Thursday, March 31, 2011

More Crime and More Punishment

I guess I should have waited a day to post yesterday's article, "Crime in Punishment in Bahrain," because since then there have been two new notable developments that fit nicely into the argument there, that Bahrain's leaders are more interested now in political payback than in political reconciliation.

The first of these developments is the 3am arrest of blogger Mahmood al-Yousif, whose site Mahmood's Den we've linked to several times. Ironically, his final post is titled "Punishment," though it deals with a separate topic altogether. Along with Mahmood, the U.S. State Department mentions two other "Internet activists" who were also detained, about which of course it is "deeply concerned." "Deeply concerned"--that's tellin' 'em!

The second and less straightforward development is this report that the al-Wifaq MPs that resigned (and whose resignations were accepted; read below) in protest over the deaths of protesters are now being stripped of their parliamentary immunity, paving the way for prosecution for something or other. Participation in a "terrorist plot" perhaps. (Indeed, Bahrain's FM is now accusing Hizballah of having trained Shi'a protesters--in Lebanon.)

Now, here's where it gets confusing: al-Wifaq resigned from parliament as a bloc, yet pro-government MPs are only accepting the resignations of 11 members, leaving 7. From the Gulf News:

Resignations accepted:

  • Abdul Jalil Khalil, chairman of the bloc
  • Khalil Al Marzouq, first deputy speaker
  • Jawad Fairouz, chairman of the public facilities and environment
  • Mohammad Al Mizal, deputy chairman of the legislative and legal committee
  • Hadi Al Mousawi
  • Salman Abdullah Salem
  • Abdul Majid Al Sibaa
  • Matar Ibrahim Matar
  • Ali Al Aswad
  • Jasem Hussain
  • Hassan Sultan

Resignations postponed:

  • Abdali Mohammad Hassan, chairman of the service committee
  • Abdul Hussain Metghawi, deputy chairman of foreign affairs, defence and national security committee
  • Jameel Kadhem
  • Abdullah Al A'ali
  • Hassan Marzouq
  • Mohammad Majid
  • Ali Rashed Al Asheeri

So the question, then, is why Sunni lawmakers would NOT want to accept the resignations of all 18 members. One would think that they would prefer to have the lower house to themselves, right? Wrong. In fact, as I've gleaned from browsing Bahraini Internet forums, government supporters consider al-Wifaq's decision to resign en masse, more than just an expression of protest against police treatment of protesters, a dangerous plan to undermine the entire political status quo--to discredit the extant parliamentary system by ensuring that there is no opposition representation. In which case the majlis al-nuwab loses its main function from the standpoint of the government: to give the appearance of democracy in Bahrain. If the parliament consists only of Sunni lawmakers from al-Asalah, al-Manbar, and pro-government tribes, as it did from 2002-2006 owing to al-Wifaq's boycott, then it does more harm than good by making obvious the one-sidedness of the current system. Thus is their argument anyway.

The other important thing to recall is that in Bahrain this business of "stripping parliamentary immunity" is an old game. When I was there in 2008 there was an effort to strip the immunity of independent Salafi MP Sh. Jasim al-Sa'idi after a sermon in which he reportedly “compared some Shiites of Bahrain, without naming their sect, to ‘the sons of Zion bent on acts of destruction and sabotage.’" In response, the pro-government bloc threatened to strip the immunity of al-Wifaq MP Jasim Hussain for remarks he gave to international media (or to a U.S. congressional inquiry into political freedom in Bahrain, I forget which) that were supposed to have "insulted" Bahrain. In the end, though, both sides strategically kept members home on the day of the vote, so neither al-Wifaq or the pro-government societies had the numbers necessary to lift immunity. (The entire episode is actually recorded in one of the Wikileaks documents.)

If I had to guess, then, I would say that the current campaign to "prosecute al-Wifaq MPs," as it is being dubbed in the media, is actually an attempt to get the bloc--at least the 7 whose resignations have not been accepted--back into the parliament, in order to preserve some semblance of its integrity. On the other hand, none of those whose resignations have been accepted are so beloved by ordinary Bahraini Shi'a that their prosecution would spark violent outrage, which would likely be the case were, say, Sh. 'Ali Salman to have been among them. People like 'Abd al-Jalil Khalil, Khalil al-Marzuq, Jawad Fairouz, and Jasem Hussain are not religious leaders with "followers" but respected technocrats, and technocrats that speak very good English--precisely, the sort of person the Bahraini government would rather not have available for discussions with foreign media. Indeed, given the arrests of previous days, including of Mahmood al-Yousef and of a CNN crew at the home of Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, there may soon be few left to give interviews. In the end, then, the threat of prosecution of al-Wifaq MPs is a win-win for the government, whether or not the act itself is ultimately carried out.

Update: in other news, the Telegraph is reporting that "Saudi officials say they gave their backing to Western air strikes on Libya in exchange for the United States muting its criticism of the authorities in Bahrain, a close ally of the desert kingdom." That sounds about right.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Depicting Division, Part IV: Love Him or Hate Him

Love him or hate him--that aptly describes Bahrainis' relationship with the country's Prime Minister, Sh. Khalifah bin Salman. Of course, when you've been in power since Richard Nixon was president, you have no lack of time to garner supporters and detractors.

The longest-reigning unelected prime minister in the world today, he is said to be the wealthiest (and, depending on whom one talks to, the most powerful) member of the Al Khalifa, having to his name the large island of Jiddah north of the Saudi Causeway (see below, via Google Earth; looks pretty nice, right?) and, by all accounts, the prominent Bahraini dailies Al-Bilad and Akhbar al-Khalij. One memorable respondent to my survey called him "Mr. Guinness" for his place in the Guinness World Records, another "Mr. 50-50" for his presumed cut of the national revenues.

However the case, more than any other state institution the prime ministership represents for many Bahrainis the lack of fundamental political change, the persistence and immutability of the political status quo, in spite of the apparent reforms and improvements introduced over the previous 40 years. And, accordingly, no other figure in Bahrain elicits as much political polarization.

When the Bahraini opposition demanded several weeks ago that the prime minister step down as one of its preconditions for dialogue, for example, an anonymous online poll asking Bahrainis whether he should leave racked up more than 40,000 votes, which, assuming all who took part were Bahrainis, amounts to some 7% of the entire citizen population (the poll, to be clear, was not my doing). The responses, interestingly, are split nearly down the middle--with 53% in favor and 47% against. But are we safe in assuming that they tend to fall mostly along Sunni-Shi'i lines?

Let's see what my Bahrain survey results might tell us. The exact question as posed to respondents is the following: “I am going to name a group of institutions, and I would like you to tell me to what extent you trust in each of these institutions: / 1. The prime ministership (the prime [minister] and the [cabinet] ministers).” In Figure 5.49 below we find the familiar graph of the frequency of responses disaggregated by ethnicity. We see that even compared to the considerable ethnic polarization witnessed in my previous post of trust in political institutions, here there is still less within-group variation in response: 60% of Sunni respondents (a full 67% of valid responses) report “a great degree” of trust in the prime ministership, while 55% of Shi‘a (68% if we exclude refusals and “unsure” responses) say that they have “none at all” (“لا أثق بها علی الإطلاق”). The discrepancy in the last two proportions is a testament to the sensitivity of this question particularly among Shi‘a (a full 13% refused to answer), several of whom joked with more or less seriousness that we were trying to get them thrown in jail. It is indeed no stretch to say that of the entire survey this is the most politically-sensitive question asked, and for a time there was debate whether it could be asked at all.

Sensitivity notwithstanding, however, the graph above speaks for itself. When it comes to the PM, Bahrainis either love him or hate him--or rather, trust him totally or don't trust him at all. And the group into which one falls is not determined randomly!

