Thursday, June 30, 2011

Bahrain to the Opposition: "Would You Like a Fact-Finding Commission to Go with That Dialogue?"

Spurred by months of international criticism and domestic political stagnation, the government in Bahrain is finally trying to piece things back together, or at least to give the appearance of doing so. This effort is aimed primarily at its observers abroad; though, as Laurence Louër points out in this excellent Arab Reform Bulletin piece, Bahrain's rulers are also attempting to make sure that they do not lose their relatively small but powerful constituency of long-time pro-government Shi'a families. (Hence, for example, King Hamad's June 21 personal visit to the majlis of the late Ibrahim Hamidan.)

The most obvious of these window-dressing measures is of course the July 2 faux National Dialogue, in which 300 mostly non-political delegates will talk over each other at the 'Isa Cultural Center and then submit their watered-down, least-common-denominator recommendations to King Hamad for a prompt filing in the circular receptacle, as my 5th-grade teacher used to say--that is, in the garbage can. For those further interested in this futile process, see the list of attendees recently published in Al-Wasat:

As noted before, of this five-column monstrosity, only the middle third column consists of participants from political societies. And, of these societies, only 2 of 15 currently have representation in parliament. So, all in all, the National Dialogue should prove an efficacious path to substantive political reform in Bahrain.

Yet the dialogue initiative is not alone. Indeed, over the past few days Bahrain has sought to address almost systematically each of the main criticisms levied against it for its handling of the post-February 14 period.

  • Just three days after a June 25 report that FIFA will be investigating Bahrain's arrest of players on its national football/soccer team, authorities very quietly announced the release of an unspecified number of detained athletes, along with all but 14 of the doctors and nurses facing trial (the trial is still on, however).

  • Five days after the widely-condemned sentences handed down by a military tribunal to Bahrain's 21 opposition leaders on June 22, authorities announced the transfer of some cases against anti-government activists (though not those of the doctors/nurses or the al-Wifaq MPs) to civilian court.

  • Two weeks after the U.S. Department of Labor agreed to consider a complaint by the AFL-CIO contending that Bahrain's March and April firings of those suspected of demonstration participation violated the U.S.-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement, the Bahraini government dispatched its Ministers of Labour and Industry and Commerce to the U.S. for meetings with--you guessed it--senior AFL-CIO officials along with those from the State Department.

  • News of the phased withdrawal of "most of" the Saudi military forces in Bahrain was conveniently leaked to Western media this week, while the Arabic press in Bahrain (e.g., Al-Ayam) continues to the deny the report, citing anonymous Saudi officials of its own.

  • Several weeks after agreeing "in principle" to a UN-led inquiry into Bahrain's post-February crackdown, Bahrain announces instead its own, government-sponsored but still "independent" commission to investigate claims of human rights abuses "by both sides"--that is, by the government and by protesters.

    While no one can question the integrity of those who will comprise the committee--all of them being very respected internationally--one must assume that the government has its reasons to prefer its own commission to one headed by a third party like the UNHCHR. If nothing else, it will be much easier to say "thanks but no thanks" to the recommendations of a group of people working at your own behest than to the United Nations.

    Nonetheless, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has already given her blessing to the committee. But, then again, how could she not?, what with Bahrain being a sitting member of the UN Human Rights Council and all. Along with Saudi Arabia. And Libya. And Russia. And China for God's sake. A real Who's Who? of human rights defenders.

About these clearly very deliberate PR moves by the Bahraini government two things stand out.

The first is that, at the same time that the authorities take pains to announce publicly their intention to investigate the acts of violence, vengeance, and injustice undertaken during the previous months, these same acts continue unabated. As I write, today's protest in Jidhafs organized by the February 14 coalition is being teargassed by riot police. (And tomorrow's rally in al-Diraz led by al-Wifaq may get a similar treatment.) Furthermore, the appeal hearing for the 21 opposition leaders due to take place this week has been postponed to a much more politically-convenient date in September, which avoids the need to announce the verdicts in the days before the National Dialogue, especially as the government attempts to woo al-Wifaq and its supporters. Finally, several more high-profile (and controversial) trials have still yet to go forward or issue verdicts, including the military trials of the 48 doctors and nurses; and of former al-Wifaq MPs Matar Matar and Jawad Fayruz.

Hence, at the same time that it is saying, "You know, we should really form a commission to investigate all the bad things that have happened," the same bad things are still happening.

The second observation one may make is that all the measures announced so far, including the National Dialogue and the "fact-finding committee," represent an attempt to return to the status quo ante, to the state of affairs prior to February 14, as if this everything after this date were a mere aberration. Thus the trials of "those responsible," the "national dialogue" to reconcile society, and a backward-looking investigation into "what happened."

The problem is that the question is not "what happened" but "what is happening." That is to say, the protests, if sparked in the immediate sense by events outside Bahrain, were a culmination of a political conflict that has been brewing for decades, and that is no closer to resolution (and will not be any closer at the conclusion of the National Dialogue, even if al-Wifaq does participate) than when protests began on February 14.

