Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Clerical Authority and Electoral Participation in Bahrain

For those keeping track of who it is exactly that is responsible for the events of February 14 and the ensuing political crisis in Bahrain, the Bahraini authorities have over the past six months articulated a long list of candidates: first it was the "Iranian-inspired" revolutionaries themselves, in particular the Coalition for a[n Islamic] Republic; then their Iranian-backed leaders, who were rounded up in turn; then the U.S. Embassy was involved; then the United States itself along with President Obama, what with its unholy alliance with Iran; then the Qatari regime (via their minions at Al-Jazeera English) was implicated.

The reason we review this progression of culpability is because Bahrain's political blame game has now hit on a new target: al-Wifaq and in particular its de facto spiritual leader and ranking marja' of Bahrain, Sh. 'Isa Qasim. Among the local news articles of the past week are, for example:

You get the idea. There are a lot of them. In fact, the general mood of the Bahraini press via-a-vis al-Wifaq and Sh. 'Isa Qasim is aptly captured by the front page of today's Gulf Daily News, which proclaims subtly:

(For now we'll leave aside the issue of who it was that ruined everything, and when.)

Even more subtle has been the rhetoric on Twitter, where 'Adel Flaifel and the so-called "Faruq militia" have been busy issuing direct threats to 'Isa Qasim, other Shi'i clerics, and their followers:

"O Ulama Council, 'Isa Qasim, Hadi al-Mudarrisi, Muhammad al-Mahfudh: you've chosen the sword, and the sword has done you in."

Or, if that one isn't graphic enough for you:

"The Lion 'Adel Flaifel: Muharraq is but an island where the body of the wali al-faqih will soon float, and [the bodies of] those who followed him." Nice.

To go after al-Wifaq and its clerical (and lay) leadership is natural, of course, given the group's high-profile exit from the National Dialogue, its weekly "festivals" that look a lot like demonstrations; and its boycott of the upcoming by-elections, which has resulted in 9 of the 18 vacant lower house seats lacking a candidate altogether, and this despite the timely appearance of two new "Shi'a" parties led by pro-government personalities. (A fact that annoys the government to no end: votes may be fudged; but there still must be candidates for whom to make up votes.) And since 'Isa Qasim is universally understood as the religious "inspiration" that gives the group its legitimacy, that he should now come under attack by regime supporters is not particularly surprising.

What is more notable, though, is the government's own hand in the matter. In this case, Bahrain's Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs--the same minister who attempted to dissolve al-Wifaq altogether back in mid-April--sent a letter yesterday to 'Isa Qasim accusing him of dividing the country; criticizing the political content of his Friday sermons, in particular his stance against the by-elections; and threatening further legal action. ('Ali Salman already held a press conference today to denounce the letter.)

While 'Isa Qasim's role in steering ordinary Shi'a toward an electoral boycott is clear, still the government's newfound irritation at this injection of religious authority into its electoral system is disingenuous. In the first place, the authorities didn't seem to mind the influence (or "interference") of Shi'a clerics but five short years ago, when al-Wifaq appealed not merely to Sh. 'Isa Qasim but Grand Ayatallah al-Sistani in Iraq in order to procure electoral participation following al-Wifaq's split from al-Haqq. (For more on the al-Sistani fatwa episode of 2006, see Laurence Louër's book.)

Secondly, and more fundamentally, Bahrain's ENTIRE party (or "society") system is based upon nothing BUT religion: its electoral districts are gerrymandered precisely around Sunni-Shi'i lines, and apart from some dozen pro-government, tribal "independents," all of Bahrain's legislators belong to political societies based explicitly on religion, whether Shi'ism or Salafism or the Muslim Brotherhood ideology. To suggest that it is only the Shi'a who appeal to religion in their choice of political affiliation and behavior, therefore, is simply untenable.

On the contrary, as this 2006 Gulf News article makes clear, in fact it was the former head of al-Asalah, Sh. 'Adal al-Ma'awdah, who started the tradition of using religious directives to secure electoral participation, when he solicited Sunni authorities in Saudi Arabia to issue a fatwa declaring it obligatory for Bahraini Salafis to vote in the 2002 elections. As Habib Toumi explained then,
Little did the agenda-setting shaikh know that he was creating a precedent that would be taken up this year [i.e., 2006] by Shiite leaders to explain to their followers the reasons for their controversial decision to end their boycott of the polls and to fully endorse popular participation.
This fact--that religion influences electoral participation not only for Shi'i Bahrainis but for Sunnis as well--is also evidenced in the results of my 2009 Bahrain mass survey. There, respondents were asked directly whether they participated in the 2006 elections. And, as the figure below indicates, increased religiosity (gauged on the basis of other questions) augments the likelihood of electoral participation among all Bahrainis, not just among Shi'a.

After controlling for other individual-level determinants of election participation such as age, gender, education level, economic status, and so on, it turns out that the average Bahraini Shi'i is about 61% more likely to have participated in the 2006 elections if he is "religious" as opposed to "non-religious." The corresponding effect among Sunnis is only about 1/3rd the magnitude, at 20%, but it exists nonetheless. (And in any case the relatively lower impact among Sunnis results in large part from a much higher baseline probability of voting, at almost 70% compared to barely 40% among Shi'a, an obvious effect of the al-Haqq-led boycott of 2006.)

Similarly, we may examine the results of another relevant question asked of Bahraini respondents: "To what extent do you agree with the following statement?: 'Men of religion should not influence the way people vote.'" Or:

إلى أي مدى توافق أو تعارض كل من العبارات التالية؟
يجب على رجال الدين أن لا يؤثروا في كيفية تصويت الناخبين"

We see that although there is quite a difference in the extent of individuals' agreement (with rather more Sunnis "strongly" agreeing with the statement), there is much less difference in the proportion of Sunna and Shi'a that agree versus disagree with the idea that clerical authorities should influence the way people vote (which, if obviously different from influencing WHETHER people should vote, is still an instructive question). Here, 76% of Sunnis answered that they "agree" or "strongly agree" with this sentiment, compared to a similar if slightly lesser 69% of Shi'a.

