Saturday, December 24, 2011

A New Crackdown?

I'm in London this week, but Friday's events in Bahrain demand at least one update here. I don't have time to write at length myself, but the following instructive analysis of Mansur al-Jamri (via the Gulf/2K mailing list) will more than suffice:

1. What happened on Friday

The situation in Bahrain is not good in general. Every night we can't have a good sleep because of smothering tear gas, low- flying helicopter and stun grenades. Skirmishes between youths and security forces in Shiite residential areas continue until early hours of the morning.

As for today (Friday) this is the first time Al-Wefaq was not allowed to go ahead with its weekly gathering (since the end of martial law last June).

The site of the gathering designated for this Friday is not far away
from the HQ of Al-Wefaq. The security forces sealed-off the area and
used tear gas (as well as rubber bullets sometimes) to prevent the
gathering. Those who couldn't reach the site went to Al-Wefaq HQ and
hence another attack by the security took place that hit the
officers and surrounds. All the roads leading to the HQ and the
designated site for the gathering were blocked by security forces.

2. New category of opposition activities initiated

Also to note: today (Friday) there was an important announcement made at Duraz mosque by Islamic Clerics Council (Shiite) denouncing the the crime of destructing 38 Shiite mosques during the martial law period (March -June 2011) and continuing to prevent those who attempted to pray on the grounds of those destroyed mosques.

The council announced the start of "a campaign to defend religious sites".

This means the following: since Feb 2011, Bahrain witnessed two types of opposition activities. One is led by what is now called " Feb 14 Youths" and the other is by "Al-Wefaq and it's political allies".

Now, a third category of activities had stated and is led by the Islamic Clerics Council" and is specifically focussing on the destroyed mosques. Each site of a destroyed mosque would now have a cleric to lead prayers on the flattened grounds. This will of course be leading to frictions and possibly clashes burble a different kind (remember that this is now purely aimed ad defending a religious right)

3. Top Shiite cleric Sheik Isa Qassim repeated the term "democracy" many times in his Friday sermon (notably the first with such intensity)

His sermon on Friday at Duraz Mosque (Northwest of Bahrain) on 23
December 2011, included statements such as these

- we demand democracy for all people, Sunni and Shiite, and we
understand the approach of the government that aims to divide our
people. We are the ones who insist on unity and democracy, and
because of this we are viciously targeted by the government.

- we do not call for a Shiite democracy... Democracy doesn't believe
in Sunni or Shiite, it is for all people, and the corrupt rule is
disadvantaged by democracy.

- we have no democracy and nothing is left for freedom of
expression, protection of religious places, protection of security
of citizens, no public freedoms, continuation of corrupt
practices, and continuation of violations. Our women are being
detained like animals, as happened to Zainab Al-Khawajah.

- after issuing the Bassiouni report and after the visit by the
delegation of the UN Human Rights Commission, we see a
continuation of intimidations and violations. The government is
effectively declaring that it will not reform.

- we say to global powers and international community that we
deserve a better situation and if they agree that we deserve
political and civil rights in the same way as all people all over
world, then we call on them to publicly condemn the government and
to apply pressure that go beyond statements. We need actual
pressure that deliver results. We saw the visits by UN, US and UK
officials and all witnessed what is going on.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Bahrain's Other "Silent Majority"

A scene from Friday's rally at the Al-Fatih Mosque. Bahrain's Sunnis are mobilizing too.

If you didn't know better, you might be tempted to say that despite months of political dialogue, societal reconciliation, and now post-BICI "reform," Bahrain hasn't actually succeeded in resolving much of anything, whether in politics or in society. The images and video from the weekend's "Occupy Budaiyi' Road" sit-in/protest are by now familiar enough--indeed, are now almost so routine as to require little by way of description.

Citizens continue to engage in acts of protest, including road sabotage using oil and other projectiles. The state continues to deploy security forces to confront (or preempt) these activities. These security services continue to disperse crowds with tear gas, percussion grenades, and, at least in the case of Zainab al-Khawajah, forced removal. The U.S. condemns the actions of security forces and protesters. At least one protester dies. The government vows to investigate. A funeral is held. The funeral turns into a political march. Repeat.

All the while, Bahrain's economy continues to suffer. The IMF predicts Bahrain’s economy to grow by only 1.5% of GDP this year, its lowest rate since 2008, and increase to 3.6% in 2012. Yet because of the disproportionate impact of oil exports, these aggregate figures obscure the reality of a struggling private sector and rampant unemployment. Despite a significantly calmer political environment, output from Bahrain’s real estate sector fell an inflation-adjusted 5.6% in the third quarter, hotels 8.7%. Indeed, according to a survey by Ernst and Young, Bahrain's "hotels reported a 60 per cent drop in business in the first eight months of 2011."