Just compare this photo from the Sunni-frequented Kingdom of Bahrain forum:
(The translation is: "We will protect national unity, but we will not say, 'Let bygones be bygones'"--a well-known quote of the PM, and a timely one indeed.)

... to these from a popular Shi'a opposition forum:

Enough said.

Crime and Punishment in Bahrain

The following is an op-ed piece I've spent some days trying to have published. But when you're competing with such hard-hitters as Roger Cohen's article "Arabs Will Be Free"--which sounds like the title of a Garth Brooks song--you know you're in for an uphill climb.

The first paragraph, for example: "Three Middle Eastern countries have been conspicuous for their stability in the storm. They are Turkey, Lebanon and Israel. An odd mix, you might say, but they have in common that they are places where people vote." Wow, really? That's funny because I thought people also voted regularly in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, Jordan, Bahrain, and Syria. I even remember being IN Yemen and Bahrain DURING elections, but perhaps I misinterpreted what was going on. Also how "stable" is Lebanon really looking these days?

Anyway, below is the op-ed. While you're reading it just imagine you're at the New York Times website.


Crime and Punishment in Bahrain

While the United States is busy providing air cover for government opponents in Libya, its friends in the Arab Gulf have nearly finished mopping the floor with theirs. Backed by some 2,000 ground troops from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, along with a Kuwaiti naval detachment, the Bahraini government has all but stamped out the Shi‘a-led pro-democracy movement that had brought this small island nation to a standstill since mid-February.

In the violent crackdown that followed only one day after the arrival of the “Peninsula Shield” force, more than a dozen people were killed, hundreds were injured, and still more remain missing. The leaders of all but one of the main opposition groups were arrested in turn. The military “liberated” Bahrain’s main hospital, where relatives of those killed and injured had been camped. At last, martial law was declared and the symbol of the entire uprising--the Pearl monument--was unceremoniously demolished. If it’s gone that means nothing ever happened, right?

While no one is likely soon to forget the patch of barren land that just two weeks ago was “Martyrs’ Square,” life in Bahrain is indeed slowly returning to normal. Curfews have been shortened. Roads have been reopened. First elementary and now middle school students have returned to classes. Malls, hit hard by the turmoil as has Bahrain’s entire economy, have been keen to bring back shoppers, advertising their hours on Twitter and Facebook. And, most telling of all, the thousands who gathered last Friday for the sermon of Bahrain’s highest Shi‘a religious authority, Sheikh ‘Isa Qasim, did not continue on to a customary post-prayer rally; they simply returned home.

At the same time, however, untouched by this outward improvement remains Bahrain’s underlying political conflict, which today is no closer to resolution than when protests began. On the contrary, emboldened by their decisive military victory over the demonstrators, Bahraini authorities have shown little eagerness to resume talks about political reform. The opposition, they see, is in no position now to be making political demands, and the government is in no mood to entertain them.

On Monday, Bahrain’s foreign minister rejected an offer of mediation proposed by the Emir of Kuwait, a solution the opposition had accepted earlier on Sunday and seemed for a day at least to offer a workable way out of the impasse. With a sizable Shi‘a population of its own, Kuwait has sought all along to remain neutral in the crisis, a stance that indeed has led to pressure from some of its Sunni lawmakers to show more solidarity with Manama. Yet a delegation from Bahrain’s largest opposition group, al-Wifaq, arrived home from discussions in Kuwait only to learn that the plan had been nixed.

More generally, Bahrain’s rulers appear less concerned with political reconciliation than with punishing those they view as having demonstrated disloyalty to the country over the course of the previous two months. On Saturday the Ministry of Education announced the cancellation of 40 academic scholarships held by students who took part in anti-government protests. The state-run University of Bahrain has formed an investigative committee to probe students’ online postings relating to a violent confrontation on March 13 between student protesters and government supporters, vowing punishment for those “found guilty.”

Elsewhere, Sunni lawmakers have called for still more official inquiries into workers who took part in a week-long general strike suspended just five days ago; while others have sought to block the return of dozens of Shi‘i officials and ministers who resigned in protest after the first demonstrators were killed. As captured by the title of a widely-circulated op-ed in the government-run Gulf Daily News, the priorities of the government and its supporters are “Security, Accountability… and THEN Dialogue.”

It is one thing, then, for the U.S. to remain silent while an important ally puts down an existential threat to its security. Yet to watch idly as the Bahraini government continues down the very path that laid the groundwork for the current crisis is an unacceptable position. If the ill-concealed impetus behind U.S. policy in Bahrain is the regional threat posed by Iran, how better to ensure a self-fulfilling prophecy than to allow the further economic, social, and political marginalization of Shi‘a in the post-Day of Rage Bahrain? The United States must push both parties back to the National Dialogue Initiative of Crown Prince Salman, ideally with Kuwaiti arbitration.

Update: the Telegraph is reporting that "Saudi officials say they gave their backing to Western air strikes on Libya in exchange for the United States muting its criticism of the authorities in Bahrain." It's all starting to make more sense.

Go to Part 2 (اذهب إلى الجزء الثاني) —>

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Depicting Division, Sample Design

As the results of my survey results have gained more attention, some have wondered about the selection of those who were interviewed--i.e., have questioned whether the sample I used is indeed a nationally-representative one. Without going too far into the specifics of survey methodology, I will say that, yes, in fact, the 500-household sample is quite representative of Bahrain.

For anyone familiar with Bahrain's administrative blocks ("block numbers"), you can infer the proportion of respondents from each general location in Bahrain by looking at the following histogram of block numbers comprising my sample.

(For those unfamiliar: block numbers beginning with 100 correspond to the area of al-Hidd; the 200s to Muharraq; 300s to Manama and the island of Nabih Salih; 400s to Jidd Hafs and several Shi‘a villages; 500s to the “Northern Region” dominated by Shi‘a villages; 600s to the Shi‘a stronghold of Sitra; 700s to a Shi‘a “Central Region”; 800s to Madinat ‘Isa (Isa Town); 900s to Al Khalifa tribal ally-dominated al-Rifa‘, and the sparsely-populated, militarized southern two-thirds of the island; 1000s to a “Western Region” inhabited only in a few coastal villages; the 1100s to the Hawar Islands; and the 1200s to the ethnically-mixed Madinat Hamad (Hamad Town), the country’s newest urban development and home to many newly-naturalized Sunnis.)

From the figure above, then, one can easily judge the representativeness of the sample by comparing the frequency of specific block numbers to the known populations of the districts to which they correspond. The 100 and 200 blocks, for example, comprise the Governorate of Muharraq, whose citizen population was officially reported in 2007 as being 94,558, or about 17.9% of Bahrain’s total 527,433. A much more recent figure based on the number of voters registered for the 2010 parliamentary elections puts this proportion at 57,233 of a total 318,668, or 18.0%. Computing the proportion of 100 and 200 blocks to the entire sample, then, we see that Muharraq households comprise 92 of the 500 total, or exactly 18.4%. When we repeat these calculations for the remaining four governorates we find that the rest of the sample contains 83 or 16.6% Capital Governorate households, 145 or 29.0% in the Central Governorate, 150 or 30.0% in the Northern, and 30 or 6.0% in the Southern. By comparison, the respective 2007 census figures are: 13.3%, 29.7%, 33.1%, and 5.9%.

In sum: for those of you worrying about the sample: don't.

Go to the Results (اذهب إلى النتائج) —>

Monday, March 28, 2011

Depicting Division, Part III

Since the Bahraini government has gone and rejected Kuwaiti mediation of the Bahraini crisis that had seemingly been decided yesterday, there may be little to write about for a while regarding the situation in Bahrain. Indeed, the government and al-Wifaq both understand that the latter is in a precarious bargaining position, and Bahrain's rulers are now taking advantage. For a good overview of al-Wifaq's view of things, see this interview in al-Sharq al-Awsat from yesterday (and translated into English no less) with al-Wifaq leader 'Abd al-Jalil Khalil.