In the end, then, the anger of Bahrain's pro-government citizens and Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs is misplaced. Directed now at al-Wifaq and Sh. 'Isa Qasim, it should be aimed at Bahrain's larger system of religious-based politics, including electoral politics, which was crystallized long before February 2011, and which has only been strengthened since. Such actions as the provocative letter to 'Isa Qasim--to say nothing of a possible formal inquiry or arrest--merely add fuel to this already hotly-burning fire.

Update: forgotten in all this al-Wifaq talk was mention of the 7th "Right to Self-Determination Rally" of the Feb. 14 group, to be held this Friday in al-Dair. As always, the flier (rating: 4/10):

Update 2: it seems that the government has succeeded in scrounging up a bunch of new candidates for the by-elections. Reports now say that there are 44 candidates total, and at least one for each district.

Update 3: tomorrow Bahrain's sacked workers are holding another event, this time an automobile procession under the appropriate headline: "The Road to Work." It will run all the way from the ALBA complex in Sitra to the Seef area. That should be good fun for everyone who is trying to get anywhere tomorrow night!

Update 4: Here's one out of left field. Muqtada al-Sadr is quoted by the Iraqi Islam Times as saying, "We will invade Saudi Arabia and burn everyone and everything" if the Bahrainis "touched a hair on the head of my uncle Sh. 'Isa Ahmad Qasim."

And Faisal al-Shaykh in Al-Watan weighs in on 'Isa Qasim and the cease and desist letter from the Ministry of Justice, asking, "Is it really a provocative and foolish letter?"

Update 5: Sunni groups (via 'Adel Flaifel) are issuing some sort of ultimatum for 'Isa Qasim's Friday sermon tomorrow, to the effect that he should "apologize" or else.

And a new report (full text here) from the Tactical Report group claims that the Qataris are attempting to broker an end to the crisis in Bahrain through the forced resignation of the prime minister in one year's time. We'll see about that. Now that the Bahraini authorities are floating the idea of imposing corporate taxes to shore up their financial situation, you know Khalifah bin Salman wouldn't want to miss out on that action.

Update 6: So much for an apology from 'Isa Qasim today in his Friday sermon, which The Washington Post summarizes thus: "Top Bahraini Shiite cleric warns island’s rulers to allow reforms or risk Gadhafi’s fate." A video of the sermon is now available:

Update 7: Monsters & Critics discusses the village clashes of the past few days coinciding with al-Quds Day and 'Isa Qasim's Friday sermon.

And Qatar's Emir made a quick visit to Tehran to discuss "matters of mutual concern." Perhaps that Tactical Report is not entirely off-base.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The People Want the Fall Reform of the Regime—and Not Just the Shi'a

Fresh off al-Wifaq's decision to boycott the upcoming by-elections, Sh. 'Ali Salman caused a stir yesterday when he suggested in a lengthy press conference that the opposition's slogan moving forward should not be the familiar "The people want the fall (isqat) of the regime!" but the more measured "The people want the reform (islah) of the regime." Many were quick to criticize al-Wifaq's seeming abandonment of the principles of the February 14 uprising and what they view as but the latest evidence that the group is falling into its familiar role as government-co-opted opposition. Discussion forums are still buzzing with explanation, discussion, and invective surrounding 'Ali Salman's remarks, as seen, e.g., here, here, here, and here. One thread even characterizes the entire event as a "press conference for the Al Khalifa family."

Slogan semantics aside, however, the substance of the address was much less compromising, with al-Wifaq proposing to put to popular referendum its demand for an elected rather than appointed government. Not that such a vote would ever happen, but the fact remains that the opposition's specific constitutional demands, if perhaps not amounting to "the fall of the regime," go far enough in their substantive reforms that one would be hard-pressed not to deem the resulting political system an entirely new one in practical terms. That is to say, al-Wifaq's "reforms" cut to the core of the principle of monarchism in the Gulf.

With the government already warning election boycotters "against plotting potential acts of treason and intimidation," one can only guess what will be its response to the proposed referendum.

Yet, in a continuing development that must be orders of magnitude more worrying for Bahrain's ruling family--or, rather, for certain factions of it--al-Wifaq is not alone in seeking a basic revision of the political status quo. Angered by the king's perceived leniency toward the perpetrators of the February uprising, including the transferal of court cases away from the military's jurisdiction; the BICI probe into the actions of the police/military and the recent (resulting) arrests of security personnel; and the perceived marginalization and lack of appreciation of those citizens who took an active role in "defending" the country in February and March (followers of the National Unity Gathering, for example), many Bahraini Sunnis are openly questioning their position within the country's political system and, more fundamentally, their relationship with the ruling family.

On the first point, the newly re-Jamricized Al-Wasat ran a well-circulated story yesterday reporting that, "in direct violation" of the king's June royal decree that transferred prosecution of uprising-related cases to civilian court, the military prosecutor is "moving to restart criminal cases." Al-Jamri himself also wrote an op-ed on this topic today titled "Mysterious and Frustrating Complexities."

As regards the BICI commission, despite the current feigned support for it among pro-governments in the wake of this week's attack on the BICI offices by a mob of frustrated protesters--see, e.g., this and this in Al-Watan (English)--still its mandate to probe the actions of police and military personnel has struck a nerve with many. This is illustrated to good effect in the most recent columns of Yusif Al Bin Khalil. He tells,
Two days ago, dozens of citizens gathered in front of the house of Sheikh Abdullatif Al Mahmood, the president of the National Unity, and demanded the release of a number of security men arrested under investigation. The discourse was only characterized with anger. Enthusiasm overwhelmed. It is a result of a feeling of injustice and resentment towards who defended the homeland among security men. Away from the circumstances and the complexities of the issue, the emergence of such a spontaneous assembly [i.e., the National Unity Gathering] which may not be legally licensed, reflects the political movement in the Sunni community today.
This "feeling of injustice and resentment" in not limited merely to "security men," however.

