Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Kuwait, Not Escalating Violence, Could Be a Game-Changer for Bahrain

One day early last month I received several not-quite-frantic e-mails asking if I knew anything about a meeting said to be scheduled to take place in Doha, where I am located, between members of Bahrain's government and opposition.  As I was indeed not aware of it, I read with interest an article written by the editor of Akhbar al-Khaleej, Anwar 'Abd al-Rahman, decrying this "suspicious meeting in Doha" and comparing its prospective participants to those traitors who had returned just a week earlier from Bahrain's human rights review at the United Nations in Geneva.

Though some of his information proved to be wrong--the event was not organized by the Carnegie Endowment, for one--it turns out that there was an attempt to bring together a group of Bahrainis in a workshop format.  However, the editorial by 'Abd al-Rahman, combined with several other articles in various outlets, amounted to a preemptive strike on the whole enterprise, a less-than-discrete warning to those invited that it was in their interest not to go (to say nothing of Qatar's continued treachery in daring to allow such meetings in its territory). The event was called off for lack of participation and, one suspects, for fear of a possible diplomatic incident.

Later, at the end of October, The Guardian reported that an NGO run by a former aide of Tony Blair was "advising Bahrain on conflict resolution," with "Bahraini government and opposition figures ... being trained in negotiation and conflict resolution techniques." Once again, Bahrain would not tolerate the suggestion that it was anything but staunchly opposed to any political compromise with the opposition and to foreign interference in this "internal matter."  Minister of State for Crazy Affairs Sameera Rajab was promptly dispatched to deny explicitly the Guardian story in remarks later carried in the Bahrain News Agency.

Now, I've not written here for some time.  That is due in part to an increase in other commitments.  But it owes also to a more substantive cause, which is that it's tedious to rehash the same thesis week after week.  The securitization of politics in Bahrain has thrown the country into a destructive, self-perpetuating cycle, whereby the lack of even a hint of political compromise encourages increasingly radical protest tactics, which only reinforces the state's (and security-minded "pro-government" citizens') resistance to compromise or even dialogue.  Indeed, in the aftermath of yesterday's bombings (which occurred in my old neighborhood), Interior Minister Sh. Rashid was quick to declare that "there can be no negotiation with terrorists."  This is just as well, of course, since those responsible for the explosions are presumably not interested in talking either.

The question, accordingly, is not whether Bahrain is likely to continue down (or, in this case, around) the same political path, but what it would take for it NOT to.  That is to say, what event or development would be sufficiently transformative to alter the government's calculus on the usefulness and/or necessity of an actual political solution to Bahrain's conflict as opposed to the present (and now months-old) artificial stalemate imposed via a sweeping security crackdown? (A security crackdown that, as of a week ago, now includes an outright ban on demonstrations.)

In the first place, one can rule out homemade pipe bombs and other acts designed ostensibly to get the attention either of the government or, more likely, of the international community.  Momentarily stealing headlines away from Syria serves little purpose if the headline is something like "Two Killed in Terrorist Attack by Bahrain Opposition."  Similarly, targeting foreigners in areas popular with foreigners--and 'Adliya, the site of one of the injuries, is perhaps the most popular of all--is unlikely to convert additional supporters.  More fundamentally, such actions only feed into the narrative of those within the state and in society who are most opposed to "compromise with terrorists." Take the graphic below, for instance, which comes from Bahrain's main Sunni forum and compares yesterday's incident to a Hizballah bombing in Lebanon.

Not only do such events strengthen the resolve of those opposed to dialogue, moreover, but it gives fuel to those advocating a further escalation of the existing security crackdown, including most notably the immediate closure of al-Wifaq and arrest of 'Ali Saman and especially 'Isa Qasim as alleged inciters of violence.  Already last month the former was summoned for police questioning, while the Bahrain Mirror reported on October 1 that one of King Hamad's advisers, Nabeel al-Hamar, announced that "a number of Bahraini lawyers" are preparing to bring a legal case against 'Isa Qasim "next week"--i.e., this week--relating to his infamous "crush them" sermon.  (Remember this one?)