In the meantime, however, we may as well continue our ever-popular "Depicting Division" segment here at Religion and Politics in Bahrain. In the last week or so, almost 3,500 people have viewed Part I and Part II.

We will start first with what is perhaps the most direct and general political question of the entire survey, appearing very early in the interview: “In general, how would you rate the present political situation in the country?” The response categories descend in the standard manner from “very good,” “good,” “bad,” to “very bad.” The Arabic wording is straightforward: "بشكل عام، كيف تقيم الوضع السياسي الحالي في البلاد؟"

As expected, we observe in Figure 5.10 below a drastic between-ethnic difference in response: whereas a majority (a combined 56%) of Sunni respondents report that Bahrain’s present political situation is “good” or “very good,” Shi‘is are tilted even more in the opposite direction, with a full 71% of respondents describing the political situation as “bad” or “very bad.” Indeed, some Shi‘a respondents even preferred in lieu of “very bad” to give still more emphatic responses such as “دمار” (“[in] ruin”) or “ما في سياسة في البحرين”--literally, “there is no politics in Bahrain,” implying a total domination of political decision-making by the Al Khalifa. Finally, it is clear from the relatively high rate of “I’m not sure” responses that many individuals, especially Sunnis, were wary of answering this question altogether on account of its overt politicality. Overall, though, the utter inversion of the red and black bars for the valid responses seems to offer an excellent visual summary of Bahrain’s ethnic divide surrounding the political status quo. And this is in early 2009!

Bahrainis were also asked to answer the question: “In general, do you feel that government policies have an influence on your daily life?” with one of these five responses: (1) “they have a very positive influence”; (2) “they have a positive influence”; (3) “they have neither a positive nor negative influence”; (4) “they have a negative influence”; or (5) “they have a very negative influence.” In Arabic:
"بشكل عام، هل تشعر بأن سياسات الحكومة لها تأثير علی حياتك اليومية؟"

Here we see the proportions of Sunnis and Shi‘is that answered in each of the five categories. Overall, the picture looks little different from that witnessed above in Figure 5.20: Bahrain’s Sunni respondents disproportionately offer a positive or neutral evaluation of government policy, while the tendency among Shi‘a is exactly the opposite. Indeed, a combined 81.7% of Sunni responses fall in categories 1 through 3, whereas 80.8% of Shi‘i responses fall in categories 3 through 5. And were we to exclude the “Not Sure” and “Refuse” responses, these percentages would be nearly 10 points higher.

Go to Part 4 (اذهب إلى الجزء الرابع) —>

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Video Round-up (Sermon Edition)

The last month in Bahrain has produced no lack of videos. There are videos of riot police, videos of Pearls being besieged, videos of Pearls being demolished, videos of students fighting at Bahrain University, videos of people carrying dead bodies, videos of "Gulf Shield" generals reciting poems to King Hamad--you get the idea.

Below I offer a choice round-up of the best ones I have found and have been sent in just the past few days. Note that I am not endorsing anything said in them--just interested in what they say.

This week is Sermon Edition.

#1. First, Ayatallah Hadi al-Mudarrasi gives a sermon called "The Fall of 'Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Demise of the Al Khalifa." This combines two of my favorite topics, so it's hard to go wrong there. The basic gist is that Bahrains should follow the perseverance and sacrifice of the Yemenis, who succeeded (or will shortly) in bringing down 'Ali Abdullah Saleh. It's ironic that the Yemenis, almost always the object of scorn in the Gulf, are now being lauded as a model for Bahrainis.

#2. What can only be described as a calm and collected sermon by former Bahraini MP Sh. Muhammad Khalid titled "The Crimes of the Rejectors [i.e., Shi'a] of Bahrain." This one is so good it comes in two parts, though it is fairly old (from March 3). You may want to turn your volume down.

Part 1:

Part 2:

#3. The sermon that did in Sh. 'Abd al-Jalil al-Miqdad. Shortly after this he was arrested in his home at 2:30am, one of the last remaining opposition figures to be brought into custody. It's a bit hard to hear, but you get the idea.

#4. Ok, this one's not a sermon per se, but a speech anyway. We've linked to this earlier: here we have MP Sh. Jasim al-Sa'idi exhorting those gathered in al-Rifa' on the day of the huge confrontation between those attempting to march on the Royal Court and those defending it. This is one is especially nice because you get to see up close the various make-shift weapons people are holding to use against protesters--I think I can make out PVC pipe, 2x4s, and more. See if you can name all 10!

Kuwait to the Rescue—Maybe

As I speculated just yesterday, "the opposition" (read: al-Wifaq) has formally agreed to Kuwaiti mediation of the political crisis in Bahrain. The Al-Wasat headline from this morning says it all: "Kuwaiti Mediation Delegation: We have received a response from the opposition that it agrees to the Crown Prince's dialogue initiative without preconditions."

So far I do not see other English-language newspapers picking up this story, but the writing was clearly on the wall yesterday after al-Wifaq all but condemned what protesters had dubbed Bahrain's "Day of Rage II," and after attendees of Sh. 'Isa Qasim's Friday prayer returned home without a peep.

Yet in another sense this outcome was guaranteed much earlier, with the creation of what can only be described as the highly-ambitious "Coalition for a Republic." In fact, of course, there was never going to be a Republic of Bahrain--not with Saudi next door, and not with the U.S.'s unrelenting support of the Bahraini government. The formation of the Coalition clearly overstepped what the Al Khalifa were willing to tolerate in terms of political protest. More importantly, it severely undercut al-Wifaq's position--seemingly a strong one at the time--that there should be some basic preconditions to the dialogue process. Now, some two weeks later, al-Wifaq is is no position to be making demands of its own, and must therefore agree to an unconditional dialogue.

The question now is how much influence the Crown Prince has retained after the debacle of the last two weeks. Is he still in a position within the ruling family even to conduct a "national dialogue"? And, equally importantly, has the extent of what he is capable of offering in terms of political reform decreased dramatically over this time?

Finally, now that Ebrahim Sharif is under arrest, will Wa'ad have no place at all in the dialogue initiative? One may speculate that this is precisely the government's plan: to ensure that the "opposition" with which it is bargaining is strictly a "Shi'a opposition," which if nothing else is at least convenient in terms of framing the issue. Indeed, the notion that secular Sunnis and Shi'is would come together to demand political change is a very dangerous one from the standpoint of the state, in the long-term maybe more dangerous perhaps even than a "Shi'a opposition."

The loss of Ebrahim Sharif in the negotiation process, then, would not be inconsiderable, though perhaps he will be allowed to take part in the end. Wa'ad, which for the last 8 years has been unable to win a single seat in parliament due to institutional design (especially single-member districts), despite relatively high support, would have stood to gain much from any reform.

Now, to end on an altogether different note: yet another of the leading opposition figures, Sh. 'Abd al-Jalil al-Miqdad, was arrested last night around 2:30am. If you want to see some pictures of the Law and Order-style rummaging through his home, they are available here. The lesson seems to be, then: accept dialogue or be arrested.

Update: according to the New York Times (quoting the Kuwaiti daily al-Siyassah), members of al-Wifaq will arrive in Kuwait today and will meet, among others, Kuwaiti Parliament Speaker Jasim al-Kharafi.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Depicting Division, Part II

Since the last post about the findings of my Bahraini survey seems to be very popular (viewed already 1,000 times), here I offer another set of results.

We find below four graphs, each of which represents respondents' answers to a separate but related survey question. Bahrainis were asked to rate their level of trust in five basic state institutions: political societies, the police, the lower house of parliament (مجلس النواب), the courts and judges, and the prime ministership (الرئيس والوزراء). For now we will hold off on the last question, which obviously is the most sensitive of all of them.

