Thursday, April 28, 2011

The More Things Change...

As noted in this article in TIME magazine, today marks the first time in history that Bahrain will try civilians before a military court. The seven are accused of running over two police officers, killing them, and of unspecified "different charges." (A video of this event has made its way around television and YouTube. In fact, a search of "Bahrain run over" in YouTube gets you 465 results.) The defendants deny the accusations, and, as always seems to happen, many opposition supporters claim that the whole thing was orchestrated by the government. (Here is a forum post outlining the "lies" involved.)

The seven join rights activist 'Abd al-Hadi al-Khawajah, who also will be tried in military court, having had his first hearing a week ago. The specific charges against him have not been made clear.

What is known, though, is that the seven accused of killing the police officer are being tried under Bahrain's vague and controversial "counter-terrorism" law, which employs the contemporary definition of "terrorism"--whatever we don't like--rather than one limited to actual attacks aimed at causing mass terror--you know, actual terrorism.

From an BCHR English translation of the law:

terrorism means any threat or use of force or violence, whatever the motives or the purposes, resorted to by the criminal in carrying out either an individual or collective criminal project, in order to disable the provisions of the constitution or the laws or the rules, to disrupt the public order; to expose to danger the safety and security of the kingdom; or to harm the national unity or the security of the international community, if the act harms individuals or disseminates among them horror or panic or puts in danger their lives, freedoms or security; or damages the environment; the public health; the national economy; the public or private facilities, buildings and properties; or their occupation or obstructing their work, or obstructing the public authorities or religious buildings or educational faculties from doing their work.

Thus "terrorism" may include "damag[ing] the environment," "the public health," the economy, "harm[ing] national unity," or stopping people from going to work.

Yet more than just underlining the totality of Bahrain's "legal black hole where no one knows what their rights are, what their access is" (in the words of Shadi Hamid, director of research at Brookings Doha Institute), the military trials of the seven accused of murder and of 'Abd al-Hadi of Khawajah highlight the extent to which Bahraini politics have a way of staying the same despite seeming forward progress.

In 1996, for example, Bahrain had more than twenty years earlier dissolved its parliament; had no legal political societies; was locked in a years-long Shi'a uprising, and operated under perpetual martial law in the form of a "state security" decree. And still we find this article from the New York Times that reminds us how little things have really changed:
Execution Stirs Protests In Bahrain
Published: March 27, 1996

New fighting erupted today between protesters and the police after the execution of a dissident who was convicted of killing a police officer.

The execution was the first in Bahrain in 20 years, and it underlined the Government's determination to stamp out protests. Bahrain is a major financial center in the Persian Gulf and home to a major United States Navy base.

Amnesty International, a London-based human rights group, said the execution followed "a trial which ignored internationally accepted human rights standards." ...

As word spread today of the execution by firing squad of Isa Qambar, 29, angry villagers among the Shiite Muslims who have been at the center of protests took to the streets, burning tires and throwing stones at police officers.

Security forces responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, and made an unknown number of arrests.

Shiite opposition groups have been pressing the Sunni-led Government for political reforms and improved social conditions, including restoration of a Parliament dissolved in 1975, and better job opportunities.

Shiites make up a slight majority of Bahrain's 500,000 citizens, and many have a standard of living much lower than that of Sunnis, the ruling sect in Bahrain and other Gulf Arab countries.

The civil strife is the worst in a Gulf country in 20 years, and Bahrain has been under pressure from its neighbors to act forcefully to end it.

Saudi Arabia's eastern province, across a 15-mile causeway from Bahrain, is home to a large Shiite population. Across the Persian Gulf, Shiite-dominated Iran has posed a threat to the Gulf Arab states since Islamic fundamentalists overthrew the monarchy in 1979 and established an Islamic republic. ...
Any of this sound familiar?

Update: the verdict is already in. Four of the seven defendants have been sentenced to death, the other three to life in prison. I guess the useful thing about trying people behind closed doors is that "justice" can be executed swiftly if not transparently. The government has posted videos (video #2)--on YouTube no less; very official and governmental--of what are purported to be "confessions" of the accused as part of a Bahrain TV "documentary."

The only question now is how many similar "trials" we are likely to see in the coming weeks and months. The government has clearly signaled that this is not the end.

I have already heard Sh. 'Ali Salman call into Al-Jazeera to criticize the decision, so presumably al-Wifaq is taking a rather strong stand against it. (Some industrious forum-goer has already uploaded the full text of his call, which is here.)

And there are already demonstrations planned in Shi'a areas for today, tomorrow, and Saturday.

Update 2: Citing "British sources close to the Al Khalifa," forum rumors are spreading suggesting that the execution of the death sentence is likely to be postponed amid conflict within the ruling family, specifically between the Crown Prince and the "hawk" lobby of the PM and friends.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Neither Wedding-Bound Nor Politically-Relevant: the Crown Prince and the New "Extremist Elements" in Bahrain

Fresh off the news that Crown Prince Salman has "declined" his much-criticized invitation to the celebrity love-fest that is the UK royal wedding, newspapers everywhere seem to have discovered what we've been arguing here since March 20 ("A Different Sort of Coup"): he is now all but irrelevant within the Al Khalifa. This Telegraph piece, for example, reports not only this but acknowledges another of our long-made claims, saying,
Since then, the prime minister, along with the military chief, Sheikh Khalifa bin Ahmed, another royal relative whose brother is the minister for the royal court, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed, have been leading the crackdown, in which 30 people have died and hundreds detained.

It has been reported Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah gave King Hamad no choice but to crack down and said he was sending in troops anyway.

Now, I won't say any more here about this, which is essentially a belated recognition of something that happened a long while ago. For those interested in the details of the Crown Prince's sidelining, including some Royal Court intrigue and rumor, I suggest you read the article linked above, "A Different Sort of Coup."

Instead, the more important upshot now is that we are left in Bahrain with a lack of political moderates--and not foremost on the side of the opposition. If King Hamad writes in his op-ed last week that "the legitimate demands of the opposition were hijacked by extremist elements with ties to foreign governments in the region," we might easily make the same argument about Bahrain's rulers: that "the legitimate political dialogue initiative of the Crown Prince was hijacked by extremist elements with ties to foreign governments in the region," only the "extremists" here are not Shi'a revolutionaries but the Prime Minister and his clique, the "foreign governments in the region" not Iran but Saudi Arabia. This now-familiar thesis cuts both ways.

This fact is put in even more stark relief when compared to the quite deferential statement (Ar.) released by al-Wifaq on Sunday regarding "recent political developments." I have not seen an English translation yet nor indeed any coverage of it at all (perhaps precisely because it says little new), but it begins by praising the King and Crown Prince, including the King's disingenuous op-ed in the Washington Times. It goes on to reject "the various forms of foreign interference" in internal Bahraini affairs (point 1); to tell citizens to stop spreading "disinformation" via "official" and "semi-official" (read: Internet) media (point 2); and more generally to call for a political rather than military solution to the ongoing crisis. It does eventually make references to private and public sector employees (including medical personnel) detained and fired, as well as a more veiled reference to the Shi'a mosques that have been destroyed, but overall its weak tone seems to have disappointed many ordinary Shi'is.

As if we needed more evidence of this lack of moderates within the Bahraini political leadership, then, especially as viewed next to the supposedly "extremist" opposition, here are a few headlines just from today:

And a final one, which cannot be contained within a mere bullet point, is the latest stop on the Prime Minister's nationwide allegiance drive: a personal visit to the medical staff of some unnamed hospital (more likely the BDF Hospital than Salmaniyyah). In typically over-the-top fashion, he is said to have told them,

"You answered the call of duty when your country needed you most, while others [who could these be?], misled by the self-destructive mantra, let Bahrain down and hijacked the medical profession from its noble mission."

He paid the heart-felt tribute as he received a group of doctors, who submitted an allegiance pledge.

