Thursday, March 29, 2012

"Bahraini Sunnis, Watch Out!"—Or Else You Might Actually Get What You Want

I don't normally devote an entire post to a single news story or article, but this one deserves it--and moreover follows directly from my previous post regarding the centrality of Bahrain's Sunnis in dictating the direction of the political crisis. Writing in Al-Watan, Faysal al-Shaykh warns, "Bahraini Sunnis, watch out!" (Arabic here):

It has become crystal clear that what happened in Bahrain [i..e, the uprising] bears no relation to the Arab Spring movements. It was a sectarian and discriminatory movement led by deeply sectarian political forces that do not recognize any other components in society. [But now t]hey want to show the world that their alleged revolution is supported by the sweeping majority of all Bahrainis from all sects and that the change they are demanding is a popular one. ...

Therefore, their current tactic is based on winning the sympathy of Sunnis by dwelling on common grievances which consist in discontent with living conditions, the rampant corruption in state sectors, the housing problem and rising prices. Their objective is to drive Sunnis to discredit the measures that seek to protect Bahrain according to comprehensive and wider criteria and not narrow and petty considerations that could have cost the country a lot hadn’t it been for the proper and clever treatment of the situation so as to show the international community what is really happening inside Bahrain.
Those bastards! Attempting to "win[] the sympathy of Sunnis" by noting that in fact all Bahrainis share similar political and economic grievances? By noting "rampant corruption," "the housing problem," and "[poor] living conditions?" How could they?

He continues,
This is a key point about which loyal Bahrainis have to be vigilant. After the failure of their coup attempt, those people changed their strategy. Instead of continuing to focus their confrontation between them and the state, notably its security bodies, they are now trying to pull another element in the conflict with the state. Today, they are exploiting the feelings and emotional mood of Sunnis by showing that any action or initiative made by the state tends to neglect the loyal citizens’ rights and ignore their demands.
Wait, what!? What's the opposition doing now?--demonstrating that "the state tends to neglect [Sunnis'] rights and ignore their demands?" Those sons-a-bitches!

And a final warning:
We have to beware of falling in the quagmire of emotions and impetuous reactions, otherwise it would us a regime capable of securing the pillars of a civil state against the ambitions of those who seek to establish an entity controlled by a single category whose propensities cause a lot of distress to those with different sectarian or political affiliations and you can take the northern state an example for the hellish existence led by political opponents.
Indeed, watch out, Bahraini Sunnis, or else you might actually make progress toward realizing your longstanding political demands. And isn't that exactly what the terrorist Ziono-American-Hizballah alliance wants you to do?

Yeah, I guess it is.

Update: The New York Times reports on the lingering tensions at the University of Bahrain one year after the battle of the camel.

Update 2: A popular thread on the pro-government Sunni forum is calling for a televised debate involving Sunnis and Shi'i activists, pro- and anti-government. And in a related poll, 70% of forum-goers support the idea. Maybe another indication that at least some Sunnis are coming around to the idea that the opposition may not be the devil after all? All I have to say is: "Bahraini Sunnis, watch out!"

Update 3: The always-readable Simon Henderson reports to Foreign Policy from on deck the Fifth Fleet's USS Abraham Lincoln, currently on anti-Iran duty in the Persian Gulf.

Update 4: Bahrain police reform you can believe in.

Update 5: The Saudi worldview, via al-Hayat.

Update 6: How about that police reform? A protester (and citizen journalist) killed by plainclothes security forces shooting live rounds from a civilian car. (The Interior Ministry is appealing for "witnesses," presumably some that would confirm that the bullet came from a car with an Iranian plate.) It will be ironic if the state's own thugs prove responsible for its losing the Formula 1 race, now only weeks away.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Look Who's Boycotting Dialogue Now

Last week I had the pleasure of sitting on a conference panel with one 'Abd al-Hadi Khalaf, whose analysis of Bahrain's strategy in handling the uprising I much enjoyed. I was also happy to find out that we shared several common opinions about the nature of the struggle going forward, primary among which is the novelty and importance of the Sunni mobilization in Bahrain over against the same old story of Shi'a-led opposition.

As I've mentioned previously, I'm currently in the process of finishing a theoretical introduction to an upcoming volume on sectarianism in the Gulf being organized by Georgetown University's Center for International and Regional Studies. As such, I don't have time to write an entire lengthy post on this now, but it bears mentioning (especially in light of my discussions with 'Abd al-Hadi) the main political news out of Bahrain these days: that it is now the Sunnis (at least those in the National Unity Gathering) who are threatening boycott of the still-rumored upcoming second round of dialogue, ostensibly because the physical conflict is still ongoing--that is, because al-Wifaq and "its followers" in the street continue to fight for "regime change."

