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":
فيديو بنا // مأتم العجم الكبير يجدد الولاء لجلالة الملك المفدى ويستنكر أعمال الشغب والإرهاب |bna.bh/portal/news/52…#Bahrain
— وكالة أنباء البحرين(@bna_ar) October 9, 2012
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?
نادي الصم الرياضي يعلن رفضه واستنكاره لكافة الاعمال المخلة بالنظام العام | وكالة أنباء البحرين bna.bh/portal/news/52… #bahrain #bna
— وكالة أنباء البحرين(@bna_ar) October 10, 2012
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:
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."