So in the previous two weeks only: 1) the Prime Minister has received businessmen at his palace in a "day of reckoning" in which they were chastised for not having been more outspoken against demonstrations; 2) the King's son Nasr became the royal patron of a national "loyalty pledge" campaign in which citizens are encouraged to sign their names to pledge books at stations around the country (Update: this program is now taking online signatures! Register TODAY, and make sure to have your Bahrain National ID card ready!); and 3) the Prime Minister is seeking pledges of allegiance from medical staff after the debacle at Salmaniyyah Hospital.

I wonder if there is a book you can sign to request that your home or local mosque not be demolished. It seems that asking in person is not the way to go.

Finally, not to be outdone by other U.S. allies in the Arab Gulf are the Emiratis, who today detained five of those who sent a petition to the ruler of Abu Dhabi some weeks ago requesting political reforms. They are accused of "crimes of instigation, breaking laws and perpetrating acts that pose threat to state security, undermining the public order, opposing the government system, and insulting the President, the Vice President and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi."

Admittedly, though, they do sound like some dangerous individuals:

"Dr Nasser bin Ghaith [is] an economics professor at Abu Dhabi's Sorbonne University."

"Mr al Shehhi is the head of the Al Shahouh Folklore Society, one of the four civil society associations that signed a second petition calling for universal suffrage in upcoming Federal National Council elections."

No word yet whether the five arrested were trained by Hizballah or by Iran directly through its Social Science Warfare division.

In any case, I think we can expect a sharply-worded rebuke from President Obama any day now.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Middle East Politics Quiz

American Middle East Diplomacy 101
Midterm Quiz


Please read the following April 2011 statement from President Barack Obama and circle the answers that best complete the sentences.


The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms the use of force by the [Syrian | Bahraini] government against demonstrators. This outrageous use of violence to quell protests must come to an end now. We regret the loss of life and our thoughts are with the families and loved ones of the victims, and with the [Syrian | Bahraini] people in this challenging time.

The [Syrian | Bahraini] Government's moves [yesterday | two months ago] to [repeal Syria’s decades-old Emergency Law and allow for peaceful demonstrations | offer political dialogue leading to meaningful reform] were not serious given the continued violent repression against protesters [today | before and since]. Over the course of two months since protests in [Syria | Bahrain] began, the United States has [repeatedly | ambivalently] encouraged [President Assad | Bahrain's rulers] and the [Syrian | Bahraini] Government to implement meaningful reforms, but they refuse to respect the rights of the [Syrian | Bahraini] people or be responsive to their aspirations. The [Syrian | Bahraini] people have called for the freedoms that all individuals around the world should enjoy: freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and the ability to freely choose their leaders. [President Assad | the Al Khalifa] and the [Syrian | Bahraini] authorities have repeatedly rejected their calls and chosen the path of repression. They have placed their personal interests ahead of the interests of the [Syrian | Bahraini] people, resorting to the use of force and outrageous human rights abuses to compound the already oppressive security measures in place before these demonstrations erupted. Instead of listening to their own people, [President Assad | the Bahraini government] is blaming outsiders while seeking [Iranian | Saudi] assistance in repressing [Syria's | Bahrain's] citizens through the same brutal tactics that have been used by [his Iranian | its GCC] allies. We call on [President Assad | the Bahraini ruling family] to change course now, and heed the calls of [his | their] own people.

We strongly oppose the [Syrian | Bahraini] government’s treatment of its citizens and we continue to oppose its continued destabilizing behavior more generally. ... The United States will [continue to | depending on the situation] stand up for democracy and the universal rights that all human beings deserve, [in Syria and | save for in Bahrain and other allied countries] around the world.

Any questions?

Name, Age, and Political Loyalty Please

About two weeks ago, one of the sons of the Bahraini king and head of the country's Olympic Committee, Nasr bin Hamad, called in live to one of the political witch-hunt programs on Bahrain TV to share this uplifting sentiment:

"Bahrain is an island with no escape passage; everybody who interfered in these issues will be punished and everybody who took a stand [supporting the regime] will be awarded. The people who stood with or against the king are well-known to us."

Now, one gathers that he was speaking specifically of those under his sphere of influence--members of sports clubs and other athletes who took part in protests--who since have been duly targeted for punishment. Apparently not satisfied by this more limited scope, however, Nasr bin Hamad is now the royal patron of a nation-wide "allegiance pledge" initiative which purports to have gathered "over 500,000 signatures" of loyalty.

These few paragraphs from the Bahrain News Agency say it all:
It was a simple message a group of Bahrainis wanted to send across to the masses--"reflect their loyalty to the leadership."

In what started last week as signing an allegiance pledge and Loyalty swords campaign is now turned into a movement of masses from all spectrums, turning up in numbers signing their initials supporting the wise leadership.

Books were opened at the National Stadium in Isa Town for citizens to show allegiance to the Kingdom and its leaders.
If "[t]he people who stood with or against the king," were already "well-known" to the Bahraini authorities more than two weeks ago, then, the present campaign must aim to verify their political account books.

More than just athletes, bloggers, doctors, political activists, lawyers, and businessmen, however, it seems that a large number of Shi'i mosques and ma'tams must likewise have stood "against the king," for some 30 have been summarily demolished in recent weeks under the pretext that they were "not registered." Funny that building registrations have suddenly jumped to the top of the list of Bahraini national priorities.

This interactive Google Map of Bahrain shows the locations of each of the destroyed buildings along with before-and-after photos and in some cases links to the government Waqf (religious endowments) Department's own records that seem to suggest that they were in fact registered after all. Imagine that. But I'm sure the government will be happy to rebuild them if it finds that it was in error.

In a related news, Bahrain's prime minister took the lead from Nasr bin Hamad to call into the "Good Morning Bahrain" radio program Friday to pay tribute "to loyal Bahrain people for standing united as a bulwark defending their country against subversive conspiracies." This comes a week after he presided over a "day of reckoning" at Gudaibiyyah Palace for Bahraini businessmen "who sat on the fence and kept silent while the country was confronting a coup attempt."

To sum up, then:

"Hounourable mobilisation against wicked plots to damage people's achievements and resources": Good.

Sitting on the fence while the country is "on the brink of slipping into the sectarian cauldron": Bad.

Who says Bahraini politics are complicated?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Where Are All the Islamists in Bahrain?

In explaining Saudi Arabia's sudden military intervention in Bahrain a month after demonstrations broke out, many commentators have pointed to the announcement of the "Coalition for a Republic" of Bahrain (consisting of al-Haqq, al-Wafa', and others) as having been the final straw that broke the back of the National Dialogue Initiative offered by Crown Prince Salman. The very name itself, we hear, evoked the spectre of another nearby "Republic"--the Islamic Republic--and signified the radicalization (or takeover by the radicals) of the Bahrain protest movement, leaving the government with little choice but to put its foot down firmly if it wished to avoid another 1979. As King Hamad writes in his Tuesday op-ed, "the legitimate demands of the opposition were hijacked by extremist elements with ties to foreign governments in the region."

Yet this argument presupposes that there is a significant proportion of the Bahraini population--presumably the Bahraini Shi'a population--that would consider viable or preferable an Iranian-style regime in Bahrain. And, as we see from my 2009 Bahrain survey results, there is strong evidence to suggest that this is simply not the case. Instead, generally speaking Bahraini Shi'is join Sunnis in rejecting a regime based on or limited to religion. In fact, if anything, it is the Sunnis who report relatively more positive views of these institutional alternatives for their country.

Respondents were asked, "I am going to name you some political systems that exist today in some of the countries of the Middle East, and I want to ask what you think about each as a way of governing Bahrain. For each one, would you say it is a very suitable, suitable, somewhat suitable, or not suitable way of governing Bahrain?"

