Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Let's Get Nuts

A few days after Sh. 'Abd al-Latif Al Mahmud called for a "change" in Bahrain's Shi'a political leadership as a precondition for reconciliation, there are unconfirmed reports from multiple sources that several high-profile al-Wifaq figures--including Sh. 'Ali Salman, 'Abd al-Jalil Khalil, and Khalil al-Marzuq--have just been summoned for investigation by the military prosecutor. (Update: now Nabil Rajab as well.)

Even in isolation, of course, such a move would be notable. Yet it is all the more interesting as it comes a day before the planned mass rallies--which al-Wifaq has been vocal in supporting--to coincide with the lifting of martial law.

So, in the words of George Costanza, "You wanna get nuts? Let's get nuts!"

Update: just hours before June 1, King Hamad (coincidentally, I'm sure) is now ready for dialogue (Ar.). Or so he says. The question, given the summons of the al-Wifaq figures, is whom the dialogue will include.

Update 2: it's now officially June 1 in Bahrain. Please check the official demonstration guidance below and proceed to your local rally point!

And don't forget the instructions:

Update 3: it seems that protests did not materialize today to the extent hoped/planned by the opposition, though clearly the bigger test of strength will be Friday, deemed the "Friday of Loyalty to the Martyrs." Those protesters that did get out today were met unsurprisingly with rubber bullets, tear gas, and buckshot.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Business Friendly Bahrain

Bahrain's entrance visa proudly sports (or did when I was there) the slogan "Business Friendly Bahrain," a reflection of its low corporate taxes, low import duties, and, compared to elsewhere in the Gulf, generally open and relaxed environment for employees of the sort of multinational corporations meant to be enticed to do business there. Now, obviously, this carefully branded image of a Gulf business oasis has taken a tremendous hit since February. But more interesting is the way the Bahraini government's strong desire to limit any further erosion of its "Business Friendly" label is being used by both sides--the authorities and the opposition--for their own purposes.

Notable among the various Bahrain new items of the past week was Moody's widely-publicized downgrade of Bahrain's sovereign bond rating from A3 to Baa1 with a negative outlook. In a statement, Moody’s Investors Service explained,
“The main driver underlying Moody’s decision to downgrade is the significant deterioration in Bahrain’s political environment since February."
That makes sense enough.

Even more symbolic of the image Bahrain attempts to promote abroad, however, is its annual Formula 1 race, which had been scheduled to take place March 13. The race holds a special place in the hearts of many Bahrainis and is seen as a sign of the country's post-oil economic development and, more generally, its international relevance. Yet at the same time it is also a political flash-point, as opponents understand that the visibility of the event affords a prime opportunity to raise political grievances in the company of international visitors and media.

Indeed, it is a running joke in Bahrain that no matter how many political opponents are arrested throughout the year, come February or March they will all be granted royal pardon in order to appease government critics in the run-up to the race. This exact thing happened at the beginning of the current crisis, and it happened also when I was in the country in 2009, when some 170 mainly Shi'a detainees (most of whom were arrested for burning tires and the like during the post-'Ashura' protests of early 2009) being pardoned in mid-April just days before the race. In interviews with over a dozen Sunni and Shi'i political leaders as part of my dissertation research, all acknowledged that political expediency underlies this annual rite.

Though pre-March pardoning time has come and gone, the Formula 1 race continues to loom large on the Bahraini political landscape. In particular, many see the announced June 1 end of the State of National Security as a signal to the outside that things in Bahrain have returned to business as usual--and stable enough for a rescheduling of the Formula 1 race for later in the season. Opposing voices, including that of Human Rights Watch, have argued that Bahrain should not be rewarded with the race until it cleans up its political act.

Enter the Bahraini opposition. If the government means June 1 to signal a return to normalcy in Bahrain, protesters have not failed to recognized that this is an opportune time to act as spoiler à la their protests in previous years coinciding with the Formula 1 event. (To be sure, the sight of tens of thousands of people gathered on the side of Sh. Salman Highway along the rather lengthy route to the track in Sakhir is a poignant one for foreign attendees and VIPs.)

Thus the opposition has scheduled a "Return to Martyrs' Square" demonstration (the purpose of which is self-explanatory, I think) on June 1, though rumor has it this may be delayed until the 3rd, a Friday, for extra post-prayer effect. And its media arm has been busy putting together some nice Internet fliers, some containing specific instructions for different areas of Bahrain. For example,



I guess you get the idea: they're going back. (For about 100 more, see here.)

For its part, predictably, the Bahraini government has already promised to crush any attempt to retake the ground around the former monument. The General Director of the Armed Forces Marshall Khalifa bin Ahmad said in as early as May 11 that the army will meet protesters with "200%" of its March response in such an event.

Yet demonstrators--and, more importantly, senior opposition leaders--remain undeterred. In an exceptionally powerful Friday sermon yesterday (Ar.), the usually reserved Sh. 'Isa Qasim has encouraged protesters not to give up hope and warned the government that ordinary people are being backed into a political corner, forced to choose between surrender and more violent behavior. (For more see the video below.)

The Bahrain Mirror (Ar.) offers a good analysis.

And 'Sh. 'Ali Salman gives a fiery Friday sermon of his own (Ar.), connecting the situation in Bahrain to the arrest of the war criminal Mladic, which he says is "an international message to those who violate human rights."

So, then, mark the date: June 1 (or 3). Will the government push back the end of martial law to avoid the "Return to Martyrs' Square" at the cost of the Formula 1 race and further blows to its status as "Business Friendly Bahrain?" Will there be a Second Battle for the Pearl Roundabout?

Update: Moody's has now also downgraded the long-term deposit ratings of three of Bahrain's banks: BMI, BBK, and the National Bank of Bahrain, all of which it has given negative outlooks.

And Gulf Air is laying off more employees, though this time for business rather than political reasons.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Obama ♥ Iran: A Love Story

As discussed already, the portion of Obama's Cairo II speech dealing with Bahrain, though officially "welcomed" by the Bahraini government (if in a dismissive sort of way), has riled many of the country's government supporters. A common sentiment on Twitter, for example, is something like the following:

More formally, Yusif Al Bin Khalil, a writer in the hard-line Al-Watan newspaper associated with the royal court, has produced since May 18 three different variations on the same theme: namely, that the U.S., and the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain in particular, is aligned with the country's opposition. The series is subtly titled "Washington and the Sunna of Bahrain."