Even more marked is the continuing impact of political uncertainty on Bahrain’s banking sector, which Moody’s downgraded to a negative outlook in May. Assets within its wholesale banks, which account for almost 90% of total banking assets, had by the end of August fallen by 14.5% since the start of the year. While Bahrain’s central bank insists the change reflects ordinary moves in where banks book assets rather than a deliberate shift away from Bahrain; and while no large institutions have quit Bahrain outright, still the drop is a serious blow for an economy that fancies itself the region’s finance hub.

Bahrain’s wait-list for public housing recently surpassed 50,000 applicants, some having registered as early as 1992. To finance these and other badly-needed public works projects, Bahrain in November sold $750 million in seven-year Islamic bonds in an offering postponed since March as its debt insurance costs hit 18-month highs. According to its central bank governor, Bahrain’s budget deficit is currently about 5% of GDP, which may require oil prices above $100 per barrel to balance. Despite the implicit promise of financial support from Saudi Arabia in the case of real emergency, Bahrain’s fiscal situation remains precarious. Of course, any additional financial reliance upon Saudi Arabia beyond its already-enormous subsidization of Bahrain's annual budget will only further erode Bahrain's autonomy in the political and security spheres.

Until now, Bahraini Sunnis unsympathetic to the protest movement have understandably blamed the latter for the country's precarious economic situation. "If only these political troublemakers would get off the streets and make some compromise like reasonable people," the logic has gone, "then everyone could go back to making a living." Or, perhaps more accurately for many: "If only the government would finally wipe the floor with these people, then everyone could go back to making a living." While the second position has occasioned no little criticism of King Hamad's handling of the crisis, still the underlying blame remains with protesters themselves.

Lately, however--say, since the release of the BICI report--the thinking among many Sunnis seems to have shifted toward a position more critical of the government independent of its response to protesters. This has been predicated on the realization that, even if today's crisis were to go away, the political status quo ante wasn't really such a great deal for Sunnis anyway. Corruption and speculation fuel high property prices and housing shortages; the economy is by far the weakest in the GCC; and the country is structurally dependent upon Western backers, foreign tourists seeking alcohol and women, and Arab and Pakistani immigrants given free citizenship in return for serving in the armed forces. Not only is Bahraini national identity being diluted and its society corrupted, many Sunnis note, but this influx of foreigners contributes even more to the country's housing shortage and overall fiscal burden.

Most fundamentally--and here I recall a point made at length in the previous post--the country's Sunnis remain for the government a captive ethno-religious constituency whose political support is taken for granted. The state knows that fear of inadvertent Shi'a empowerment serves to dissuade Sunnis from demanding political reforms that they might otherwise desire. At the same time, Sunnis understand that the bulk of the state's political energy and financial resources inevitably will be directed at heading off Shi'a demands for the same. The Sunnis of Bahrain are in this way stuck in a system that rewards them disproportionately little for their continued political support, but one they are loath to change.

The most recent cause for Sunni complaint is found in the annual publication of the National Audit Court (NAC), a yearly review of public-sector waist and impropriety. Each year its findings tend to spark temporary outrage, are discussed in parliament until its members realize they lack the power to rectify any wrongdoing anyway, and then is promptly forgotten until next year. No explicit mechanism exists to hold offending agencies or individuals responsible.

Al-Ayam has produced an executive summary of this year's (i.e., the 2010) report, including the bullet point-worthy findings enumerated above. These include, e.g., "67% of television advertisements are unpaid"; "the interior [ministry] exceeds its specified budget by 3 million dinars"; and best of all: "10 ministries were late in reporting financial data [for the NAC] and 5 didn't submit any at all."

The findings have elicited several angry columns in ostensibly pro-government newspapers, including this one by Hesham al-Zayani. He begins (sarcastically, I presume),
Couldn’t you have found a better time than this to publish the Audit report ? Come on pals! Why bring to the fore what we were trying to ignore?! Did you choose this timing to publish the report to spoil our celebration of our national days!? You could have submitted this report to the deputies a month ago or delayed it till after the holiday so as not to spoil our national days with heart-sickening news.

Didn’t you know that our hearts are already grief-stricken? Hardly had we caught our breath after the BICI report than the report of the Audit report came as a blow. One report after another! Have mercy on us guys! Too many strokes-may God keep evil away!