The above-quoted article, titled "Bahraini Sunnis at the Time of Awakening," continues:
After the event had been held in the presence of security forces, the group was able to acquire considerable popular sympathy for their cause in various regions of the Kingdom. I asked one of the young participants in the sit-in about the reason for his presence. ... He spontaneously responded: ‘If anyone else thinks he is right and has demands to defend, we are also right and have demands to defend''. Such transformations will let us ask about the options available to the Sunni community as it is currently reshaping itself as a political force within the political Bahraini system. This pushes us to wonder about future options. It starts from the traditional path concerning the relationship between the community and the royal family, moving on to the radical path obsessed with its desire for confrontation with any party, ending with the rational path which seeks to establish a network of alliances for the community while ensuring the balance of the three main powers that affect the political system.
The first of these "follow-up" columns--"concerning the relationship between the community and the royal family"--appeared today.

Titled "Bahraini Sunni[s] and Future Options," Al Bin Khalil argues that the events of February has caused
the Sunni community ... to reconsider its options in light of the new developments. Now, it’s going through a stage of conflict on how to decide on future options. The question posed by Sunni elites today is whether to remain committed to their historic alliance with the royal family that dates back to the pre conquest era in 1783.
You may read the rest of the surprisingly blunt article for yourself, but the jist of it is that Sunnis must rethink their broad "alliance with the royal family on which the Sunni community was relying entirely in the management of its affairs before the 14th of February."

And if this is not hard-hitting enough for you, the Washington Times is shaking the Bahraini Twitterverse with its just-published interview with 'Abd al-Latif Al Mahmud in which the latter seems to suggest the prime minister should step down, and this only a few months after National Unity Gathering ralliers were heard chanting "The people want Khalifah bin Salman" at their counter-demonstrations at the Al-Fatih Mosque.
“The crisis needs management and [Prince Khalifa] is seen as a main party in managing the crisis,” said Mr. Mahmoud, a former opposition figure but now a strong supporter of King Hamad‘s. “If the crisis is over, we might feel comfortable telling him, ‘Thank you, you have done what you needed to do, and we need a fresh face.’”
The National Unity Gathering has already attempted to explain away the comments in a statement (English via BNA) made just hours after the article appeared, saying Al Mahmud's words were taken out of context. But the author, Ben Birnbaum--who I hope for his sake is now outside of Bahrain!--has said he will upload the audio of their conversation, which everyone seems quite eager to hear:

So I guess we will soon find out how "out of context" Al Mahmud's quotations really are. In any case, there is doubtless to be an awkward meeting with the prime minister in Al Mahmud's future. Something like this maybe:

In or out of context, the Washington Times piece has served to raise the one truly unspeakable topic in Bahrain--that of the prime minister. And when viewed alongside the recent anti-state protests of "military men" outside Al Mahmud's house earlier this week; the resumption of military prosecutions despite the apparent wishes of the king; and the Al-Watan article asking if ordinary Sunnis should "remain committed to their historic alliance with the royal family," it seems that the Bahraini government has considerably more to worry about than a mere electoral boycott from al-Wifaq.

One might speculate that the internal Al Khalifa divide is once again rearing its ugly head, with the so-called khawalid--the partisans of Royal Court Minister Khalid bin Ahmad and his brother (and defense minister) "the Marshall" Khalifah bin Ahmed--taking their competition with the king and prime minister up a notch. But feel free to disagree.

Update: the Arabic Al-Watan website (which is updated much more often than the English) is running the National Unity Gathering's denial of the Washington Times piece as its top story:

Update 2: the audio of the conversation has now been released by the Washington Times author, to everyone's approval.

If you can't open the file directly, the Manama Voice has an embedded player here. Either way, both Al Mahmud and the Arabic-to-English translator can be heard clearly, and the quotations from the article seem to be legitimate. The very opening of the audio, for example, is (with a slight omission after "If the crisis is over,") the line: "If the crisis is over, we might feel comfortable telling him, ‘Thank you, you have done what you needed to do, and we need a fresh face.’”

Update 3: the Ministry of Interior is reporting that it has summoned Nabeel Rajab for questioning "for publishing wrong news and information through social media websites." One is surprised only that it has taken this long. (Update: he's now supposedly been released.)

Update 4: the Bahrain Mirror has an interesting interview with newfound Bahraini celebrity Ben Birnbaum titled: "Washington Times Reporter to Bahrain Mirror: The National Unity Gathering's Response Didn't Deny What Al Mahmud Said, and I Think What He Said Is His [Actual] View."

And in case you haven't yet downloaded the new al-Wifaq Android app, here you go.

Finally, Al-Jazeera is reporting that members of the BICI have been making "surprise visits" to the sites of recent demonstrations (i.e., to the villages) to "witness the actions of both protesters and the police." The implication is that the committee's investigators are scrutinizing not only the government side (as is its mandate) but also the alleged provocations of demonstrators. I predicted something like this a month ago--i.e., that the group's final "report" will tend to attribute guilt to both sides--and was criticized by commenters as being ignorant of the BICI's purpose. How's that prediction looking now?

Update 5: Khalil al-Marzuq tells the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Dar that Bahrain may see a "civil war" if real reforms are not enacted (via the Manama Voice.) Pro-governments are taking his judgment to be a threat:

Update 6
: Al-Wasat has a revealing update on the impending by-elections. It seems that only half of the 18 districts have any candidates running at all given the boycott of al-Wifaq and Wa'ad. I guess those pro-government Shi'a parties (which now include the 'Rabitah al-Islamiyyah' group of al-Madani, another prominent pro-government Shi'i) are not working out so well.

Update 7: very much in line with our article here, the Bahrain Mirror asks: "Is the Marshall Winning [the Competition] for the [Position of the] Prime Minister?"

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A Parliament Without Opposition

A parliament without opposition: coming to a Bahrain near you. Last night at its weekly rally in Bu Quwah, al-Wifaq reaffirmed its earlier decision taken back in May to stay out of the planned Sept. 24 by-elections, which we covered extensively here. Contrary to the implication of most of today's coverage of this story, then, the real "news" here is not the boycott itself but the failure of (the presumed) behind-the-scenes talks ongoing between al-Wifaq and members of the Al Khalifa aimed, among other things, at bringing the group back to the elections.

Moreover, since the only other opposition society with any real following or hope of winning a seat in the 18 vacant districts--Wa'ad--also announced its decision to boycott a few days ago, the result is almost assuredly an elected parliament composed entirely of Sunni Islamic parties and pro-government "independents" mostly of tribal affiliation. Welcome to 2002-2006.