#1 - "Washington and the Sunna of Bahrain: The New Supporters" (18 May)
#2 - "Washington and the Sunna of Bahrain: The Embassy's Cake" (20 May)
#3 - "Washington and the Sunna of Bahrain: Americanization of the Opposition" (22 May)
#4 - "Washington and the Sunna of Bahrain: The American Studies Center [of the University of Bahrain] (23 May)

(Update: actually, a friend points out that this writer and this series goes back much further, at least since late April:

April 21: "When Will America Understand Who is the Strongest in Bahrain Now?"
April 22: "When Bahrain is Presented as a Gift [to Iran]"
April 23: "Washington's Friends in Manama"
April 24: "Washington and the Sunna of Bahrain: Beginnings of Introduction"
April 25: "Washington and the Sunna of Bahrain: The Start of the Conflict"
April 26: "Washington and the Sunna of Bahrain: Open Attack"
April 27: "Washington and the Sunna of Bahrain: The Curse of Bush"
May 3: "Washington and the Sunna of Bahrain: The Fool of NATO"
May 4: "Washington and the Sunna of Bahrain: The Occupation Scenario"
May 5: "Washington and the Sunna of Bahrain: Funding the Opposition"
May 6: "Washington and the Sunna of Bahrain: Fear of the Monster" - An attack on MEPI and the National Democratic Institute
May 7: "Washington and the Sunna of Bahrain: Policies of Humiliation" - An attack on Human Rights Watch
May 8: "Washington and the Sunna of Bahrain: Sunni and Shi'i Terrorism"
May 9: "Washington and the Sunna of Bahrain: Who Fooled the Americans?"
May 10: "Washington and the Sunna of Bahrain: Who Has the Legitimacy to Rule?"

Okay, I am getting tired of listing all these. But you get the idea. They continue until the May 18 story listed originally. The full list, all by Yusif Al Bin Khalil, is here.)

Even better is the invective circulating around pro-government forums, which includes such photoshops as the following:

"It isn't for you to get involved in Bahrain. Do you understand?" (Notice the Iranian flag in the background.) And similarly:

This looks like it comes from somewhere else, but it's made its way around the forums nonetheless. Then, we have this tongue-in-cheek gem showing Obama taking part in a Shi'a passion play procession during Muharram.

The caption is: "Majusi [slur for "Shi'i"] Obama spotted last year during Muharram roaming around after he finished serving tea [to celebrants]."

Even better than a photoshop, finally, is this half English/half Arabic poem written to Obama and posted to Bahrain's most popular pro-government Sunni forum. Unfortunately, the forum-goers seems not to understand it because of all the English (one says, "حدد موقفك ياعربي يا انج علشان نفهم شسالفة هني"), but here is a translation. (If you think you can offer a better version of the lines with the [?], be my guest.)

الى اوباما

To Obama

من العبد البور من

From the useless slave

الى مستر أوباما

to Mr. Obama,

رئيس امريكا

President of America

السلام على من اتبع الهدى

(peace be upon those who follow true guidance),

اما بعد :

the following:

آي ونت آسك يو فروم الكليج العربي

I want to ask you from the Arab Gulf:

آيم دونت هف بربلم اذ يو تحمون الكليج

I don’t have a problem if you all [in the U.S.] protect the Gulf,

بت اي هف بربلم بتدخلكم بالشيعة بالكليج

but I have a problem with you interfering for the [sake of the] Gulf Shi‘a.

يو آر نت هف انصاف واي دنت مسك

You are not fair. Why don’t you

العصي بالعدل وودنت مسكها من المدل

wield the stick with justice [?], and grasp it from the middle?

مستر اوباما يو اسمروالكليج سمر واي التحيز

Mr. Obama, you are brown-skinned, and the Gulf is brown-skinned. So why the bias

للعجم الفرس اف يور خوالك هز نو ذس

in favor of the Persian ‘Ajam? If you’re black, [unclear?].

مستر اباما اف اوت بوش وكمن يو اي آسك

Mr. Obama, Bush is out [?] but like you I ask [?].

ذس نايس ولكن آي هف مثل ان كليج طلقها

This is nice, but I have an example: it’s as if you divorced the Gulf

واخذ اختها ويو كمل

and married its sister [i.e., Iran], and you go on [like nothing happened].

مستر اوباما لا بد يو تكون نو بطبائع الكليج العربي

Mr. Obama, you have to know the Arab Gulf culture and customs.

واي يودنت اندر استند مشكال الكليج بالصحيح

Why don’t you understand the real problem of the Gulf?

مستر اوباما واي يو متحيز للفرس ايران الفيران

Mr. Obama, why are you taking the side of the Iranian rats

ضد السنة هل لأن بيفور هزموكم وكل يور اجاكم

against the Sunna? Is it because they defeated you before

في الهرب ام هناك امور مور

in war? Or is it something else?

مستر اوباما يو دنت تيرن تيرن ان ذا سيركل امبتي

Mr. Obama, you don’t turn, turn in empty circles.

والسلام على من اتبع الهدى

Peace be upon those who follow the right path.

Update: in a considerably more cordial letter than this poem, the National Unity Gathering has sent an official response to Obama expressing its "reservations" and "surprise" at his speech, in particular his "disregard for one of the main components" of Bahraini society--one "representing more than half of the country's Sunnis, Shi'is, Christians, and Jews" (all dozen of them I guess)--namely the National Unity Gathering. (More excepts from the letter (Arabic) are here.)

Its representatives, including Sh. 'Abd al-Latif Al Mahmud, also met today with representatives of the U.S. Embassy to deliver its message about the Obama speech. Evidently as proof of the meeting, they have posted some photos here and here. (Update: I guess these have been taken down now. Being seen meeting with U.S. Embassy people is probably a liability these days.)

Update 2: an anonymous commentator passes along another Obama sighting, this time in Sitra! !!خطير

More Updates: It seems everyone is now getting in the mix. Despite the National Unity Gathering's group-wide letter to Obama, both al-Asalah and al-Manbar al-Islami have posted their own individual replies to his remarks on Bahrain. And the Coalition for a Republic has done the same.

al-Asalah: Twitter
al-Manbar: Facebook
Coalition for a Republic: Facebook


(Obama's speech on Bahrain)

Citizen: "I don't hear you; I hear what my national conscience tells me, and it's that stability and security are what's important to Bahrain."

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Al-Wifaq: Back to Boycott

Famously, in 2006 al-Wifaq ended its one-term boycott of Bahrain's newly-resurrected parliament, leading to a protracted intra-Shi'a schism and the fracture of the old al-Wifaq into the al-Wifaq of today on the one hand and al-Haqq and other undeground movements on the other.

Now, its 18 deputies having already resigned from parliament months ago (though the resignations of the final 7 have just recently been accepted) in protest of the government treatment of protesters, al-Wifaq has reportedly decided to return to its boycotting roots and will not contest in the make-up elections scheduled for September 2011. I have not seen this yet in the English press, but Al-Wasat reports (Arabic) that it:
"has learned from reliable sources that [al-Wifaq] has decided not to participate in the complementary elections to be held in September 2011 for the seats that fell vacant after the resignation of 18 of the bloc's members of parliament, pointing out that 'the society [al-Wifaq] met with a number of cadres in the regions and constituencies [of the empty seats] and there was a broad consensus on the society's decision not to participate.'"
The story goes on to make clear that other political societies that ran candidates in these districts in 2010 have not explicitly declared their intentions to run in these special elections, while the National Unity Gathering--the al-Fatih Mosque counter-rally folks--has already issued statements that have ruled out its supporting candidates in September.