We tell the honorable man Mr. Hassan Al-Jalahma, the National Audit Court Chairman: “Enough is enough! We have had enough problems! We can’t bear it anymore. Mr. Chairman, why make all this effort and waste all this time if the report would not help to remedy the situation or transfer the offenders to the Attorney General and the judiciary?

Why all these scandals when there are no solutions or if we do not send those who commit violations and irregularities to prison? We are tired! Every year, we read about scandals and the transgressors are not held accountable; nothing happens! And the following report for the following year comes as a heavier blow with more violations and more scandals and more corruption!!
And then the operative bit (my emphasis):
Yet, there is much movement in the country: people are living comfortably and have much money and have the art and skill of taking from the funds of the State as long as there is no one to hold them responsible for that and ask them: “How did you get it?” To state things in a more explicit way, if the state does not take a strong and decisive action to stop this waste of public money, that will spark the unexpected, and we [read: we Sunnis] will be locked in.
Then we have an equally powerful offering from Yusif Al Bin Khalil titled "The Masses and the National Unity Gathering." He writes,
Dialogue with the [Sunni] masses forming the National Unity Rally is very rich and rewarding. In my view, it is different from those dialogues used to talk of various political issues. This is because those masses are still taking shape and experiencing the early phases of political awakening. ...

There are categories that believe in the need to have a major, outstanding and influential role in shaping the Rally’s attitudes and work styles. Among these categories are the youth who have undergone a radical transformation due to the crisis that swept the country and believe they should have a role in political life and believe, so far at least, that there is no entity capable of effectively and clearly accommodating them.

This prompts the youth to continuously look for alternatives and options through which they can make their voice heard and stop being part of the silent majority. ...

We need a general national conference to discuss the role the National Unity Rally can play in shaping the future of Bahrain, assess the challenges and the Rally’s state at home and abroad and set future frames to guarantee more efficacy, success and influence inside the political system. The conference shouldn’t exclusively include the Rally’s cadres but all the components of society as well as independent figures and some political forces close in their views to the Rally. Such an idea will prove futile unless there is an outspoken admission by the Rally’s leadership of the challenges they are currently facing. Besides, there should be a national partnership to share the responsibility of maintaining the equation of the new forces in the Bahraini political system following the crisis.
The suggestion is therefore that Bahrain's Sunnis should not and cannot return to the previous political order following the (possible eventual) resolution of the current crisis. While it is usually pro-government Shi'a that writers in Al-Watan refer to disingenuously as Bahrain's "silent majority," here Al Bin Khalil's "silent majority" goes hand in hand with the "new forces in the Bahraini political system," both of which are clear euphemisms for Sunni activism, whether this be centered around the National Unity Gathering or some other society.

Indeed, at the National Unity Gathering's rally at al-Fatih this weekend Al Mahmud "revealed [that the NUG] conducted a meeting last month with members from Al Asala Islamic Society and Al Menbar Islamic Society to discuss 'unified visions.'" (Incidentally, he also denied rumors that he and 'Ali Salman met with King Hamad during the latter's visit to London last week, where the former two were taking part in a Chatham House event.)

The prospect that Bahrain's three Sunni Islamic societies--representing the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis, and Sunni nationalists in the NGU--might attempt to coordinate their political programs must be more than a little unsettling to the Al Khalifa. With a Shi'a-led opposition the state knows how to deal; concerted political mobilization among Bahraini Sunnis is a much more novel--and more dangerous--development.

Update: In case you were wondering what was going on at this week's GCC summit in Riyadh, evidently prominent on their agenda is "accelerating regional turmoil," this according to the Gulf Daily News. Hey, at least they are being honest.

I would also note a new book edited by Meir Litvak and Ofra Bengio under the title "The Sunna and Shi'a in History: Division and Ecumenism in the Muslim Middle East." Chapters include:
  • "Responses to unwanted authority in early Islam: models for current Shi‘i and Sunni activists."
  • "Early Hanbalism and the Shi‘a."
  • "The confrontation between Sunni and Shi`i empires: Ottoman-Safavid relations between the fourteenth and the seventeenth century."
  • "Encounters between Shi‘i and Sunni ‘ulama’ in Ottoman Iraq."
  • "The Ottoman Dilemma in handling the Shi`i Challenge in Nineteenth-Century Iraq."
  • "Religious extremism and ecumenical tendencies in modern Iraqi Shi‘ism."
  • "Quietists turned activists: the Shi‘i revolution in Iraq."
  • "The Sunni-Shi‘i struggle over Lebanon: a new chapter in the history of Lebanon."
  • "The Wahhabiya and Shi‘ism, from 1744/45 to 2008."
  • "Unity or hegemony? Iranian attitudes to the Sunni-Shi‘i divide."
  • "Debating the 'awakening shi‘a': Sunni perceptions of the Iranian Revolution."
  • "Interesting times: Egypt and Shi‘ism at the beginning of the twenty-first century."
Act now as Amazon says it has only 1 copy left!