The specific question asked was: "I am going to name a group of institutions, and I would like you to tell me to what extent you trust in each of these institutions. Do you trust in them to a large extent, to a moderate extent, little, or not at all?" In Arabic:

":سوف أقوم بتسمية مجموعة من المؤسسات، وأود أن تخبرني إلى أي درجة تثق في كل واحدة من هذه المؤسسات"

رئاسة الوزراء (الرئيس والوزراء) 1.

القضاء (المحاكم) 2.

مجلس النواب 3.

الأمن العام (الشرطة) 4.

الجمعيات (المنظمات) السياسية 5.

The possible response options, in Arabic, are:

.أثق بها إلى درجة كبيرة , أثق بها إلى درجة متوسطة, أثق بها إلى درجة قليلة, لا أثق بها على الإطلاق

Bahrainis' trust in basic state institutions
As we see immediately from the graphs here, ethnicity is a critical factor in explaining respondents’ trust in each of the institutions. In all cases, Sunni and Shi'i support for an institution tends to follow its relative power or advantage in that sphere. Thus we see that Sunnis express demonstrably more trust in the courts, police, and the parliament itself, but not in political parties (“societies”).

Why? Because there they are relatively outmaneuvered by al-Wifaq, which enjoys more widespread legitimacy among its constituents and high party discipline among members. Its continuing success was evidenced most recently in the 2010 parliamentary elections. Sunni parties, by comparison, though they nominally form a majority caucus, in fact are split between Salafis, Muslim Brothers, and a more heterogeneous contingent of Al Khalifa tribal allies from among various family groups. That Sunni respondents should express more ambivalence about political societies than Shi‘a is thus little wonder.

In similar fashion, the relatively low trust reported for the police by Sunni and Shi‘i alike is understandable when one recalls that although those who fill its ranks tend of course to be Sunnis, their most distinguishable trait is not their religion but that they are overwhelmingly "foreigners"--Pakistanis, Yemenis, Syrians, Iraqis, and so on--albeit perhaps foreigners with Bahraini citizenship. In this way--and this indeed is precisely the idea, or at least the intended idea--they identify neither with indigenous Bahraini Sunnis nor Shi‘is, and vice versa, but are loyal only to the state itself.

Go to Part 3 (اذهب إلى الجزء الثالث) —>

Friday, March 25, 2011

Will al-Wifaq Accept Kuwaiti Mediation?

Amid rumors -- and at this point just rumors -- that al-Wifaq will agree or has agreed to Kuwaiti mediation of the conflict in Bahrain, it is worth considering the likelihood of the scenario, and the extent to which it would offer a viable path out of the current crisis.

Kuwait signaled its willingness to serve as arbiter between the Bahraini government and opposition more than a week ago, with reports emerging to this effect as early as March 18. On March 21 the Kuwait Times reported that
A delegation of prominent members of Kuwait's civil community is awaiting instructions from His Highness the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah in order to travel to Bahrain to hold joint talks with members of the kingdom's leadership and opposition in order to avert further confrontation there.
This "civil community" delegation, says the article, would include leading Kuwaiti Shi'a figure 'Ali al-Matruk.

But how likely is such a Kuwaiti role in ending the political crisis in Bahrain?

On the one hand, one might suppose that Kuwait is rather well-positioned to play the part of peacemaker. Since the onset of demonstrations in Bahrain the Kuwaitis have attempted to toe the line between solidarity with Bahrain's government and protesters, a balancing-act driven of course by its own social circumstances--by the fact that Sunni-Shi'i relations there have remained, now as historically, relatively more amicable than elsewhere in the Gulf.

Thus, for example, Kuwait initially resisting contributing to the GCC's "Peninsula Shield" force, attempting instead to dispatch a medical convoy, which was at least initially refused entry at Bahrain Airport (sources disagree about whether it was eventually allowed to enter). Finally, after considerable political pressure from Kuwait's Salafi parliamentarians (as we discussed here), the country did dispatch a naval force, though it's not clear how many warships Bahraini protesters currently possess. The over/under on that is 0.5, and I'd take the under.

Yet in the end, of course the matter is not up to Kuwait. As quoted above, the delegation is "awaiting instructions"--that is to say, they are awaiting an invitation from Bahrain. How likely is it, then, that the Bahraini government and more importantly the opposition would agree to Kuwaiti mediation?

The events of today--what was billed as the Second Day of Rage--may offer some indication. It seems clear that the turnout failed to match expectations (despite a heavier-than-normal police presence), and that a large part of the reason was the position of al-Wifaq. Distancing itself from this Day of Rage II, the society said that it "affirms the need to protect safety and lives and not to give the killers the opportunity to shed blood." The thousands who gathered for the Friday sermon of Sh. 'Isa Qasim, accordingly, did not continue on to a customary post-prayer rally; they simply returned home.

As always seems to happen, then, we have seemingly reached the point where al-Wifaq and other (Shi'a) opposition societies diverge, with al-Wifaq opting for participation via the standard political channels, the latter groups continuing their rejection of the whole process on principle. Of course, with al-Musheimi', Sh. 'Abd al-Wahhab, and Ebrahim Sharif all in state custody, al-Haqq, al-Wafa', and Wa'ad are themselves operating with reduced organizational power.)

Even if it hasn't (or won't) agree(d) to Kuwaiti mediation, then, it is apparent that al-Wifaq will soon be heading back to the bargaining table. The question is how many are likely to follow them.

Depicting Division

As I've mentioned elsewhere, in 2009 I conducted a mass political survey of ordinary Bahraini citizens, a survey based on a nationally-representative sample of almost 500 Bahraini households spread across the entire island, from al-Zallaq to Samaheej. As far as I know, this is the first independent, national-level, socio-political survey to have been administered in Bahrain since Fuad Khuri's work in the 1970s referenced in his book "Tribe and State in Bahrain."

The survey itself was rather lengthy, far too long to reproduce to any extent here. The results of it form the basis of my dissertation, "Ethnic Conflict and Political Mobilization in the Arab Gulf," and will be published officially sometime in the fall.

In any case, I thought it would be illustrative to share some survey results now, particularly as the insights from the survey project are as relevant now as they are ever likely to be.

The first illustration depicts the extent of Sunni-Shi'i division among ordinary Bahraini citizens regarding the question of government satisfaction. In particular, respondents were asked to rate their level of satisfaction with overall government performance on a 1 to 10 scale, where 1 meant "entirely unsatisfied" and 10 meant "completely satisfied." The Arabic is:

على فرض وجود مقياس من 1-10 لقياس مدى رضائك على أداء حكومة البحرين، بحيث 1 تعني أنك غير راضٍ على الإطلاق عن أدائها، و10 تعنى أنك راض ٍجداً على أدائها، إلى أي درجة أنت راضٍ عن أداء الحكومة؟

The picture that emerges, then, is one of near perfect ethnic polarization: whereas some 90% of Sunnis report being more satisfied than unsatisfied (i.e., report a score of 5 or above), an almost equal proportion (82%) of Shi‘a express exactly the reverse opinion, with a full 36% replying that they are “not at all satisfied” (“غير راضٍ على الإطلاق”). Thus, at the same time that a clear one-third of Bahraini Shi‘a assign the government the lowest possible grade of overall satisfaction, less than one in ten Sunnis supplies anything more negative than a neutral evaluation of government performance.

An even starker contrast emerges concerning the issue of human rights violations in Bahrain. Respondents were asked to what extent non-respect for human rights in the country is justified in order to maintain national security, today a timely question today indeed. In Arabic:

إلی أي درجة تعتقد أن عدم احترام حقوق الإنسان في البحرين للحفاظ علی الأمن مبرّر؟

At the same time that a combined 64% of Bahrain's Sunnis respond that sacrificing human rights in the name of security is justified to a “high” (25% of respondents) or “moderate” degree (39%), the vast majority (69%) of Shi‘is reject this notion outright, deeming it “not at all” justified, compared to less than one-quarter of Sunnis. Once again, then, we have a clear visual indication of the extent of ethnic division in Bahrain regarding the proper handling of the country’s political opponents and others whose “human rights” would be set aside in the execution of "public safety."