سوف أذكر لك بعض الأنظمة السياسية القائمة الآن في بعض دول الشرق الأوسط، وأود أن أتعرف على مدى ملائمة هذه الأنظمة لتكون نظاماً سياسياً في البحرين؟

The survey asked about respondent views of four different political system alternatives:
  1. A parliamentary system in which nationalist, left-wing, and Islamic political parties all compete in elections.
  2. A parliamentary system in which only Islamic political parties compete in elections.
  3. A system with a strong state that takes decisions without concern for the results of elections or the view of the opposition.
  4. A system governed by Islamic law (الشريعة) in which there are no political parties or elections.
In Arabic:

١. نظام برلماني حيث الجمعيات القومية واليسارية واليمينية والإسلامية تتنافس من خلال الانتخابات النيابية.
2. نظام برلماني تتنافس فيه فقط الجمعيات الإسلامية في الانتخابات النيابية.
3. نظام سياسي تتولى فيه الحكم سلطة قوية تأخذ القرارات دون اعتبار لنتائج الانتخابات أو لرأي المعارضة.
4. نظام محكوم بالشريعة الإسلامية بدون وجود انتخابات أو جمعيات سياسية.

As we see below, then, a strong majority of Bahraini respondents reject both of the options that limit political power to either Islamic Law:

... or Islamic parties:

Indeed, if there are any at all who favor an Islamic political system in Bahrain, they are the (presumably Salafi) Sunni supporters of a Shari'ah-based regime as represented in Figure 1. So if they clearly do not tend to support regimes based on religion, what, then, do Bahrainis want?

As one might expect, the vast majority of all Bahrainis reject a strong centralized government without elections or opposition. This we find below in Figure 4.

Yet while nearly 90% of Shi'a respond that this system is "not at all" suitable for Bahrain, we see that nearly 25% of Sunnis deem it to some degree suitable. One may chalk this up to a desire not to criticize the current regime, but given the proportion of those who do not mind (or do not think of their response as) doing so, this argument is problematic.

The picture perhaps becomes clearer when we look at Bahrainis' evaluations of the final political system alternative: representative parliamentarianism. These responses are below in Figure 3.

Nearly three-quarters (72%) of Bahraini Shi'a respond that an open parliamentary system is either very suitable or suitable for the country, compared to 57% of Sunnis. While the difference is not immense, it is statistically-significant even after controlling for relevant individual-level factors such as age, education, income, gender, and so on. Yet in the end perhaps this result is not very surprising given which group would stand to benefit most from a free parliamentary system in Bahrain.

What IS surprising, though, at least when compared to the now-common depiction of Bahraini protesters (and by association Bahraini Shi'a) as seeking to install an Islamic Republic of Bahrain in place of the Al Khalifa family, is the story told by the Bahrain survey data that, in fact, there is relatively little support for an Islamic-based system as compared to an open parliamentary system in Bahrain, and this among Sunna and Shi'a alike.

In the end, then, if the Al Khalifa have something to be worried about, it is the strong majority of the Bahraini population--Sunni and Shi'i--that tends to reject authoritarianism and favor instead more political openness. After all, it is not just the Shi'a opposition that has suffered over the past three months but the Sunni opposition as well, as Wa'ad leader Ebrahim Sharif would doubtless attest if he were not currently imprisoned (and according to his daughter being tortured) along with his fellow secularists.

So if King Hamad is correct that "the legitimate demands of the opposition were hijacked by extremist elements with ties to foreign governments in the region," then we're left with just one question:

Where are all the Islamists in Bahrain?

And if it really is true (to preempt the question) that these "extremist elements" exist today in 2011 when they did not in early 2009, can there be any question what--or rather who--produced them?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Bahraini Time Bomb

You guessed it: another failed op-ed. Having so many rejected is sort of nice, though, since it gives this blog a few more polished articles to go along with the rest. But I'm not sure how many more I'll bother writing.

The idea of this particular piece was to attempt to make the argument on "national interest" grounds that the U.S. reluctance to push for reform in Bahrain in order to remain friends with the Arab Gulf states in fact is helping instead to erode its influence among them, who on account of the Bahrain crisis and presumed need to counter "Iranian interference" are increasingly exerting their independence and propelling the region toward what has recently been called (in a great article last Saturday in the Wall Street Journal) the "new Mideast Cold War."

In addition, you may wish to read also this new piece in the Christian Science Monitor that I helped inform.

Finally, you may take this as the counter-point to King Hamad's (or one of his advisers') op-ed today in the Washington Times. No wonder it seems impossible to get anything printed. (Here's a link to my comment on the article.)


The Bahraini Time Bomb

Bahrain is simmering. Syria is revolting. Libya continues fighting. Yemen is dissolving. Yet, in what is arguably the most far-reaching of the many geo-political transformations to emerge in these four months of the Arab Spring, the oil-rich Arab Gulf is uniting—and no longer under U.S. patronage.

Increasingly worried by what it sees as a belligerent Iran and a virtual Iran Jr. in Shi‘a-dominated Iraq, the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council has begun to turn inward, and to flex its military muscle, to an extent unprecedented since the bloc’s 1981 founding in the wake of the Islamic Revolution. At the same time, alarmed by the Obama administration’s unceremonious about-face with long-time ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the GCC and particularly Saudi Arabia is beginning to reevaluate its strategic partnership with the United States. The result is a wholesale political realignment of the Middle East that cuts primarily across sectarian lines, and one in which the U.S. may find itself with little role as mediator.

But this story, if perhaps begun in Egypt, in set mostly in Bahrain, whose Shi‘a-led anti-government uprising was seen to open the door for Iranian intervention in the GCC’s own backyard. Initially, the wealthiest Gulf states sought simply to buy off protestors in Bahrain and in neighboring Oman, agreeing a $20 billion aid package dubbed the “Gulf Marshall Plan” to pay for new housing and infrastructure projects.

When that failed to appease demonstrators, a 2,000-strong force of Saudi, Qatari, and Emirati soldiers crossed the causeway into Bahrain exactly a month after protests began on February 14, defying U.S. pleas for restraint. When Kuwait’s rulers offered in lieu of ground troops to mediate talks between Bahrain’s government and opposition—a proposal designed to avoid riling the country’s own sizable Shi‘a population—they were quickly chastised by other GCC members and by their own Sunni politicians, who accused them of showing more concern for Shi‘a terrorists than for their (Sunni) brothers in Bahrain. When Kuwait next attempted to send a medical delegation to help treat Bahrain’s wounded, it was refused entry at the causeway, a further public embarrassment that precipitated the fall of the entire government some days later. Finally, shamed and bullied into participation, Kuwait dispatched a naval detachment to Bahrain. The lesson: the GCC will stand together—like it or not.

The arrival of the GCC force emboldened Bahraini authorities to carry out a lethal crackdown on all political dissent, driving the entire Gulf region off a sectarian cliff. Iran has called for the withdrawal of the “occupying force” in Bahrain, warning Saudi Arabia that in leading the charge for military intervention it is “playing with fire.” In an April 3 summit communiqué, GCC foreign ministers accused Iran of “violating the sovereignty” of Arab Gulf nations, several of which have expelled Iranian diplomats and nationals said to be members of spy rings. Iran has responded in turn. For their part, prominent Sunni clerics in Bahrain have called publicly for the permanent basing of a GCC force inside their country to stave off the Iranian—and internal Shi‘a—threat.

This sectarian fever has now spread well beyond the Gulf. Saying that the “atmosphere is not right,” the GCC is demanding the cancellation of the upcoming Arab summit to be held in Iraq, whose Shi‘a politicians and population have been rallying in support of the Bahraini opposition in recent weeks. Bahrain has also strained relations with Lebanon following statements by Hizballah leaders expressing solidarity with Bahrain’s Shi‘a, deporting more than a dozen Lebanese ex-patriots for “security reasons” and suspending flights to Beirut for fear that they will be used to traffic weapons.