Update 2: Asks Marc Lynch in Foreign Policy: "Will the GCC Stay on Top?"

Update 3: As reported by Human Rights Watch, the Bahraini Lawyers' Society is the latest victim of the state's tried and true strategy of internal administrative coup. The body's recent elections on November 26 have been overturned by (ironically) the Minister for Human Rights and Social Development, and the previous post-crackdown, pro-government regime has been reinstated. This same technique of dealing with potentially critical civil society entities has been witnessed already of course, most recently in the cases of, e.g., Al-Wasat and Wa'ad. Indeed, even before the uprising the same strategy was in place. In September 2010, for instance, the board of Bahrain's oldest human rights group, the Bahrain Human Rights Society, was dissolved and given government-appointed replacements.

Update 4: (Cf. Update 2) The GCC's--or Saudi Arabia's--latest grandiose initiative is to push the bloc toward further political unity: a "single entity," as per King 'Abdallah's opening remarks at the GCC conference in Riyadh. Yet, as member states can't even implement a single GCC currency due to internal rivalries and lack of political will, I won't be holding my breath waiting for the United Arab States.

Update 5: The Ministry for Human Rights and Social Development has hit back at Human Rights Watch for its report on the Lawyers' Society elections (Update 3).

Monday, December 12, 2011

What If Bahrain Has a Sunni Awakening?

Fully recovered from this weekend's tear-gassing and non-arrest arrest with Nick Kristof in Sitra, I'm back on Monday for a fresh start. (Speaking of which, there are reports that Bahrain's reformed police--what with its new "code of conduct" and foreign advisers--still is not so reformed as to stop killing civilians in its attempts to break up demonstrations in residential areas. Yesterday a six-day-old girl in the village of Bilad al-Qadim reportedly died from tear gas inhalation.)

Also over the weekend was published my forward-looking article on Bahrain for Jane's Intelligence Review that I alluded to in the previous post. The article, which I see was printed with the title "Gulf apart - Bahrain faces political and sectarian divide," is unfortunately only available to Jane's subscribers. Indeed, even I have not seen the final version and will not until I receive a physical copy of the January issue of the magazine sometime this week.

The basic idea of the piece may be easily summarized, however. It develops three possible medium-term scenarios and their implications for Bahraini stability. These are: (1) some sort of political solution that satisfies the government and opposition; (2) continuation down the current path of political stagnation and low-level street violence; and (3) a second comprehensive crackdown. For those who visit here often, it may come as little surprise that I identify the middle scenario as the most likely. This is not for a lack of imagination or reluctance to make a more decisive prediction. Rather, it is because I fail to comprehend how the other two--in particular the mutually-agreeable political solution--could arise in practice.

There is no need to review all the reasons why a substantive political reform-for-an end to protests sort of deal remains a difficult one to achieve in Bahrain. The past 10 months have illustrated the depth and breadth of these. In short, the king/CP camp appears to lack the will and/or (due to pressure from society, more conservative Al Khalifa members, and Saudi Arabia) the ability to offer real political change; while, at the same time, it is not clear that the formal opposition (i.e., al-Wifaq) even enjoys a sufficiently influential position to end street protests in return for any government political concessions.

As for the other less likely option--another comprehensive military/security crackdown--this would require either (1) a much reinvigorated opposition able to organize protests on the level of February and March necessitating another security response; or (2) a more fully-empowered hawkish camp within the Al Khalifa led presumably by the prime minister, which would undertake a second crackdown even in the absence of large-scale protests. Of the two causes, the latter I think is both the more likely and obviously would be the more worrisome inasmuch as it would signal the complete political relegation of the king and his supporters.

Still, though, I think even this possibility is remote. For one thing, another crackdown would undermine the government's carefully-crafted narrative of having undertaken political reforms and engaged in societal "reconciliation" via the National Dialogue, parliamentary by-elections, and BICI. Furthermore, and more to the point, a second crackdown would end the country's hope of retaining what remains of its appeal as a Gulf banking and business hub. As investors fled 1980s Lebanon for the more politically-stable yet still socially-relaxed Bahrain, so would they would be booking their flights to Dubai should tanks again roll through the Financial Harbor. Most large multinationals rode out the storm of February 2011; they are unlikely to sit through another one in February 2012.

