Monday, October 15, 2012

Will Bahrain's Parliament Go the Way of Kuwait?

As usual, I've been quite busy lately with various writing commitments. The most substantial of these is the fabled dissertation-to-book-manuscript project, a revision process of which I am sorry to say I have a lot remaining. In addition, grant proposal season is now upon us, sucking up additional free time. What is worse, since all of these submissions take an excruciatingly long time to play out, there is seemingly little immediate payoff for what are considerable investments in time and energy. One small piece that has finally made its way through the academic pipeline is this review of Sean Foley's The Arab Gulf States, published just a few days ago in IJMES.

More pertinent for today's post on Bahrain, however, is another recent writing project: a chapter for a forthcoming book on sectarian politics in the Gulf to which I've alluded before. The chapter, a theoretical framework for understanding the region's sectarian politics, explains why the outcome of "sectarianism" is in fact a particular case of the Gulf's more general tendency toward group-based politics of all sorts. The explanation, in short, is a combination of (1) specific institutional characteristics that privilege political coordination on the basis of ascriptive social categories--region, religion, ethnicity, tribe, etc.--and (2) active efforts on the part of Gulf rulers to institutionalize this group-based, as opposed to individual-based, political competition, in order to maximize their own economic and political welfare.

Now, one hardly needs a special occasion to point out the existence of group politics in Bahrain.  For almost no one is a Bahraini anymore, but BahrAni (بحراني), or 'Ajmi, or Mujannas, or Hawala, or Shirazi, or Al Khalifa, or Ahl al-Sunna, or whatever.  And, not coincidentally, that's the way the state likes it.  Indeed, when the opposition launched its well-publicized "No Sunni, No Shi'i, Just Bahraini" campaign at the height of mass demonstrations in March 2011, the government was none too pleased, as this image clashed with its reading (or at least its outward portrayal) of the uprising.  Those found wearing stickers and other "Just Bahraini" paraphernalia were singled out at security checkpoints and generally were dismissed either as disingenuous or as unthinking pawns in others' sectarian agenda.

In recent days, however, the government's manipulation of societal groupings qua political constituencies has reached notable levels even by local standards.  This may correspond to Sunday's opening of the new session of the National Assembly, or it may be entirely independent of the parliament.  However the case, Bahrain has gone out of its way to put various societal groups on notice, Stephen Colbert-style.

The fun kicked off last week when Sh. Rashid sent a "strongly-worded letter" to two institutions affiliated with Bahrain's sizable Persian community: the Grand 'Ajam Ma'tam and the Al-Manama Club.  According to an article in the Bahrain Mirror, members of the community, which in recent decades has attempted to remain apolitical, were threatened with "deportation" if they are found to "participate in opposition activities."  Almost immediately thereafter, the Information Affairs Authority carried a press release announcing that the Grand 'Ajam Mosque "reiterated its loyalty to His Highness the King and rejects the perpetrators of rioting and terrorism":

Soon a loyalty stampede ensued among Bahrain's various civil society groups, especially football and sports clubs, including those not affiliated with Bahraini 'Ajam. God knows why; it's not like the government would arrest and/or torture athletes thought to support the opposition, right?

Inevitably, of course, the state's public message to Bahraini Persians had the opposite effect of that intended, or in any case was likely only to convince those who were content to remain outside of politics in the first place.  Soon after the Grand 'Ajam Ma'tam's letter declaring its deference to King Hamad and denouncement of the opposition, another letter appeared signed by the "Movement of the Lovers of Martyrdom" (nice name) that said, in effect, that although "the Grand 'Ajam Ma'tam is one of the largest Hussainiyya in Bahrain, it doesn't represent all 'Ajam" and doesn't represent us.  So, once again, by demanding formal declarations of political support from a heterogeneous group of citizens, Bahrain has succeeded only in pushing would-be opponents underground.

The second group that has been put on notice is a more familiar face: al-Wifaq. In a seeming escalation of threats of "legal action" from the Islamic Affairs / Justice Ministry that have continued for the previous several months, on Sunday 'Ali Salman was summoned to a Manama police station to be questioned.  "What did he do this time?" you ask?  Perhaps it was al-Wifaq's latest rally over the weekend?  Or a controversial Friday sermon?  No, in fact, the summons indicates that he was to be questioned regarding his "interference in the internal affairs of a friendly nation," namely Egypt, whence he had recently returned.  I wonder if he talked to my old friend, 'Isa al-Qattan?

That's right: Bahrain, which in late August saw four members, including the former head and current deputy head, of al-Asalah LITERALLY SNEAK INTO SYRIA (or, as I've since heard, sneak NEAR the Syrian border in Turkey) to play guns with the Free Syrian Army, and then brag about it publicly--yes, this same country is now questioning the head of al-Wifaq about interference in another nation's affairs.  (By contrast, one of the al-Asalah members that went to Syria was received by King Hamad the next week for 'Eid.) In fact, over the weekend news even circulated on Twitter of a 21 year-old Bahraini fighter killed while WAGING WAR INSIDE SYRIA. In short, Bahrain seems to maintain an odd interpretation of what constitutes interference in other countries' affairs (perhaps the operative qualification is "friendly" countries).

