gift-giving, favors, and government posts to co-opt rival claimants to power. Speaking of the then current leader and his family, Khuri points out that one of the ruler’s brothers “talks” to “moderninsts” and “freedom fighters”; the ruler’s eldest son “talks” to youths in the cultural and sports’ clubs. ... [This way], a unified family can -- if it is willing to use brutal suppression and call in foreign troops -- maintain order in a changing society.
In short, they conclude, "[a] combination of 'metrocommunity' scale and political will to be brutal partly accounts for Bahrain’s avoidance of insurgency."

Now, anyone who has followed the previous nineteen months in Bahrain cannot fail to see the accuracy of these observations.  With its sustained deployment of police and military units along with a labyrinthine edifice of security checkpoints, the state has largely succeeded in penning demonstrators into their respective villages, now isolated even more than they were prior to February 2011 (which is saying a lot).  (More recently, the state has shifted to allow protests in finite areas, namely along al-Budaiyi' Road, while blocking them elsewhere.) Such an effort, combined with the decades-long exclusion of Shi'a from those professions that entail the use of weapons, has created a sort of double defense.

In the first place, in the face of concerted state effort, would-be revolutionaries face an almost impossible task in organizing into a mass capable of physically taking over the institutions of the state.  Witness, for example, the repeated unsuccessful attempts to "re-take" the ground surrounding the now-demolished Pearl Roundabout.  In February and March, activists were able to occupy the monument only because the state initially lacked the desire or resolve to stop them.  But when the Field Marshal finally moved to put an end to the protesters' camp and preclude their return, this was easily done, not least with the help of pervasive communications monitoring by which opposition plans are easily discovered.

How could police have stopped this advanced tactical operation?!

In the second place, even if demonstrations could again achieve the levels of mass participation witnessed in February and March 2011, still these citizens lack the one thing they would require to do more than, say, block traffic or occupy the Financial Harbor and other downtown sites: that is to say, guns.  Indeed, I was once stopped at Bahrain Airport when I attempted to bring in a traditional Yemeni tribal dagger I had bought as a souvenir.  It is simply unimaginable that individuals or groups could smuggle in the sort of arms required to wage an effective guerrilla campaign. Meanwhile, Bahrain spent $883 million on its military in 2011 alone, while Stratfor reports (subscription needed) that the country is now recruiting an additional 5,000 police and military personnel from among Sunni refugees who have fled Syria (to go along with the many tens of thousands recruited and naturalized over the previous decade).

Bahrain has also seemingly won its other war on the international front.  Having done its diplomatic duty in allowing the BICI to investigate the uprising, it has successfully resisted pressure to do anything more.  On the contrary, since December 2011 political change has been in the opposition direction.  As witnessed once more only days ago, protesters continue to be met with deadly force in confrontations with police.  Activists, including Nabeel Rajab and most recently Zaynab al-Khawajah, have been sentenced to prison for no more than insulting the prime minister and King Hamad, respectively.  One political society ('Amal) has been dissolved, while another (al-Wifaq) may be on the brink.

And yet, on the occasion of Bahrain's recent human rights review at the United Nations, the most the U.S. State Department could muster was the following anemic statement by Michael Posner:
Today Bahrain is at a crossroads. The government showed great courage last year in commissioning and accepting the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report, implementation of which 13 states recommended during the review. Ten months after the release of the report, however, we are concerned that the government is losing momentum on implementation. We urge you once again to fully and swiftly implement the BICI recommendations as well as those generated through the UPR process. This will help create an environment where meaningful dialogue can take place.
So that's one "concern" and one "urge," partly offset by one "showed great courage."  Not exactly a strong reprimand likely to spark a change in political calculations.

What is more, in the few days since its review in Geneva, Bahrain has somehow been selected as the "Asian group representative" on the U.N. Human Rights Council Advisory Committee--and this, as CNN points out, on "the same day a young protester in the country was killed."  The view from Bahrain's Information Affairs Authority is somewhat more optimistic: the nomination "represents the international community's confidence in Bahrain's progress in the human rights field."  One might also entertain a more cynical interpretation.

So, then, one may as well just say it: Bahrain's uprising is over.  The government has prevailed, and there is no reasonable expectation of either an internal change in political dynamics or outside pressure to tip the present balance of power.  But one must be careful in the conclusions one therefore draws.  In particular, that the government has won in its tactical battle with protesters (and diplomatic battle with disapproving but still dependent allies) does not mean that violence and instability is likely to dissipate.  On the contrary, it is precisely this victory--a victory that has magnified already-considerable grievances a thousand times while crushing any hope for their redress--that is likely to invite a new, even more destructive sort of violence.