In one sense the boycott from al-Wifaq comes as little surprise. Certainly, following the arrests of two of its MPs and more obviously the government's abandoned (or postponed) attempt to dissolve the society altogether, the group has no shortage of reasons to not wish to participate in a parliament through which it seemingly achieved little anyway.

Moreover, al-Wifaq's central role in spurring ordinary Shi'a to the streets during the post-February 14 protests (which never really exploded until al-Wifaq put its weight behind them) reaffirmed that, despite the group's being outgunned in parliament by the manufactured pro-government majority, nonetheless in society its power to organize political mobilization remains unmatched in Bahrain, rivaled only by that of the government itself.

A final element playing into this decision to boycott, however, may be something quite unrelated: the apparent view among al-Wifaq leaders--voiced recently by Sh. 'Ali Salman--that the U.S. is finally coming around to a more constructive position in Bahrain as indicated, for example, by the rebukes contained in Obama's speech. Speaking with a PBS Newshour reporter in Bahrain (is it just me or is PBS Newshour all over Bahrain recently?) 'Ali Salman told her
"he was 'delighted' to hear the criticism of the detentions of opposition leaders and the destruction of Shia mosques. ... [He] said, 'I am pleased with the whole speech, and now looking for the speech to be carried out in practice,' ... adding 'there shouldn't be a different standard' for how the U.S. responds to uprisings in different countries.
Her related interview with Jeffrey Feltman (conducted before the Obama speech), which is much longer than the other versions releases so far, is below. The transcript is also available.

Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.

The interview is notable in that he seems to suggest the U.S. has been (privately) pushing not only the Bahrainis but also the Saudis toward a more measured approach in dealing with the opposition. He says in conclusion,
"These [arrests, destruction of mosques, etc.] are things that we talk about with the Bahrainis, we press the Bahrainis on, and not only the Bahrainis; we talk with the others who have influenced on Bahrain as well"
Accordingly, al-Wifaq's decision to remain outside of the parliament may reflect not only its rejection of government policy toward it and its members, but also the recognition that, if the U.S. really is beginning to exert more pressure on the government to return to some effort at political reconciliation, it is perhaps better to remain outside of the system for the time being.

Indeed, if al-Wifaq already had, say, more than a dozen representatives in parliament (if it were to win back most or all of the seats being re-contested), the government may attempt to push a "reform" process that operated via the legislature itself, which could not possibly lead to the sort of fundamental change al-Wifaq and others desire. By going back to boycott, then, al-Wifaq leaves itself open for the possibility of direct discussions with the government, not qua parliamentary bloc but qua opposition representative more generally.

As happened before in the run-up to the National Action Charter of newly-crowned King Hamad, any fundamental political reform that will occur, will not proceed in democratic fora such as the parliament but behind closed doors--whether in the royal court or, as happened in 2001, at the home of someone like Sh. 'Abdullah al-Ghurayfi. Whether or not such meetings will actually take place is a good question, but al-Wifaq seems at least to be setting itself up in the event that they do.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Mideast "Reset" That Really Wasn't: Houz-man Meets the Obamaman

Obama's long-awaited, groundbreaking speech on the Middle East has finally been delivered, and it turns out that somehow the principal lesson from the Arab uprisings is that ... the Israeli-Palestinian peace process must be restarted. As the New York Times proclaims:

Thus it seems that last week's preview in the Times had the inside track when it said: "Even before the Bin Laden raid, officials said, Mr. Obama was casting about for ways to tie together events in the Middle East. White House officials had weighed a speech in which the president would link the upheaval to the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations."

Now, if Obama was looking for random things to which to connect the 2011 uprisings (which the Israeli-Palestinian issue surely is), I would have preferred personally to have seen a link made to the failed attempts so far to find the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider. Or the looming May 21 rapture.

In any event, though he did speak of Bahrain, and rather candidly, he certainly did not take this advice offered by a writer at the UN Dispatch, aptly titled "Why Bahrain Should Be Front and Center in Obama's Middle East Speech." As he notes, "Nowhere in the Arab world today does the Obama administration face a policy dilemma more vexing as it does toward Bahrain. ... With the speech today, Obama has the opportunity to chart a new course." Or not.

The operative bit on Bahrain was a few paragraphs stuffed in the middle, since Bahrainis were for some reason not included in Obama's introductory flurries about those whose "shouts of human dignity are being heard across the region"--i.e., in Cairo, in Sana'a, in Benghazi, and in Damascus. What probably happened is that since the Pearl Roundabout is technically halfway between Manama and Sanabis, he didn't want to be geographically inaccurate by saying something like, "In Manama, we heard the protesters' camp being attacked by the army at 3:00 am."

Like I say, the operative bit about Bahrain was stuffed in the middle, in a single paragraph conveniently introduced by some anti-Iranian sentiment just to keep everyone honest:
Our opposition to Iran’s intolerance – as well as its illicit nuclear program, and its sponsorship of terror – is well known. But if America is to be credible, we must acknowledge that our friends in the region have not all reacted to the demands for change consistent with the principles that I have outlined today. That is true in Yemen, where President Saleh needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power. And that is true, today, in Bahrain.

Bahrain is a long-standing partner, and we are committed to its security. We recognize that Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there, and that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law. Nevertheless, we have insisted publically and privately that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens, and will not make legitimate calls for reform go away. The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail. The government must create the conditions for dialogue, and the opposition must participate to forge a just future for all Bahrainis.

And the only other named reference to Bahrain was some paragraphs later:
And for this season of change to succeed, Coptic Christians must have the right to worship freely in Cairo, just as Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain.
What happens if they've already been destroyed, though?

Indeed, such is the obvious reaction to the entire speech vis-a-vis Bahrain: Yes, we understand that in principle the U.S. supports the cause of "dialogue" in Bahrain, opposes the "mass arrests and brute force," and so on. But what is it prepared to DO about it? Its main face of Bahrain policy, Jeffrey Feltman, went on PBS Newshour just days ago to report "positive developments" in Bahrain, i.e. the planned end of martial law on June 1.

Meanwhile, just today the government announced 20-year prison terms for 9 of the 21 suspected "terrorists"--i.e., leaders of all the main opposition groups, many of whom have reported torture and sexual abuse in prison--on trial for whatever it is they're accused of. In the case of those sentenced today, which notably exclude most of the main leaders apart from Sh. al-Miqdad, it was "kidnapping a police officer."

Yes, that's right: these 9 masterminds were conspiring to overthrow the entire Al Khalifa regime by doing what?: kidnapping a single police officer, who is said to have escaped his imprisonment by rappelling down the side of a house using a hose. Indeed, the whole story was so ludicrous from the time it was aired in theatrical fashion on Bahrain TV that it has given birth to an entire Internet meme called "Hose Man" (or Houz-man: هوزمان), a Bahraini superhero who destroys ma'tams in a single bound with his Shi'a-fighting superpowers.

Don't believe me? See for yourself in this original video from Bahrain TV:

It did not take long for people to come with such adaptations as this:

For the full story of this Internet sensation, see here.