The government is acting as though all that remains is to dialogue in the coming weeks, finish up trials in the next few months, elect a new parliament in late September, release the findings from the "independent commission" sometime in October, and then things should be back to normal by the new year. Voilà!

Yet, as Toby Jones has recently observed, "Events seem to have gone too far and too fast for some kind of quick fix through talks." Dialogues and commissions, while nice, are no substitute for actual political reform to address actual political grievances of actual political constituencies. Unfortunately, as Louër argues in her Carnegie piece, the ever-expanding Sunni-Shi'i (and inter-Al Khalifa) divide occasioned by the February 14 uprising will render such a process that much more difficult.

Update: so it turns out that those reports that al-Wifaq would not participate in the National Dialogue because it "missed the deadline" for agenda submission were indeed wrong after all. Talking on BBC Radio (at 2:53) with Jane Kinninmont of Chatham House, two-term MP Jasim Husain says he expects al-Wifaq to announce its participation at its festival today in al-Diraz, which makes some sense since its title as announced on Internet fliers is "Our National Demands." (There is an 'Ali Salman press conference scheduled tonight for 7:30pm.)

Moreover, Sh. 'Isa Qasim today in his Friday sermon (audio; English summary) welcomed the king's fact-finding mission and paved the way for al-Wifaq's participation in the dialogue, saying that although the dialogue is not genuine, the group is under pressure to take part and that involvement would not be "a betrayal of religion," as one forum-goer summarizes. This should make for an interesting event today in al-Diraz, since many are not happy with the decision, likening it to al-Wifaq's agreement to participate in the 2006 elections that led to its splintering.

Finally, the Gulf Daily News reports some new details today on the format of the dialogue itself, which will include 181 (!) different agendas, 16 moderators, and four different "halls" (political, social, economic, and human rights). And decisions will be sought "through consensus rather than by taking a formal vote." Consensus among 300 participants from 100 different societies? That should be no problem, right?

Update 2: it's official.

Bahrain's National Dialogue and the Ever-Deepening Sectarian Divide

I don't normally devote an entire post to a link, but in this case it deserves one.

Laurence Louër, a research fellow at Sciences Po who published an outstanding 2008 book on Shi'ism in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait called "Transnational Shia Politics" (Amazon link), has an equally outstanding piece today in the Arab Reform Bulletin at the Carnegie Endowment. It is called "Bahrain's National Dialogue and the Ever-Deepening Sectarian Divide."

If you haven't read her book, which is based on extensive fieldwork in all three countries (in Bahrain it seems she manages to meet with everyone save for the king and prime minister), I would suggest you do so.

In sum, it argues against the notion of a "transnational Shia crescent" of the sort warned of famously by Jordan's King 'Abdallah II and demonstrates that, in fact, in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, Shi'a politics is quite localized and based primarily on decades-old relationships between the aging generation of Shi'i scholars (in Bahrain, e.g., Sh. 'Isa Qasim and S. 'Abdallah al-Ghurayfi) who met in seminaries in Najaf or Karbala'. Thus she traces the inter-personal networks of these individuals to discover how far one can indeed speak of something like a "transnational" Shia program of political empowerment. Especially if you have some familiarity with these countries and leaders to begin with, this book is a fascinating read.

Her Carnegie piece begins,
Still holding on to its democratic façade, the Bahraini regime has called for a national dialogue to begin on July 2, while simultaneously orchestrating wide-ranging violations of basic human rights. King Hamad announced the formation of a “fact-finding committee” to investigate the cause of the uprisings in Bahrain in a June 29 speech, in an apparent gesture to encourage opposition participation in the dialogue. By-elections are scheduled for September 24 to replace the 18 opposition MPs who resigned in February in protest of the monarchy’s violent suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators who had been emboldened by the general climate of Arab uprising. All resigning MPs were from al-Wefaq (the Accord) National Islamic Party, Bahrain’s largest political opposition group, formed in 2001 from a grouping of different trends within Bahraini Shi’i political Islam.
Read the rest.

And, finally, as an appropriate addendum to Louër's article, Al-Wasat has published today the complete list of National Dialogue participants. In case you had not yet fully appreciated this monstrosity, behold:

Of the 15 groups listed in the "political societies" column (the middle column, to give you a sense of how outnumbered politicians will be), a grand total of 2 have won seats in parliament in the last two elections. Al-Wifaq, if you were wondering, is not listed.

Sh. 'Isa Qasim and S. 'Abdallah al-Ghurayfi are listed, however, in the "individuals" category. Ironically, their names appear just before that of Sh. 'Abd al-Latif Al Mahmud.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

25 More Years of Crisis

Reacting to the sentences handed down to Bahrain's main opposition leaders last week, Sh. 'Ali Salman told the BBC that the judge who issued the verdicts also ensured that "Bahrain's crisis will continue for another 25 years as well"--i.e., for as long as the men were imprisoned. And, in the first move toward a self-fulfilling prophecy, al-Wifaq has decided by omission not to take part in the al-Dhaharani-sponsored National Dialogue to commence shortly.