Only two months into the uprising, Hussein Ibish asked in Foreign Policy, "Is Bahrain Creating a New Terrorist Threat?"  At the time, his question garnered no little rebuke from Bahraini activists, insulted by his insinuation that theirs was anything but a non-violent protest movement.  Some 18 months later, no one can deny his conclusion, that "[b]y leaving no room for peaceful dissent, the Bahraini monarchy is creating [or rather, has created] the conditions for a violent revolt."

Yet the issue is not simply that there is no longer any room in Bahrain for "peaceful dissent."  The problem is much more pervasive: that for an entire generation of Bahrainis, not least Shi'a Bahraini youth, there is simply no room for ordinary living.  Even were protest activities to end today and a political ceasefire declared, still an entire class of Bahrainis faces the reality of dead or incarcerated loved ones and/or family members; little prospect for employment or societal advancement (and thus marriage); trouble gaining admission to the country's one public university--in short, lifelong memories and repercussions of the February 14th uprising.

Last month in The New York Times was a poignant if disturbing article that examined the attitudes of young Syrian refugees toward their erstwhile 'Allawi oppressors.  It begins,
Like all the small children in the desert refugee camp here, Ibtisam, 11, is eager to go home to the toys, bicycles, books, cartoons and classmates she left behind in Syria.

But not if that means living with Alawites, members of the same minority offshoot of Shiite Islam as Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. “I hate the Alawites and the Shiites,” Ibtisam said as a crowd of children and adults nodded in agreement. “We are going to kill them with our knives, just like they killed us.”
Even if the scale of the violence in Syria is greater than that witnessed in Bahrain, can one really expect a qualitatively different result in the latter case?  Even before the uprising, the country was divided into what Clive Holes aptly describes as an “almost apartheid-like system of voluntary segregation.”  What hope is there that this division--geographical and otherwise--will stand the chance of lessening in the near- to medium-term?

More to the point, with hope fading for any political solution to the present government-opposition standoff, and indeed with the mounting popular disillusion with the formal opposition societies in any case, it is not unthinkable that some will decide that the only way to get the attention of the government (and/or of foreign governments) is to pursue more radical alternatives.  Already in June the government claimed to find in Salmabad tons of materials for the production of homemade bombs.  Due to Bahrain's massive "boy who cried wolf" problem as a result of repeated past claims of "terrorist plots," it was (and I suppose still is) difficult to know what to make of this find.  But the incidence of attacks using homemade explosives has only increased, with deadly results on the side of both protesters and police.

Consider the latest casualty, a boy of 17 who died only last night.  Photos of the boy (warning: graphic) clearly show bullet holes from what seems to be bird shot.  The Interior Ministry, on the other hand, claims riot police acted in self-defense when protesters began throwing Molotov cocktails.

Now, following the death of the boy in the village of Sadad, youths in another village (Shahrakan) caused a large explosion when they ignited a gas cylinder. A video posted to YouTube describes the explosion, apparently meant as a threat, as having been carried out "in condemnation of the murder of martyr 'Ali Hussain."

Meanwhile, the father of the boy attended a press conference along with members of the (recently-dissolved) political society 'Amal in which he essentially blames his son's death on the stance of "opposition societies," i.e., al-Wifaq.  "I cannot stand hand-in-hand with political societies who are in dialogue with a murderous regime," he says.  This came apparently after remarks by Deputy Head of al-Wifaq Khalil al-Marzuq to the effect that protesters should not use Molotov cocktails against police.  Opposition message boards are now filled with condemnations of al-Marzuq, described among other things as an Interior Ministry spokesman.

Neither does the United States escape the blame of opposition activists.  A statement by al-Wafa', for example, dismisses Posner's remarks at the UN--in particular his suggestion of dialogue--as disingenuous and emblematic of the U.S.'s "negative, hostile, and hypocritical role toward our people, disguised as friendship and advice, meant to halt our people's march toward achieving [its] demands."

Yes, the uprising itself has been extinguished.  But what is the price of the government's victory?  So far, it is a fractured society; a more diffuse and more radical opposition (among both Sunnis and Shi'is); overwhelming economic and political reliance on Saudi Arabia; and a self-perpetuating cycle of suspicion and violence that only continues to fuel these trends.  How long until one must add genuine armed insurgency to this list?

Update: As an additional "f you" to its international critics, Bahrain has upheld the controversial convictions in the trial of the Salmaniyya medical workers.

Update 2: It's good to see that Al-Watan has not lost any of its journalistic integrity since Al Bin Khalil took over as editor-in-chief.  Last Sunday (sorry I just caught this), the newspaper dedicated a full page to publishing the names and photographs of Bahraini activists who were said to have participated in the UN human rights review in Geneva, i.e. "the participants in the discrediting of Bahrain."