In the end, then, while Bahrain's Sunni-Shi'i gulf in political opinion is perhaps not surprising given the events of previous weeks, it is useful to know the exact extent of this division, and of course to understand its causes.

A common refrain of those analyzing the events unfolding now in Bahrain is that the country’s political conflict, if outwardly one of Sunni against Shi‘i, is rooted actually in the much more mundane—and, for U.S. and Arab leaders, much less worrying—problem of socio-economic inequality; that Bahrain’s Arab Shi‘a tend to be poorer, are disproportionately excluded from public sector jobs, and thus simply have more cause for political complaint than their Sunni counterparts. Were this underlying economic disparity to be rectified through more equitable government policy, so the argument continues, it would go far toward eliminating Bahrain’s apparent, but ultimately epiphenomenal, ethnic divide.

As it turns out, however, there is strong evidence--not least in the results of my Bahrain survey--that this is not the case.

Go to Part 2 (اذهب إلى الجزء الثاني) —>

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Amid mounting concern that U.S. military involvement in Libya—coalition or no coalition—may serve ultimately to harm rather than help America’s image in the Arab world, forgotten is the way that its inaction, its passive support for embattled governments (Bahrain and Yemen come first to mind), is working to elicit a similar sort of reaction.

In Bahrain, for example, until about a month ago government opponents tended to view the U.S. as a relative friend and ally. The U.S., I was often told while in Bahrain, is on principle a friend of ordinary citizens, whereas Britain, Bahrain’s second most important Western ally, leans more toward rulers. The U.S., founded on the basis of democracy and a revolt against an absolute monarchy, supports ordinary people when they are being mistreated by their government, it was said. And annual State Department reports on “The State of Human Rights in Bahrain” seemed to evidence such an orientation. Whether or not this feeling reflected reality, it was a common feeling nonetheless.

Of course, the cat is now out of the bag. If recent events in the Middle East have shown anything, it’s the patent disconnect between principle and action in U.S. Mideast foreign policy—or perhaps rather that, despite appearances, the principle was pragmatism all along.

And this revelation may do as much harm as any U.S. involvement in Libya.

The U.S. naval base in Bahrain, located in the historically-Shi'i village of Juffair, has never been the focus of much protest. Indeed, when it was decided last year that it would double in size in a $580 million expansion, there were no protests decrying "U.S. imperialism," "interference in Bahrain's internal affairs," and so on. In fact, the only actual reported threats to the facility have stemmed from Sunni Islamic groups operating in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Gulf affiliated (ostensibly) with al-Qa'ida. (Sure, the Iranians have threatened to attack the base in the event the U.S. would strike at its nuclear facilities. But this is a separate issue.)

Now, however, there are reports that pro-Shi'a groups outside of Bahrain are targeting U.S. forces and interests specifically in retaliation for its stance on Bahrain. Here, for example, we find a video posted by the Hizballah Brigades in Iraq, showing an attack on "an American stryker in Baghdad-Tajy," with the caption: "This attack and others to support the Bahrain revolution." The videos even show the Hizballah logo alongside the Bahrain flag. Separate videos document similar attacks on March 16 (titled "Rockets vs. Talil American base in Nasariyyah ... for supporting the Bahrain revolution") and March 19 ("vs American vehicle [in] Basra-Safwan").

The point is not that U.S. forces or interests in Bahrain are now somehow under threat, but that it does not require direct military intervention (as, for example, in Libya) to elicit a backlash against the United States. In the case of Bahrain, inaction can be as powerful as action.

With a new "Day of Rage" planned for this Friday in Bahrain, and accordingly the prospect of still more casualties and still less chance of substantive political reconciliation, the U.S. would do well to respond more quickly, clearly, and resolutely than it has to date.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Sound Familiar?: More Terrorist Plots

The Bahraini government is good at foiling terrorist plots. I mean really good. Greeting officers of the GCC "Peninsula Shield" force yesterday, King Hamad alluded to yet another in a string of foreign terrorist plots to be uncovered and stamped out by his government. "An external plot has been fomented for 20 to 30 years for the ground to be ripe for subversive designs," he said.

For national security reasons, presumably, the king did not reveal the exact nature of this newest threat to have been overcome. Yet it seems to resemble another, equally sinister plot in September 2010, when 23 Shi'a activists were arrested for their part in a terrorist effort to "overthrow the regime." Interestingly, these same individuals were just pardoned a month ago when protests began. And in the last week many of them have been re-arrested.

So now it is becoming clear: this newest terrorist plot emerged after the Bahrainis pardoned the old terrorist plotters, leading to their re-arrest.

If this sounds somehow confusing, please refer to this instructive terrorist network flow chart helpfully crafted by the incisive al-Watan newspaper in its Sept. 16, 2010, issue (indeed I have saved it all this time because I knew it would come in handy):

In case you cannot follow the logic of the chart here, it goes something like this: there is a terrorist network led by Hasan al-Musheimi', Sh. Muhammad al-Miqdad, as well as this ghostly figure "Others?" with a question mark to get you thinking. Next we have the second-tier members of the terrorist network: two guys named Sami Mirza and Ahmad 'Abdallah along with more "Others?" This shadowy group that may or may not consist of only 4 people then engages in various terrorist activities, including but not limited to lighting cars on fire, using some sort of a burning stop-watch, lighting houses on fire, and slicking the sidewalk down with ice thereby making people trip and fall. (This is the last and more illustrative level of the flow-chart.)

More generally, if we google "terrorist plot in Bahrain" we find:

Sept. 2010: "Bahrain hints at Iranian involvement in plot to overthrow regime"
May 2009: "Gulfnews : Two arrested as Bahrain police foil terror attack plot"
Dec. 2008: "Bahrain: Terror Plot Foiled, Syrian Connection Investigated"
Feb. 2007: "Discovery of a 'terrorist training camp' in Bani Jamra"

And these are just on the first page.

So let's all of us salute the Bahraini government on another job well done, and wish them God speed in thwarting the next attack, whether it be a sidewalk slip-and-fall plot masterminded by Sami Mirza or a burning stop-watch bombing carried out by those shadowy "Others?"

As Nabeel Rajab once said, "Bahrain should be in the Guinness Book of World Records. This is a country that has discovered 20 supposed coup attempts in the last 20 years."

Update: It's about that time again! New "terrorist cell" thwarted in November 2011: "Bahrain says terror suspects linked to Iran's Revolutionary Guard."

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Gulf Sectarian Fever Spreads to Kuwait

In case the introduction of GCC troops into Bahrain didn't raise regional tensions high enough, it seems that Kuwait is now joining the party.

After initial speculation that Kuwait would contribute to the "Island Shield" force, the country's prime minister announced finally that no troops would be sent, a decision helped perhaps by the threats of some Shi'a MPs that they would move to quiz him in parliament (as if the Kuwaitis ever need an excuse to do that) if troops were sent. Following the decision, Kuwaiti Shi'a rallied in solidarity with the decision.

Unfortunately, the Kuwaiti prime minister was damned if he did and damned if he didn't, as two Salafi MPs are now moving to question him for NOT sending troops (the same story here). According to one of them, Mohammed Hayef, "The Kuwaiti people will not accept the orders of the Iranian leaders and is demanding that (Kuwaiti) troops are dispatched soon to Bahrain." And another MP, Faisal al-Muslim: "Iran has taken control of Iraq. Today is trying with Bahrain and tomorrow will be Kuwait... We must establish a true Gulf unity to confront Iranian plots." Exactly.