Of course, much of the difference in possible outcomes depends on how far the opposition can use the momentum of the BICI report to its tactical advantage, namely by resuming more organized and large-scale demonstrations in place of the various youth-led protests and petty acts of road sabotage that the street movement has recently devolved into. Cognizant of its portrayal as a religious organization masquerading as a political society, al-Wifaq seems to have avoided overt politicization of the 'Ashura' festival (although, of course, the holiday itself is at bottom a political holiday rooted in a political-cum-religious disagreement). Indeed, the only real incident seems to have been the clashes in Muharraq involving Sunni and Shi'i citizens. Riot police showed up eventually of course, but the point is that 'Ashura' was not used as a platform for launching political action, as it well could have been.

In their first Friday sermons after 'Ashura', however, both 'Isa Qasim and 'Ali Salman vigorously reiterated the opposition's political demands and, importantly, the need to return to the streets in order to achieve them. Indeed, the language is so strong that one popular opposition forum thread is titled, "Is al-Wifaq returning to the people?" 'Ali Salman is quoted extensively on opposition forums here, while a video of the relevant portions of 'Isa Qasim's speech is below.

Yet Bahrain's stability going forward does not depend on the actions of the opposition only. As critical--if not discussed here as much as it perhaps should be--are the strategies and political calculations of the country's Sunnis, most of whom are made nominally pro-government by default. Indeed, Bahrain is the only place in the Arab world where the Muslim Brotherhood (via its political society al-Manbar al-Islami) takes on a pro-government posture, which demonstrates the extent to which Bahrain's demographic realities and fears of Shi'a empowerment have necessitated political alliances that probably would not exist otherwise.

Although the government has capitalized on (and helped to cultivate) a vicious anti-Shi'a/anti-Iran sentiment that has served to focus the ire and suspicions of ordinary Sunni citizens upon their Shi'a co-nationals in the opposition, to what extent does this represent a viable long-term strategy to avoid political reform? Certainly, the current extent of social and political polarization may give the impression that the government may succeed indefinitely. Why might we be persuaded to believe otherwise?

Not-so-unrecent History

Among the virtues of Khuri's unparalleled Tribe and State in Bahrain is its extended discussion of Bahrain's High Executive Committee (later called the National Union Committee), a coalition of Sunni and Shi'i notables organized in 1954 in the wake of sustained sectarian conflict. Of course, the group's reformist agenda, its successful organization of general strikes, and more fundamentally the threat of concerted political action that crosses sectarian lines landed its members in jail or in Egypt. (Cf. my article on Ebrahim Sharif and Muhammad Al Bu Flasa, "The Most Dangerous Men in Bahrain.") The point is that this sort of cooperation as a response to heightened communal tensions is not unknown to Bahrain. (A full Wikipedia article is here.)

An Opposition-less Parliament

Without the parliamentary presence of al-Wifaq, whose social and political initiatives were always an obvious target of pro-government blocs, there is now the distinct possibility that Sunni members of the majlis al-nuwab will now be held accountable for accomplishing something other than holding al-Wifaq at bay. This Twitter exchange between one current MP and Sunni constituents illustrates this development (click for a magnified view):

As summarized by one of the angry constituents: "The motto of our MPs: 'We didn't hear you.'"

Economic Realities

One of the interesting findings of my Bahrain mass political survey is that, while the political opinions and behaviors of Bahraini Shi'a are not influenced by their level of economic satisfaction, those of Sunni citizens are. Variation in support for the Bahraini government among Shi'a citizens is unrelated to material well-being, in other words, whereas among Sunnis material considerations are quite important in determining political opinion and behavior. Take, for example, the question of participation in political demonstrations. The graph below shows the effect of economic satisfaction on demonstration participation in Bahrain, by confessional membership.

One sees that whereas a (+/-1 standard deviation) difference in reported economic satisfaction has a near-0 effect on Shi'a respondents, its effect is large and statistically-significant (at the 90% confidence level, given the limited sample size) among Sunnis. Put in substantive terms, the estimated likelihood of demonstration participation for a Sunni of “very good” household economy is 7%, all else being equal, of “good” economy 16%, of “poor” economy 29%, and of “very poor” economy 45%. Among Shi‘is, by contrast, the estimated probability of demonstration increases from 48% among those who report “very good” economy to 51% among those with “very bad,” a change that in any case is not statistically-distinguishable from 0. Poorer Bahraini Shi'a, it turns out, are no more likely to demonstrate than are any other Shi'a. Yet poorer Sunnis are much more likely to do so.