The article also purports to outline the "funding network" behind the activists, using the same flowcharts as Al-Watan's famous outline of the opposition's "terrorist network."

Update 3: There is a very interesting paper just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that uses statistical techniques to detect two different types of electoral fraud.  Unfortunately, it looks like the method requires a relatively large number of electoral districts (the average population per district must be smaller than 5,000), because otherwise it would be interesting to repeat their procedure using 2002-2010 electoral data from Bahrain!

Update 4: The Bahrain Mirror reports that Bahrain is now attempting to strong-arm another of its traditionally supportive-to-politically-neutral communities, namely Bahrainis of Persian origin ('Ajam). Sh. Rashid is said to have sent a strongly-worded letter to both the al-Manama Club and the Grand 'Ajam Ma'tam, two of the country's most prominent Persian-dominated civil society organizations, threatening the community with "deportation" if it "continues supporting opposition activities."  I suppose, then, that this explains the recent (seemingly random) statement of the Grand 'Ajam Ma'tam "reiterating its loyalty to His Majesty King Hamad bin 'Isa Al Khalifa" and criticizing "perpetrators of rioting and terrorism."

Update 5: As if on cue, Bahrain has suffered yet another deadly homemade bomb attack on police in the village of Eker.


  1. so your advocating an armed insurgency ala Iraq model then Gengler?

    Streching that Fullbright scholarship nicely I see. Too bad nobody really gives a shit what you have to say.

    1. Damn, you really got me there! I was hoping no one would notice my secret advocacy of armed insurgency buried within a post describing why armed insurgency is tactically impossible in Bahrain. I assumed--correctly, I see--that by making such a conclusion so obviously contrary to the general point of the post, I would throw off casual observers, leaving only astute readers like yourself to take the true lesson. May I suggest you also take up reading Kierkegaard, who was also in the habit of addressing his writings to that penetrating individual he calls "my reader."

    2. hahahahahahaha! Priceless. Justin you could end up in an orange jumpsuit and on a plane to Guantanmo for articulating such things, particularly when Mr. Anonymous is watching. Kierkegaard!! hahahaha!!

      Heres the real lesson that you all need to learn to stop wasting your time writing about the little island that barely appears in most maps: Things will never change, the Saudis wont allow it, most people are happy and content, Iran's minions have grievances, but boo hoo, I also want a new Ferrari, but thats not about to happen. The end.

    3. A great many people care and would disagree with you Mr. Alkhalifa. Not-so-veiled threats are a hallmark of your clan and somehow, I think you'll get that Ferrari if you really want it.

    4. Marty - Would you get a Ferrari or a Maserati? I really cant decide. Did I also mention that Iran's will achieve nothing other than to wallow in their own self-inflicted misery?

    5. Sorry that was supposed to say "Iran's minions", thats m-i-n-i-o-n-s, defined as "a servile follower or subordinate".

      I will say no more they know who they are - will the real Iranian Minion please stand up!!!

    6. Ironically you're a minion yourself and not a master, you follow blindly and with no real way of voicing your concerns and opinions to the people you so faithfully worship day and night. The great thing is they don't really care about you or what you think as long as you continue to be on their good side.

      That is what you're doing, isn't it? Staying on their good side like a good ol' faithful servant?

  2. I also have similar fans as "anonymous 1:49pm" and I only post links, whereas you bravely make analysis. ;-)

  3. Too bad you have to hide behind anonymity to make your point....

  4. This is Anonymous is probably a TROLL. I liked the blog. It is insightful and painfully honest.

  5. If the regime has actually seized 5 tons of explosives as they've claimed they'd be showing it off like Treasure! I subscribe to your blog, usually agree with your analyses, but disagree this time about Feb.14 movement being "over." I'd venture to say most of the people getting wounded and arrested and all their loved ones would, too.

    1. My point is not that there are no longer groups and individuals fighting for the goals embodied by the Feb. 14 uprising. My point is that the movement no longer has the physical or political momentum necessary to achieve these aims of basic societal change, however unfortunate one may find that.

  6. Reference for Clive Holes statement?

    and BTW, great article. It would have more complete if you discussed the foreign powers struggle in Bahrain. Any upcoming war would change the face of the region. Changes in Syria could also play an important role as protesters would be more welcoming of Iran's help than last year; heck I'm DEMANDING Iranian help now and would be proud of it if they make it. Hope is lost in peaceful means.. that is a real loss for all Bahrain. Should we get ready for 1990s-like bombings in finantial district?

    Did you miss the piece in Bahrain Mirror about no oil being discovered? Will foreign workers/citizens stay after this becomes a reality?