The fray has also spread into the mainstream Kuwaiti media, with the pro-Shi'a newspaper al-Dar running a front-page expose "opening the file" on the offenses of Saudi forces in Bahrain, which include "the expulsion of Shi'i doctors" from Salmaniyyah Hospital, "the demolition of some Shi'a mosques," "beating female Shi'is," and other goodies.

Who is next in line for the sectarian contagion spreading across the Gulf? The Emirates perhaps?

Update: Well, we may as well get Lebanon and Hizballah involved too. Today, at a so-called "Festival of Solidarity with the Arab Peoples," Hasan Nasrallah made special mention of the case of Bahrain in a speech on the Arab uprisings, saying, "I ask some in the Arab and Islamic worlds: Why have you remained mum over the tyranny against our people in Bahrain, is it only because they are Shiites?” The complete text of the speech is available here.

A Different Sort of Coup

For weeks, protesters around the Arab world have been calling for isqat al-nitham -- "the fall of the regime." In Egypt and Tunisia they found success; in Yemen and perhaps now Libya they will soon achieve the same.

Seemingly out of place here, then, is a discussion of Bahrain, where "the regime" remains intact. Yet Bahrain too has witnessed a coup of sorts, though it's not what one might think. Bahrain's coup was an internal one.

Rumors of an intra-Al Khalifa split were swirling even before "Island shield" forces crossed the causeway. The crown prince, it was said as early as March 12, resigned from the "family council" after an "altercation" with the head of the royal court (and his second-uncle?), Khalid bin Ahmad. Reportedly, the crown prince complained of the conduct of the royal court (which incidentally controls the inflammatory newspaper Al-Watan), namely its employment of armed thugs to intimidate protesters at a time when he was attempting to gain support for his national dialogue initiative.

Khalid bin Ahmad replied that the crown prince would "bring God only knows what disaster upon the family," and that it is only the older members that "know these people" (i.e., the protesters) and how to deal with them. In the end, both members left the meeting angry, Khalid bin Ahmad taking with him a group of supporters and purportedly saying that the family would "not forgive [the crown prince] for the destructive mistakes he had made since taking office."

Finally, these rumors talked more generally of a larger split within the Al Khalifa--a split which indeed is nothing new--between the king and crown prince on the one hand and the king's uncle the prime minister and his supporters on the other, the latter advocating a much harsher response to protests.

Yet all of this we could dismiss as mere speculation if not for the developments of the previous week, during which time the crown prince has all but disappeared and the state's orientation toward protesters turned from ostensive dialogue to razing the Pearl Roundabout altogether.

And now we have tentative confirmation of the internal coup within the ruling Al Khalifa, and it is more interesting even than the rumors. This article (Ar.) in the newspaper Al-Quds (citing a Times of London article, which I cannot find) claims that the crown prince was not notified prior to the arrival of Saudi forces, that his official position as the commander of the armed forces "has been virtually marginalized by the strong and hawkish prime minister," that King Hamad has been caught between the fighting, and even that the Al Khalifa did not hold an official family council to deliberate upon the decision to "invite" Saudi troops. Indeed, the article says, there may not have been an "invite" at all (as I have previously speculated).

All this was clear, I think, as soon as Saudi tanks started rolling into Bahrain. Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman, long assumed by Shi'a opponents to be the real ringmaster in Bahrain, is now firmly in charge where it counts most. And with him comes his strong, long-standing relationship with the Al Sa'ud. So long as this remains the case, "national dialogue" in Bahrain is unlikely to move forward.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Calling All (Iranian) Volunteers

It's hard to know whether to take it seriously (why would it's main banner be in English, for example?), but this site claims to be an Iranian "registrar for martyrdom volunteers for dispatch to Bahrain," with a supposed 1,310 already signed up! I found the link on a prominent opposition forum. From the Iranian Internet authority, it looks like the domain information was created--or at least most recently updated--on February 8, 2011, well before recent events.

I can't read Farsi, so I'm not sure exactly what the sign-up form says (though I do see some references to Al Sa'ud and Al Khalifa), but I'm sure it's good stuff. If someone is able, please enlighten us.

Also, if you're looking for 200 or so gory pictures of those killed and injured in Bahrain over the past weeks, this is your place.

Bahrain's Ethnically-Gerrymandered Electoral Districts

Another interesting result of my ethnic map of Bahrain is what happens when you overlay it with the country's current parliamentary electoral districts. To the surprise of no one -- especially the political societies such as al-Wifaq and especially Wa'ad that have been complaining about this for years -- it turns out that these districts are almost entirely crafted around ethnic lines. The animation below shows that the districts al-Wifaq won in the 2010 parliamentary election match Bahrain's ethnic geography almost perfectly.

This serves to artificially bolster the electoral prospects of pro-government candidates, and more generally to maximize the size of the pro-government districts by cutting around mainly Shi'a-populated areas as far as possible (as seen, for example, in north Hamad Town, Isa Town, Manama, etc.). This is exactly why al-Wifaq only bothered to run 18 candidates in the 2010 elections: it knew based on the districts that it had no chance of winning anywhere outside of the purposely-designed "Shi'i" districts.

Assuming that any sort of "dialogue" process is still going to take place in Bahrain, therefore, one place to begin discussions would be the issue of electoral redistricting. Of course dialogue is difficult when the leaders of the interested parties (e.g., Ibrahim Sharif) are under arrest.

Update: It's now some months later, and al-Wifaq is planning to hold a rally tomorrow to demand "fair electoral districts."

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Mixed Signals

Anyone who is interested enough in Bahraini politics to visit this site already knows about the sad events of the previous two days, so there is no need to review things here.

Instead, it is worth spending a moment to review the U.S.'s difficult-to-comprehend response to the situation in Bahrain. In short, its reaction has followed the same model that has become familiar and near-comical since the first days of protest in Tunisia: the U.S. supports whomever it thinks has the best chance to come out on top that day, changing its position almost hourly depending on new developments. (Indeed, for this overt political pragmatism the leaders of Egypt's revolution refused to meet with Clinton during her visit to Cairo yesterday.)

First, we have the luke-warm response of the U.S. to the start of protests in Bahrain.

Then, on March 12, Defense Secretary Gates pays a visit, stating bluntly in a press conference that he told Bahraini leaders "that baby steps probably would not be sufficient... that real reform would be necessary," presumably via the U.S.-backed "national dialogue" initiative of the crown prince.

Fast-forward two days and Saudi/GCC forces are crossing over the causeway into Bahrain. Rather than condemn or even express ambivalence about the action, instead Hillary Clinton meets with the UAE Foreign Minister in Paris in what appears to be a show of support. (At least it was portrayed as such on al-Jazeera and al-'Arabiyyah.) Here is a video of the press conference following the meeting. Everyone seems very happy.

So one of two things must be true: either (1) Gates' visit to Bahrain was not coincidental, and he was there at least partly to discuss the possibility/inevitability of a Saudi/GCC intervention; or (2) the U.S. was caught entirely by surprise and simply hadn't decided upon an official reaction prior to Clinton's meeting in Paris.

Because now it seems that we are not so supportive of the Saudi/GCC intervention after all. The Bahrainis and Saudis, as of March 16 anyway, are "on the wrong track," again according to Clinton. And later on Wednesday Obama took time out from NCAA bracket-filling to personally call Kings 'Abdallah and Hamad to "stress[] the need for maximum restraint." The Bahraini response was to round up all six main opposition leaders -- include the Sunni head of one of the groups, Wa'ad, that was ostensibly going to take part in the "national dialogue" initiative -- in pre-dawn raids. (Here are some nice photos from the home of al-Wafa' leader 'Abd al-Wahhab Hussain.) The message for restraint, then, may have been lost in translation.