More generally--and here I quote from Chapter 5 of my dissertation--
In only two of [the] six models of political action [investigated in the dissertation] is household economy a significant predictor of direct or indirect participation, and there only among Bahrain’s Sunnis. Shi‘a citizens protest, sign petitions, attend public inquiries, and vote in elections not on the basis of economy, not because they seek redress for economic grievances, but on principle. Their political engagement stems not from material dissatisfaction but from dissatisfaction with the regime as a whole, wherein they find themselves limited as a group in political power and social standing on the basis of ethnicity. Only among Sunnis, then, do we have evidence that better economy elicits more political quiet. This also implies on the other hand that Bahrain’s rulers do not earn a free pass from Sunni citizens merely on account of shared ethnicity. For their near-unwavering support, and for their help in keeping the government’s fiercest critics at bay, ordinary Sunnis expect something in return.
The question, then, is how long the government will remain capable financially of buying Sunni political support? The state can always blame society's economic woes on the destructive effects of the opposition's continued protest activities, yet even prior to the uprising the state was in no fiscal position to provide for all of its citizens, Sunni or Shi'i. In interviews with several (now-former) Sunni parliamentarians, for example, I was told that it was not Bahraini Shi'a but the country's Sunnis that had most cause for political complaint. Quoting again from my thesis:
When asked about the causes of Shi‘a frustration in Bahrain, all three retort that, in fact, it is the Sunnis who have equal or greater cause for complaint. “[The Shi‘a] villages used to be not cared for and were very backward and under-developed,” notes ‘Ali Ahmad. “Now a majority of the [government’s] projects—in housing, for example—they are targeted toward the village areas.” Samy Qambar makes the same observation, saying,
There is an area [in my district] of al-Rifa‘ known as “Lebanon” that is one of the poorest regions of Bahrain. So it not simply that the Shi‘a are poor and Sunna rich. The challenge of poverty and socio-economic inequality [in Bahrain] is not just a Shi‘a issue or an issue based on religious differences. We [al-Manbar al-Islamïi] are working in the parliament to the raise the quality of life of these people as a whole—not just Sunnis or just Shi‘a.
The most emphatic response, however, came as usual from ‘Isa Abu al-Fath. “Look,” he began,
the Shi‘a need to understand that none of the GCC governments pay attention to their publics—it’s not just them who are ignored. Even for us Sunnis—who represents us in the government? The Shi‘a—at least they have [Muhammad ‘Ali bin Mansur] al-Sitri, who is a special advisor to the King [for legislative affairs]; they also have several [Shi‘i] ministers. Who do the Sunnis have? We are the ones suffering—more than them. ...
When ‘Isa Abu al-Fath laments that “we Sunnis” have no one in the government (i.e., in the executive branch) to represent “us,” he is not being disingenuous but simply excludes as a matter of course the members of Al Khalifa and many other political elites from among the allied families, who, while obviously Sunni, are above all of the ruling, tribal class, assumed to represent ordinary Sunnis no more than does Muhammad al-Sitri. While this is not to endorse his claim that the Sunnis “are the ones suffering,” Abu al-Fath’s argument is informative to the extent that it provides a possible explanation for our empirical observations. Ordinary Sunni Bahrainis, he says in essence, are poorly-repaid for the allegiance they show the Al Khalifa: disproportionately supportive of the government, they lose out on the majority of its benefaction to the very side that opposes it. This follows of course not from malice but from the dictates of political expediency, which say that when resources are scarce, better to spend them where they are likely to matter most. If Sunnis can be expected to remain supportive of the status quo, whether due to natural disposition, out of ethnic affinity, or so as not to give political ground to their rivals, why then offer them benefits that might be used to win additional friends from among today’s enemies? When one is the Democratic nominee for president, in other words, what use spending campaign dollars in New York?
These interviews like my Bahrain mass survey was conducted in 2009. Yet I would submit that the intervening two years have done little to change this dynamic. For indications of this one may look no further than today's Al-Watan, where our friend Yusif Al Bin Khalil offers some reminiscence on the hard-line newspaper's fourth anniversary (my emphasis):

Despite the media, political and security challenges faced by the newspaper, it has preserved the same original approach it adopted from the beginning. I think I can confirm the newspaper has never gone out of the track developed by its founders. ...
Al-Watan maintained its personality though many disagree with it, and it has proved to be able to be part in the difficult media game today. The recent crisis revealed another dimension in the newspaper as a media project; it is evident that the approach adopted by Al-Watan has managed to be a balancing factor in the crisis, and proved a truth that was a hypothesis a few years ago. The truth is this: in the Bahraini society, we cannot deal with one party only and neglect the others.
We can in no way exclude any of the components that make up this society.
Al Bin Khalil's message, I think, is clear, and it is the same that I heard from Sunni political leaders when I sat down with them in 2009.

