Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Bahrain's Legal "War on Terror"

I was listening the other day to a program on Al-Jazeera, in which a historian of Algeria's civil war argued that Egypt's present campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood represents a strategy similar to that of Algeria's military government decades ago. The idea is this: to persecute members of an opposition with such violent disregard that the movement transforms from a political current that does or might elicit popular support to an armed insurgency, popular fear of which would preclude any political sympathy and ultimately harden citizens in their support of a government with whose policies and even legitimacy they might not otherwise agree.

Now, it would be oversimplistic to say that Bahrain's own security-cum-political strategy follows precisely the same formula, not least because the violence even of the post-February 14 period cannot match that of the slaughter in Algeria. Rather, the government's strategy has always followed a more legalistic tack, perhaps because its unique societal configuration affords it that luxury. In July 2005, the Sunni Islamist-dominated parliament passed what is now the Political Societies Law, which divides political groupings neatly into two legal distinctions: those registered with the Ministry of Justice (and thus "legal"), and those unregistered ("illegal"). King Hamad decreed the bill into law that August. All this occurred, of course, prior to al-Wifaq's electoral participation, and perhaps even helped spur it.

The state's clear purpose was to delegitimize and indeed criminalize those groups that refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the unilaterally-promulgated 2002 Constitution (and so refused to register), who were thereafter given the label "terrorist organization." (Hence the need for Bahrain's infamous "anti-terrorism" statute of 2006; see, e.g., this MA thesis by Fatemah Al-Zubairi.) This proved to some extent a self-fulfilling prophecy, with now-underground movements such as al-Haqq, al-'Amal, and others resorting from time to time to violence -- if obviously not "terrorism" in the accepted sense -- of their own. So, even if this criminalization did not provide relief from political opposition or violence, still it offered a legal cover for the state's intermittent crackdowns on protest activities and their leaders.

We return then to the Bahrain of September 2013, where the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs is busy further tightening the noose around the political sphere. Measures announced on Sept. 4 require political societies to seek Ministry approval prior to any meetings with foreign entities, including diplomats. (See Al-Watan for a defense by Sh. Khalid.) Then, yesterday, the Ministry filed a lawsuit to dissolve the Shi'i Islamic Ulama Council led by 'Isa Qasim. Its violations were said to include:
the adoption of the call for the so-called ‘revolution,’ the violation of the laws, support and assistance to a political society that had been dissolved by a court ruling for openly supporting violence, alliance and continuous coordination with a licensed political association and unlawful interference in the elections by supporting specific candidates.
All the while, delegates at the National Dialogue -- a dialogue sponsored by none other than the Minister of Justice -- continue to fail to even begin. On Saturday the Gulf News provided an update on this farcical process:
The 27 participants, representing a coalition of opposition societies, another coalition of political societies, the parliament and the government, have held more than 25 meetings that were quiet at times and stormy at others.

Yet [dramatic pause], they still have to agree on a platform and an agenda for the talks.
The lesson, then?: play by our rules, however ridiculous and inefficacious, or risk legal banishment from politics altogether. Moreover, as with the Political Societies Law of 2005, the state can claim that such a position represents in fact the will of the public itself, as each of the Ministry's new measures is being sold as stemming from July's extraordinary joint session of parliament organized in response to the summer's upswing in violence. As in 2005, the opposition was not represented owing to its own boycott, and now appears to be suffering similar consequences.

In addition to the legal fate of 'Isa Qasim, whom the state and its supporters have been targeting since the beginning of the uprising, it will be interesting to see whether the new ban on contact with foreign entities is invoked in the context of the civil war in Syria. In a very interesting article, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that would-be Shi'a fighters from "Iraq, Syria, and other Arab countries" have been flocking "by the busload" to a training site outside Tehran in preparation of entering the conflict in Syria. Already a year ago, members (and indeed the leaders) of Bahrain's Salafi society al-Asalah boasted of their heroic exploits with members of the Free Syrian Army. Only ten days ago the group announced the martyrdom of yet another of its followers in Syria, bringing the total to six. What chance that the Bahraini government would countenance similar involvement (or accused involvement) by members of, say, al-Wifaq, particularly following its explicit ban on foreign contact? I would love to see that Gulf Daily News headline.

Finally, notable in this context of heightened political repression -- not only for Shi'i but for Sunni groups as well -- is King Hamad's conspicuous trip on Sunday to China, where he met with the country's president and top political advisor. Joining the King were, among others, Muhammad bin Mubarak, Khalifah al-Dhaharani, Hamad's son 'Abdallah, Khalid bin Ahmad, and Ahmad bin 'Attiyatallah. (There is no mention of Crown Prince Salman, despite the visit's having taken place on the sidelines of a trade expo.) Apart from King 'Abdullah II of Jordan, King Hamad was the only Arab head of state to attend the event. One wonders whether this conspicuous appearance wasn't meant in part to suggest Bahrain's cultivation of new strategic partners less concerned about its domestic political affairs.

Update: Appropriately, given the substance of today's post, an e-mail message from the al-Wifaq offshoot Bahrain Justice and Freedom Movement reports that former deputy head of al-Wifaq Khalil al-Marzuq "was detained this morning after being summoned to the Budaiya Police Station yesterday," apparently for a speech delivered September 7 that government officials have characterized as "supporting terrorist activities, violence and the downfall of the regime."

Update 2: The story of al-Marzuq's arrest (provoked apparently by his raising the flag of the February 14 coalition at a rally on September 6) is making the rounds. In response, not only al-Wifaq but all the opposition societies have suspended participation in the National Dialogue, which will of course be a big setback for the progress parties had been making.

Update 3: Many have been noting the State Department's distinct lack of outrage over the arrest of al-Marzuq, particularly in the context of the other recent legal measures discussed in this post.  Indeed, when asked about the arrest, a State spokeswoman spent more time chiding the opposition for suspending its participation in the dialogue. The Washington Post editorial board describes the situation thus: "Bahrain arrests opposition leader; U.S. shrugs." HRW gets even snarkier, writing, "U.S. Thinks Arresting Peaceful Opposition is OK – in Bahrain, at Least."

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