Leading the charge as usual is the editorial board at Al-Watan.  Of the five headlines on today's (electronic) front page, the top two are stories about 'Isa Qasim.  One, featuring a photo of one of yesterday's victims, reads: "MPs and Shura Council members: Qasim's incitement is behind the development of terrorist methods and mechanisms."

A second asks, "Why does 'Isa Qasim hate foreigners and incite [violence] against them?" I'm not even sure how to describe the photograph.

In keeping with the general cycle of violence and mutual recrimination which is now a defining feature of Bahrain, the response from the other side--both with respect to yesterday's events specifically as well as the larger attack on 'Isa Qasim--has been equally defiant.

The Islamic 'Ulama' Council--I'm not sure exactly whom this represents--continues to criticize the "attack on Ayatallah Sh. 'Isa Ahmad Qasim."  In a new statement released Sunday, the council says that "the defense of this symbol of jurisprudence ... is the defense of all the targeted [opposition leaders]," and closes with the words,  "May God help you [all] to protect the security of this nation and to defend its loyal symbols."

The February 14th movement has also joined in with the flashy graphic seen below, which offers a generic warning to no one in particular: "He is our Shaykh ['Isa] Qasim: Beware." 

Neither are al-Wifaq and 'Ali Salman adopting a conciliatory tone.  Caught between the dual threats of dissolution by the government and irrelevance on the street, al-Wifaq faces a precarious balancing act, to say the least.  Opposition forums have picked up on an interview by 'Ali Salman on the al-Mayadeen television channel (I have no idea what this is), in which he is reported to have said, "If a person entered my house I would kill him in self-defense." Some of course are taking "a person" to mean "a police officer," while others say it was a general statement now being blown out of proportion and to substantiate claims about incitement toward violence.

Al-Wifaq also has not done itself any favors with its Twitter response to yesterday's bomb blasts, which as you can see below is being interpreted as another lost opportunity to condemn acts of violence.

Finally, with the politically-charged festival of 'Ashura' little more than two weeks away, some--more specifically, Sh. 'Abd al-Wahhab Hussain's group al-Wafa'--are attempting to put the holiday to even more explicit political use, dubbing it the "'Ashura' of Resistance."  As the Interior Ministry has already announced that the new ban on public gatherings would not apply to 'Ashura' processions, it is perhaps not surprising that the latter would transform into genuine political marches.

In short, then, there is no reason to believe that yesterday's attack represents anything more than the new normal in Bahrain.  Certainly it will not prompt the state to rethink its present security-based strategy, nor invite outside pressure for it to do so.  Quite the opposite, such acts of violence will only engender a more complete crackdown as security-minded royals and citizens gain ever more fuel for their arguments, and, even more importantly, al-Wifaq appears an even more unreliable partner in political dialogue.  For, despite the attempt of some to paint al-Wifaq as mastermind of violence, the fact is that such violence represents something even more worrisome to the state: a protest movement entirely out of the hands of the formal (and more moderate) opposition.

Indeed, from the state's perspective, it would be preferable if al-Wifaq WERE behind the violence, since then the group could credibly commit to ending it as part of political negotiations.  As it is now, with al-Wifaq wielding almost no command over Bahrain's revolutionary youth, any promise by al-Wifaq to end violent protest activities in exchange for political concessions is entirely non-credible, giving the government no incentive to engage in dialogue in the first place.  Here is a classic commitment problem.

So, I return to the question asked at the outset: if not the recent escalation in violence, what is it that may force the government to reconsider its present security-cum-political strategy?  Previously I have suggested that such a revision in thinking would most likely be prompted by a substantive change in external/regional rather than internal political dynamics: the inevitable question of succession in Saudi Arabia, which may draw the kingdom's attention away from Bahrain; a shift (unlikely as it seems) in U.S. policy toward Bahrain; or the mobilization of Sunni citizens in Saudi Arabia--beyond the perennial protests in the Eastern Province--sparked by Sunni activism in Bahrain.

Now, none of these three scenarios has come to fruition.  But if you tweak the final item a bit, changing Saudi Arabia to Kuwait, then you may see where I am going.  Imagine, for instance, that Kuwait's ongoing parliamentary stalemate devolves into a full-blown political crisis, complete with violent clashes between protesters and riot police.  As already threatened by the emir, the Kuwaiti army is deployed to forcibly quell protests, and one popular uprising in the Gulf (excluding for now the case of Saudi Arabia) becomes two.