Even more to the point is another Al-Watan article by Hesham al-Zayani about a new youth-based Sunni movement called "The Al-Fatih Youth Union" (a reference to the large Sunni counter-protests in February and March) that is attempting to capture the momentum--and followers--of the National Unity Gathering, which has been quiet lately. He writes,
Some circumstances prevented me from attending the youth gathering at Al-Fateh Mosque last Friday after the Friday prayers. Although social networks did not promote for this gathering in a good way and although there was only limited presence of media, this gathering managed to gather about 7000 young men and women. ...

The Al Fateh Youth Union came out without any political ideology or being adopted by any political associations. It is a gathering of some young people who do not want to be associated with any existing political trend.

They are fed up with the fact that those who have always supported the entity of Bahrain, Arabism, sovereignty and the Royal family are being fooled because their loyalty is taken for granted; therefore they are treated as a (reserve division). These are serious mistakes which we will never know what they will lead to.

What the state has not realized is that the movement is now in the hands of young people and those who are trying to exclude them will be strongly resisted and no one will predict what is going to happen. The fear barrier of taking to the streets has been broken. Things are developing in a spontaneous and enthusiastic way with the purpose of making patriots’ voices heard by the state.
As for the likelihood of a "Sunni awakening" in Bahrain? Perhaps still not great. Yet, as al-Zayani writes of the post-uprising changes in Bahraini politics, "we will never know what they will lead to."

Update: On the occasion of King Hamad's arrival in Britain to recruit more of the country's crack police trainers, 'Ali Salman has sat for an interview with the BBC's Frank Gardner in which he says that al-Wifaq is willing to hold direct talks with the king. And I am willing to host a syndicated television program where I am paid many dollars to discuss Bahraini politics.

Update 2: Lot of Bahrain news this morning. First, a King Hamad interview in the Telegraph.

Next, yesterday's Doha Debate--the season finale--which is sure to make the Bahrainis love Qatar even more than they already do:

Evidently the original pro-government participants--including FM Sh. Khalid and the Minister for Human Rights--failed to show, leaving only the Saudi editor of the Arab News and Abdullah al-Dirazi (one of the members of the king's post-BICI follow-up committee) to spout the Bahraini government line. The result, as reported today in the Gulf Times: 78% in favor of the motion that "This house has no confidence in Bahrain's promises to reform." Imagine that. The program is set to air Dec. 17-18 on BBC World News.

Finally, London's Chatham House will host an event on post-BICI Bahrain today (agenda here) that combines an interesting cast of characters. The second panel pits 'Ali Salman against Abd al-Latif Al Mahmud, the third Maryam al-Khawajah versus Suhail al-Qusaibi. Sparks will fly.

Update 3: A friend passed along this song out of the UAE glorifying the slaughter of Shi'a. Don't you hate that when you're trying to come up with new song lyrics and all you can think about is religious genocide?

Update 4: The Occupy Movement comes to Bahrain: "Occupy Budaiyi Road."

Update 5: If nothing else, yesterday's Chatham House event on Bahrain proved that even Al Mahmud and the National Unity Gathering can look reasonable when dressed in London chic.

Update 6: Nick Kristof has finally found the time to write about his tear-gassing and non-arrest arrest in Bahrain last week mentioned in the introduction. Now with video:

And a bit off-topic perhaps, but a good read for all those (like myself) who were wondering what ever happened to those February protests in Oman: "How the Arab Spring Skirted Oman."

Monday, December 5, 2011

Manama Vice: In Post-BICI Bahrain, More Commissions + Bad Foreign Cops = Reform

I return today to dispel rumors that I was injured in the bus "bombing" in front of (i.e., half a football field away from) the British Embassy in Ra'as Ruman. According to the BNA, the cause of this explosion has now been "unveiled," if by unveiled you mean we now know that it resulted from "an unknown type of explosive device" whose size "is difficult to determine at present." I can assure you that I had nothing to do with it, though it appears the same can't be said about Iran, whom British media have already identified as the culprit given its long history of placing small explosive devices under the front driver's-side tires of parked buses in the middle of the night. Just in case, Crown Prince Salman yesterday paid a visit to the Embassy along with Sh. Rashid, both of whom seem somehow to have made it out alive.