As far as I can tell, never did al-Wifaq say "we will not participate," but, as implied above, its rejection was by omission--that is, by failing to submit an "agenda" by the government's deadline set for Sunday the 26th. The Gulf Daily News story linked here claims that the decision came "despite some members apparently wanting to take part," a fact pro-government folks are being quick to point out.

Assuming the group will indeed boycott, the reasons are obvious enough. In recent days 'Ali Salman has outlined a number of these, in particular (1) the lack of a royal family participant:
"This dialogue will be successful if there is a principal person from Royal Family like the Crown Prince present in the process. He understands the demand and the opposition sees him as a leader, who could solve this crisis."
And (2) the watering down of al-Wifaq's representation within the dialogue by the inclusion of hundreds of delegates from various groups and societies, most of which are unrelated to politics. He says:
"The opposition groups are clearly a minority on the negotiation table. ...

"Even if Al Wefaq participates along with other groups, the opposition will represent close to 100 people with the support of other individuals."

Close to 100, that is, out of 300. And this includes other, nominal "opposition" societies such as an Ibrahim Sharif-less Wa'ad, the Progressive Tribune of Hasan Madan, and some other groups that have won a grand total of 0 seats in parliament since 2002.

The government, of course, is stressing the rate of participation rather than the political reach of those participating. The statistic de jour, for example, is the dialogue's "94% participation rate." Interestingly, however, when we look at the government's more precise breakdown, we find that the lowest participation rate by type of participant is--go figure--political societies. But, when you think about it, as long as 100% of the invited (pro-government) journalists will be there, who cares how many political societies show up to this political dialogue?

As one would expect, this "94% participation rate" gives the army of pro-government propagandists a ready-made slogan to spread via social media. The logic goes something like this: "If 94% of Bahrain is represented at the dialogue, who cares whether al-Wifaq comes or not?!!!1 They can sit home and pick dates LOL !"

As if one really needed to point out the flaw in this argument, let's do the math. According to my 2009 mass survey of Bahrain, an estimated 57.6% of Bahraini citizens are Shi'a. Of the Shi'a interviewed in my survey, 55% of those who say their views are represented by a political society identified al-Wifaq. So, by these 2009 estimates al-Wifaq represents at least 57.6% x 55% = 31.7% of the citizen Bahraini population:

(And, if one assumes that a decent number of former al-Haqq and al-Wafa' supporters have been drawn into its sphere of influence since its mass resignation from parliament and its assumption of the role of main protest organizer, this is likely a low estimate.)

More simply, if one would take the proportion directly from the parliament, al-Wifaq would then represent 18/40 or 45% of the Bahraini population--unless, of course, the government is trying to say that the majlis al-nuwab is not a representative institution. Whatever the case, the National Dialogue can't represent 94% of the Bahraini population if al-Wifaq alone represents some one-third or one-half of it. Unless one is happy with 6% as an approximation of 32% or 45%.

If a new dialogue were setup involving 1,000 members of the Al Khalifa along with, say, 80 representatives of society, and these 80 people decided the initiative wasn't worth their time because they were hopelessly outnumbered, would this dialogue then represent 93% of Bahraini society because 1000/1080 = 93%? If the invitees are not proportional to their representation of the population to begin with, then we can make up whatever such statistics we want. Anyway, I assume I am preaching to the choir here, so I'll stop there.

In lieu of the National Dialogue, al-Wifaq will on July 1 hold the third installment of its parallel dialogue, the "Festival of Sermons/Speeches," in al-Diraz, not incidentally the home village of Sh. 'Isa Qasim. Al-Wifaq seems to be going for wide geographical variation, as the first was in Saar and the second in Sitra.

Another online poster beseeches people to "renew" their "legitimate and rightful national demands on Friday in al-Diraz."

In other news, the King will give a "very important" speech tomorrow (June 29) on "the latest developments in Bahrain" after presiding over a cabinet meeting. Speculation among opposition forum-goers ranges from a release of the sports figures and doctors/nurses on trial; to a pardon of the opposition leaders just recently sentenced; to an appointment of a new leader of the national dialogue. The news of the king's speech is also among the most active threads on the main pro-government forum, where many are dreading an announcement of pardons. Whatever King Hamad says, in all probability it will render irrelevant everything I've written here about the dialogue.

If it is not about the National Dialogue specifically, though, the speech could be about the impending withdrawal of "most of" the Saudi/GCC forces (NYT article here) from Bahrain, an event the government is obviously keen to advertise. (Of course, the official figure of 1,200 has been revealed already to be a considerable understatement of the Saudi force levels in Bahrain: a Wall Street Journal article from April notes that "The Saudis publicly announced that 1,000 troops had entered Bahrain, but privately they concede that the actual number is considerably higher." So the number that remains behind is likely also to be higher than the official figure.)

(Update: Al-Ayam is citing Saudi sources in denying that any withdrawal will take place and specifically denying this Reuters report.)