Word from the rally is that al-Wifaq declared the current parliament altogether invalid; said it will "return to the street [protests] to put pressure on the regime for real reform"; and called for a constitutional assembly or popular referendum on a new constitution.

Speaking afterward with Bloomberg News, Khalil al-Marzuq explained,
"We do not want to participate in an election when the government has no intention of working with us,” Khalil al-Marzooq said in a telephone interview. “All of the revolutions we’ve seen in the Middle East were held by ordinary people, not by parliamentarians. We will still fight for equal rights for the people of Bahrain.” election is final. “We need to see some real political amendments,” he said. ...

Al-Marzooq said the decision to boycott the election is final. “We need to see some real political amendments,” he said.
BBC Arabic did an extended segment on the decision, including video from the Friday rally and an interview with (former) al-Wifaq MP 'Ali al-Aswad.

Also worth watching in this regard is the Friday sermon of Sh. 'Isa Qasim titled "How Great is the Scandal of Politics in Bahrain," which paves the way for a boycott.

At this point it should be unnecessary to revisit once again the actual reasons for the boycott. In short, it is the same reason al-Wifaq pulled out of the National Dialogue talks: it demands for "reform" are not some nebulous desire for "change" Obama-style but actually correspond to specific procedural and institutional revisions, namely electoral redistricting to get away from Bahrain's ethnically-gerrymandered districts; election rather than appointment of government ministers, including the prime minister; and empowerment of the parliament such that it has actual lawmaking abilities, as opposed to its current fake lawmaking abilities. Thus the current parliament and electoral scheme represents the very things the opposition most wants to change, so participation now in the very system it seeks to end would be self-defeating.

For a more substantive illustration of the problems associated with the current system, consider this anecdote given in an interview I conducted back in 2009 with a leading member of one of Bahrain's political societies:
We ... attempted to do a study of the actual voters assigned to each district and found that 1/3 we could not locate as living within the region. The way it works is that the government posts the list of names for each district in that district’s polling center (e.g., at a school, etc.) and there are only names and CPR number, from which you can gather the year of birth since the first two numbers of the CPR number are the last two digits of the person’s year of birth. However, you are not allowed to take photos of the names, so if you wanted to check to make sure that all the names were actually people who lived in your district, you have to copy them one by one by hand. And the government only allows a 1 week period in which to contest names of voters in your district, so it is actually impossible to know whether the people assigned to your district actually lives there, and to know who is actually voting or where the votes come from.
So not only are the districts themselves gerrymandered such as to limit the ability of opposition societies to win seats, but the registered voters in your district may or may not actually exist at all. Sounds like a process you'd really want to be part of, right?

The official reaction to al-Wifaq's announcement has differed little from the response to its pull-out from the National Dialogue. Speaking with the Bahrain News Agency, Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs Sh. Khalid bin 'Ali said:
Those who boycott the upcoming parliament by-elections will have to bear the consequences of their decision. ...

He urged everyone to take part in the elections, saying Bahrain is seeking institutional and consensual work through the legislature. ...

And then the best line:

He said there is not a single expert who recommends boycott of elections, considering participation as the ideal way to build trust and achieve progress.

Ha! Where are all these election participation experts? I would be interested in meeting one.

In fact, then, his comments seem to be a combination of a threat--this is the same minister after all that attempted to ban al-Wifaq altogether back in April; and that succeeded in shutting down Wa'ad, at least long enough to prosecute Ebrahim Sharif--and a strange appeal to public opinion.

As represented by Al-Watan, the Royal Court, on the other hand, seems to be taking a more subtle tact: screw al-Wifaq, they say, but for God's sake Wa'ad needs to participate, presumably to avoid the realization of the title of this article--a parliament without opposition. The "screw al-Wifaq" line has enough representatives: Yusif Al Bin Khalil, for example:

The more nuanced argument, though, if you can call it that, we find in al-Zayani's column, which takes the form of a sardonic letter to al-Wifaq but ends with the following:
[Al-Wifaq,] You’d better stop your hypocrisy and your hypocritical speeches. Waad, we beg you not to boycott the complimentary elections lest they will be paralyzed! Whenever Al Wefaq boycotts the elections, you follow suite. You behave like puppets that spin within Wefaq’s sphere. Anyway, you have missed a golden opportunity to win a parliament seat due to your blind obedience to Al Wefaq. Finally, we beg your pardon again not to boycott the elections. Otherwise, Bahrain will be paralyzed!
So Wa'ad is urged to take part lest it lose out on its grand prize of "a parliament seat." If al-Wifaq was unable over five years to effect serious change with 17 and then 18 of 40 seats, somehow I doubt Wa'ad will be convinced of its chances with 1. As for the other reason it should agree to take part--to avoid "paralyzing" the parliament and electoral process--I think the irony there is clear enough.

The ultimate question, however, is what al-Wifaq's boycott confirmation implies about the progress (or existence) of behind-the-scenes talks between it and the moderate factions within the Al Khalifa that most assume are or were ongoing. About this I had a lengthy debate with several commenters on yesterday's post.

My initial reaction was that the boycott cannot bode well for the progress of high-level talks, since al-Wifaq has relatively little to give the government now that it has announced its decision publicly. This assumes that al-Wifaq cannot on its own put a stop to the continuing daily street protests, which are organized independently by such groups as the Feb. 14 Movement and so on.

The other question, of course, is whether the moderate Al Khalifa factions led by the king and crown prince are even in a position to offer anything substantive to al-Wifaq, whether redistricting, changes to the way ministers are chosen, etc. This is especially so after the outcome of the National Dialogue, whose main upshot was to give the prime minister power of the selection of ministers. Any concession to al-Wifaq on this point from the king would generate a ton of blow back not only from the prime minister and his allies within the ruling family but from the National Unity Gathering and like-minded people.

Indeed, there are already disturbing reports of pro-government "militias" being formed to battle street protesters. The following video, for example, is some sort of promotional video for the "Faruq Militia," whose members are going around and spray-painting over anti-regime graffiti in the Shi'i village of Karzakan. It features nice martial music with gunshots in the background and bears the subtitle "Sunni Black [Ops?] Storm the Shi'i Village of Karzakan, Allowing the Abuses [of Shi'a] but Correcting Some of the Slogans!!" So this is a heartening development..

