Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Bahrain Dialogue: Send in the Spoilers

The big news out of Bahrain's dialogue this week is that, well, it's still going on.  Even before its launch on February 10 I would have rated its likelihood of success as follows: a 50-75% chance that al-Wifaq participates at all; a 25% chance that it and/or the Sunni "nationalist" societies don't walk out half-way through; and a 0% chance that the parties will agree a political deal that ends Bahrain's two-year standoff.

Now, the last part still stands: I think the most likely outcome, assuming the dialogue does hold up, is that the process will serve mainly as a confidence-building exercise from which another, probably slower and lengthier process of substantive negotiations could take form.  Yet, the mere fact that the process has not been upended by the violence of the past week, which saw the deaths of both a protester and a policeman and offered ample opportunity for any of the participants (al-Wifaq, Sunni groups, or the Justice Minister) to walk away in frustration and anger--once again, that this process continues at all would seem to suggest that the parties are approaching it with more seriousness than one might have suspected. 

On the other hand, the type of spoiler events witnessed last week are likely only to increase as more Bahrainis come to this same realization, namely that there is actually a possibility that the three political factions represented in the talks--the formal Shi'a-led opposition, the Sunni sort-of-opposition, and moderate Al Khalifa--may arrive at an agreement that not all of their respective constituents can accept, whether owing to the substance of inevitable concessions or simply on principle. Already there are demonstrations planned along Budaiyi' Road after today's funeral procession for a killed demonstrator, as well as an opposition march on the Manama Suq sometime between February 19 and February 23.

More ominously, the Interior Ministry claimed last week to have discovered and defused a "2kg bomb" on the causeway, while four policemen were said to have been "hit by birdshot pellets" in the Western village of Karzakan.  Soon afterward, Bahrain announced it had uncovered and arrested members of an Iranian-linked "terrorist cell."  Clearly, the suggestion is that the sophistication and lethality of attacks on police are increasing.  On the other hand, details about the causeway "bomb" are scant, while birdshot is the most common ammunition used by riot officers themselves, and so may just as easily have emanated from friendly fire than some homemade shrapnel bomb.  More generally, the government's constant and flippant use of the labels "terrorist" and "terrorism" makes it difficult to know when one is actually faced with such rather than mere hyperbole.  Indeed, the state's accusations are now easy targets of ridicule, as evidenced by the graphic at the top of this post, which depicts "a weapons trainer in Karzakan." Or, below, "One of Karzakan's modern weapons."

"Surrender, or I'll shoot!"

Of course, the role of spoiler in Bahrain need not be played only by rejectionist Shi'a youth.  For the two-year anniversary of pro-government demonstrations at the al-Fatih Mosque, the National Unity Gathering and other Sunnis are planning various rallies this Thursday, February 21st.  Already, however, many are spurning the activities, in particular those organized by TGONU, out of protest against, inter alia, its ongoing participation in the national dialogue.  (In case you're wondering, the invitation for the TGONU rally describes the impetus behind the event as "the threat facing us" from "al-Wifaq + America + Russia," the group clearly having uncovered the secret foreign policy alliance between Russia and the United States.)  Many hard-line Sunnis also are probably not impressed by a report today in Al-Wasat that both the National Unity Gathering and al-Wifaq sent delegations to South Africa last month to participate in British-organized "reconciliation workshops" modeled after the post-Apartheid experience.

Whatever the case, Sunni message boards are lighting up with anti-TGONU and anti-Al Mahmud threads:

Not all who fault Al Mahmud and the National Unity Gathering do so on account of their cooperation or interaction with the opposition, however.  Others complain simply that the group and its leader have failed to accomplish anything for ordinary Sunnis in the past two years, that it has been (or always was) co-opted by the state like all other Sunni-oriented groups before it.

In this context it is interesting to note a recent (Feb. 9) publication of one of Bahrain's newer political societies, the National Society for [the Popular] Will and Change (الإرادة, for short).  Sweet name, right?  Led mainly by secular Sunnis who came to prominence since the uprising, the group's new "vision" document, titled "National Vision for a Civil State," outlines, well, its vision for a civil state based on the principles of democracy, secularism, the pursuit of happiness, free Obamacare, etc.  They even have a theme song:

While its popularity certainly is not on par with Bahrain's established Sunni Islamist societies, or even the religious-based movements that sprang out of the uprising, still its emergence--and the fact that individuals are now discussing the group and its vision in the context of a proposed boycott of the National Unity Gathering, and as a distinct counterpoint to Al Mahmud's group--reinforces the idea that many of Bahrain's Sunnis, despite no shortage of political groupings, still feel as though they lack adequate political representation. And in that they're probably correct.

Update: I guess I should have waited a day to post on Bahrain's possible spoiler groups. A tweet yesterday by Al-Watan editor-in-chief Yusif Al Bin Khalil pointed me to this menacing flowchart of the "terrorist network"--purportedly called the "Imam's Army"--uncovered lately by the Interior Ministry.  If you wish to see the impressive advancement in Al-Watan's scientific terrorist network diagramming capabilities over the past two years, please compare this new chart to that of September 2010.

Update 2: Opposition activists post photos of foreign-language (Tamil, I think) fliers in Manama and Gudaibiya promising 10 BD to anyone who attends this Thursday's pro-government rally at the al-Fatih Mosque.

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