In short, the Arab Spring has set the stage for the emergence of a more unified, more vigorous, and more independent GCC under the leadership of Saudi Arabia, a political-cum-military alliance designed explicitly as a regional counterweight to Iran and its assumed proxy states in the Levant. Whether in its unprecedented intervention in Bahrain or, more recently, its conspicuous participation in air strikes in Libya, this revitalized GCC operates on the principle that, if they can no longer count on U.S. government support, perhaps they ought to start leaning more on each other.

Thus, if the United States hopes to diffuse this “new Mideast Cold War” before it transforms into open conflict, and before the U.S. sheds even more of its influence among the GCC states, it would do well to begin with the continued symbol of the entire crisis, Bahrain. In the three months that have elapsed since protests began there, not one step has been taken in the direction of resolving the country’s underlying political conflict. Until that happens, the Middle East time-bomb will continue ticking.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

"Two Different Bahrains"

Another visit by a senior U.S. State Department official to Bahrain, another broad statement of support for the Bahraini government. This is reportedly Feltman's fifth visit to Bahrain since February 14. According to a State Department spokesman, he "[r]eiterat[ed] U.S. support for Bahraini national reconciliation and dialogue, he concurred with the Bahraini leadership's own embrace of the principles of reform and the respect for rule of law and coexistence." He also is said to have met with representatives of "the opposition," presumably al-Wifaq, though I've yet to find details about this.

Now this strangely rosy description of Bahrain as having "embrace[d] ...
the principles of reform and the respect for rule of law and coexistence" seemed to strike a lot of reporters at the press conference in Washington as odd, especially given the recent prison deaths, random arrests of citizens thought to form part of the opposition, persecution of journalists, and so on. As the very first reporter exclaimed,
I’m quite surprised by the tone of your statement because it seems like the push for demand for the respect of the rights of Bahrainis has been toned down quite a lot.
And then the next:
It sounds as if you’re talking about two different Bahrains because we’ve been talking at the podium about how horrible the situation is in Bahrain right now and U.S. concerns, whereas none of what you just said really reflected the seriousness of the situation there.
Let's everyone hope that the U.S. is saying things in private that it is not in public.

The full transcript of the press conference is pasted below, and I would suggest you take the time to read it. (Note again that this took place in Washington; I am not aware of remarks that Feltman made while in Bahrain.)

QUESTION: Can I start with Bahrain? So this time, Mr. Feltman was able to meet with leaders. How high were his meetings and how – I’m quite surprised by the tone of your statement because it seems like the push for demand for the respect of the rights of Bahrainis has been toned down quite a lot. You highlighted the concerns about Iran and your longstanding commitment to the people and the government who have been at loggerheads in recent weeks. Has this tone softened?

MR. TONER: Well, again, you’ve summarized some of what I said. But he also underscored the United States’ belief in universal values and conveyed that belief to the Bahraini authorities. And he also emphasized the fundamental need for respect for human rights. So I wouldn’t say there’s been any softening, but these talks took place in a very constructive atmosphere.

And we believe that this was done in a constructive manner and progress was made, and that going forward, we urge both that ongoing respect for human rights, but as well as the opposition and the Bahraini Government to engage in a political dialogue that leads to resolution.

QUESTION: Can you tell us some of the things that you expressed concerns about – the deaths in prisons, maybe?

MR. TONER: I think I – I mean, I think I’ve spoken to all of the incidents about which we have concern over the past week, including, as you noted, the death of a prominent human rights activist last week.

QUESTION: There are continued, I mean, deaths and human rights abuses taking place in Bahrain that have been documented by human rights groups over the last week and – I mean, the situation in Bahrain has been getting really bad. Last week, there were numerous criticisms of the United States and its approach to Bahrain, and, I mean, even if you’re couching your language at this podium, I hope that we can expect that – I mean, that Secretary Feltman took – can you say that he raised some of these serious issues?

And it sounds as if you’re talking about two different Bahrains because we’ve been talking at the podium about how horrible the situation is in Bahrain right now and U.S. concerns, whereas none of what you just said really reflected the seriousness of the situation there.

MR. TONER: Well, Elise, again, I disagree. Secretary Feltman went to Bahrain. He went there both to speak to the government as well as to the opposition, met with a wide range of actors, and did so in a constructive spirit. But we’ve been very, very clear about where we stand on this, that the Bahraini Government needs to respect human rights and needs to address the legitimate aspirations of its own people, and that was conveyed.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Different subject. I’ll just wait. Can – sorry. Can you explain what the concerns were about Iran’s exploitation? Was that particular to Bahrain in this case? And what is Iran’s exploitation of the crisis?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I don’t want to get into – too deeply into details and specifics, but others have expressed that concern both with regard to Syria and with regard to Bahrain, the situation there, that Iran continues to play a less than constructive role in the region.

Now for some other interesting bits of news. First, on the same day that the State Department met with their Bahraini friends in Manama, the Bahraini prime minister met with his in Riyadh.

Then we hear from Sh. Khalid bin Ahmad that GCC troops "will leave [Bahrain] when they are done with any external threat" from Iran. "The external threat is a regional one," he continued. "The external threat is a complete misunderstanding between the GCC and Iran. This is a threat." A funny definition of what a threat is, but I suppose that means that we should not expect to see GCC forces leave anytime soon. I'm not sure anyone was.

Finally, the newest war of words between Iran and Saudi Arabia has made for some good quotes bordering on open threats. Here is one from Turki bin Sa'ud in response to a protest outside the Saudi embassy in Tehran:

We hope that these continuous violations will not lead us to take other positions. ... We hope not to resort to other measures, However if matters reached an unacceptable level then it is our right to protect our citizens.

And then the "Supreme Leader's Advisor for Military Affairs Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi":
The presence and attitude of Saudi Arabia [in Bahrain] sets an incorrect precedence for similar future events, and Saudi Arabia should consider this fact that one day the very same event may recur in Saudi Arabia itself and Saudi Arabi may come under invasion for the very same excuse.

Update: Another interesting development in the last day or two is the spamming of anti-opposition/anti-Shi'a stories on Twitter, presumably by government supporters:

Who said the social revolution is useful only to regime opponents?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Stop Me If You've Heard This One

Here's one for you: what do a prominent defense attorney, a vascular surgeon, and a champion bodybuilder have in common? If you answered that they were all arrested by the Bahraini government in the past week, bringing the total to some 571 people in state custody without having been charged with a crime (according to the BCHR), you are right. Please proceed to the Interior Ministry in Salmaniyyah to claim your prize, a year's subscription to Al-Watan.

Around 11:00pm on Friday, police stormed the home of Mohammed al-Tajar, who is well-known for defending opposition figures and other highly political cases, most recently the 25 Shi'a activists who were on trial for "terrorism" and for attempting to overthrow the Bahraini government back when people still viewed that as the pinnacle of injustice and lawlessness in Bahrain. (Incidentally, though 23 of these 25 were pardoned in the early stages of protests some weeks ago, one cannot look back on this episode without thinking, "If 250,000 people in the streets couldn't overthrow the Bahraini government a month ago, these 25 activists must have been dangerous fellows indeed.")

Beyond the most high-profile case of al-Tajar, we find also that the vascular surgeon mentioned above, Sadiq Abdullah, "is one of nearly 20 Bahraini doctors who have been arrested or gone missing since the government crackdown began. Human Rights Watch claims that at least eight doctors have been arrested in the last week alone." And, last but not least, "Tareq al-Fursani, a gold medalist in several Asian championships," was the latest to be arrested from among Bahrain's Shi'a sports stars accused of having taken part in demonstrations.

Beyond arrests per se, the Guardian is reporting continued attempts by the Bahraini authorities to recall government-funded students from the U.K. for their participation in an anti-government rally in Manchester. Thankfully, the Foreign Office not being the U.S. State Department, they publicly rejected the maneuver, saying in a statement,
"We have made clear to the Bahraini government that, unless these individuals commit a criminal offence in the UK, they will be free to carry out their activities in line with UK laws."