The GDN reports that Salman was questioned after the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Revolution (whatever that is) "urged Bahraini authorities to ban him and other Al Wefaq National Islamic Society leaders from travelling to Egypt, describing them as 'pro-Iranian agents' who were a 'threat to the country's unity.'"  (Evidently the Bahraini government is now taking political orders from civil society groups abroad.)  More specifically, according to the Council's "general co-ordinator": "The presence of pro-Iranian agents on Egyptian soil is a threat to the country's unity and the true Islamic religion."  Yea, the Council should watch out lest those Shi'a Wifaqis introduce sectarianism into the group's otherwise very tolerant-sounding political agenda. (For those interested, the Bahrain Mirror has published what it claims is a full transcript of Salman's questioning. Sunni forums also have their own account.)

But here is where the story really gets weird.  For around the same time that Salman was called in for questioning, 'Isa Qasim made news of his own by reporting, in comments since rejected by various ministries, that Bahrain had reached out to Iran--in particular, the Iranian counsel in Bahrain--to help solve the country's political impasse.  According to Qasim, the initiative began as early as the August Islamic summit in Mecca, where King Hamad reached out to the Iranian Foreign Minister 'Ali Akbar al-Salehi.  This report was later repeated via Twitter by al-Wifaq officials, including Khalil al-Marzuq, and denied by Sh. Khalid and others. (And, of course, Al-Watan's Sawsan al-Sha'ir has picked up on Qasim's "relationship" with the Iranian Consul with predictable journalistic consequences.)

The final group that the Bahraini government has put on notice, and I think not coincidentally, is the just-reopened parliament.  One will recall that, in the absence of al-Wifaq, the body has largely shed its traditional quiescence as it has enjoyed the luxury of pursuing a legislative agenda that goes beyond obstructing the opposition.  This led to considerable deadlock between the upper and lower houses of parliament, not to mention the memorable clash with Culture Minister Sha. Mai which required the timely intervention of Khalifa bin Salman himself.  After the latter's "visit" to parliament stressing legislative-executive "cooperation," MPs turned in traditional fashion to focus on a new political enemy, namely the United States and its wily ambassador, to the benefit of government ministers.

Now, in his inaugural address on Sunday, King Hamad reiterated that the current parliament will not be dissolved to make way for new elections or al-Wifaq participation, though he says that the "door for dialogue is still open."  Yet, at the same time, his remarks as well as those of parliamentary chairman al-Dhaharani make clear that the government is already anticipating another relatively confrontational session, and is preemptively warning MPs not to go down that road.  The GDN reports, for example (my emphasis):
Dr Al Dhahrani said His Majesty King Hamad has affirmed on numerous occasions that parliament will not be dissolved. However, he stressed that no one can abuse the principle behind publicly questioning ministers – there are clear guidelines about this. A number of draft laws have failed because the National Assembly has not sat in session, following disagreements between Shura Council and parliament. They will be reviewed again and re-submitted to the assembly.
One assumes that parliamentary gridlock must be on the mind of Bahrain's rulers especially following recent events in the only other Gulf state with a functioning parliament, Kuwait, where the emir has just been forced to dissolve the body for the fifth time since 2006 due to an obstinate opposition with a penchant for quizzing ministers from the ruling family. Whether or not Bahraini MPs will be inspired by their Kuwaiti brothers is anyone's guess, but I can't imagine that issues like corruption, political naturalization, or uneven economic development have dissipated since parliament last met.  Many parliamentarians may be united in their hatred for the opposition, or for the United States, or for burned Starbucks coffee.  But passing resolutions denouncing the opposition doesn't get you re-elected when most of the voters in your district are hit hard by Bahrain's post-uprising economic stagnation and witness other citizens--royals, elite families, and naturalized citizens--doing disproportionately better.

Bahrain is still busy playing the game of group politics, whipping Bahraini Persians in line while raising the stakes in its ongoing cat-and-mouse with al-Wifaq.  Ironically, in remaining outside of formal politics, both groups--the Baharnah and 'Ajam--are putting the government in a more difficult place, as it is left to face a parliament comprised almost exclusively of its own (nominally, at least) supporters.  There, the post-2005 excuse of opposition subterfuge no longer obtains, as al-Wifaq and others have abandoned the stage.  Whereas before the state could avoid a parliamentary inquisition by painting it an opposition initiative, which pro-government MPs would dutifully oppose, now there is nothing to stop members but fear of another visit from Khalifa bin Salman.  That fear is powerful, of course, but over the past two years it has shown itself to be a rather unreliable indicator of political behavior in the Middle East region, as the difference between fear and hatred is a difficult one to discern.

