Monday, March 25, 2013

"Reformists" vs. "Conservatives": The Middle East's Good Cop, Bad Cop

The unusual public disclosure of royal factionalism and conflict in Bahrain witnessed a month ago in a front-page Wall Street Journal article has prompted a number of reactions and conspiracy theories.  Almost immediately, the ruling family was reported to have launched an "internal investigation" into the source of the "leak," focusing on the crown prince's court, the views expressed in the article most closely resembling the political positions and circumstances of Sh. Salman.

The court, on the other hand, not only denied any involvement but questioned the report itself.  One associate with whom I spoke said he doubted the WSJ reporter ever spoke to any senior royal at all and more likely fabricated the entire story.  (A quite unlikely possibility, as I've said before, having talked to the author at length.  He insists credibly that, far from intending to investigate the affairs of the Al Khalifa, he was in the country simply to cover the Manama Dialogue and was himself solicited by the "senior" figure(s) in question.)

Now, in the wake of Sh. Salman's appointment as "first deputy prime minister" on March 11, some are making the connection between this seemingly unprompted move and the WSJ article.  One line of argument, which I don't claim to understand completely, views the WSJ article as an exogenous catalyst leading to the crown prince's promotion, catching the ruling family by surprise and (for some reason) encouraging or necessitating the move.  (Perhaps to avoid the "internal investigation"? Again, I don't follow the thinking here.)

Another, more cogent version sees the WSJ article as preannouncing the appointment with a bit of Western-conceived and -directed PR, serving both to redefine Bahrain's underlying "problem"--not authoritarianism but a wily group of "conservatives" holding back the country's preferred moderate policies--and to signal that the ruling family is earnestly attempting to tackle it by promoting the cause of "reformists."  In first-person bullet point form:
  1. We, the Bahraini ruling family, are mostly "moderates" but have a few out-of-touch "conservatives"
  2. The conservatives now have "taken over" and are dictating policy
  3. If only we, the "moderates," could wrest power away from the "conservatives," things would be fine
  4. Just give us a bit more time to tackle the crazy conservatives!
  5. ???
  6. Profit!
Although the political convenience of such an argument is clear, and was duly pointed out upon publication of the WSJ article, still the present popularity of this "good cop, bad cop" routine did not strike me fully until I read in last week's New York Times an even better rendition by Jordan's King 'Abdullah.  (This is well in order as the Jordanian monarchy, especially the late King Husayn, has long served as an example to King Hamad.  It is widely supposed, for instance, that the idea for Bahrain's National Action Charter came from Jordan's own document/process of the same name.  Indeed, J.E. Peterson even suggests a link to the 2002 decision to transform Bahrain from an emirate into a kingdom. He writes, "Shaykh Hamad's example in these changes was King Husayn in Jordan and ... modelling himself as a king as well was the next logical step.")

In any case, not to be outdone by anonymous leaks from Crown Prince Salman, King 'Abdullah happily sat for an entire interview in which, as the article's headline notes, he "finds fault with everyone concerned," including most of his family.  First, though, he is introduced as just a simple, good-natured guy who wants to bring "British-style constitutional monarchy" to Jordan:
King Abdullah appears humbled and even fatigued by the many challenges he failed to foresee when he inherited the throne 14 years ago, describing himself before coronation as a “Forrest Gump” in the background of his father’s long reign. In contrast to his father, King Hussein, King Abdullah promises to move Jordan closer to a British-style constitutional monarchy, and thus to stay ahead of the Arab Spring wave.
But, alas!  King 'Abdullah can't act on his visionary platform for real democratic change on account of those damned "conservatives" in his own family and government:
“Members of my family don’t get it,” he said. “Look at some of my brothers. They believe that they’re princes, but my cousins are more princes than my brothers, and their in-laws are like — oh my God!” he continued.

“I’m always having to stop members of my family from putting lights on their guard cars,” he said. “I arrest members of my family and take their cars away from them and cut off their fuel rations and make them stop at traffic lights.” ...

He blamed his own government’s secret police for blocking his efforts at political reform. For example, he charged that the secret police had conspired with conservatives in the political elite to block his attempts to open up more representation in Parliament to Palestinians, who make up more than half of Jordan’s population. ...