I guess we'll have to wait (though not too long) to find out.

Update: the BNA is reporting rather quietly the release last night of an unspecified number of detainees from among medical personnel and athletes who had been arrested for their "parts" in anti-government protests. Many are taking the release as a signal of further concessions to the opposition (if obviously not portrayed as such) to be announced by King Hamad later today.

Unrelatedly, the U.S. has appointed career FSO and former Ambassador to Yemen Thomas Krajeski as its new Ambassador to Bahrain. Most recently, he was in Iraq helping to negotiate the permanent boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan before returning to the U.S. to serve as Vice President of the National Defense University. So: an FSO with a strong military background and experience in two fractured societies. That sounds about right. I know that when I was in Yemen in 2006 he was very well liked among Yemenis; let's see if he can overcome the current anti-U.S. fever in Bahrain.

Update 2: So much for a "historic day" in Bahrain, as some speech prognosticators were calling it. Instead, King Hamad's announcement was that of an "independent truth commission" (details here) to investigate human rights violations linked to the uprising. In short, it will be government-appointed and headed by U.S.-based human rights lawyer Mahmud Basyuni.

The funny thing is, the Bahraini government had already at the beginning of June agreed "in principle" to a UN-based mission to do the exact same thing. So presumably a government-appointed "independent" *wink wink* commission is preferable to a UN-appointed ACTUALLY independent commission.

Thus, as the Associated Press notes,
Some [read: all] suspect the king's decree to investigate alleged abuses may just be window dressing to exonerate Bahrain's rulers and allow them to continue the crackdown on opposition supporters despite criticism from rights groups and Western allies.
The Arabic text of the address is here. (Update: And the video:)

It would seem that if the government really wanted to ensure that peoples' rights were respected, it could start by not postponing the appeals of the 21 opposition leaders, many of whom were just sentenced to life in prison, to a more politically-convenient time (September). And, of course, there is still the matter of inter-Al Khalifa politics. The King may want a truly independent commission. Others--not least among them the prime minister and the khawalid--may (and likely do) not.

Will this (along with last night's release of medical/athletic prisoners and the reported (though now denied) withdrawal of Saudi forces) be enough to coax al-Wifaq to the dialogue?

Update 3: a commenter points out that the February 14 people have (as always) their own agenda for tomorrow and Friday, part of their "Week of Popular Rage." Both events are set for Jidhafs near the suq, and come with a cool-looking advertisement:

And, in case you haven't received your instructions yet, please be advised:

Friday, June 24, 2011

An Illustrated Guide to the Bahrain Uprising

While we await the decision of al-Wifaq about whether it will participate in the upcoming National Dialogue--which, if yesterday's press conference and today's Friday sermon by 'Isa Qasim are any indication (see the videos below), seems to be "No"--I thought it would be nice to put the many hours of hard work by pro-government and opposition media groups to further use by creating an Illustrated Guide to the Bahrain Uprising using only images I've found on forums, Twitter, etc.

First, though, some preliminaries. The al-Wifaq press conference starring Khalil al-Marzuq, who calls the dialogue "not serious" but insists the society still has not made up its mind about participation:

Sh. 'Isa Qasim, on the other hand, seems to have a pretty good idea. Indeed, the title of the sermon itself is "A Dialogue that Announces Its Own Failure." In it, inter alia, he asks, "Is it required of us to enter dialogue when we are wronged, oppressed and insulted while you [the government] are laughing?" Touché.

Nonetheless, the government has now extended until Sunday the deadline for dialogue "submissions of topics," conveniently (and coincidentally, I'm sure) giving al-Wifaq a few more days to arrive at a final answer.

Finally, the following are some good links from the past days that are not simply about the sentences of the opposition leaders.
  1. "Hard-line Sunni voice gains audience in Bahrain" - an AP article about the growing (and once-unlikely) influence of Sh. 'Abd al-Latif Al Mahmud.

  2. "Becoming the Enemy" - U.S. Iran expert Gary Sick compares Bahrain's 2011 to Iran's 2009 post-election crackdown.

  3. "Washington's Spies Are in Manama Prior to the Dialogue" - You guessed it: our friend Yusif Al Bin Khalil is back at it again, this time asking "Has Washington sent its spies to Manama before the dialogue? Or is there right now a secret American delegation moving among the cities and villages of Bahrain? I don't have a clear answer to this question, but ..." let's see if I can write an entire article speculating about it!

  4. "Bahrain and the Option of Partition" - If you answered Al Bin Khalil again you are right. I really need to keep more up to date on this guy's articles. (And, if this Tweet by Susan al-Sha'ir is correct, it may soon be easier. She says that Al-Watan is preparing to launch its own English-language website. One can only hope!) Anyway, here Al Bin Khalil raises the issue of partitioning Bahrain, a country 2.5 times the size of Washington, D.C., into Sunni and Shi'i enclaves. Yet, if you take a look at my ethnic map of Bahrain, you'll see that someone clearly has beaten him to it:

  5. And if you're like me and just can't get enough of Al Bin Khalil, some other of his recent offerings include: "After the Iranians.. Came Washington's Role"; "The Strategic Options for Sunnis Only!"; and "The Shi'a are the Democrats; the Sunna the Monarchists!"