Update: Looks like we have a few Al-Watan readers over at DHS:

Update 2: The Manama Voice is reporting Iran's own response to the controversy surrounding the Bahraini government's claimed request for political mediation. The headline should clear things up: "Iran: Bahrain's King, Foreign Minister, and Ambassador Requested Mediation."

And, from the BBC, the Saudis are not too happy about the UK's parliamentary inquiry into its foreign relations with Saudi and Bahrain.

Update 3: In what is being seen as a severe provocation, Bahrain's Shi'a awqaf has announced that prayers at the Imam Sadiq Mosque in al-Diraz, home mosque of Sh. 'Isa Qasim, will be phased out as the mosque is replaced by a newer, much bigger one on land donated by the king. There is no mention of the fate of Sh. 'Isa Qasim--i.e., whether he will be reassigned to the new mosque--but there is likely to be a fight brewing here.

Update 4: Yet another deadly bomb attack on police in the southern village of Eker. I am not in the habit of quoting State Department spokesmen, but in this case it's appropriate: "[A resumption of political talks] is still the only path forward that we see and we are encouraging both sides to roll up their sleeves and get to it."


  1. Bahrain is perfectly OK. Despite the ups and downs, and the theatrics of the turban wearers and their escapades in Cairo when they are not slumming it in the villages, everything is moving along nicely.

    So nicely, thats its US$ 250 million nicely, check out the latest investment announced in the country

    1. Sal, do you even bother to RTFA anymore?

    2. Justin - I always read your articles and I think you do such a thorough job that I enjoy it. You put together such a coherent summary of the latest and greatest perspectives on the island. However, I do not regard anything going on other than noise. As long as Bahrain's economic march continues, major projects progress, and government infrastructure spending keeps flowing we are good. Everything else is childs play, and that is exactly the problem, Feb 14 and all these jokers are kids, nothing more. The concept of video games and getting a girlfriend seems to still not have reached the villages, but once it does, those who burn tires for joy will find something else to tinker with.

    3. Yeah those at villages know nothing about videos games and/or girlfriends.. they're only so keen on using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc to organize protests, capture images of right violations and spread them to the whole world.

      Yeah I mean those "KIDS" are so good at using Youtube and live streaming, but don't give a crap about the shit we're supposed to "sedate" them with.

      Some of the best "child play" we are yet to see in any other country is those doctors. How dare they talk to media? they're supposed to do what we tell them (or what they think we'll tell them) and STFU.

      What's worse? we can't censor them anymore like we used to do in the 1900s and even worse the security measures taken in every 100 meters are yet failing to stop a bunch of "kids" from burning tires in a freaking busy highway.. baaah.

    4. Justin,

      Although I do not like to get into finger-pointing or anything like that, but I suspect Sal is a CP scholarship recipient, whom cares less about justice and more about Economic progress (with a capital E). The more Economic progress on the island, the better it is for neo-elitists like him to benefit.

      Economic neo-elitists will make every argument possible to stay in power with their Academia mannered lingo (not that mine isn't) as a way to feel superior to people who are intimate with basic truths.

      Justice? Truth? Such words are near non-existent in their lexicons... You'll only hear money and power. In fact, it is exactly justice that they fight, because God forbid they don't spend their holiday this year in a 5-star hotel, while serving royal family's interests, and instead spend it in a 4-star. Oh dear...

    5. Depends on the 4 star hotel. But sounds like someone is bitter, squirming and throwing their toys out the pram because they DID NOT get a CP scholarship.... Hoo-ha!!

    6. Congratulations Sal, this is by far the most childish and juvenile post you have ever posted yet.

    7. 'Yet' being the key word....

  2. Justin,

    I think I was right. I know who this person is.

  3. @Sal Rahim: Your trolling is quite tiresome.

    When a regime running what was always bordering on a police stated -- now backed by parts of the security apparatuses of four neighboring states -- imprisons literally every opposition activist on note and imprisons virtually most of the opposition-minded population, OF COURSE that everything is "perfectly OK."

    Your indefatigable "reports" of "investments" and economic "progress" are evocative of the junk being churned out by the Kim apparatchiks in North Korea. After all, according to them, the Democratic People's Republic puts away the rest of the envious world. I'm surprised that amid all the "hailing" that the regime outlets report on daily, there's no mention (yet!) of what Hamad has for breakfast.

    Anyway, one digresses.

    What all those defending the odious Khalife government are forgetting is this: A regime that owes its survival on wholesale oppression of its people has no long-term future. They can bring in a million Pakistani murtaziqa and naturalize a million Syrians, but sooner or later they will crumble.

    If Hamad & co. had any sense, they'd follow the lead of Kuwait's amir who has facilitated the establishment of a state with by far the most progressive political system in the Gulf and a state where sectarianism is must less pronounced than anywhere in the region.


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