Related to all this, finally, is the ongoing BICI investigation, more specifically the recent statements of Bassiouni that seem to presuppose the outcome of his inquiry some weeks in advance: that "there was never a policy of excessive use of force or torture...that doesn't mean it didn't happen. I think it was a case of people at the lower level acting, and there not being an effective chain of communication, control."

The backlash that ensued from this premature suggestion that no high-level decision-makers need or will be held accountable prompted a statement from the BICI to the effect that it "has
not reached any final conclusions. Its work continues to be independent and free from any interference, either by the government of Bahrain, any other government, or any interest group, either within or outside of Bahrain." Even so, the resignation soon after of several staff along with the group's Secretary General, Kamran Chaudhary, for "personal reasons," raised even more doubts about the chances the commission's findings will leave Bahrainis with the feeling that justice has indeed been done and that society can now begin to put the episode behind it (if such a thing were ever possible).

So how does this relate to al-Wifaq's electoral boycott? It is related because one of the (perhaps naive) hopes surrounding the BICI is that it might work to improve the internal position of the more moderate sections of the Al Khalifa by publicly identifying and shaming those high-ranking officials most responsible for the post-February crackdown. It was, after all, King Hamad himself who took the lead in calling for an independent commission staffed by non-Bahrainis. (The original commission, I was told by someone who knows, was proposed as a Bahraini-only group.) As it seems that this is now very unlikely to happen, the internal ruling family splits remain deep and as intractable as ever, and the window for a possible political agreement with the opposition, in turn, remains slim.

related to the issue of private militias, the Bahrain Mirror is running a popular story titled "Arms, Not the People, are the Basis of Authority" (a riff on al-Wifaq's rally slogan) about supposed secret weapons caches in Jurdab, 'Adliyah, and on the prime minister's personal island of Jiddah said to be part of a parallel military force led by the prime minister and the defense minister to compete directly with the one loyal to the king. I can make no claim to know whether this is entirely true or entirely fabricated, but it makes a good read anyway.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Bahrain Pro-Governments to Deploy London Shield Force

For many Bahraini supporters of the post-February 14 crackdown, what is said about karma is proving once again to be true. Having endured months of criticism for excessive force in dealing with a disgruntled segment of society claiming economic and political exclusion, they have wasted no time in returning the favor in kind to a U.K. government that was perhaps the most outspoken in its condemnation of Bahrain.

Several stories in recent days have highlighted the jeers of various countries usually on the receiving end of human rights critiques, including China, Libya, and Iran. An article in The Atlantic, for example, offers the headline: "For Iran, Libya, and China, U.K. Rioting Is a Time to Taunt." And likewise in The Washington Post: "London riots used by Iran, Bahrain to justify government crackdowns." Being mostly interested in Bahrain--though I am certainly not adverse to a good Ahmadinejad quote--I found that the latter story, despite its headline, is actually short on details about the overall reaction in Bahrain, quoting a few lines from a GDN op-ed.

So I thought that, especially given the unlimited potential of the new Al-Watan English site, there must be a treasure trove of good material to pick from here. And I was not disappointed.

First, we may look at the op-ed referenced in the Washington Post piece, which is titled snarkily: "'Arab Spring' has finally sprung ... in London!" It says in part:
The hallmarks of everyone's favourite uprising were there for all to see as, sparked by the shooting of a civilian by police, the downtrodden masses took to the streets to challenge the British regime.

Cars and buildings have been torched, innocent people and police have been attacked, roads have been barricaded and the capital is like a battleground.

Rioters are using modern technology such as Blackberry and Twitter to mobilise, just as they did in Bahrain, and video footage is being posted on YouTube. ...

And while they would not condone what is happening in London, there are more than a few who would argue that Britain got what was coming following its criticism of Bahrain and the antics of its media.

The irony is that if the UK hadn't been so occupied fraternising with the political opposition in Bahrain, co-managing a coup in Libya, retreating from its misadventures in Iraq and playing hide and seek with the Taliban in Afghanistan - all at a time when the country's national debt is higher than ever - then it might have realised all was not well in its own backyard.

The fact is that people in the UK have legitimate reasons to be angry.

Etc. etc. If the U.K. is justified in attacking its protesters why aren't we justified in attacking ours? Why should a double-standard be employed against Bahrain simply because its uprising and response happen to be qualitatively different from the situation in London? Straightforward enough, right?

Even better is the report of a meeting with the Bahraini FM Sh. Khalid, who took some time out his rigorous Qatar- and Al-Jazeera-bashing schedule to meet with the British Ambassador to express his solidarity with the U.K.'s efforts to stamp out its own Shi'a-led uprising. Oh, they aren't Shi'a? Well, anyway. The GDN summary of the meeting begins:
Bahrain yesterday firmly backed Britain in its efforts to confront street violence. Foreign Minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa told the UK's new ambassador to Bahrain Iain Lindsay that "freedom of expression should not mean insults or offending any leadership or government in the public media." ...

Meanwhile, a major Bahraini political movement has criticised the British government's crackdown on rioters.

The National Unity Assembly also called for an urgent investigation into unrest in London and other cities.

"We now ask the British government to investigate what is forcing their citizens to riot on the streets," secretary-general Abdulla Saad Al Howaihi told the GDN yesterday.

"They (rioters) should be given a chance to air their views and speak out. This is exactly what they (the UK) told us."

So now it's the Bahraini government playing the role of the steadfast and understanding ally while the National Unity Gathering criticizes the British for its crackdown. For the record, then, that's: crackdown in Bahrain, good; crackdown in Syria or Britain: bad. I guess the presumption is that most of the London protesters are Sunna. Really, it's too bad that the British, Syrian, and Qatari (to say nothing of the American) Embassies are so far apart, or else the National Unity Gathering people could hit them all in one giant demonstration procession. One hopes that its followers are in good shape.

Last but not least, of course, are our friends at Al-Watan English. Will they disappoint? Of course not! At least not with Hesham al-Zayani (from the same family as the GCC Military Chief, no less) on the watch!