  6. "Bahrain Doesn't Want Stability" - A piece in Foreign Policy whose title does a good job of explaining itself.

  7. Finally, there is news of an escalation in the Bahrain media war. Al-Ayam is reporting that Bahrain will soon appoint three media coordinators to the U.S., Britain, and Egypt, at a reported cost of 5 million dinars (a bit more than $13 million). This has been deemed by the government considerably less expensive than the alternative, which is to stop giving foreign media reasons to run negative stories about it in the first place.
And now on with the show!

An Illustrated Guide to Bahrain's February 14 Uprising

Once upon a time, the Kingdom of Bahrain lived in social and political harmony under the tender leadership of the Al Khalifa triumvirate,

who spent their days riding horses,

and hanging out with their friends,

and shooting things.

And the people were happy.

But the blood-spewing ghost of Ayatollah Sistani was not happy!

And that snake-charmer Ayatollah Khamenei was not happy!

And Devil Obama was not happy!

And when the ghost of Ayatollah Sistani, the snake-charming Ayatollah Khamenei, and Devil Obama are not happy, then no one shall be happy!

So they decided to send their minions down to wreak havoc in the harmonious Kingdom of Bahrain.

First, there was Hasan al-Musheimi'.

And then Sh. 'Abd al-Wahhab Hussein.

And then there was former al-Asalah MP 'Isa Abu al-Fath holding a photo of Saddam Hussein. Wait, what?

Then, finally, there was that Israeli-Iranian-American Sh. 'Isa Qasim, the worst and most contradictorily-affiliated of them all.

And, lo, did these minions wreak their havoc!, taking hostage the most prized of all Bahrain's 750 roundabouts and turning it into a place of filth and temporary marriage in their filthy Shi'i way!

Who could put an end to this madness and sexual ambiguity? Was it 'Isa Abu al-Fath and the reincarnated spirit of Saddam Hussein? NO! It was Bahrain's friends to the West.. and, I guess, South.. the Arabians from the land of Saudi.

Those shit-kicking bad-asses were always ready to kick some Shi'i butt, including their king, also ever ready to strike a pose.

But who else was prepared to stand up to the Iranian minions at the Pearl Roundabout? The 450,000-strong National Unity Gathering!

And so the Al Khalifa and the Arabians from the land of Saudi mustered the troops and inspected their steel horses

and ran the Iranians out of town!

And so too did the National Unity Gathering act as a wave stabilizing the ship of Bahrain, inundated by mischief perpetrated by "the deviant sect!"

But, alas, someone was still not happy. It was devil Obama, who dared question the tactics employed by Bahrain and the Arabians from the land of Saudi! He would even sneak into the country under their noses to commiserate with his fellow Shi'is at the wailing wall in Sitra,

and to use his skills as a community organizer to oversee 'Ashura' processions.

How should the Bahraini Arabians deal with such false friends (who, incidentally, had already pissed off the Arabians from the land of Saudi)? Why, with a swift slap to the face of course!

But how to deal with the trouble-makers who brought Bahrain thus to the brink? Should they be pardoned? NO!

Should they be sent back to Iran?

The Bahraini Arabians were stumped.

But then their friends from the land of Saudi Arabia reminded them that under Bahrain's 2006 counter-terrorism law anyone can be imprisoned so long as he is a member of a terrorist organization clearly delineated by a flow chart. The Ministry of Information got to work.

Yet still one small problem remained: how to earn back the favor of all those who suffered over the past weeks and months (Oh, I didn't mention that? Yea--it turns out that everyone was fired from work and/or arrested and/or knows someone who was arrested or fired.)

The Bahraini Arabians were stumped once again. But then someone remembered about the flow charts! And dialogue! "People love dialogue!" someone said. "Oh, right! I've heard that too!" said another.

And so they designed the bestest dialogue flow chart this side of the Mississip. Surely no one could stay mad if a flow chart told them not to be!

Could you?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Pre-Dialogue Dialogue

The past few days have seen several new developments on the Bahraini National Dialogue front--or, as many in the opposition have taken to calling it, "حوار الطرشان," the Dialogue of the Deaf. The first of these is additional, flowchart-based clarification of what the National Dialogue process will actually entail. It seems someone in the Bahraini Ministry of Information has been introduced to the full graph-building prowess of the newest version of Microsoft Office. Or maybe they just hired some of the opposition's Internet media team. Either way, behold!:

Interestingly, it seems that despite its start being some 10 days away, already 1/3 of the National Dialogue has already been completed! Step 1 of the dialogue is deciding to hold the dialogue. Done! Step 2 is sending invitations. Done! See how easy that was?