Next in the ongoing crackdown on professionals, the Bahrain News Agency on Sunday announced the firing of 111 Ministry of Education employees for participation in strikes and demonstrations (a.k.a.
"flagrant violations" of the country's civil service law).

Then consider this ominous-sounding article in the pro-government Gulf Daily News describing a "day of reckoning" for businessmen who did not display sufficient loyalty during the past three months:

Yesterday was a day of reckoning for Bahrain businessmen who sat on the fence and kept silent while the country was confronting a coup attempt.

"We were astonished that no voice rose from the trade sector against the unrest, although it was the first to suffer damage," His Royal Highness Prime Minister Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa said.

He expressed his dismay as he received at Gudaibiya Palace traders and businessmen, who flocked to renew their allegiance to the leadership and voice support for the measures taken by the government to maintain security and stability.

So essentially the Prime Minister summoned leading businessmen to his palace simply in order to chastise them en masse. I have a feeling that the effective tax rate for these individuals just went up considerably.

Finally, since it doesn't look good to have a non-functioning parliament in a country that likens itself to a democracy, Bahrain will hold new elections to replace the 11 al-Wifaq MPs whose resignations were accepted. If I understand this correctly, the elections will take place only in those districts no longer represented (i.e., the districts of the resigned officials). I haven't looked to see which districts these are, but I wonder if this might help explain which MPs' resignations were accepted and which not. It may also relate to the aborted attempt to dissolve al-Wifaq, which presumably would have then been barred from official participation in the upcoming elections.

Finally again, Prof. Augustus Richard Norton has done everyone the favor of writing into the Boston Globe to respond to that ridiculous op-ed on Bahrain I dissected a while back. He writes,

JULIETTE KAYYEM (“Bahrain is the line in the sand,’’ Op-ed, April 9) informs Globe readers that Iran is seen as “a guiding force’’ in the Arab uprisings, especially in Bahrain. There is no credible evidence that Iran guided, planned, or inspired the peaceful demonstrations that began in mid-February, notwithstanding the sometime shrill claims of the Bahraini monarch and his entourage. It is striking that Kayyem, a former official in the Department of Homeland Security, has nothing to say about the economic despair and discrimination that afflict the majority of Bahrain’s population — factors that lent impetus to the protests but that have been minimized by the rulers.

Kayyem makes the odd claim that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened after an opportunity for reform had been missed. It is quite likely that the Saudi-led intervention was precisely intended to sabotage US-encouraged reforms. The Saudi monarchy has long been committed to quashing reform, both inside the kingdom and in the smaller states of the Gulf, not least in its Bahraini dependency.

The repression, censorship, and punitive policies now being pursued in Bahrain may open up opportunities for Iranian meddling, but this will stem from the avoidance of reform, not from people peacefully seeking better treatment from their government.

Update: I almost forgot. Today is the first day of the Zainab al-Khawajah-inspired mass hunger strike in Bahrain, claiming to be the world's largest. It seems that some U.S. academics are also taking part in solidarity.

Also, it turns out that, despite recent appearances, in fact it IS still illegal to kill people in Bahrain--but evidently only if they work for the government. The BNA is announcing that 7 anti-government protesters will stand in military court accused of "premeditated murder of a government employee."

Friday, April 15, 2011

Who Comes After the "Moderates"?: Political Affiliation among Bahraini Shi'a

Preliminary Note: I debated whether to attempt to get (a more general version of) this piece placed as an op-ed or an article, etc., since I think it tells us something important about what to expect moving forward in Bahrain. But given my poor luck in the past I've decided against it. So if there are any editors out there that agree with me, let me know. Otherwise, as always, imagine yourself browsing the Foreign Affairs website as you read this.

In light of all the commentary surrounding yesterday's move to dissolve al-Wifaq by Bahrain's Justice and Islamic Affairs Ministry, only to be followed by news today that this largest of Bahraini political societies has not been banned, or at least not until the end of the government's ongoing "investigation"--in light of all this, I thought it may be useful to examine the larger pattern of political affiliation among Bahraini Shi'a as suggested by the results of my 2009 mass survey of Bahrain. (If you don't know what this is, see here, for example.)

Apart from revealing the extent of the country's Shi'a population that would essentially be "driven underground" (as one commentator here recently noted) if al-Wifaq were indeed to be outlawed, these findings also help clarify the bases of political affiliation and orientation in Bahrain. More specifically, as we shall see shortly, the individual-level characteristics commonly thought to dictate whether one is a more "moderate" al-Wifaq supporter or more "hard-line" supporter of say, al-Haqq, in fact find little evidence in my Bahrain survey data. But more of this in a bit.

Bahrainis were asked the following open-ended question: "Which of the existing societies (associations) is closest to representing your political, social, and economic views?" In Arabic:

أي من جمعيات (منظمات) القائمة هي الأقرب لتمثيل طموحاتك السياسية، والاجتماعية، والاقتصادية؟

Of 249 Shi‘i respondents, representing some 58% of the total sample--a far cry, incidentally, from the standard population estimate of 65-70%, diluted over the previous decade in a program that opponents have termed "political naturalization"--a full 40% of respondents said that none of the existing societies represented their political views. Another 7% refused to answer outright. But what of the remainder?

Among Bahraini Shi‘a who identified with a political society, a little over half, 55%, named al-Wifaq. A further 10% of respondents aligned with socialist-leaning Wa‘ad, which attracts Sunnis together with Shi‘is and was originally invited to participate in the national dialogue initiative alongside al-Wifaq, only to be banned a week ago some time after the arrest of its Secretary General, Ebrahim Sharif, and later its Assistant Secretary General. Around 15% of Shi‘is, finally, mentioned various lesser-known societies, including local charities, human rights organizations, and liberal parties. These proportions we see in the graphic below.

The remainder—approximately 20%—identified al-Haqq. If this figure would thus seem to be encouraging for Bahrain's rulers, a deeper analysis proves to be less so. For one thing, at the time the survey was conducted, Sh. 'Abd al-Wahhab Hussain's Islamic Loyalty Movement was but a nascent organization known only as “the New Movement.” Now it is an important actor that competes for supporters with al-Haqq and al-Wifaq alike. Indeed, its Arabic name, al-Wafa’ al-Islami, is itself a riff on al-Wifaq. (If you hadn't guessed already, the heads of al-Wafa' have already been arrested and their homes ransacked.)

Moreover, contrary to the standard cliché that the most ardent political opponents in Bahrain are simply the poorest and least educated, with the most objective cause for complaint and least opportunity for social mobility, in fact there is no difference in household economy between survey respondents who support al-Haqq over against al-Wifaq. Neither is there any difference in education. As we gather from the graph below, only Wa'ad supporters are on average more highly educated (measured on an increasing 1-7 scale) and perhaps more economically-satisfied (on a decreasing 1-4 scale).

Together, these results cast real doubt on the idea that government opponents can simply be bought off with new jobs and housing projects paid for by Bahrain's rulers or, as attempted more recently, subsidized by suddenly-altruistic GCC countries. (Of course, with so many respondents refusing to answer this question, these conclusions should be treated only as preliminary.)

Yet perhaps most ominous for the prospect of political reconciliation in Bahrain is the picture that emerges when one looks at individuals’ actual responses to the question about their political leanings. “Al-Wifaq,” said one respondent, adding “but they don’t accomplish anything.” Many others expressed even more frustration: “al-Haqq, previously al-Wifaq.” And this in early 2009. Imagine the feelings in April 2011, even if the government ultimately decides not to dissolve al-Wifaq (an outcome that in any case is still far from certain).