Less humorously, Bahrain is also prosecuting a court case against three editors of the former opposition newspaper, Al-Wasat, which has since been reopened under new (pro-government) management. The three are accused of publishing false information in a dramatic plagiarism scandal broken again by, you guessed it: none other than Bahrain TV.

Even LESS humorously, if that is possible, Bahrain has seen the recent targeting of the United States itself in the form of official and unofficial media harassment of the U.S. Embassy and Embassy officials, accused by government supporters of empathy for or collusion with the opposition. Indeed, a Political Officer was forced to leave the country altogether only two weeks ago after pictures of him and his wife, his Bahrain address, and personal threats were posted to pro-government blogs and Salafi Internet forums. The Embassy itself has been lambasted for weeks in the pro-government Al-Watan and Akhbar al-Khalij.

Finally, I have been told by Bahraini contacts that students from the American Studies Center at the embattled University of Bahrain have been specifically targeted recently for having taken part in protests since February. Photos of them and their spouses have been posted to Internet sites used by Bahrain's intelligence services to publicly identity political activists.

So, then, if Obama is serious in ending his Cairo II speech with the following words:
“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.” Those words must guide our response to the change that is transforming the Middle East and North Africa – words which tell us that repression will fail, that tyrants will fall, and that every man and woman is endowed with certain inalienable rights.
--if he is serious in saying that "repression will fail" and "tyrants will fall," the obvious question is, again, what is the U.S. prepared to do about it? Quotes from the Declaration of Independence are nice, but if the U.S.'s Bahrain policy continues to combine equivocal criticism of its response to the unrest while stressing its unique position as a U.S. ally, then it seems Obama's administration is happy to sit back and allow the momentum of history to do its work for it.

Sure, repression may eventually fail in Bahrain, and tyrants fall, but there is no indication from what we've heard today that the U.S. will have played any part in it. "We cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights," the NYT headline reads. But what better word to describe the U.S. response to date in Bahrain than just that--"hesitation"?

Update: Some are already reading much more into Obama's criticism.

Some Bahrainis, at least, are clearly upset. Here is the Facebook page of the owner of Al-Ayam newspaper, and adviser to the king.

However, the Bahraini cabinet "welcomes" the speech, albeit in a backhanded way. According to the Bahrain News Agency, "the principles contained in the speech delivered by the US President Barack Obama ... agree with democratic strategy adopted by Bahrain under the leadership of His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa." Well that settles that! Move along everyone--nothing to see here!

More Updates: Pro-government forum-goers are blaming--who else?--the U.S. Embassy. Here. And they don't seem to like the coverage in Britain of the Crown Prince's visit. Here.

Also, remember those 9 policemen run over at a vehicle checkpoint earlier this week? Well, the Saudis have the inside scoop: it was Hizballah! Of course! How did we miss that? It does reflect badly on Hizballah, of course, having gone from holding the Israelis to a military stalemate in 2006 to committing vehicular manslaughter in a random Bahraini village. Now, given its sheer complexity, I had suspected this might have been a SEAL Team 6 operation, but Hizballah sounds just as good.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

How Radical Are Bahrain's Shi'a?—Part 2: Attitudes toward the U.S. and West

As an extension of my article about the very non-radical political preferences of Bahraini Shi'a (and Sunna) at the time of my 2009 survey, I thought it would be useful to delve further into this question by stepping back from the specific context of domestic Bahraini politics to examine Bahrainis' attitudes toward the West and the U.S. For, indeed, from the dominant media coverage of the Bahrain uprising one would guess that the first order of business for Bahraini Shi'a upon seizing power (somehow)--right after they finished installing an Islamic Republic of Bahrain, obviously--would be attacks on U.S. military personnel, the torching of all Western businesses, and the storming of the U.S. Embassy in some sort of Bahrainian hostage crisis situation.

A recent article in the Huffington Post is a good example of this sort of logic. Haggai Carmon, a former Israeli intelligence officer, writes,
Nonetheless, the Sunnis in Bahrain have a lot to worry about. The Shiites in Bahrain demand a democratic republic instead of monarchy, and that simple message is certain to find many attentive ears in the U.S and elsewhere. However, democracy in Bahrain with a 70% Shiite majority, means Sunnis out, Shiites in, the U.S and its 5th Fleet harbor out, Iran in, including a control of the oil reserves and a direct threat to Saudi Arabia, the world's largest producer of oil in fields located next door populated by Shiites.

As absurd as it may sound, it is likely that supporters of full Western style democracy in Bahrain may at the end of the day be supporting theocratic Iran.
Correct, it does sound absurd, and not just because the operative line takes the form of the mother of all run-on sentences. "Sunnis out, Shiites in, the U.S and its 5th Fleet harbor out, Iran in, including a control of the oil reserves and a direct threat to Saudi Arabia." I'm not sure where all these giant Bahraini "oil reserves" are, or why Iran, the FOURTH-LARGEST OIL PRODUCER IN THE WORLD, really needs to "control" them, but it sure does make the Shi'a sound dangerous! Where do I sign up to help stop them?

And what makes this prevailing image so ironic--though probably not to those targeted--is that by all accounts the physical threats to U.S. and Western targets in Bahrain have stemmed from militant Sunnis. On the other hand, 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 come 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.)

Much more recently, and perhaps even more disturbingly, the acting Political Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Manama has been the target of threats by pro-government Salafis accusing him, among other things, of supporting Bahrain's Shi'a and of being a Hizballah operative because of a report that he "brought doughnuts" for demonstrators protesting outside the U.S. Embassy "and talked with them in order to understand their demands." Wow, what an asshole! First, this long rant of an article appeared about two weeks ago on a pro-government blog complete with links to information about him and his wife. Later, photos of the two of them showed up on several Salafi forums along with their home address in Bahrain and threats of violence. (No need to pass along these links here.) It appears that they have now had to leave the country altogether, presumably as hoped by those behind the attacks.

Remind me—who is it, again, that the U.S. government is supporting in Bahrain?

But I digress. Below we find the distributions of Sunni and Shi'i responses for four different survey questions about Bahrainis' orientations toward the U.S. and the West. As we shall see, contrary to the idea that Bahraini Shi'a are somehow especially predisposed against Western countries and against the U.S. in particular, in fact there is no substantive difference between these orientations of Bahraini Shi'a over against those of Sunna.

All of the questions ask respondents whether they strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with a specific statement or sentiment. The first statement is: "Despite the negativity of U.S. foreign policy, the American people are a good people." In Arabic:

.على الرغم من سلبية السياسة الخارجية الأمريكية إلا أن الشعب الأمريكي شعب جيد

One notices immediately that apart from a few respondents who are "not sure" (and probably disagree but don't wish to say so), all of those who respond either agree or strongly agree with this statement, and this equally among Sunni and Shi'i.