In fact, I have recently downloaded Microsoft Office myself, and I've come up with my own, modified National Dialogue flowchart. To keep things parsimonious, I have distilled the process down to the actual steps involved:

As you see, I cut out the middle man to more accurately illustrate what is going to happen: 250 or 300 people--including ex-pats and the Bahraini United Barbers' Alliance and, reportedly, the BSPCA--are going to gather and talk about all the things they would like to see changed in The New Bahrain™. And then the king in consultation with other members of the royal family is going to issue whatever damn royal orders he pleases. (To be sure, if a video clearly showing King Hamad to agree to political concessions did not stop him from publicly reneging on the deal in 2002, what are the chances that any reform suggestions from the National Dialogue Steering Committee are likely to result in the "Issuing [of] Royal Orders" to implement them?)

If you don't believe me, please consult the following pie chart depicting just how irrelevant most of the participants in the national dialogue are:

So, only 37% of those taking part in Bahrain's dialogue about political reform are actual political societies. Don't get me wrong: I support the United Barbers' Alliance as much as the next guy, and do want to see them get a fair shake in The New Bahrain™, but somehow this whole setup seems, well, contrived.

As I said to a commenter to the previous article, the dialogue initiative was sparked by a specific set of events, namely a revolt by a largely-Shi'a (and secular Sunni) constituency with long-standing political demands. This constituency is not asking for a repeal of LMRA or for better schools but for specific revisions to the political status quo. The idea that the government will take the opportunity to embark on sweeping social, political, and economic change of the sort that requires participation from "professional societies" and the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce is hard to imagine. In the end, the government would like to frame the dialogue as a mere continuation of a decades-long modernization project that may or may not coincide with the largest mass uprising since the 1990s--something few seem to be buying.

If a group of students--say, females--is upset with a professor because they claim he never calls on them in class, favors male students, and gives them undeservedly-low grades on their papers, does it make more sense for such a professor to amass all the students to decide on an entirely new curriculum, or to call in the female students privately to discuss their complaints?

I appreciate that other (pro-government) political societies that have a stake in the outcome must necessarily be involved. But 250 delegates? Come on.

And if one would still doubt the futility of this effort, King Hamad himself essentially indicated as much on Tuesday with a series of personal visits to influential families, for a bit of what one might call "pre-dialogue dialogue." That's right: how better to demonstrate the efficacy of a democratic process of political reform such as a 250-member-strong National Dialogue than by paying personal visits to a select group of one's political friends?

Attended by his sons 'Abdallah and Nasr (I'm sure Salman was busy), King Hamad first visited the majalis of the Al Mahmud and Al Musallem of Al-Hidd, both longstanding--as in, for the past 200 years--tribal allies of the Al Khalifa. One of the Al Mahmud, Sh. 'Abd al-Latif, is today keeping that tradition alive as the firebrand leader of the National Unity Gathering, which, as the following cartoon from Akhbar al-Khaleej clearly shows, is the moderating force that propped up the ship of Bahrain through the current storm. Doesn't Bahrain look so happy and sunny now?

Next, so as not to show any Sunni-Shi'i partiality, the three headed to the majlis of the late Ibrahim Muhammad Hasan Hamidan, former President of the Constitutional Court and recently-deceased scion of the Al Hamidan family, another Al Khalifa supporter.

Finally, rumor had it a day earlier on Monday that three black Mercedes with royal plates were also spotted at the roundabout leading into al-Diraz, raising speculation of a high-level visit to some other prominent Shi'a family(s), perhaps even to Sh. 'Isa Qasim himself. Indeed, according to the Interweb, the latter was approached by a senior government delegation seeking a meeting but he refused it.

Effectively, then, there appear to be at least two concurrent "dialogues": the monstrosity that is the 250-member National Dialogue; and then the more tribal-politics-as-usual sort of dialogue that involves secret meetings with political leaders and ceremonial visits to allied families' majalis. Can anyone guess which is more likely to produce actual results? If Hamad's first go at dialogue (2001-02) was any indication, my money is on the latter.

This strange situation--wherein one must pay lip service to the National Dialogue in order to be part of the actual dialogue behind the scenes--has put the mainstream opposition in a difficult situation. On the one hand, al-Wifaq (and Wa'ad for that matter, as it has now been mysteriously unbanned) does not wish to appear to have been co-opted (its detractors would say) yet again; while it also does not want to be excluded from the parallel process of behind-the-scenes talks that will inevitably take place.

On exactly this question the Bahrain Mirror (which has quickly replaced post-coup Al-Wasat as the independent Bahraini news source of choice) has a very interesting article, titled "Sh. 'Ali Salman: Sleeping With One Eye Open, and the Challenge of Accepting the [National] Dialogue." It discusses al-Wifaq's predicament as described above: balancing the consequences of accepting the dialogue (the perception--or perhaps reality--of government co-optation) with those of not accepting it (further harassment and isolation; a hit to its international image as the oppressed but reasonable opposition).