In true American evangelical Christian fashion, al-Zayani writes that "what [is happening] in London looks like [a] sett[l]ing of scores, a divine response to England's attitude towards agitations that recently occurred around." Hrm, I wonder where this "around" is? He continues on to refer to everyone arrested as "political prisoners," and asks:
London is trying to block the social networks “Twitter” and “Facebook”. You, who boast to be defending freedom, aren’t you cloning what happened in Tunisia and Egypt? You are Xeroxing the same experience that happened there and you don’t preach what you teach. London arrests an 11-year–old boy, the youngest political prisoner.

Aren’t you witnessing what the English police are doing when it comes to security and to law enforcement? Aren’t you racist when you shot the black young man dead? Aren’t you also racist against minorities when you target the black and the Turkish?
Anyway, you can read the rest for yourself. And if there are other good stories along this line that I missed feel free to send them along.

Wouldn't you love it, though, if the British Foreign Ministry released a statement criticizing last night's deployment of tanks and armored vehicles to block demonstrators from the February 14th Movement from reaching the Pearl Roundabout?

Update: In yet another attempt to draw parallels to the Bahraini case, Al-Ayam is running a Reuters story (Arabic) on Qaddafi's response to the riots: "Libya: Cameron Employs Mercenaries from Scotland and Ireland to Put down the Riot." Just wait until they find out about the Gurkhas.

Update 2: As some sort of make-up for the "Shouting in the Dark" documentary, Al-Jazeera English aired a 30-minute debate last night touching on the February uprising and crackdown, the National Dialogue, and the BICI. It featured Shura Council Deputy Chairman Jamal Fakhru representing the government position. The video is below:

And if you were looking for a London riots taunt mixed with a reference to Plato's Republic, who else but Al-Watan could deliver? Faisal al-Shaykh's new column:

Update 3: So much for the supposed dialogue between senior members of the Al Khalifa and al-Wifaq. The latter reaffirmed its boycott of the by-elections at its rally today in Bu Quwah as well as "a return to the street [protests] to put pressure on the regime for real reform." Or in the words of former MP Jasim Hussain: al-Wifaq "declares existing parliament is void, not reflecting popular views, calls for [constitutional] assembly or referendum." Bloomberg has more.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Interview with the Bahrain Mirror

A few weeks ago a writer with the Bahrain Mirror--an electronic newspaper that has become a refuge for journalists after the temporary closure of Al-Wasat and the crackdown more generally--called to ask for an interview to discuss the blog and especially my survey project in Bahrain.

The story is now up (in Arabic of course).

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Why Didn't We Think of This Before?: A Pro-Government Shi'a Party!

The Bahraini government would seem to be so pleased with the favorable outcome (from its perspective) of the National Dialogue that it is taking the principle to the next level. If the main lesson there was that you can effectively fight dialogue with more dialogue--that is, drown out the voices of the actual political opposition by inviting everyone and his cousin to the discussion table--then why not extend this notion to Bahrain's wider political arena? Well, why not?

The Washington Times, which seems for some reason to have the inside scoop on all the pro-government news stories coming out of Bahrain, is reporting that well-known pro-government Shi'i cleric Sh. Muhsin Al 'Asfour has announced (from "his home in the affluent village of Saar"; wait, what??) the creation of a new political society to cater exclusively to pro-government Shi'a, one that aims effectively to fracture Bahraini Shi'a more systematically into pro-government and anti-government camps. Though he has not revealed too many details as yet, including the name of the new society, he says it does plan to run candidates in "selected constituencies" in the upcoming by-elections, i.e. in the wealthier Shi'a-populated districts (around 'Isa Town maybe?).

Al 'Asfour also has some rather nasty things to say about al-Wifaq and especially about 'Ali Salman:
"The question is what would happen if Wefaq came to power, especially acting on a foreign agenda,” he said, echoing government allegations of the party’s ties to Iran.

“The answer is that we would end up somewhere along the lines of Lebanon. Bahrain would enter into a dark phase.”

Sheik al-Asfoor called Wefaq’s leader, Ali Salman, a religious lightweight.

“He went to Qom [the Iranian holy city] for seven years and worked as an office boy. He was regarded as a joke there,” Sheik al-Asfoor claimed.

“He wears the turban in Bahrain, but he used to wear pants and a shirt. He’s garbage.”
"Garbage?" Ouch!

While Sh. 'Ali Salman is indeed no religious "heavyweight," Al 'Asfour's critique of Salman is a bit of a cop-out, since as he knows the de facto religious leader of al-Wifaq is not he but Sh. 'Isa Qasim. And, as the following Wikileaks cable makes plain, there he is quite over-matched. A cable from August 2008 (also here) evidently written by David Letterman reports the "Top Ten Shi'a Clerics in Bahrain," sorting them in terms of "Rank," "Influence," and "Scholarship," where closer to 1 is higher. This list is as follows:
  1. Sh. 'Isa Qasim (1, 1, 1)
  2. Sh. Hussein Najati (2, 2, 3) -- since stripped of his citizenship
  3. Sh. Muhammad Sanad (3, 10, 2)
  4. Sh. 'Abd al-Jalil al-Miqdad (4, 6, 4) -- serving a life sentence
  5. Sh. 'Abd al-Hussain al-Sitri (5, 7, 7)
  6. S. Jawad al-Wada'i (6, 3, 9)
  7. Sh. Hamid al-Mubarak (7, 8, 5)
  8. S. 'Abdallah al-Ghurayfi (8, 5, 8)
  9. Sh. Ahmad Al 'Asfour (9, 4, 10)
  10. Sh. Muhsin Al 'Asfour (10, 9, 6)
Not only does Muhsin Al 'Asfour thus sit at the bottom of Bahrain's Shi'i clerical hierarchy (though I guess he's bumped up a few spots now by default as others are deported and jailed), but his "Influence" rating is a mere 9. Further, the description of him (which might by now be out of date) is equally unflattering:

So, he is a pro-government cleric whose little influence comes from his family name and is widely perceived as being corrupt or at least economically (and politically) opportunistic. Al-Wifaq would seem then not to have so much to worry about. As Toby Jones is quoted as saying in the Washington Times piece, "a party led by Sheik al-Asfoor [sic] would be lucky to get one or two seats and would be more likely to take votes away from pro-government Sunni candidates than from opposition Shiite ones."