A similar pattern emerges when we consider responses to the notion that, "Among the various aspects of Western and American culture are some good qualities." In Arabic:

بين العديد من الجوانب للثقافة الأمريكية والغربية هنالك بعض الصفات الايجابية

As before, despite a few non-responses, the overwhelming majority of ordinary Bahrainis--some 90% of Sunnis and Shi'is--are not aligned on principle against all things West. Far from Western culture xenophobes, almost every respondent concedes the positive aspects of U.S./Western culture, with not a single Bahraini directly disagreeing with the statement.

Now we get into the heavy stuff. Bahrainis were asked (again, as part of the standard Arab Democracy Barometer survey instrument; so don't call me a U.S. spy), "Do you agree or disagree with armed groups using violence against civilians in resisting the American occupation in Iraq?" Or:

هل توافق أم تعارض على قيام بعض المجموعات المسلحة باستخدام العنف ضد المدنيين في العراق بحجة مقاومة الاحتلال الأمريكي؟

Here, only 2 individuals strongly agree with this statement, and less than 5% agree at all. The remainder disagree or strongly disagree, though the standard caveats about the "not sure" and "refuse" responses obviously apply. In general, though, the overall picture is of a Bahraini population that is not disposed to sacrifice civilian lives in opposing perceived U.S. military aggression.

Finally, respondents were asked whether they agreed with the more general statement (which you may recognize as the crux of the famous Bin Ladin fatwa): "U.S. interference in the region justifies armed operations against the U.S. anywhere [around the world]." In Arabic:

إن تدخل الولايات المتحدة الأميركية في المنطقة يبرر العمليات المسلحة ضد الولايات المتحدة في كل مكان

Most striking here is not the slight difference in Sunni and Shi'i responses--which is a combined 40% agreement among Shi'a compared to 33% among Sunnis, excluding the "not sure" and "refuse" responses--but the proportion of both communities that agree in principle with this sentiment. While that is not to say that all or even any are likely to act on such views, this result highlights the disingenuousness of the false dichotomy currently promulgated that pits the "secure, stable, and U.S.-friendly Bahrain" of today against the "Iranian-backed theocracy" of the February 14 uprising. (Or, stated more elegantly: "Sunnis out, Shiites in, the U.S and its 5th Fleet harbor out, Iran in, including a control of the oil reserves and a direct threat to Saudi Arabia.")

Sure, the Al Khalifa are closely aligned with the West, but what of Bahrainis themselves? As described here in the introduction, the U.S. is winning over Bahrain's government while it is losing (or more likely never had) its people--Sunna and Shi'a alike. Indeed, how ridiculous is it that the Political Officer at Embassy Manama is attacked by Salafi Sunnis for actions taken while facing Shi'a protesters? Even more strangely, this is precisely the situation of the Kuwaiti government a month ago, which fell after Salafi lawmakers threatened to quiz members of the Al Sabah in parliament for refusing to send ground troops to Bahrain as part of the GCC Shield force, a position it adopted in order to avoid a backlash from its own large Shi'a minority.

In sum, the U.S. is stepping in the middle of what is at best a regional struggle for geopolitical influence, at worst a burgeoning Sunni-Shi'i schism tearing apart the Arab Gulf region. Neither Sunnism or Shi'ism is intrinsically more orientated against the West or against the U.S. more particularly, but in helping to prolong rather than resolve festering political tensions in Bahrain, the United States can only add to the popular frustration already felt for its Middle East policy, to say nothing of its contribution to the ongoing reorganization of the Gulf region against its favor.

(Note: please no one write in to say that I am wrong about the Shi'a and that they must be extremists because 9 police officers were reported run over today at a security checkpoint in Nuwaidrat. I'm not discounting the event, which in any case can hardly come as a surprise at this point, but it's a separate issue from that here.)

Dialogue and Reconciliation

Too busy to attend the congressional inquiry into human rights violations in Bahrain to which he was invited, still Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman somehow found time on Friday to sit down for an interview with PBS Newshour. Predictably, the overall tone of the message was again supportive. Feltman, the main face of U.S. policy on Bahrain, noted the "positive development" of the scheduled end of martial law on June 1, and says that "the king, crown prince, and foreign minister" have "made clear that they want to get back to dialogue and reconciliation." I guess it's too bad that they're no longer in charge, then, right?

Here's a bit of "dialogue and reconciliation" for you: the prime minister, receiving members of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated al-Manbar al-Islami political society today at his royal court, is quoted in the pro-government Gulf Daily News thus:

HRH the Premier said that what had happened during the unrest would not be tolerated, overlooked or forgotten.

"Bahrain is a state of law and institutions, and those found guilty of offending the nation should be held accountable," he stressed, adding that those who stabbed the country in the back should not get away without punishment."

And at the same time, students returning to the beleaguered University of Bahrain more than six weeks after classes were suspended following a violent confrontation between Sunni and Shi'i protesters are now being forced to sign a loyalty oath as a precondition for readmission. And this is but the newest of several such loyalty pledge drives in recent weeks.

Can you feel all that dialogue and reconciliation?

In any event, since the interview says little new--the State Department line that "security alone will not solve Bahrain's problems" is getting very old--I won't go through the whole thing here but will just offer the video below.

The more revealing part of the Newshour piece is the reporting of its Bahrain correspondent, who after meeting with opposition and pro-government leaders visited the Seef Mall to conduct interviews with ordinary Bahrainis. She writes,

After a day of talking to some of the players here -- including Sheikh Ali Salman ... -- the path ahead seems more muddled than ever. Wherever things are headed, the last three months have already done damage, exacerbating and embittering the divide between the minority Sunni elite and the majority Shiites.

Tonight, I heard a disheartening tale from a group of ebullient Sunni 4th-graders cruising the mall. "We're not allowed to be friends with our Shia friends anymore," one boy said, "and they aren't allowed to be friends with us."
Even if Bahrain's rulers do eventually get around to political reconciliation, then, who is it that will bridge the larger gap in Bahraini society that is doubtless to remain for years or--if these 4th-graders are any indication--decades to come?

But so as not to end on too depressing a note, here is a great investigative video sent by a Bahraini friend that uncovers some dangerous truths about Sh. 'Ali Salman and his connections to Iran. I don't want to exaggerate, but in terms of sheer groundbreaking journalism this may surpass Bahrain TV's own exposés! Even for non-Arabic-speakers this is a must-see.

Update: the 7 remaining al-Wifaq MPs have finally been allowed to resign from parliament, their longstanding resignations accepted today. In urging his colleagues to accept the resignations, Salafi MP 'Abd al-Halim Murad is quoted in the Gulf Daily News as saying,
"I call upon my colleagues to assume their historic and patriotic responsibilities, in this defining moment facing our country, and vote unanimously to accept the resignations," Abdulhailm Murad said. ...

"We must never forget the crimes of Al Wefaq, which plunged Bahrain in the cauldron of sedition, sectarian strife, sabotage and murder," he said.

He also accused Al Wefaq of encouraging Iranian and international interference in Bahrain's internal affairs and spreading allegations.