But it also claims to reveal a fascinating bit of information not reported before about the original, crown prince-led dialogue: that, just as it seemed the principles of the dialogue were about to be agreed, King Hamad phoned Sh. 'Ali Salman via a representative of the crown prince, who was then meeting with the heads of the seven political societies, to inform them that Saudi troops were crossing over the causeway into Bahrain, and that things were now out of his hands. The original:

في ذاك الوقت الاستثنائي، فإنه حين بدا أن مبادئ الحوار على وشك أن يتم التوافق عليها، اتصل الملك برئيس جمعية الوفاق، من خلال مبعوثي ولي العهد، الذين كانوا حينها مجتمعين مع قيادات الجمعيات السبع، وأبلغه أن القوات السعودية على الجسر، وأن الأمور باتت خارج سيطرة الحكم

Whatever the case, something tells me that al-Wifaq must eventually relent and take part in the July 1 initiative, if only to avoid a political sidelining of the sort that continues to plague the crown prince. Of course, given the ongoing harassment of its current and former members--the military trial of Mattar Mattar and Jawad Fayruz has just concluded, with a verdict due July 5--such a decision will not be easy. But it is difficult to see things ending better for the rest of al-Wifaq were its representatives not to show up on July 1.

The less mainstream opposition, meanwhile, continues to try to fight the good fight. Another mass rally is planned for Wednesday tomorrow--dubbed the "Day of Solidarity with the National Icons [i.e., opposition leaders]"--as well as Friday. A banner asks, "With what will we respond to their resistance and struggle? Are we ready to resist and sacrifice?"

The gameplan posted to opposition forums indicates that protesters will attempt to block roads with barricades. Good luck with that.

In case you have not yet received your instructions, please find them below:

The plan for Friday is still yet to be released. It will be interesting to see whether al-Wifaq will attempt to commandeer the event as it did in Sitra last week, presumably in an effort to make sure it did not get out of hand. Unfortunately, come July 1, al-Wifaq's sway among the February 14 Revolution faction may well run out.

Update: today's and Friday's rallies "in solidarity with the national icons" just got more interesting, since, as reported everywhere, most of these "national icons" have just been sentenced to life in prison. Of the top opposition leaders, only Ebrahim Sharif escaped relatively unscathed with a five-year sentence. Still, one has to imagine that Wa'ad is now out of the National Dialogue, unless of course Obaidly al-Obaidly is appointed by the government to be its new Secretary General.

As for al-Wifaq, it's too early to say how or whether this will affect its participation. While it certainly won't welcome the sentences, at this point it is probably more interested in the fate of its own former MPs, due to be sentenced July 5. I'm sure the timing of the verdict--four days after the start of the dialogue--is coincidental. In any event, there is scheduled a press conference for tomorrow where 'Ali Salman is expected to announce the group's decision.

Finally, some have mentioned already the possibility of a royal pardon, which in previous years has been par for the course in political cases such as these. The difference now, though, is that the one who does the pardoning is not necessarily any longer in charge (for the latest evidence of this, see the Bahrain Mirror article cited above). And a sure way for the king's faction to lose even more allies inside the Al Khalifa is to extend yet more pardons to "terrorists."

Update 2: this interesting thread on the main opposition forum gives an eye-witness report of the post-verdict reactions/responses of several of those sentenced, including Sh. 'Abd al-Wahhab, 'Abd al-Hadi al-Khawajah, and Hasan al-Mushaimi'.

Update 3: it seems the Bahraini government media team is hard at work once again, this time in producing an updated terrorist organization flowchart depicting the supposed relations between the opposition leaders just sentenced. Presumably, this supersedes the less elegant version that appeared some time ago in Al-Watan.

Update 4: the verdict is in--and a few hours early. Khalil al-Marzuq says that al-Wifaq will not be dialoguing. (Yet it is a day later and still no one else is reporting this; perhaps CNN got it wrong?)

Update 5: the al-Wifaq press conference from Wednesday, in which Khalil al-Marzuq criticizes the dialogue in strong terms but insists that the group still hasn't decided whether it will participate (I guess CNN was wrong), is now available in video form:

Friday, June 17, 2011

Fighting Dialogue with More Dialogue

In the past week more news has been trickling in about Bahrain's al-Dhaharani-led National Dialogue, not least via the new Twitter account setup by the government to disseminate propaganda--er, I mean news--about the initiative set to begin on July 1.

As indicated by such tweets as these, then, the most notable new development seems to be that the authorities have altogether disregarded al-Wifaq's argument (via Khalil al-Marzuq) that "[t]he dialogue that needs to happen is between the King, the Crown Prince, and the opposition."

Instead, it appears to be taking the exact opposite route, designing the national dialogue to include as many people as humanly possible in order, one assumes, to preclude any chance of agreement on substantive reforms. Sh. Fawaz has already indicated that the dialogue "will include 60 societies." No word whether the BSPCA in Saar has been invited. In fact, I myself am thinking of registering the Justin Gengler Society for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice so that I can finally visit al-Safriyyah Palace. More likely, though, given the lack of enthusiasm on the part of Bahrain's authorities, the national dialogue meetings will be held at Nando's in 'Adliyah.