In short, the mixed signals sent by the U.S., not only in Bahrain but over the course of the past two months more generally, are exposing it as a fickle ally. The only place it has taken a strong stand, Libya, is the place where it seems government opponents have the least chance of prevailing (though obviously Bahraini protesters face very long odds as well). So the one case where the U.S. has made its choice of winner clear, it has chosen incorrectly.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Getting the **** Out

The U.S. State Department is, that is. A new, strongly-worded travel warning issued yesterday "urge[s] U.S. citizens to defer travel to Bahrain at this time" and notes, more importantly, that "the Department of State authorized the voluntary departure from Bahrain of eligible family members of U.S. Embassy staff." I was in Yemen in 2008 when the same thing happened -- though following attacks on the U.S. embassy and a embassy housing compound in Sana'a -- so there must be no little worry now on the part of the U.S. The Saudi entry cannot have helped.

The most telling part of the statement is the blunt description of the situation in Bahrain, which if basically universally-acknowledged at this point is still notable coming from State. They write,
Bahrain has experienced a breakdown in law and order in various areas of the country over the last few weeks. Demonstrations have degenerated into violent clashes between police and protesters on several occasions, resulting in injuries. There also have been multiple reports of sectarian groups patrolling areas throughout Bahrain and establishing unofficial vehicle checkpoints. On March 14, 2011, foreign military elements entered Bahrain. Spontaneous demonstrations and violence can be expected throughout the country.

Update: The U.S. announcement makes even more sense now in light of the three-month state of emergency--or, as he calls it, a "state of national safety," which sounds so much better--just announced by King Hamad. Of course in the Arab world states of emergency have a way of being extended indefinitely.

Awaiting a Response

There seems to be anticipation building, at least in Bahrain, regarding a possible response from Iran to the "joint GCC force" (999 Saudis plus one Emirati, it sounds like) sent to Bahrain.

The initial statement from the Foreign Ministry is not particularly strongly-worded, despite it's title ("The Iranian Foreign Ministry Denounces Foreign Interference in Bahrain"). It simply stresses the need for the Bahraini government to heed "the demands of the majority of the Bahraini people" (hrm, I wonder who that would be?) and to avoid foreign interference, etc.

Ordinary Shi'a seem to be split over the need for outside help. Bahraini Ayatallah Muhammad Sanad has released a statement in which he sends a "distress call" to "the international community," "rights organizations," and "regional parties" (hrm, I would who that would be?) in light of the "invasion of the Saudi army" and other foreign mercenaries in Bahrain.

The "Coalition for a Republic" of Bahrain also released a statement referencing the "invasion of Saudi Arabia" as well as U.S. interference (i.e., the recent visit of Gates), but makes no reference to Iran or "regional parties." Opposition forums are full of debates over the relative merits of seeking help abroad.

It would appear, then, that the anticipation is simply that--anticipation--rather than a shared hope that the Iranians will somehow become more involved. In either case, the ball now is in their court.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Saudis Cometh

Multiple outlets (here is The Guardian) are reporting that the inevitable is upon us: Saudi forces are preparing to enter Bahrain, apparently "invited" by the Crown Prince.

Perhaps they were "invited," but I think they would probably have come even had they not been. I have long said that the Saudis would sooner take over administration of Bahrain personally than let it fall to the opposition. The latter option would cause too many problems in the Eastern Governorate.

Let's hope that the Saudis will somehow show more restraint in dealing with protesters than I think they will.

We could soon see the Saudis in Bahrain and also in northern Yemen, assuming 'Ali Abdullah goes the way of Mubarak and Bin 'Ali. I think neither population will be happy to see them.

Update: Al-Arabiyyah now reports that the GCC as a whole "will participate in the maintenance of security" in Bahrain. I'll believe that when I see Omani and Kuwaiti flags on helmets.

At the same time, opposition forums are circulating directives to delay action today so as to figure out what the heck is going on. Either way people seem fired up to meet the Al Sa'ud.

The Saudis have now upped the ante. Let's see if protesters reach out for backup of their own.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

My Ethnic Map of Bahrain

One of the interesting products of the 2009 mass political survey of Bahrain is this ethnic map of Bahrain. Though common knowledge to Bahrainis (and perhaps many ex-pats as well), still it is helpful to have a visual representation of the physical divide that mirrors the country's political divide. Note that this map is based on a random and nationally-representative sample of 500 households. Thus we obviously did not survey every location in Bahrain. Areas that are known to be populated but were not included in the sample are marked as "no data," as per the key.

As for what the map tells us: firstly, we easily perceive the extent of ethnic segregation in Bahrain. Very few areas (referring here to block numbers) -- basically Hamad Town, Isa Town, and parts of Manama -- are ethnically mixed. By contrast, most of the northwest (although the Sunni-dominated area of al-Budaiyi' proper was not surveyed), western seaside, and eastern peninsula of Sitra are settled only by Shi'a. And apart from those in Manama and Muharraq, the vast majority of Sunni Bahrainis are centered around al-Rifa'.

It also helps put into context the major locations of protest (and counter-protest) referenced over the previous weeks. The green dot to the upper-left, for example, is the Pearl Roundabout; the dot slightly to the east of this the Fatih Mosque. The remaining dots -- Busaiteen to the far northeast, Hamad Town to the southwest, and the centrally-located Clock Roundabout in al-Rifa' -- show the sites of clashes in recent days.

Indeed, looking at the sea of red surrounding al-Rifa', it is perhaps very easy to understand why the opposition procession on Friday met with so much Sunni resistance.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Gates Plays the Iran Card

In Bahrain today ostensibly to tell the Al Khalifa to enact real political reform, SecDef Gates seems to have done the unexpected -- er, I mean, the expected -- and played the Iran card. "[T]here is clear evidence that as the [political reform] process is protracted, particularly in Bahrain, the Iranians are looking for ways to exploit it and create problems," he said.

Not reported was his response to a question by a local reporter, who asked, "Mr. Gates, if the U.S. is so worried about Iranian influence in the Gulf, why wasn't it worried when it took out Iran's biggest regional competitor in the Middle East (Iraq) and it's biggest regional competitor in Central Asia (Afghanistan)?"

Gates replied, "Iran. Iran! IRAN!!!1"

Need he say more?

Marching on al-Rifa': Not a Good Idea

It turns out that marching into the Al Khalifa capital and Sunni stronghold of al-Rifa' is not a good idea. Many news outlets (here is al-Wasat) are reporting now the huge clashes between Shi'a protesters and ordinary Sunnis (who, according to the Shi'a, were backed by police). Some 700-1,000 are reported injured, but once we adjust for the tendency toward exaggeration in the Arab world this is probably more like 200. Either way, the Shi'a forum BahrainOnline has some interesting pictures. Especially nice is this one of current Salafi parliamentarian Sh. Jassim al-Sa'idi exhorting fellow Sunnis with a sword:

For about 100 more, including of people wielding boards with nails pounded in them (I know, it sounds like something out of The Simpsons), go here.

Finally, this is all the more interesting because the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights is reporting that Bahrain is actively recruiting additional riot police and military personnel from Pakistan, even sending a delegation there from March 7 - 14. Perhaps they are finally hunkering down for the long haul.

Update: The picture above now comes complete with video.

The 'Manama Dialogue' Debate

Thursday night Al-Jazeera Mubasher aired a 90-minute (or so) program called the "Manama Dialogue" in which Sh. 'Ali Salman faced off with Dr. Salah 'Ali, chairman of the Foreign Affairs, Defense, and National Security Committee of the Shura Council. The discussion was cordial but at times very heated.

Overall, Sh. Salman continued his call for a popularly-elected constitutional assembly (مجلس تأسيسي) to draft a new constitution, which Dr. 'Ali in turn continued to reject, calling instead for immediate dialogue between the opposition and government (and the Sunni parties of course).