The irony of the situation has not been lost on observers. Al Bin Khalil writes,
This scenario is upside down and unfamiliar to us to some extent because local political affairs observers are used to seeing the radical opposition abstain from accepting continuous initiatives in order to stick to its demands and to preserve its interests. They are not used to seeing other non-radical political societies having reserves against such initiatives although these initiatives serve their interests.

A billboard in Muharraq depicts one "going to the dialogue."

In support of the boycott, the Al-Fatih Awakening used its Friday rally to counter those organized by opposition groups to demand a restart of talks. Importantly, however, their primary argument against the initiative is that it includes only the opposition groups--i.e., that they, Sunnis, are excluded from it. (On this point, see this previous post.) In other words, it's not that Bahraini Sunnis wish to prevent a political solution out of some hatred of Shi'a or fear of Iran, but that they simply don't want to be stuck watching the process unfold from the outside looking in. Thus the rally poster below: "No dialogue without Al-Fatih."

On the other hand, this decision to boycott has met with condemnation from other Sunnis--see Faysal al-Shaykh in Al-Watan--who, having witnessed the decisive impact of the National Unity Gathering in February and March, now fear the return of Sunnis to the political margins to the benefit (in their view) of precisely those who are responsible for the chaos of the previous year. A boycott, in the words of al-Shaykh, "would mean that the hundreds of thousands who stand behind the Rally won’t make their voices heard at the dialogue table."

In short, a government-opposition dialogue represents an attempt to return to the status quo ante, one that increasingly looks undesirable to ordinary Sunnis. A Sunni boycott--like that in post-2003 Iraq, or like al-Wifaq's pre-2005 boycott--will only ensure that they remain on the political sidelines, and gain disproportionately little from any eventual agreement. As al-Shaykh says, despite the dangers of accepting dialogue with a "radical" opposition, "leaving the field vacant can also prove disastrous."

Perhaps in view of this criticism, Al Mahmud has since publicly reversed the group's position, saying on the sidelines of a post-BICI event,
"Our decision earlier to boycott dialogue with the government is not final," he revealed.

"We could consider our stance depending on the situation.

"I would like to state here that the government should not engage in any dialogue under pressure [i.e., from al-Wifaq or from the U.S. (on the latter, see here)]."
The state, of course, or at least the king's faction, is I'm sure happy to hear of this boycott, which leaves it free to (attempt to) cut a deal with the opposition without fundamentally altering its position vis-a-vis the rest of society. Yet even if the National Unity Gathering or other Sunni groups did participate, under no circumstances will the government entertain three-way talks ('Abd al-Hadi mentioned that the last time that the ruling family, leading Sunnis, and leading Shi'is all sat at a negotiating table was in the 1960s), since even the outside chance that the leaders of al-Wifaq and the National Unity Gathering could agree on a (n albeit limited) set of political demands is enough to put the fear of God in the Al Khalifa.

In short, the restart of political dialogue in Bahrain involves an interesting set of tensions for all parties involved:

  • For al-Wifaq and other Shi'a, Sunni participation is likely to complicate the search for a mutually-agreeable political solution, but if such a cross-societal agreement could be reached, it would be much more forceful and perhaps even revolutionary in its own way. (Of course, this is to say nothing of the many Shi'a who would reject the notion of a dialogue in any case.)

  • For Sunnis who desire genuine political reforms such as an end to corruption and political naturalization, the dialogue is an opportunity to push these issues (since they will find easy agreement with Shi'a), but the danger of appearing to be in collusion with the Shi'a opposition--and efforts by some in the state to promote this notion--is a real one.

  • For Sunnis who desire political reform in the opposition direction--i.e., a further-empowered prime minister--participation in the dialogue reinforces Bahrain's post-1999 political modus operandi of piecemeal political deals between the opposition and king following periods of instability and protest. But, absent some mass Sunni mobilization against the dialogue, a boycott would do nothing to help this situation, as the state could simply go ahead without Sunni involvement.

  • For the king's faction, another dialogue with the opposition represents continuation down the same familiar political path. Sunni boycott would be a welcome development (so long as it is not accompanied by mass protests against the dialogue that preclude it altogether); and if they do participate their negotiations will almost certainly be held in parallel with those of al-Wifaq rather than together.

  • For the immoderate Al Khalifa led by the prime minister, a second dialogue must be seen as a step in the wrong direction to the extent that it offers a chance an end to the political crisis that has aided in its empowerment over the previous year. Mobilizing Bahrainis against it--by suggesting, for example, that it is born of U.S. pressure--would seem to be the preferred course of action.
Update: A very interesting piece of news: National Unity Gathering Vice President, Muhammad al-Uthman, has left Bahrain seeking "political asylum" in Britain. It seems some Bahraini Sunnis at least are anticipating a clampdown on their newfound political activism. Perhaps the regime did not appreciate their effort to boycott its dialogue.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Government Inaction

I'm still writing away on soon-to-be-due papers and book chapters. (On the other hand, apart from continued protests and lingering rumors of "dialogue," I'm not sure what is new in the past two weeks anyway.) In the meantime, there's at least one other site on Bahrain with a good sense of humor. A spoof on the recently-launched meant to highlight the state's supposed implementations of BICI recommendations, a new group calling itself Bahrain Watch has launched a website of its own titled "Government Inaction." See what they did there?