Al-Wifaq, at least, is not bothering to waste time finding out. As reported today everywhere, another Friday sermon has brought more tough talk from Sh. 'Isa Qasim, who "denounced the Gulf kingdom's rulers for 'damaging the country' and warned Friday that tension-easing dialogue cannot take place until authorities halt crackdowns used to crush protests demanding greater political rights." The Washington Post quotes him as saying,
We demand meaningful and real reforms that guarantee the rights of people. ... There is no reform when our people are in jail, dismissed from jobs, religious ceremonies attacked and media sponsored by the state are spreading lies and misinformation. ...

We have offered so many sacrifices and cannot back down and end up empty handed.

As always, we will post the video of the sermon once it's been posted to YouTube, which shouldn't be long.

Al-Wifaq is not, however, just sitting on its hands. Today marks the second week in a row that it has organized a well-attended "dialogue" of its own. Last week was in Saar; today's "festival for the nation" starts at 5:00pm in the village of Kharajiyyah in Sitra. The announcement:

Curiously, this seems to overlap with another, less "official" gathering by the February 14 Revolution folks that had been scheduled for 4:30pm in all the villages of Sitra. Its announcement below tells that "the people of Sitra will keep their promise until the fall of the Al Khalifa regime":

So apparently either al-Wifaq co-opted these more "radical" protests or they are happening simultaneously. I would guess the former. Either way, turn-out seems to have been decent:

(Update: al-Wifaq has now posted a video of the event to its YouTube site:)

The real question, of course, is how far al-Wifaq is willing to go in its boycott of the National Dialogue, and what happens if it eventually relents. Right now considerable pressure remains on the Bahraini government, including from the United States, which just mentioned it in the same breath as Iran and Syria as a human rights violator (see Bahrain's response); but if it seems to the U.S. as though the opposition is not willing to meet the government half way, no doubt al-Wifaq will find itself the U.S.'s next target. (The Coalition for a Republic is already upset that the U.S. has rejected it as a partner in the national dialogue.)

This is all the more so given the concerted media campaign lately designed to highlight American favoritism toward the Bahraini opposition. Indeed, the pro-government Twitter camp is quick these days to report any sightings of U.S. Embassy officials meeting with the opposition. This guy, for example, says: "I always see [former al-Wifaq MP] Jasim Hussein with Americans... everywhere he is meeting with them in coffee shops. Coffee is the biggest ... link between foreigners and al-Wifaq." And another asks provocatively: "I wonder why Munira Fakhro from Wa'ad is meeting with the chargé d'affaires from the American Embassy in Lulu's [coffee shop] a little bit ago?"

So, again: what happens when July 1 comes around and al-Wifaq is not at Nando's with the other 731 societies talking dialogue? And equally interesting is the opposite scenario: what happens if al-Wifaq is somehow convinced to take part? When one visits Bahrain's main opposition forum one is greeted with the following banner, declaring, alternatively, "No Dialogue with Murderers"; "Fall, Hamad! Fall, Hamad!"; and "Self-Defense is a Sacred Right."

Certainly, not everyone in the opposition will agree with such sentiments, and not all of the forum-goers are al-Wifaq supporters to begin with, but, as Toby Jones has observed recently, "Events seem to have gone too far and too fast for some kind of quick fix through talks." Time will tell.

Finally, we may mention a notable event that does not fit neatly in the preceding: the news that King Hamad's son Nasr (of "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" fame) has been promoted to Head of the Royal Guard, a decision he announced himself via Twitter. At the same time that Crown Prince Salman's stock is falling, then, Sh. Nasr's seems to be rising. As if Al Khalifa court politics needs any more complications.

Updates: some highlights of 'Ali Salman's address today in Sitra have already been posted. I'm sure the video is not too far off.

And there are Twitter reports of a march tomorrow on the Prime Minister's Palace.

Update 2: an astute reader points out this al-'Arabiyyah article reporting that non-Bahraini ex-pats will also be invited to the national dialogue! Hell, why not? The chances of the Justin Gengler Society for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice are looking up!

Indeed, it would seem that the only group not welcome to al-Dhaharani's dialogue are, based on remarks he made just last year in May 2010, Bahraini women. Al-Dhaharani said then, "We have to look at our society in a realistic way and I don't believe that it is ready for women in politics." But ex-pats in politics? No problem.

Update 3: The video of Sh. 'Isa Qasim's Friday sermon has finally been posted:

Update 4: 'Isa 'Abd al-Rahman, introduced as an official spokesman for the Bahrain national dialogue, has given an interview with al-'Arabiyyah, available here:

Update 5: The President of al-Wifaq's Local Council for the Northern Governorate, 'Ali al-Jabal, has released a series of questions/concerns regarding the national dialogue, titled "Dialogue of the Deaf." You might guess what his position is.

Meanwhile, in a development the likes of which we've seen a few times before, the leftist political society Wa'ad has been unbanned and will participate in the national dialogue after releasing a statement (full text here) distancing itself from the opposition as well as an impending change in administration. Yet another organizational coup (a la Al-Wasat) for the Bahraini government.