"Al Wefaq petitioned the UN, claiming Bahraini army is committing genocide against people, aided by the "occupying" Saudi forces," he said.

"Al Wefaq members are still attending forums and hearing sessions in the US Congress and other Western countries to defame our country," he said.

"Accepting Al Wefaq MPs' resignation is the minimum we can do - being a popular demand," he said.

Reconciliation at its best.

Update 2: the entire PBS segment is now available online. The transcript is here, the video below:

Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.

Monday, May 16, 2011

How Radical Are Bahrain's Shi'a?

I have an article up today on the Foreign Affairs website that integrates several different posts here but especially relates to the April 21 article, "Where Are All the Islamists in Bahrain?"

Click above to read.

Update: the Egyptian Al-Wafd now has an Arabic summary/partial translation.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Whatever Floats Your Boat

In what should make for an interesting next week, Iranian political activists from the Islamic Revolution Supporters Society have organized a "solidarity flotilla" supposedly to set sail for Bahrain from Bushehr on Monday, May 16.

The Iranian Ahl al-Bayt News Agency reports that the head of the Supporters Society and organizer of the flotilla, Mehdi Eghrarian, says "the move is aimed at condemning the brutal crackdown on anti-regime protesters in Bahrain. Eghrarian pointed out that the ship will be named after Bahraini poetess, Ayat al-Ghermezi who was raped and killed by Saudi-backed regime forces." Nice.

And according to this Bloomberg report,
The group aims to hold talks with members of Bahrain’s parliament and meet with the families of Bahrainis killed in anti-government protests if the [Bahraini] government allows it to enter.
I'm going to have to go out on a limb here and say they're not getting in. One former Bahraini MP has already declared the flotilla an "act of war," and a prominent Sunni imam is quoted in the state Gulf Daily News as saying, "If this aid flotilla from Iran sails to Bahrain, I can tell there will be war in the Gulf." And one can't imagine the government's opinion is any more moderate.

Assuming this turns out anything like the doomed Turkish aid flotilla to Gaza last year, get prepared to see Saudi special forces rappelling down ropes from hovering helicopters and taking out about 15 of the flotilla-goers.

The most ironic thing, of course, is that when Kuwait balked at sending a ground force into Bahrain as part of the GCC Peninsula Shield, it perfunctorily sent instead a naval detachment to protect Bahraini waters, which at the time seemed rather ridiculous. So, as it turns out, either the Kuwaitis are clairvoyant geniuses, or they're very unhappy right now.

If anything good can come of this, it is that the U.S. government may finally appreciate the unsustainability of the present situation in Bahrain, which if not directly its own doing has certainly been enabled by its continued silence. And all it will have taken is a violent naval confrontation in the Persian Gulf between a newly-revitalized GCC and provocative Iran. Who says American policymakers can't take a hint?

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Middle East "Reset" That Wasn't

Remember when the Obama Administration wanted to "reset" ties with Russia so it sent Hillary Clinton to present a gift-wrapped "reset" button to FM Lavrov with an incorrect Russian translation? Yea, well, hopefully its Arabic translators are better than the Russian, because the Times is reporting a new Obama "reset" effort--this time with the Arab world.

Really, though, we don't need the NYT to spell this out for us. The argument has been made ad nauseam since the death of Bin Ladin: the "Arab Spring" represents the triumph of democratic aspirations over the ideological alternative of Islamic extremism, which, like its figurehead sponsor, is now dead. Now it's time for the United States to reaffirm its longstanding commitment to democracy in the Arab world and to attempt to do again what Obama tried but failed to do in his Cairo Speech soon after taking over the presidency: to show that there is no ideological conflict between the United States and the Muslim world.

Yet the main purpose of the effort seems to be to throw out a bit of revisionist history. The article notes, for example,
"Even before the Bin Laden raid, officials said, Mr. Obama was casting about for ways to tie together events in the Middle East. White House officials had weighed a speech in which the president would link the upheaval to the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations."
Tunisia's uprising linked to the failed peace process? Sounds good to me. While we're at it, why not link Mubarak's ouster in Egypt to global warming?

In similar disingenuous fashion, the article tells that "Mr. Obama’s advisers say he decided to push for President Hosni Mubarak’s exit early on," which is odd since the leaders of Egypt's pro-democracy movement seem to have felt otherwise, having refused to meet with Hillary Clinton when she traveled to Cairo in March specifically for what they interpreted as a purposeful delay in U.S. support.

And what of Yemen, where millions have been braving live ammunition in the streets for three months with little or no backing from the U.S. for fears of al-Qa'ida? What was that again about the death of Bin Ladin?

And, even more obviously, what of Bahrain? There is a congressional hearing today in Washington about post-February 14 human rights abuses in Bahrain, yet the two State Department officials invited to take part--William Burns and Jeffrey Feltman--have declined to participate. They must be too busy prepping Obama on his speech about U.S. support for democracy and human rights in the Arab world to actually show support for human rights and democracy in the Arab world.

Indeed, the most revealing paragraph of the Times article is the one that tries to deal with the two U.S. embarrassments that are Yemen and Bahrain:
"But other senior officials note that the Middle East remains a complicated place: the death of Al Qaeda’s leader does not erase the terrorist threat in Yemen, while countries like Bahrain are convulsed by sectarian rivalries that never had much to do with Bin Laden’s radical message. The White House said it was still working through the policy implications country by country."
Which is to say: "Sure, the U.S. generally supports democracy across the Arab world, but you can't expect us to back democrats we don't like or trust!" (Hamas, anyone?) Or, in other words: the U.S. will continue to do what it's done throughout these Arab uprisings in a strategy that has been understood very clearly by citizens of the region, namely that of acting the good pragmatist. Does it seem like Mubarak can hold on? Let's stand behind him. Oops, it looks like he's on his way out. Long live democracy! Is 'Ali Abdullah Salih looking weak? Let's tell him to leave. Strong? Let's shut up about Yemen.

“Bin Laden is the past, what's happening in the region is the future.” This, according to one of Obama's national security advisers, is the theme of the upcoming "reset" speech. From here we see that an obvious part of the problem is that the administration is simply painting "the region" in strokes that are far too broad. There are at least four distinct regions involved in the transformations of the past months: North Africa, the Levant, Yemen, and the Arab Gulf, each with its own dynamics. And it makes little sense to attempt to formulate a grand strategy that ties them together.

Moreover, it seems that of these four sub-regions the Arab Gulf is conspicuously out of place. It certainly does not fit the "Bin Ladin's gone, here comes democracy" narrative. In the first place al-Qa'ida-inspired terrorism has never been a big problem INSIDE the Arab Gulf, though Gulf Arabs have always disproportionately (by population) formed the ranks of the organization. (The courrier that led the U.S. to Bin Ladin was called Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.) And, even more obviously, democracy is nowhere on the march among the GCC states; on the contrary, these countries have done all they can over the previous months, including military intervention and overt attempts at political buy-off, to make sure it stays that way.