The other interesting item I'll pass along comes via the so-called "Pearl Revolution Political Center," which, as you'll gather from the amusing banner below, "announces its first operation Code Name 'Countering the Counter-Revolution,'" which for a code-name does not leave a lot to the imagination. The inspiration is apparently the one-year anniversary of the Saudi involvement in the Bahrain uprising.

Among the groups with more stylish banners that are also organizing "resistance activities" (which include some good old-fashioned U.S. flag-burning) are the Sitra Youth:

And al-Wafa':

And the February 14th Coalition:

I'm sure the Peninsula Shield and the Fifth Fleet are manning their battle stations.

Finally, if you're looking to keep up with the full week's festivities:

Update: Bahrain has made the Internet gods angry.

Monday, March 5, 2012

More on Dialogue and Union

As I am attempting to finish a book review and book chapter for an upcoming volume on sectarianism in the Gulf, I have little extra time for an extensive post here. Thus I will pass along a well-informed report on the weekend's events from the G2K mailing list.

Before that, however, there are a number of interesting articles in Al-Watan regarding the rumored "union" between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and Sunni mobilization:

Now for Bahrain's latest developments:
1. The preacher of the "official" grand mosque in the Bahraini capital
(Ahmed Al-Fateh Islamic Centre) Sheik Fareed Al-Meftah spoke today
about the unity between Bahrain & Saudi Arabia, indicating that this
will be announced (may be end of the year) as a first step towards
achieving "union" amongst GCC states. Al-Meftah said "the Gulf Union
is a long-awaited dream… and here we are today, we witness God's
blessing for achieving this unity that will be for the advantages and
benefits to the citizens of the (GCC) countries in all social,
cultural, economic, security, and military aspects…". He went on to
say that the "first step for this unity" will be between Bahrain and
Saudi Arabia.

2. On the other hand, the opposition cleric Sheik Isa Qassim called for
"mass demonstrations" on 9 March 2012 that will stretch along the
strategic Budaya Highway next Friday. At the same time, the opposition
groups led by Al-Wefaq started on 2 Match 2012 a week-long "evening"
gatherings at the entrance "Muqsha'a village" on the Budaya Highway in
a place now called by these opposition groups "Freedom Square".

3. Three days ago, the crown prince visited four Shiite clashes-ridden
areas to offer his condolences for the families of victims of a car
accident (6 girls tragically died in this accident). He ventured into
these areas without extra security protection, and this was the first
time a leading member of the ruling family visits these areas since the
eruption of events last year on 14 February 2011, thus providing some
hope for a possible positive development in the near future.

4. Rumors are circulating that there are talks between Al-Wefaq and the
Royal Court Minister. This follows a very brief meeting around 2
February 2012 between Al-Wefaq and the minister. According to the
opposition sources, the meeting was extremely brief but the first of
its kind. Later on 14 February 2012, Al-Wefaq received an "untitled &
unsigned" single page from the minister stating four principles (or
pre-conditions) for a possible dialogue. A fifth pre-condition was
passed verbally, but Al-Watan newspaper (linked to the official circle)
announced it on its first page of 24 February 2012. These principles
are considered as "PRE-CONDITIONS" imposed on the opposition and are as

a. Recognition of the National Action Charter (passed on 14 February 2001 by a referendum that received 98.4% approval).

b. Recognition of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bahrain (unilaterally issued by the King on 14 February 2002).

c. Recognition of the GCC Charter and the call for UNITY amongst its member states.

d. Accepting the outcome of the 'National Consensus Dialogue" concluded in July 2011 (which Al-Wefaq boycotted because the opposition were given 35 seats out of 300, and because the agenda was tightly preset & controlled).

e. Al-Wefaq must apologize for using violence in the health and education sectors during the events of last year - as published by Al-Watan newspaper on 24 February (something which the opposition denies it had done so anyway).

Needless to say these pre-conditions couldn't & wouldn't be accepted by the opposition, in the same [way that] pre-conditions couldn't & wouldn't be accepted by the official circle.
Update: Yesterday's AP article--"Saudi widens Arab Spring backlash with Bahrain 'union' plans"--covers the above main points and more.

Update 2: A story in Al-Ayam cites high-level sources in claiming that "there will be an announcement [of a new dialogue] in the new few days." No word whether there will also be a follow-up committee to study the announcement of a new dialogue.