Still, the move is a clever one, as it puts more pressure on al-Wifaq (and perhaps on Wa'ad as well, which has also just decided to boycott) to take part in the upcoming by-elections, for fear--unrealistic or not--that its support may be undercut by a new competitor fishing explicitly for Shi'a votes. Well played, Bahraini government!

While we are on the topic of new Bahraini political societies, we cannot help but mention the new London-based Bahrain Justice and Development Movement--the Turks called, and they want their party name back--begun by the excommunicated members of al-Wifaq who've set up shop in London, including former MPs 'Ali al-Aswad, Jasim Hussain, and Muhammad al-Mizal. The aim seems to be a more serious and less bombastic alternative to the other London-based opposition movements, the Bahrain Freedom Movement and Khalas.

As implied above, this goes far in explaining the recent revocation of al-Wifaq membership of individuals outside the country. Their website (which is already blocked inside Bahrain) says that the group "was created just one month ago." So the timing makes sense.

Finally, we may point out that the Qataris seem to have caved to the Bahraini pressure about the powerful documentary "Shouting in the Dark," which was slated to be re-aired this week on Thursday and Friday. The New York Times is reporting, however, that "Al Jazeera English has squashed several planned rebroadcasts":
The decision this week to halt the repeats raised concerns among Al Jazeera’s staff members that the channel was succumbing to political or diplomatic pressure from Bahrain and its ally Saudi Arabia.
Indeed, I was just at a public showing of the other recent Al-Jazeera English documentary--part of the "Fault Lines" series--and those present from Al-Jazeera insisted that political pressure from the Bahrainis would not alter the network's behavior. At least we can all take comfort in the inevitability of the Barbara Streisand effect in this case.

Oh, and by the way the U.S. also signed a five-year extension to its defense pact with the Bahrainis through 2016. Of course they did.

Update: a reader points to a Bahrain Mirror article with new information about the long-rumored Bahraini government-produced documentary said to be in the works and obviously meant as a counterpoint to the "fabrications" of the Western (and Qatari) media. It is reportedly to be produced by an unnamed "Spanish company." One can hardly wait.

Also, al-Wifaq's weekly rally #9 will take place Friday "between al-Sahla and Bu Quwah," wherever that is supposed to be. The flier is once again a disappointment. It's like they're not even trying anymore.

Update 2: I forgot to check Al-Watan English before I posted this. I almost missed out on this astute article from Yusif Al Bin Khalil, who asks what everyone is wondering: "Why is Qatar against Bahrain?"

Update 3: the February 14 are, as always, spurning al-Wifaq and holding a rally of their own. It is scheduled for Friday night in Sanabis, but the flier asks, "Do you want to return to Martyrs' Square?," which is interesting because the U.S. Embassy demonstration notice notes that "On Thursday, August 11th, there will be a march to the GCC Roundabout (formerly known as the Pearl Roundabout)." So I suppose "Friday night" means LATE Thursday night. Either way, I can't imagine they will be allowed easily to exercise their "right of return," as they call it. First the U.S. Embassy and now this. It seems the February 14 folks are looking for a fight wherever they can get it.

And here are your marching orders, in case you missed them:

Update 4: F. Gregory Gause has a great article in Foreign Policy on the "sectarianization" of the Arab Gulf, in particular of the Saudi-Iran rivalry.

Update 5: It appears that tonight's march to the Pearl Roundabout is not going so well..

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Mystery Solved: Bahrain Crackdown Actually "A Bureaucratic Mix-up"

The head of the BICI, Cherif Bassiouni, is being credited with having accomplished what many a lawyer and U.S. State Department official have been unable to do: secure the release of imprisoned al-Wifaq MPs Matar Matar and Jawad Fayruz; the high-profile defense attorney Muhammad al-Tajir; and 144 other detainees. This comes in addition to the release of 41 prisoners announced last week.

In an interview with The Washington Times--which incidentally also ran an op-ed attributed to King Hamad back in March; not sure what is going on there--Bassiouni tells that he was "promised" their release, explaining that
all 147 had been under the custody of military prosecutor general, accused of misdemeanors, and that the king had agreed to his request that they all be transferred to civilian courts prior to the royal order establishing the commission last month. Due to a bureaucratic mixup, however, he said the cases were not immediately transferred and he realized that most would linger in jail due to the onset of Ramadan, in most cases exceeding the maximum 6-month sentences for their alleged crimes.
Oops! Well, you know how those crazy Bahraini bureaucracies work: sometimes you're given access to a lawyer and charged with actual crimes and allowed to talk to your family while in prison for several months, and sometimes due to some clerical error you're not. That's just the way things go.

It's strange, moreover, that all of a sudden the two most prominent defendants (who by the way are only free pending trial) are now being accused of mere misdemeanors. Are people accused of misdemeanors usually chased through the streets along with their wife and kids by masked commandos brandishing machine guns? (See the story Matar Matar's wife tells Al-Jazeera English in the video below.)

Notably, finally, today's announcement sits in stark contrast to Bassiouni's widely-circulated comments to Reuters just two days ago, when he seemed to attempt once again to lower the expectations for the BICI investigation:
The investigation itself, he warned, cannot right relations between Bahrain's rulers and its Shi'ite population, which says it is systematically denied access to land, housing and state employment on sectarian grounds.

"This doesn't address the endemic problems, doesn't address the need for political change, for a new constitution, the economic disparities or the political division of Sunnis and Shi'a. All the underlying problems remain," Bassiouni said.

"That's not going to solve the problems of power disparities between the Shi'ite population and the Sunni rulers, nor the feeling of injustice the Shi'a community has."

He also seemed in the interview to offer a prelude to the likely findings of the inquiry, namely that while there were obvious mistakes made by individual police and military personnel, "there was never a policy of excessive use of force or torture...that doesn't mean it didn't happen. I think it was a case of people at the lower level acting, and there not being an effective chain of communication, control." That is to say, no one at high levels is (or will be held) accountable.

Well, in any case, some 185 people awaiting opaque military trials have been released from prison over the past week or so and will at least be tried under more reasonable circumstances. We can all agree to be happy in that, right? You would think so, wouldn't you?