Such a scenario would have two important implications for Bahrain.  First, since there is no question of Iranian involvement or "outside interference" in the case of Kuwait, and since the Kuwaiti opposition is a rather heterogeneous coalition of nationalists, liberals, youth, tribes, and so on, it would be much more difficult for the United States and other Western countries to write off a Kuwaiti revolt as a "special case" not representative of the "truly democratic and popular" uprisings seen elsewhere in the Arab world.  If Bahrain is no longer viewed as an isolated and unique case, in other words, but as part of a larger phenomenon of "demands for political reform in the Gulf," then the entire narrative surrounding U.S. and Western support for GCC governments--including Bahrain--changes.  (Of course, some are already questioning, however fruitlessly, U.S. policy on Bahrain.)  And, since the U.S. election will have been decided by then, Washington may have more political will--assuming Obama is re-elected--to act.  Finally, the U.K.'s recent decision to launch a parliamentary review of its relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain could further isolate the U.S.

Second, it is possible that a Kuwaiti revolt could re-energize the large contingent of (mostly Sunni) Bahrainis whose fear and dislike of the opposition has so far precluded a coordinated and sustained pursuit of their own political agenda and resolution of their own grievances.  But these political grievances nonetheless persist, and individuals may be more likely to overcome their fear of inadvertent Shi'a empowerment if Kuwait's (also largely Sunni) opposition is seen to achieve substantive political gains--for example, a sizable number of cabinet seats or an elected prime minister.  Moreover, because the newly-reconvened Bahraini parliament now consists almost entirely of these nominally "pro-government" citizens, they already enjoy an institutional mechanism by which to push a reformist agenda if they so desired.  Signs that Bahraini Sunnis are re-awaking from their recent stupor, then, could push the government to end the current cycle of perpetual political crisis.

Gulf foreign ministers will meet tomorrow in Manama "in preparation" for next month's GCC summit, also to be held in Bahrain. I suspect that one of the agenda items will be how to stop isolated political sparks across the Gulf from transforming into a wider regional conflagration.

Update: Sh. Fawaz announces on Twitter that Bahrain is now returning to the methods of the 1990s, taking away the citizenship of 31 activists, including respected Bahrain scholar 'Abd al-Hadi Khalaf and two former al-Wifaq MPs (Jalal and Jawad Fayruz). The BNA has posted an English list of names. (Interestingly, in the English list they omit the "Khalaf" bit for 'Abd al-Hadi, presumably so he is not readily identified.)

Already, some ingenious Twitter activist has responded with the following:


  1. I think you missed an important point about the image with two bombing. It actually shows how the bombing in Lebanon was real, where as the one in Bahrain didn't even scratch the car, crush its glass and let alone completely destroy it.

    1. You were right about Khalaf, he was never mentioned in any of the non-local news I have read so far.

  2. A point worth thinking about. If those bombing were really made by terrorists and not the government, would this prompt the US and UK to warn their citizens or advice them to try to stay out of Bahrain. I wound has this happened? if not then we really should remember what Bounsner (or however its spelled) warned the opposition in genieva about government upcoming crackdown.

  3. Thanks Justin for taking up this recent twist in regime's crackdown. While not frequently used, revocation of citizenship has been part of the reprsseive arsenal used against Bahraini opposition figures. In 1954, Abdul Rahman al Bakir, General secretary of the NUC, was stripped of his bahraini citizenship. He got it back some months later. In December 1956 al Bakir, together with two other leaders of NUC, were deported on a British naval ship to a prison in Saint Helen island.
    Iam working on a paper where I discuss the citizenship issue in a rentier state context. In similarity with other ruling dynasties in the GCC, Al Khalifas perceive citizenship not as a birthright for citizens, but a makrama. As a makrama, a citizenship can be given, withheld and withdrawn.
    Abdulhadi khalaf

    1. Thanks for your insight, 'Abd al-Hadi. Hope we can meet up again soon. Is this the same paper you presented at MESA? How was the conference?


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