So, if "what's happening today in the region"-- at least in the Arab Gulf region--is "the future," then the whole purpose of this entire U.S.-Middle East "reset" will have been in vain, for eloquent words from Obama will not be enough to mask the obvious hypocrisy in American policy toward places like Bahrain and Yemen, where new generations of disaffected youth will grow up resenting U.S. support for their dictatorships.

We've killed one Bin Ladin, yes, but until we stop creating more what's the point? What the U.S. needs is a not a nebulous "reset" of its relationship with "the Middle East" but a reboot of its larger strategic thinking. And in the meantime, to quote a recent Washington Post editorial, "it's time to start looking for a new home for the 5th fleet."

Unrelated Update: I don't want to devote a whole new post to this drivel, but if you can read this entire piece in the Huffington Post without smashing your face against your keyboard, you win. An Iran-scaremongering article on Bahrain by a former Israeli intelligence officer-turned-international lawyer--who would have guessed?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

God Save the King—or Emir, or Sultan

The Gulf Cooperation Council may soon be in need of a new name and acronym--something like the RCC: the "Royal Cooperation Council." In a press conference on Monday that I didn't notice until today, GCC SecGen al-Zayyani indicated the group's willingness to admit Morocco and Jordan, evidently purely on the basis of common political institutions. As if the long-time snub of Yemen were not indication enough, the GCC is finally admitting openly that its raison d'être was never economic cooperation but political coordination--a sort of monarchy cartel to parallel that of OPEC.

As I've argued previously, the ascension of Bahraini military man al-Zayyani to the general secretariat already signaled an overt change in (or acknowledgment of previous) priorities in the direction of institutional continuity and the capacity for cooperative military intervention--a la Peninsula Shield in Bahrain--in order to ensure it. Thus, in addition to its possible expansion to include all Arab monarchies--there is no word yet whether the Sultan of Brunei has been solicited for membership--which in any event seems hard to believe will actually materialize, the GCC also seems to be transforming into a more militarily-focused bloc. Indeed, in his very first statement upon assuming his new position some weeks ago, al-Zayyani said that "the Al-Jazeera Shield force [i.e., the one in Bahrain] is the nucleus of a Gulf defense force."

Here, then, is the upshot of the Western silence on Bahrain: a more unified and militarily-robust coalition of Gulf monarchies who have agreed to ensure mutually that their outmoded form of political governance remains viable through the Arab Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter. One hopes that Western leaders, in their overriding desiring for "stability," can see through the fog to appreciate the long-term futility of such a measure. If Moroccan and Jordanian citizens felt politically-disenfranchised prior to their (still doubtful, I think) entry into the RCC, how are they likely to feel with the knowledge that, even if they succeed in pressing for political reforms with their own government, they must contend with a "Maghreb" or "Levant Shield" force ferried in from Saudi Arabia?

Moreover, if, as one must assume, the bargaining for Jordanian and Moroccan membership would go something like this:

Saudi 'Abdullah: If you offer your military services if we're ever in need of them, then we'll give you a lot of money to make your people happy. You know that "Gulf Marshall Plan" for Oman and Bahrain? We've got a couple of those with your names on them--hell, with oil at $100/barrel we can give you four each. After all, we're all Arab brothers ruling by the divine right of kings, you know?

Jordanian 'Abdullah: Ok, sounds good. We like money.

King Mohammed: So do we.

If this is essentially the bargain involved in all this, then the expansion of the GCC will be of equal interest to political commentator and political scientist alike. For we will see the emergence of an entirely new class of rentier state in GCC Morocco and GCC Jordan, themselves bankrolled by other rent-based regimes. What will be interesting to learn, then, is whether or how far the economic benefits-for-political silence model translates outside of the Arab Gulf.

Update: this AP story via ABC News offers good background on the Jordanian membership bid, summarizes most of the above argument, and also offers a few new details about the GCC Shield force, including that some 800 Jordanian troops took/are taking part under the Saudi flag:

"Jordan is in desperate need of the GCC's umbrella to ease its economic hardships, while the GCC wants Jordan's security and military expertise at a time of regional instability," said Jordanian political analyst Labib Kamhawi. "If anything happens in any GCC country, like the unrest that engulfed Bahrain, Jordan cannot intervene militarily if it's not a GCC member."

Last month, under a joint security pact, the GCC sent troops into Bahrain to support the country's king. Jordan is said to have sent a unit of about 800 police and army. The force, however, operated under the umbrella of Saudi Arabia to avoid being publicly as trying to crush the predominantly Shiite uprising.

Jordan is a vocal critic of Shiites, whom it accuses of harboring allegiance to Shiite Iran. Jordan's King Abdullah II, a Sunni and a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, was the first Arab leader to warn of an Iranian-influenced Shiite "crescent" stretching from Iran across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The country stands out in that curve of nations as having neither a Shiite population nor good relations with Iran.
And isn't an anti-Shi'a orientation the main qualification nowadays?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Guilty by Billboard

Bahrain, like all countries of the Arab world, is no stranger to political billboards, especially those meant to demonstrate or evoke loyalty to the ruling troika of the king, prime minister, and crown prince. In the barber shop, at a restaurant, in someone's office, at the mall--everywhere one finds the familiar display of faces smiling beneficently. Here's a nice one of the prime minister, for example, close to the al-Fatih Mosque:

Thus it is perhaps no surprise that this institution of the political billboard is expanding its reach from the general "remember who your leader is" sort of purpose into the more specific realm of public opinion. In this case, while the mass trial of Bahrain's 21 opposition figures has not even started yet in full, their guilt is already being proclaimed via massive billboards spread across the island.

To be sure, even this is nothing new. When many of the same individuals were arrested and tried in late 2010, a heavy billboard and media campaign railed against this supposed "terrorist group," urging Bahrain's leaders to punish its leaders with a heavy hand for fomenting sectarian division, ruining the country, and whatever else it is that non-terrorist terrorist organizations do. (Update: for some examples of these, see reader submissions #2 and #3 below.)

At that time, the following "terrorist organization" flow-chart was published in the Sept. 16, 2010, issue of the most hard-line pro-government newspaper, Al-Watan, said to be owned or at least supervised by the royal court.

In case you cannot follow the logic of the diagram here, it goes something like this: there is a terrorist network led by Hasan al-Musheimi', Sh. Muhammad al-Miqdad (both of which are among the 21 now on trial again), 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.)

Having saved this newspaper clipping for all these months knowing that it would come in handy at some point, imagine my surprise when I see a near-replica of it in billboard form on the ground now in Bahrain. Sure, there are a few more names, and the text is different, but the idea and the message is recognizably the same. It even uses the same "Others?" technique that proved so illustrative in the Al-Watan flow-chart above. Thus it is difficult to escape the fact that either a) the maker of the billboard saw the article in Al-Watan and copied it, or b) the maker of the billboard is more closely related to the Al-Watan article.

Located in Muharraq, the billboard of top opposition leaders al-Mushaimi', 'Abd al-Wahhab Hussain, al-Miqdad, Ebrahim Sharif, and al-Singace reads at the top, "Disease must be excised from the body of the nation." And at bottom: "We won't keep quiet after today about any mistakes or excesses by those who abuse Bahrain and its people." Nice.