The king was also frankly dismissive of the tribal leaders from the East Bank of the Jordan River who have traditionally formed his family’s base of support. “The old dinosaurs,” he called a group of East Bank tribal leaders, including a former prime minister, before a meeting with them in the town of Karak. “It’s all about, ‘I’ll vote for this guy because I am in his tribe,’ ” the king said of their political program. ...
Oh, those crazy "old dinosaurs!"--what with their trying to preserve an anachronistic form of political authority like tribal rule.  What will they think of next?: monarchical government based on reputed descent from the tribe of Bani Hashim?

That would be hilarious.

Returning back to Bahrain, we were afforded just yesterday another seeming example of the "good cop, bad cop" principle in action.  As described in this lengthy interview in The Independent, the president of Bahrain's main medical school, Tom Collins (no, not that Tom Collins) of the Medical University of Bahrain, made a dramatic public resignation yesterday following authorities' refusal to authorize a long-planned international conference on "medical ethics and dilemmas in situations of political discord or violence."  Certainly, the subject is a highly sensitive if highly appropriate one in the Bahrain context, so one could understand the government's reluctance to permit such an event.  But the interesting bit is that Collins says he received direct verbal backing from no less than the crown prince himself:
Professor Collins – whose resignation will take effect in June, just over half way through his tenureship of the medical university – said that he had met the Bahraini Crown Prince, Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, in the company of an MSF [Doctors Without Borders] official. "He gave his verbal approval to myself and MSF," Professor Collins said. "This was in the late autumn of last year. He said: 'I want this conference to happen'. But the written permission never arrived."
And thus we arrive again at the only logical conclusion:
Bahrain's royal family is divided over how to respond to the majority Shia demand for more political power. Crown Prince Salman is a reformist – hence, presumably, his desire to hold the international conference on medical ethics – but others, under the influence of the Saudis, believe that no way should be opened to reform.
Now, the subject of hosting international medical conferences is not the most important issue facing Bahrain today; and it is eminently plausible that Crown Prince Salman did wish to host the event and was overruled by others in his family.  Yet one must see the problem here: so long as "conservative obstructionism" is a plausible excuse for the ultimate failure of any seemingly positive initiative in Bahrain (or elsewhere)--whether a discussion of medical ethics or, say, the ongoing national dialogue--then (1) partners in these initiatives can have but little faith in the true intentions and seriousness of their state collaborators or interlocutors; and (2) the larger project of substantive political reform is kept always just over the horizon as a long-term goal, with the more short-term imperative being the consolidation of "moderate" power and influence over against "conservative" opponents.

Importantly, this latter process is often understood as "necessitating" short-term illiberality in return (ostensibly) for long-term change.  "We would like to release the jailed opposition leaders," one might imagine Al Khalifa moderates explaining, "but that would only embolden the conservatives and their supporters in the population, setting back our larger cause of regaining moderate influence over the ruling family and society."  Or, circa 2002, "I, King Hamad, would really like to have a unicameral parliament with actual lawmaking powers--a genuine 'constitutional monarchy'--but entrenched conservatives like my uncle won't allow it, so if the opposition would just play along for a few decades until we moderates can get rid of him, that would be perfect." And so on.

The real question today, then, and one that must be on the mind of al-Wifaq and others in the opposition, is whether the same trick is in store for participants of the ongoing national dialogue.


  1. Love the South Park underwear gnomes reference!

  2. You described how Bahrainis think of Alkhalifa very well, Justin.
    Nobody in Bahrain believe the myth of "Reformists" in Al Khalifa.
    Sh. Salman himself has praised the Bahrain Defense Force several times which are responsible for many abuses, so he isn't playing the role of the good cop very well.

    The opposite is also true. No one from Bahraini regime and its loyalists believe that Al-wefaq is any better than Haq movement and Al-wafa party.

  3. As always Justin, you're connecting the dots that too many others see as random. Unfortunately this game has been played for too long and I don't think many people believe in the good cop as much as he would like to believe. What's the allure of good and powerless? Leaders arent victims!