They also sparred over the very first question asked: "Should we consider the events in Bahrain a revolution, such as occurred in Egypt and Libya, or a protest?" Predictably, Sh. Salman took the position that Bahrain is simply a different manifestation of exactly the same dynamic--people who are unhappy with the political system--though he fell short of calling it a "revolution." Dr. 'Ali, in response, was quick to point out the sectarian dynamic--"Bahraini society consists of Sunnis and Shi'is," he said bluntly--which cannot be translated elsewhere. Sh. Salman then pointed to the Copts and Muslims in Egypt, etc.

Most interesting for my purposes, though, was Sh. 'Ali's response when asked (by the moderator and Dr. Salah alike) what precisely are the political demands of those camped out at the Pearl. Despite the government's portrayal of their demands as economic, he said, they are strictly political. In one memorable passage he said, "Bahrain TV goes and supposedly interviews people at the Pearl and they all say 'we want houses, we want iskan' -- this is lies. We are not fighting for housing but for a new political system."

In any event, I have not been able to find a transcript, much less a translation, but al-Wifaq has posted the three segments as separate videos on YouTube.

Segment one:

Segment two:

Segment three:


Saturday, March 5, 2011

Saudi Tanks in Bahrain?

The Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Yawm reported Tuesday that eyewitnesses saw "15 tank carriers carrying two tanks each" crossing the King Fahd Causeway into Bahrain from Saudi. I haven't found the exact story, but if true this just goes to show my earlier point that the Saudis will sooner take over Bahrain themselves than lose it to the Bahraini Shi'a. Already there were reports that Saudi police/military personnel took part in the attack on the Pearl Roundabout that resulted in a number of people being killed. But 30 tanks is another thing altogether.

Of course, everyone is denying the heck out of this, so until we see the green "la illaha illa allah" flags on a few of the tanks next time they enter Manama, we'll just have to wonder.

The second-hand link is here.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Ancient Bahrain

In the first step toward the inevitable resurrection of the ancient kingdom of Bahrain (i.e., Bahrain proper and al-Hasa), Saudi Shi'a have held their first protest in the Eastern Governorate.

Opposition Explanation of Pre-conditions for Dialogue

Mahmood has done everyone the favor of translating the opposition's lengthy clarification statement regarding its position on the crown prince's dialogue process. It explains the reasoning behind its rejection of an unconditional dialogue and, more specifically, why it believes the current government, including the prime minister, should step down. Oh, and by the way, it is planning a huge rally today to help see the vision through.

As a Qatari colleague said the other day: Arab governments are now only afraid of three things: Al-Jazeera, Facebook, and Friday.

The list of demands.

The Quiet Before the Storm, Part II

We left off with the highly-anticipated return of al-Musheima'. His arrival at the airport alone attracted at least several thousand people. And for everyone wondering whether he would tone down the rhetoric given that he was due to face terrorist charges and imprisonment a week earlier, we didn't have to wait long. In short: he did not. Upon arrival he continued his call for the fall of the government, and headed later that night to the Pearl Roundabout to address the crowds there. There is a YouTube video of the complete address here. The video, though, being hard to understand, the Arabic text is here.

Al-Musheima's return is not important because he represents another person calling for the overthrow of the Al Khalifa. There are enough of those already. Rather, as indicated by the timing of his return -- i.e., just in time to partake in the crown prince's "dialogue" -- he probably is looking to play a prominent role in the government negotiations over against that of al-Wifaq, al-Wifa', and others. That is to say, it probably has as much to do with intra-Shi'a politics as with Shi'a-government politics. Al-Wifaq, if it has been seen as at least nominally in control of the street opposition since its MPs resigned from parliament, will get a run for its money.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Opposition Demands

Al-Jazeera is reporting that six opposition parties -- they didn't say but this must be al-Wifaq, al-Haqq, Wa'ad, Islamic Action Society, al-Wifa' al-Islami, and maybe the Progressive Action Society? -- have officially announced their political demands in a press conference. For extra effect, the announcement was evidently made by Ebrahim Sharif, the Sunni head of the leftist Wa'ad Society. So that should bring the percent of Sunnis in the opposition to at least 0.5%.

The conditions, which are being described by Sh. 'Ali Salman as pre-conditions for dialogue (however that works), are:

1. Release of political prisoners and guarantee the safety and security of protesters at the Pearl Roundabout through the negotiation process;

2. Creation of a new independent commission to investigate the deaths of protesters since Feb. 14;

3. Repeal of the 2002 Constitution and drafting of a new one that grants power to completely-elected legislative body;

4. A new, fully-elected government; and

5. A dialogue timeline of no longer than three weeks.

The Sunni parties, not impressed, responded with their own "National Unity Rally." Interesting name for it.

Update: even less impressed were the Sunnis of Hamad Town, who evidently clashed today with Shi'a there in a hundreds-strong street fight broken up finally by police. Though fighting between naturalized Sunnis (i.e., Syria and Yemeni gangs) in Hamad Town is somewhat common, this is something different altogether. Especially given the reports that large numbers of Shi'a from nearby al-Malikiyyah, Karzakhan, Dumistan, etc. were headed to the scene to provide backup, this could easily get out of hand.

Another Update: As always, already there seems to be a video on YouTube.

A "Gulf Marshall Plan"?

According to this story in the Bahraini Gulf Daily News (citing this article (Arabic) in the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Qabas), GCC rulers are entertaining the idea of a "Gulf Marshall Plan" to bring "economic recovery" Bahrain and Oman. Read: the Gulf countries are confident in their ability to buy off political opponents. In Bahrain, at least, this isn't going to work.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Republic of Bahrain

Shi'a opposition forum-goers are already designing the flag of the new Republic of Bahrain. A bit early perhaps.

The Flag of the Republic of Bahrain

The Quiet Before the Storm, Part I

With all that has unfolded in Bahrain over the past two weeks, it seems futile to try to catch up here at the outset. So instead of summarizing everything that's happened until now, it is worth considering where we stand now and what is likely to happen in the next week or few weeks. After all, things have seemingly quieted in Bahrain (though the prominence given now to events in Libya also has helped to displace Bahrain as the top news item). What happened?

What happened is a few things. First, the crown prince was sent on Bahrain TV to appeal for calm and "national dialogue," presumably because he is the least disliked (i.e., by the Shi'a opposition) of the three-headed monarchy that is the Al Khalifa, the other two being the king and prime minister. This, combined with the removal of the military from the streets of Manama as demanded by the opposition as a precondition for talks -- note that this order to recall the military was also explicitly portrayed as having come from Crown Prince Salman, again not coincidentally -- served eventually to calm things enough to bring al-Wifaq, who by then had left parliament, and other groups to the discussion table. Sure, there were still protests and counter-protests (i.e., by pro-government Sunnis), but once the police stopped shooting people, especially during funerals processions for people they'd already killed, it's amazing how things found a way of settling down.

Then, or concurrently, King Hamad headed to Saudi Arabia to meet with the newly-returned King Abdullah, nominally to welcome him back after his extended absence for medical treatment but more obviously (one assumes) to gauge the extent of his leash in negotiating with the Shi'a. That is to say, with the Saudis bankrolling some 60% of the Bahraini budget (according to an estimate I was given in 2009 by a Sunni parliamentarian) via the proceeds from the Abu Saafa oil field, King Hamad does not have a free hand to offer the Shi'a whatever concessions he thinks judicious. After all, the Saudis have their own Shi'a to worry about (who incidentally have just begun some small-scale demonstrations of their own in the Eastern Province), and they would likely sooner take over administration of Bahrain themselves than lose it to the Baharnah.

The most recent notable event is the return from exile slash medical treatment of Hasan al-Musheima', the fiery Secretary General of al-Haqq who until a week ago when he was pardoned along with other opposition figures was supposedly in charge of a "terrorist cell" plotting the overthrow of the regime. Seems likes a strange person to allow back in your country at a time like this if you really believe that. But that's another story.

To be continued..