Except that many on the pro-government side are not. Already pissed off by the Al-Jazeera English documentary and by the State of Qatar more generally, they are in no mood to welcome this newest development that smacks of BICI "interference in Bahrain's internal affairs." Quick: can someone check to see if there is a city in Iran called Bassioun?

Thus, for example, we have this commentator, who is representative of the general lot (although admittedly there are some who say if this is what the king wants then we should support him):

"Bassiouni needs to be thrown out of the country before there is no more country.

There's nothing left but for Bassiouni to bring us an elected government too; that's what was missing."

Perhaps this is why the Prime Minister "has instructed all ministries and government bodies to speed up the implementation of the visions agreed upon at the National Consensus Dialogue," according to the BNA. The sooner he can take over more power the better!

On the subject of bureaucratic mix-ups, finally, there seems to have been another apart from the one that affected Matar Matar et al. Qatar's The Peninsula is reporting that "Bahraini authorities are so upset with Doha-based Aljazeera TV Channel that they are reportedly not allowing the Channel’s staff — both Qatari nationals and expatriates — into the country." This comes a day after the Bahraini Foreign Ministry denied any diplomatic rift. I'm sure their immigration paperwork was just misplaced!

Perhaps not, however. Both of today's top Al-Watan columnists are running anti-Qatar stories. The first, by Faisal al-Shaykh, is explicitly so, going so far as to group Al-Jazeera as a state-sponsored propagandist along with Al-Manar and Al-Alam; and even to accuse Qatar of using the documentary to get back at Bahrain for taking the al-Hawar Islands. For these and other staggering revelations, see here:

The second, by our friend Al Bin Khalil, is a bit more subtle but addresses the issue of "The Electronic Sectarian War."

Moreover, pro-government forum-goers are even planning some sort of rally in front of the Qatari Embassy. A vote about whether to hold one reveals around 75% in favor.

Where is the National Unity Gathering when you need it most?!

We end, finally, with two strange news items, even by Bahrain standards. The first is an 'Ali Salman sighting. His extended time outside the country has led many to speculate about his whereabouts. So, is he in London starting the new Lulu TV channel? In Beirut hanging out with Nasrallah? In fact, he is in ... Turkey?

Anyone want to take a crack at a conspiracy theory for this one?

The second news item is the unlikely reappointment of Mansur al-Jamri as editor-in-chief of Al-Wasat after a shareholders' meeting today. The decision evidently has the blessing of the government (see comments section). Now everyone can thankfully stop saying the terrible name Obaidly al-Obaidly.

Update: Al-Jazeera English is actually running a segment on the new London-based LuLu TV channel, which evidently has begun airing after all. Al-Wifaq still denies any relationship with it.

Update 2: You have to feel for the pro-governments. Not only are they unhappy about the Al-Jazeera documentary, unhappy about the prisoner release today, but now they are also unhappy about the rumor (which I suppose is now all but confirmed; see the comments section below) that the crown prince directly intervened to help Mansur al-Jamri return to the head of Al-Wasat. Muhammad Khalid says: "Some official from His Highness the Crown Prince's court needs to confirm or deny the news of the crown prince's phone call to help Mansur al-Jamri, because it is provoking Bahrain's Sunnis and they aren't happy." If only there were some less compromising members of the royal family to take over leadership of the country!

Also, as another one of our informed commentators predicted, 'Ali Salman is said to be back in Bahrain.

Update 3: Matar Matar and Jawad Fayruz tell the BBC that they were tortured while in custody. What was that headline in Al-Watan English again? I think it's time Matar Matar got a new lawyer!

Update 4: yet more hilarity is ensuing--or rather issuing--from Al-Watan English on the topic of its newest enemy Al-Jazeera. First we have "The Despicable Jazeera TV" which is rather self-explanatory. But there is also a new offering from Yusif Al Bin Khalil in which he charges Qatar with aiding and abetting the February 14 uprising. He writes in part,
One of the coup d’état leaders, who wanted to establish the Bahraini Islamic Republic, was caught red-handed in an abandoned area on the Southern Coast of Bahrain. As soon as the forces of Peninsula Shield put an end to the occupation of the Gulf Cooperation Council Roundabout, he was arrested before secretly leaving the country on board of a Qatari boat. Suffice me to mention these two anecdotes to talk about the Qatari foreign policy towards the Gulf countries and in particular towards Bahrain. This policy is so biased and dishonest that it provokes not only the feelings of Bahraini people but also Qatari people themselves. Al Jazeera Channel coverage of the events in Bahrain is not innocent either. Its sneaky methods and dirty tricks are dubious. The Qatari foreign policy towards Bahrain and the role of Doha in the last February and March events in Bahrain have been veiled in secrecy due to the sensitivity of the relations between both countries. But it is so obvious that some people want to damage these relations. Therefore, it is high time we identified the agenda ,put forward in our relations and analyzed its future trends so that we can reach a more in-depth understanding of the nature of our relationship.
Update 5: The ever-entertaining Lee Smith at The Weekly Standard has a new piece on Bahrain titled "The Bahrain Crack-Up."

Friday, August 5, 2011

"Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark"

Anyone wondering why it is that Bahraini society and politics won't soon be returning to normal--National Dialogue or no National Dialogue; BICI or no BICI; September by-elections or no by-elections--need only watch this newly-released Al-Jazeera English documentary of February 14 and the aftermath. No more commentary needed.

Sh. Hamid bin Khalifah Al Thani: expect a call from your friends in the GCC.

Update: Indeed, the Qatar damnations are already flying from Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmad's Twitter account:

"It is clear that in Qatar there are those who don't want good for Bahrain. And this movie is the best example of the incomprehensible hate." (29 mins)

"One full hour of exclusive copyright to Al-Jazeera that shows the opinion of one eye only, and excludes the view of the full Bahraini nation. You deserve an Oscar." (24 mins)

Update 2: the Bahrain Mirror has a great article on the Bahraini government reaction to the Al-Jazeera documentary, not least on account of the following graphic:

Update 3: Things are getting testy. Habib Toumi writes for the Gulf News:
Bahrain's foreign minister has denied reports that his country had severed its diplomatic ties with Qatar following the airing of a programme by Al Jazeera English deemed offensive by Manama.