Here, then, is the real danger: that supporters of al-Wifaq, whether for disagreement with its political positions per se or out of exasperation with the current lack of progress and indeed backward progress, turn (or have already turned) instead to more radical solutions. In which case the Coalition for a Republic of Bahrain may be the least of Bahrain's rulers' worries. Writing in Foreign Policy, Hussein Ibish asks outright whether the government's policy is setting the stage for a more violent sort of movement to arise--even, according to him, "a terrorist threat."

While one hopes and presumes we've not reached that stage yet (though I think Ibish vastly overestimates the tactical feasibility of guerrilla warfare in Bahrain), Bahrain's rulers do seem bent on encouraging a self-fulfilling prophecy to back up their claims that anti-regime protesters are not political opponents but Iranian-inspired, Shi'a terrorists. So far Bahrainis have not taken the bait. But this has been helped in no small part by the moderating role of religious-cum-political authorities such as Sh. 'Isa Qasim and Sh. 'Ali Salman, precisely the individuals the government will effectively serve to ostracize through its persecution of al-Wifaq. By cracking down on the only "moderates" left in Bahrain, whom do the Bahraini authorities expect will take their place?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

And Then There Were None

What's better than arresting the leaders of all opposition groups except for al-Wifaq if you're the Bahraini government? Evidently, arresting the leaders of all opposition groups except for al-Wifaq and then BANNING al-Wifaq (along with the Islamic Action Society) so that no official opposition remains at all. And THEN, presumably, you can arrest the leaders and members of al-Wifaq as well (those of al-'Amal al-Islami have been under arrest for a while now) for involvement in an "illegal society." That's what we call a win-win.

The government statement, though short on details, says it all:
"The Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs announced it is raising legal action to dissolve the Islamic Action [Society] and al-Wifaq Society. ...This is because of major violations of the constitution and laws of the kingdom, undertaking activities that harmed social peace, national unity, and inciting disrespect for constitutional institutions."
Current (or former?) MP 'Abd al-Jalil Khalil confirmed the measure but did not say more.

The ironic thing, of course, and the thing that must be hard to swallow if you're an al-Wifaq supporter or member, is that the bloc existed explicitly for the purpose of "taking part in the political process," as we like to say. And for that they took no little heat from ordinary Shi'a and their own would-be constituents, leading ultimately to the al-Wifaq/al-Haqq split back in the run-up to the 2006 parliamentary elections. (And yet even with this intra-Shi'a schism al-Wifaq still managed well over half the popular vote in both the 2006 and 2010 elections.)

Ever since, those who chose to remain loyal to the original al-Wifaq principle (now represented by al-Haqq, al-Wafa' al-Islami, and others) of total disengagement from the regime have pointed to the group as a symbol of political co-optation. "What good has participation done us? The government will continue its same policies regardless of whether we participate," people would say mockingly. Doubtless those same people are reiterating this position today, perhaps with no little sense of vindication.

As for the other side, pro-government Bahrainis seem to be saying, "It's about damn time!" Such is the jist of this thread on the pro-regime Kingdom of Bahrain forum. One can infer the view of al-Wifaq from its detractors from this popular photoshop of Sh. 'Isa Qasim, who if not the official head of al-Wifaq is still assumed to be its spiritual leader:

One has ask about the timing, however. Today is Thursday, making tomorrow Friday, making tomorrow the day Arab governments everywhere have hoped to avoid for the past 3 months. Perhaps the logic is that, "If neither the opposition nor their supposed patron Iran will respond violently to our provocations, perhaps we should give them a real reason to be angry." (See Hussein Ibish's related argument in Foreign Policy.) Just as people aren't fired from work on Monday, it seems strange to announce this today.

Or, maybe the Bahraini authorities are just looking to pull an administrative coup on al-Wifaq such as they did on Al-Wasat. Maybe we will see Sh. 'Ali Salman replaced with, say, Sh. Jasim al-Sa'idi.

If any good should come of this newest escalation, perhaps it will serve as the final straw in pushing the U.S. toward a more critical stance in Bahrain. After all, it is easy for the Obama administration to defend an ally facing mass protests; less easy but still doable to defend an ally while it carries out sweeping crackdowns in the name of security; but it's hard to see how the U.S. can remain silent as Bahrain makes no effort at all to conceal its now-clear political intentions--which obviously do not include "dialogue," as there is now no one left to dialogue with--and to drive the region further toward a sectarian abyss.

Until now, the U.S. could always fall back on the position that, "Well, the protesters should be expressing their frustrations through the proper political channels, not through mass demonstrations and general strikes." No longer is this true. As one of my Bahrain survey respondents said when asked his opinion of the current political situation in Bahrain, "ما في سياسة في البحرين"--"There is no politics in Bahrain."

Update: Sure enough, the U.S. has been quick to condemn this, and the Bahrainis have responded with the most convoluted (or most poorly translated) statement possible, the jist of which is that the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs is waiting for the end of its "investigation" into al-Wifaq and al-'Amal before doing anything. Now if only Bahrain TV would run an exposé about plagiarized articles on al-Wifaq's website, the government would have an open-and-shut case.

Also see this piece in the Christian Science Monitor I helped inform titled "Why U.S. Silence on Bahrain's Crackdown Could Backfire."

Iran, the New U.S. Position on Bahrain, and the Dick Cheney Scale of Meddling

Wonder no more! The long-awaited U.S. evidence of Iranian "meddling" in Bahraini affairs has finally been revealed in an exposé in the Wall Street Journal. So what is this damning piece of evidence catching the Iranians red-handed? Did the U.S. intercept an arms shipment to Bahraini "rebels?" Record a telephone call from opposition sponsors in Iran revealing a plan for an impending invasion? Capture e-mails and text messages containing sensitive information about Bahrain's military installations for use by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard?

Actually, not quite. It turns out that the evidence that Iran is meddling in Bahrain is that... it is providing logistical support to the Syrian government, "providing gear to suppress crowds and assistance blocking and monitoring protesters' use of the Internet, cellphones and text-messaging." Now, I'm no logician, but there must be some sort of logical fallacy best expressed in Latin that describes this argument. Iran is interfering in A, ergo it is interfering in B. Never mind that A happens to be a government it's long-supported while B is a nebulous group of opposition demonstrators that happen to adhere to its state-sponsored religious beliefs.

To put this level of Iranian interference into perspective, refer to the Dick Cheney Scale of Meddling below (a nod to the Gary Busey Scale of Ugliness), where 0 represents no involvement and 10 represents Dick Cheney-esque levels of meddling. We see that Iran currently earns only about a 3.0 rating. Although I suppose this represents an upgrade from its previous level as indicated by Gates' comments last week in Riyadh that the U.S. has evidence that the Iranians "are TRYING to exploit the situation in Bahrain."

Except actually it isn't. The Wall Street Journal piece goes on to read more like an indictment of the Bahraini government than an exoneration, lending even further evidence to my inkling expressed in yesterday's article that we are beginning to see a subtle change in the U.S. position toward Bahrain, one driven by the realization that the political cesspool that is Bahrain is highly advantageous for Iranian foreign policy.

We read, for example, that "[s]ome U.S. officials have expressed surprise that Shiite-dominated Iran hasn't intervened more aggressively to support Mr. Assad and Shiites in Bahrain" (my emphasis), which is hardly an endorsement of the Saudi and larger GCC position.

Then we get to a very interesting paragraph:
The Obama administration repeatedly pressed Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and Bahrain not to use force against largely Shiite protesters, according to U.S. officials, fearing that would provide Iran with an excuse to start meddling in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Middle East. ... "We told them not to use force because it would provide Iran with an excuse," a senior U.S. official said. "They didn't listen."
Again, not exactly a show of solidarity with the Bahrainis and Saudis. Then:
A U.S. defense official said Iranian policy makers are seriously debating how much aid, if any, to provide to Bahrain's opposition. Another U.S. official said some intelligence indicated that Iran has made small-scale transfers of money and light weapons—"a few dozen guns, maybe less, definitely not more"—into Bahrain. Much of the intelligence suggests Iran and Hezbollah were focused now on using propaganda to assert influence among restive Shiites.