Another, below, with the same graphics but different text, reads, "You all are responsible for what happened to our secure Bahrain." (Sorry for the blurry image. Presumably whoever took the photo wanted to do so quickly before he could be arrested for spying.)

Finally, we have another billboard that purports to be not from the government but a request TO the government, from the Al-Hidd youth: "We request of the government... the greatest punishment: NO PARDON for the heads of fitna and the misguided elements." The noose is a subtle touch.

The main lesson?: Muharraq likes its political billboards.

For more billboard madness, see this page from 2004, which among other things demonstrates that this is a tried and true technique. (Here is another, longer version.) And if you have any Bahrain billboard favorites of your own, feel free to post them in the comments section and I will add them to the mix.

Unrelated Update: the Washington Post is finally getting with the program, running an editorial today titled "Applying pressure on Bahrain." Funny that it rejected an almost identical piece I sent more than a month and a half ago. In any case, the punchline is surprisingly forceful:
"The best way to protect American interests is to tell both regimes [Saudi and Bahrain] that a continued security relationship with the United States depends on an end to policies of sectarian repression and on the implementation of moderate reforms. Meanwhile, it’s time to start looking for a new home for the 5th Fleet."
Billboards from Readers:

1.) Sign from al-Busaiteen invoking the sayings of 'Adal Flaifel and calling for the establishment of a "popular army" named Hamad's Popular Army; and, given the quotation below it--"For life, O Brothers and Sisters, gets its value from death"--is calling for martyrdom.

From Wikipedia: Colonel Adel Jassim Flaifel ... is a former colonel in the State Security and Intelligence Service of Bahrain. He is accused of committing, or overseeing, acts of physical and psychological torture on Bahraini citizens from 1980s until 1997. He was released from his duties in December 2002 due to protests and pressures from human rights organizations worldwide.

2.) From August 2010 (and related to the "terrorist network" image from Al-Watan).

"Justice and Law is a sword upon the heads of fitna and terrorism and those who play around with the security of the nation."

3.) More from the same time period, decrying the "terrorism" of tire-burning. "Quick! Evacuate the building! We've received reports that a burning tire is headed this way!"

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Collective Punishment for a Non-Collective

Today the Bahraini government begins its holy grail of court cases. Twenty-one of the country's top political opposition leaders (7 in absentia) stand collectively in a "Lower National Safety Court" (although the state of "national safety" itself has now been revoked). The Bahrain News Agency cites 12 different charges, most of them falling under the country's vague anti-terrorism law of 2006, among which are included:
7. Insult[ing] the army. ...
9. Broadcasting false news and rumours that caused the threatening of public security and inflecting damage to public interest. ...
10. Inciting the hatred of a certain sect of people. ...
One might go on about the conditions of the case itself: most of the detainees have been held incommunicado since arrest; many were beaten at the time of arrest; some have reported being tortured; and defense attorneys were given less than 24 hours notice before the beginning of the trial. And, most ironically, many of these individuals were PARDONED on almost IDENTICAL "terrorism" charges soon after protests began in February, which seems like a strange thing to do if you really believe them to be part of a terrorist conspiracy.

Yet the most striking thing is that this incredibly diverse group of individuals is being tried collectively as members of a coherent terrorist organization. During my time in Bahrain I had the opportunity to interview 4 of those now on trial as part of my dissertation research, and to say that they represent a coherent group of any sort, much less a coherent "terrorist organization," is difficult to square with the patent ideological and political differences that distinguish them.

Those on trial represent five main opposition groups: al-Haqq (e.g., al-Mushaimi', al-Singace, al-Sumaikh), al-Wafa' ('Abd al-Wahhab Hussain, al-Miqdad, al-Nuri), the BCHR (al-Khawajah), Islamic Action (Salah al-Khawajah), and Wa'ad (Sharif). Two of these (Wa'ad and Islamic Action) were perfectly legal organizations until just weeks ago when they were dissolved, while the rest have been "illegal" for some time.

Now, the most obvious odd-man out is Ebrahim Sharif, a secular Sunni whose only connection with the others is that he is an opposition leader and rallied against the government in February and March. His organization, more properly the National Democratic Action Society, is a leftist group that has fielded candidates in each of the last two parliamentary elections (it boycotted in 2002), but since Bahrain's electoral districts are gerrymandered around ethnic lines, Wa'ad (as other secular societies) has not succeeded in winning a single seat despite capturing a relatively large proportion of the popular votes in both 2006 and 2010. (In fact, according to the my 2009 survey, about 10% of Bahraini Shi'a identify with Wa'ad.) Thus among Sharif's biggest gripes is that Bahrain's political system institutionalizes religious-based affiliations to the detriment of secularists such as himself (and he would, say, to the detriment to the country more generally). Sounds like a real terrorist, right?

The other groups are all Shi'a-dominated organizations and, far from cooperating in the service of some larger "terrorist" agenda, tend in fact not to get along so well. Sure, al-Haqq and al-Wafa' (and the London-based Bahrain Freedom Movement) combined to form the "Coalition for a Republic," but historically the relationship between the two has not been so cooperative. That is because al-Wafa' exists precisely as a counterpoint to al-Haqq, which critics (especially al-Wifaq supporters) accuse of lacking religious legitimacy.

The leaders of al-Wafa', then, decided in early 2009 to create a new movement (indeed "the New Movement" was its name for a while) that would rectify this limitation of al-Haqq. By combining political clout ('Abd al-Wahhab Hussain) with religious authority (Sh. al-Miqdad), the idea was to offer a new protest movement that detractors could not dismiss as acting without religious legitimacy. Understandably, however, this move did not sit well with everyone in al-Haqq, especially since 'Abd al-Wahhab Hussain was some years ago among its top leadership.

The al-Khawajahs (representing the BCHR and al-Amal), finally, form yet another category of Shi'a opposition with no connection to al-Haqq or al-Wafa'. These groups, long associated with the "Shirazi" supporters of Ayatallah Hadi al-Mudarrisi, are ideologically at odds not only with the majority of Bahrain's Shi'a (who follow the more mainstream principle of waliyat al-faqih) but with the Iranian regime itself. Indeed, during the 'Ashura' ceremony one finds much evidence of this additional intra-Shi'a split, with separate mosques/ma'tams for Shirazi and non-Shirazi worshipers, and even signs and banners hung by one side to criticize the other.

In sum, Bahrain's collective trial of its opposition figures gives (and presumably is meant to give) the impression of a massive conspiracy among many like-minded individuals. Yet those facing trial share little but an anti-government orientation, and constitute no more of a collective "terrorist" threat than Marxists and evangelical Christians do to the U.S. As Sh. 'Ali Salman once said of the similar trial in September 2010 of many of these same individuals,
"The group accused of attempting to overthrow the government cannot overthrow the board of a charity society if they wanted to by the means they were using, let alone a regime."