    1. Holes, Clive. 2005. “Dialect and National Identity: The Cultural Politics of Self-Representation in Bahraini Musalsal├Ąt.” In Paul Dresch and James Piscatori, eds. Monarchies and Nations: Globalization and Identity in the Arab States of the Gulf. London: I. B. Tauris.

  7. But if the uprising is over and this is actually a "civil rights movement" as one guy in Wikipedia called it, wouldn't the government have opened the site of Pearl Roundabout? Wouldn't they have withdrawn security forces from every village entrance? or from Salmaniya hospital?

    The uprising is alive as demands are still up; just take a look at the vast numbers taking part in licensed protests and funerals chanting down Hamad and people want the fall of regime.

    The situation is only kept as is it with brutal forces, and once that is taken away, people would be camping in Manama again. The situation can't return to what was before 14 February ever again.

  8. With the end of hopes in peaceful means of political/human rights change, people would be radicalized to a level that we'll see the drive-overs of 15 and 16 March of last year return. In Syria most of the weapons in opposition hands were taken from government forces, same in Libya and so will it be in Bahrain.

    Those radicalized aren't just young youths, they are also politicians, academics and even religious figures. When all hope is lost and there is nothing left to lose, the bomb will explode. Eastern provenance of Arabia will probably experience similar conditions.

  9. This is not correct. If you take that logic, by that I would also say the Syrian uprising is also over because so far the rebels and government forces are reaching stalemate for the past recent months since July 2012. And if the rebels failed to take over Damascus, can you say their rebellion is over? This is not making logic sense.

    So similarly per what Mohamed CJ has said, a lot of revolutionaries in Bahrain has taken daily protests at OUTSIDE the capital city. And just because the media did a poor coverage (I say a bias coverage) in Bahrain, this does not mean the "uprising is over". So your point of "the movement no longer has the physical or political momentum necessary to achieve these aims of basic societal change" is not correct.

    1. It should be important to note that people only occupied the Pearl Roundabout when the government allowed them. If you call that an uprising, then what changed since then? The government still allows some protests which still attract tens of thousands and sometimes over 100,000 which is essentially same as February/March 2011.

      The only difference I see is that government allowed protesters to camp 24/7 and allowed marches to important places. But remember, it is essentially the same situation.

      Just imagine this: The government suddenly announced opening Pearl Roundabout and allowed protesters there on condition that they won't expand it to the Financial harbor or block roads. Would you call that an uprising?

      This is exactly what happened on 15 February 2011 after the funeral. One day after the attack on Pearl Roundabout, people marched back and were shot at. Guess what? people marched tens of times the same way and were blocked, the only difference is government reaction by opening the Pearl Roundabout again on 19 Feb 2011 and keeping it blocked now, which is the result of international attention/pressure that was there due to the wider effect of Arab Spring.

      If you think what's going on now isn't an uprising, then pretty much Feb/Mar 2011 weren't either.

    2. The difference is that in February and March 2011 there was a genuine sense of panic and uncertainty on the part of the government, which led to their initial indecision. How would citizens not part of the formal opposition react to both the uprising and the state's response to it? How would the internal Al Khalifa dynamics play out? How would the police and army react? How would close allies -- Saudi Arabia and the U.S. -- react? How would the wider regional and international community react?

      There simply is no longer any uncertainty about most if not all of these issues. This has allowed the state the time and relative security to formulate a more calculated approach, even if it is a divisive and authoritarian one. Bahrain is no longer in a state of panic or crisis, and it shows in the government's decision-making. That is the difference.

    3. I think its even useless to discuss whether the "uprising is over". Starting from 14 February, its not EVEN an uprising. Its terrorism. What happen for the past 20-months were actually Shiites rioting and doing their insurgency, the similar way how Sunnis doing their pathetic Salafi insurgency in Syria.
      There was no such revolution, and neither there was such uprising. It was all poor kids and terrorist behind all these jobs. Real Bahrainis and Syrians love their leader.

      Revolution in the Middle East? An illusion. It's all orchestrated by the CIA. We shouldn't even talk about all these things. I know you people won't accept this but these are painful facts. As what Sun Tzu says, "All wars were based on deception".

    4. You are right Justin. The State is cool under fire, maintains its composure and is completely in control. The so called democracy movement has been reduced to shreds of the initial dream now left in tatters. Its just the nuisance factor of having to have these people block some roads, burn a few tires, spray paint a few walls etc etc. PATHETIC, but not revolutionary. God bless the Monarchy, our GCC allies, and the US of A, who chose the right side of history. Who decided not to partner with Satan's representative on earth, also known as the Islamic Republic of Iran.


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