Other Iranian officials appear content to let Bahrain's leaders become more repressive, which the defense official said is "probably more effective at getting people riled up against the king" than anything Tehran could do.
Therefore, despite the introductory claims of the article that "by voicing concerns about Iran's activities, the U.S. appears to be trying to close ranks, at least in part, with Saudi and Bahraini leaders whose warnings about Tehran's influence in their internal affairs have long been played down in Washington"--despite these claims, in fact it seems that the new U.S. disclosures reveal its skepticism of the GCC's argument.

As we wrote yesterday, it seems administration brass are realizing that the best way to make sure that Iranian influence DEFINITELY grows in the region is to allow a Mideast-wide Sunni-Shi'i split to fester as a result of political stagnation in Bahrain. Indeed, as quoted above, the Iranians are happy to allow Bahrain's rulers do their dirty work for them--"getting people riled up against the king" through their own doings rather than through any direct interference from abroad. All Iranian leaders have to do now is sit back and watch the violence and continued stalemate linger in Bahrain, with the knowledge that more and more ordinary Bahrainis are likely to view the country as their sole supporter amid a sea of GCC occupiers. (Update: this basic argument is now being taken up by Hussein Ibish in Foreign Affairs, who asks whether the Bahraini government is creating "a new terrorist threat.")

And finally, the U.S. cannot be pleased with the growing independence of the GCC as a regional bloc and of the Saudis in particular, who chose yesterday to announce a new deal with the Chinese to begin a "domestic nuclear program"--though strictly for energy purposes. Sound familiar?

Expect the U.S. to start increasing the pressure a few notches in Bahrain. The Guardian is already demanding it, and this State Department statement seems to be a tentative movement in that direction.

Update: Well, all of this has now come true, though mostly at the Bahraini government's own doing. The U.S. and others have spoken strongly against the decision to "investigate" al-Wifaq and the Islamic Action Society, and the U.S. Undersecretary for Near Eastern Affairs is headed to Bahrain next week for what will be, one imagines, some interesting meetings.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Winning the Battle, Losing the (Media) War: Hunger Strike Edition

It seems that the Western media and senior U.S. officials have finally realized that the problem in Bahrain did not miraculously solve itself--go figure. Helped no doubt by the lack of (or backward) progress in Libya, international attention has once again been re-focused upon Bahrain, and once again the Bahraini government is getting slammed in the press. And, relatively-speaking, by Hillary Clinton, who spoke specifically of Bahrain's need to accelerate political reforms in her speech at Tuesday's opening of the U.S.-Islamic Forum in Washington.

Not only this, but everyone knows that the traditional media are suckers for hunger strikes, and Zainab al-Khawajah's seems to be doing the trick, getting wide coverage at CNN (who since its journalists in Bahrain were arrested probably needs no excuse to run an anti-Bahrain story), the New York Times, and elsewhere. (Also, it doesn't hurt when her sister, Maryam, braves secret service to accost Hillary Clinton after her speech in Washington.)

Further, it's clear that almost a half-dozen people dying in your prison in less than 2 days is also something you should try to avoid if you're an authoritarian government. Especially if the people who are dying are facing ambiguous charges, haven't been given access to lawyers, appear as if they've been beaten and/or tortured, and if you're attempting to give the impression that they are the terrorists.

The two most recent casualties, for example, were a blogger, Zakariya al-Ashiri, and a businessman associated with al-Wifaq, Kareem Fakhrawi. The latter disappeared a week ago after failing to return home from a police station "where he had tried to complain about his house being demolished by police." What can you say about that?

Last but not least, the New York Times is running a page 1 article today on the embattled Salmaniyyah Hospital, which is described as "an apparatus of state terrorism":
At least a dozen doctors and nurses have been arrested and held prisoner during the last month, and more paramedics and ambulance drivers are missing. Ambulances have been blocked from aiding wounded patients, according to health care workers and human rights advocates.
(For those who write in to say I am biased: I am aware that this is a contested interpretation. The article linked here contains the government's side of the story as well, so find it there.)

Yet for all this renewed media coverage, I would wager that what really has begun to turn the tide in favor of a stronger U.S. position on Bahrain is the realization that, as I wrote some weeks ago, if the main driver of U.S. policy here (apart from the whole navy base thing) is its fear of Iranian influence growing in the region, the best way to make sure that Iranian influence DEFINITELY grows in the region is to allow a Mideast-wide Sunni-Shi'i split to fester as a result of political stagnation in Bahrain.

Not only this, but the lingering conflict has created new international divisions (GCC versus Lebanon, GCC versus Iraq) and altered power relations (a seemingly more unified and U.S.-independent GCC) that did not exist previously. Indeed, with oil at $130 a barrel, the GCC states may begin to feel that the West needs them as much as or more than they the West.

Thus we see today that GCC countries are demanding the cancellation of the upcoming Arab summit because it is to be held in Iraq, whose Shi'a politicians and population have been rallying in support of Bahraini Shi'a in recent weeks. Bahrain has already strained relations with Lebanon for pro-Shi'a statements by Hizballah leaders, cutting air routes to Beirut and deporting Lebanese nationals in Bahrain for "security" reasons, a move that has forced Sa'ad Hariri to go to Bahrain personally to attempt to mend relations.

More generally, as aptly captured in the title of this al-Arabiyyah piece--"War of words over Bahrain rattles region"--it is clear that the crackdown in Bahrain has only made the Arab Gulf and wider Middle East MORE rather than LESS vulnerable to Iranian "meddling," as we like to say. Bahrainis know it, we here at Religion and Politics in Bahrain know it, and it seems the Obamaman is coming to know it. Now if we could just convince the Pentagon...

All of this bodes rather poorly for the Bahraini (or Bahraini Arabian) government, or at least for its continued unchecked lock-down of the entire island. The problem is, once the government finally comes around (or is pushed back) to the negotiating table, who will be there to meet them from the opposition? And who from among the Bahraini population--from those who have been harassed at checkpoints, fired from work, whose family members have been arrested, injured, or killed--are likely to be satisfied with what the state is offering? And if they're not, what are they going to do about it? The current situation has the look of a vicious circle.

Update: see also the previous editions of this fan-favorite segment:

Winning the Battle, Losing the (Media) War (the original)

Winning the Battle, Losing the (Media) War: Al-Wasat Edition

Update 2: As noted by an intrepid commentator, my suspicion that we are beginning to see a subtle change in the U.S. position gets some evidence in this statement overnight (for me) from the State Department, which offers the diplomatic trifecta: "we are deeply concerned ..."; "we'd strongly urge the government of Bahrain to ..."; and "we call on the Bahraini government to ..."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sunnis, Shi'is, and the Third Sect

Since things seem to have gone quiet in Bahrain apart from hunger strikes, continuing Iran-GCC recriminations, deportation of random Lebanese nationals, the trial of Mansur al-Jamri, and perhaps soon that of Nabil Rajab, I thought I would take a moment to address one issue that's been raised often, both in general commentary on Bahrain and by those who've written in to this site.

Particularly in reference to my Bahrain survey results, a standard retort is something like the following: "Your view of the Bahrain conflict in terms of Sunnis against Shi'is evidences both your misunderstanding of the situation and your having been duped by the Bahraini government, which uses the false Sunni-Shi'i dichotomy for its own political purposes--i.e., to ensure its own survival--when it fact no such thing exists. If you really looked hard, you would see that the basis of political conflict in Bahrain is [insert favorite topic] and not a difference between ordinary Sunnis and Shi'is."

And with this sort of sentiment I would tend to agree--to a point. I would agree and indeed it's indisputable that it is a useful thing for governments--not just Arab Gulf governments or the Bahraini government but all essentially non-democratic governments--to accentuate latent social divisions like ethnic/religious affiliation to foster competition for its patronage. In fact, Bahraini rulers make little secret about the fact that they attempt to play each group off the other. In the words of Justice Minister Khalid bin 'Ali in the run-up to the 2010 elections, the Al Khalifa position themselves a "buffer zone between Sunni and Shi'a." That is to say, the Al Khalifa ensure that neither group gains too big an advantage over the other that it begins to focus its energy on the government itself, just as the U.S. aided both sides of the Iran-Iraq War depending on who seemed to be winning at the time.

Yet at the same time, it makes little sense to deny that the latent social division exists in the first place, to say that Iran and Iraq were essentially not at odds with each other but only went to war as a result of some U.S. scheme to divide and conquer. A women can pit two potential suitors against each other and make them enemies, but that does not mean that they were not essentially in competition to begin with.

Thus it is, I would say, in Bahrain. The "third sect"--the Al Khalifa and their longstanding tribal allies (also known in parliament as "independents")--may be skilled in maximizing societal differences to their own ends, but we shouldn't therefore conclude that there is otherwise no independent source of these differences.

How then would we explain why some cars in Bahrain display the prominent sticker decal "اللهم صلّ على محمد وآل محمد", while others not? Why some houses fly black flags or those exclaiming, "يا حسين يا شهي", while others have the red and white flag of Bahrain? Why the 'Isa Town Mall has separate Sunni and Shi'i mosques at either end? Why each of Bahrain's three main political societies is based on religious affiliation? And so on. The point, again, is not that Bahraini Sunnis and Shi'is are locked in some epic war to decide good and evil, but that it's equally nonsensical to deny altogether any basis of societal division apart from political puppeteering.

Political scientists have long recognized that in patronage-based societies such as describe the Arab Gulf, the only real basis for political coordination is ethnicity or religion. "Consider," says Yates of a rentier society, "the following options for class-based politics: a declining rural-agricultural sector; a state-sponsored industrial sector; a booming service sector. Whence the revolution?" And Luciani, writing in 1989, predicted that in regimes such as Bahrain "parties will develop only to represent cultural or ideological orientations. In practice, Islamic fundamentalism appears to be the only rallying point around which something approaching a party can form in the Arab allocation states."

In the Bahrain of the 1960s and 1970s, socialism/Arab nationalism was (and for Wa'ad supporters perhaps still is) an alternative ideology around which political coordination could occur. That this function has since been overtaken by religious ideology is not unanticipated, and those who point it out are not automatically "sectarian" thinkers "reading from the script that [they] are regurgitating parrot fashion from the Shi'ites," to use the expression of one recent commentator here.

Finally, with specific regard to the results of my Bahrain survey: the Sunni-Shi'i differences that manifest themselves in the answers to survey questions, and that are often highlighted in my analysis, exist. Whether they exist because of machinations by the Bahraini government is another matter entirely. The point is that in Bahrain today ethnicity/religion has become a proxy for the extent to which one supports (tends to gain from) or opposes (tends not to gain from) the socio-political status quo. Most Shi'a oppose the regime on principle insofar as they are outsiders looking in; Sunnis support the government on principle, in order, as 'Adel al-Ma'awdah said in attempting to spur Sunnis to the polls in 2002, "to counter probable harm" that would come from not supporting it. This is the primary lesson of my Bahrain survey, and we continue to see the consequences of it today. So let's stop chalking it up to "sectarian thinking" or lack of familiarity with the "real" bases of politics of Bahrain.

(Also: in the spirit of survey research and not unrelated to this point anyway, don't forget to vote in the new poll I've opened: "Why do you hate this blog?" You have many fine options to choose from.)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

What's the Plan, Ya Abu Salman?

In the "non-crackdown" crackdown witnessed in Bahrain since the arrival of GCC forces some weeks ago:

Demonstrations have been crushed, public gatherings of any sort banned.

The very symbol of the February uprising, the Pearl Roundabout, has been razed, and the 500 fils coin bearing its image removed from circulation.

Nearly every identifiable political opposition leader not associated with al-Wifaq has been arrested, including most recently long-time dissident and founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights 'Abd al-Hadi al-Khawajah. (And it looks like Nabeel Rajab is next in line for arrest.) At least 400 other detainees remain in state custody, two of whom died yesterday in their cells.

Just a few months into its new 4-year term, Bahrain's parliament has ceased to be a functional political institution, having lost 18 of its 40 members to resignations (though only 7 of these have been accepted) and seemingly unsure of how to proceed.

Some 500 to 1,000 employees of public organizations and corporations have been fired for their suspected participation or complicity in anti-government protests, with several investigations still ongoing.

Bahrain's only independent newspaper, Al-Wasat, was taken down in an administrative coup, its founder and long-time editor-in-chief Mansur al-Jamri (who also happens to be the son of the late Shi'i marja' and spiritual leader of the 1990s Shi'a uprising, 'Abd al-Amir al-Jamri) ousted along with several other editors and journalists, the latter being deported altogether. Al-Jamri now faces criminal charges.

Insufficiently-"loyal" bloggers, Twitter-ers, and forum-goers have been targeted and arrested, and pro-government websites have sprung up to circulate disinformation.

Students, teachers, and administrators have been expelled from Bahrain's only public university, and those studying abroad who expressed anti-government views have had their scholarships revoked.

More generally, it is clear that many university and secondary school students have not returned to school, with attendance put at 55% as of April 1. (And since "the rate of secondary students [in] both Muharraq and the Southern Governorates" is said to be "normal," we know that most of the absentees are in Shi'a-dominated regions.)

And yet, for all this, not one step has been taken in the direction of resolving the underlying political conflict that put Bahrain in this mess in the first place. Indeed, rather than address the nation's growing rift between ordinary Sunnis and Shi'is, King Hamad took the time last Wednesday to promulgate five new royal decrees (Ar.). A first approved Bahrain's accession to a 1986 Convention on the Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident (though it abstains from Paragraph 2!), which should improve safety at each of its zero nuclear facilities. A second ratifies the Carthage Protocol on Bio-Safety to the Convention on Biological Diversity, agreed in 2000. And so on. Clearly, then, political reconciliation falls startlingly low on the list of national priorities.

Instead, the operative mentality seems to be one of denial. Members of the Saudi Shura Council told a Telegraph reporter that "there has been 'no crackdown' in Bahrain." The Arab News states proudly that the "Bahraini crown prince won't let society split," an vow the latter made a constant theme of his Thursday night television address in which he reaffirmed his commitment to "reform." Any volunteers to tell him that he is a few weeks and a few arrests too late to avoid a "split?"

Even more worryingly, the continued ambiguity surrounding the substance of timing of this "reform" makes one wonder whether the final product might not be reminiscent of the much-lauded but ultimately-illusory "reform" project initiated by King Hamad in 2001 shortly after his ascension to the throne. Aimed at ending a half-decade-long Shi'a uprising, his National Action Charter (NAC) outlining the framework for political liberalization was approved overwhelmingly by popular referendum, only to be followed by a new Bahraini Constitution promulgated unilaterally almost exactly a year later. Not only was the document drafted and issued without outside consultation, it reneged on a number of central promises made in the run-up to the referendum on the NAC, principal among them the notion that Bahrain's primary lawmaking power would reside in an elected lower house of parliament. And we see how that turned out.

So, then, assuming that the present "non-crackdown" crackdown represents Plan A, seemingly one calculated to bait opponents
into the sort of violent responses that might be used to justify the portrayal of them not as political reformists but as terrorists*--and of Iran as an instigator--what should we expect for an encore? What's the plan, ya Abu Salman?

* Indeed, many individuals and opposition forums have reported receiving inflammatory mass e-mails and messages calling upon "fellow Shi'is" to undertake violent action against the government.