In fact, I have been busy finishing a longish piece on Bahrain for Jane's Intelligence Review, which should please those who were asking for a more forward-looking analysis of Bahrain's political future. Less pleasing, though, will be the fact that you will probably need a subscription to read it, though I will try to figure out a way to make it available if perhaps with some delay.

In the meantime I didn't feel too badly about failing to update here owing to Toby Jones' great post-BICI analysis for Carnegie's "Sada" blog (not to be confused with "Sada al-Malahim," the weekly newsletter of Yemen's al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula). Though I am probably less sanguine than he is about the prospect that the BICI will reinvigorate the opposition (and so augment pressure on the government for reform) to any meaningful extent, I can't disagree with anything in the article.

Since his piece was written, however, I think that the government's additional responses to the BICI give a clear indication of its basic strategy going forward. In short, Bahrain's rulers have seized upon the report's most sensational aspects--accusations of systematic "excessive force" and torture--to make the argument that the BICI's findings demand above all a reorganization and re-training of its security services to make sure that these sorts of things don't happen again. The alternative, of course, is to attempt to satisfy the opposition's demands for structural reforms so that daily confrontations between protesters and police are avoided in the first place. To put out its political conflagration, that is, Bahrain is claiming that it simply needs better fire-fighters, rather than a plan for extinguishing the embers that continue to fuel it.

Exhibits A and B in this plan are two former chiefs of police from Miami and Britain, who will be paid large sums of money to "re-train" Bahrain's security services on the proper ways to deal with street protests. This training will presumably include sessions on how not to shoot people in the face with shotguns, how not to run over them with cars, and how not to fire tear gas canisters into their unventilated homes.

For an apt description of Miami's John Timoney, a man once called "America's worst cop," one need only read this disturbing piece by The Guardian's Matthew Cassel. Cassel reproduces part of an article written in 2003 when anti-globalization activists descended on Miami to protest a meeting of The Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. He writes:
After leading the head-bashing of protesters as Philadelphia's police commissioner during the Republican party's national convention in 2000, Timoney was hired by Miami and given more than $8m to introduce a level of police brutality unlike any we had ever seen in the US.

In the weeks following the protests, journalist Jeremy Scahill wrote:

"No one should call what Timoney runs in Miami a police force. It's a paramilitary group. Thousands of soldiers, dressed in khaki uniforms with full black body armour and gas masks, marching in unison through the streets, banging batons against their shields, chanting, 'back … back … back'. There were armoured personnel carriers and helicopters."

Journalists who were not embedded with the police were deliberately targeted. I myself was hit with teargas and rubber bullets and chased by police who tried to detain me and confiscate my photography equipment. The suffocating display of a violent police force became known as the Miami model, elements of which were frequently used in following years against other large-scale demonstrations in the US.

Now the Miami model is coming to Bahrain.
Perfect! Police reform you can believe in! And what about the second foreign police reformer from Britain, John Yates? He must be a great hire too, right?

Indeed. Reuters tells that Yates
resigned from his senior post at the Metropolitan Police Service earlier ... in July over his role in a police investigation into the alleged illegal accessing of voicemails by journalists at the now defunct News of the World newspaper.

He had in 2009 decided not to re-open investigations into the practice, but a new probe launched in January found police had 11,000 pages of evidence which had not been thoroughly examined by detectives.
It is clear, then, that Bahrain is covering all of its bases. If you are going to bring in a expert trainer in police brutality then you are definitely going to want someone specialized in illegal wire-tapping and police surveillance as well, not to mention someone who recognizes the need to withhold a page or two (or 11,000) of evidence for reasons of political expediency.

Despite the sarcastic tone here, however, Bahrain's continued refusal to address of even acknowledge the more fundamental implication contained in the BICI report and indeed the main lesson of the uprising more generally--namely the need for concrete steps that "address[] the grievances of groups which are, or perceive themselves to be, deprived of equal political, social and economic rights and benefits"--means that its new fire-fighters will have a steady diet of fires to put out. And not simply involving the government and opposition.

On the seventh night of the politically-charged religious festival of 'Ashura', hundreds of Sunnis and Shi'is clashed in Muharraq's al-Hayaak neighborhood along the route of an 'azzah procession of Shi'a mourners. (For a good description of 'Ashura' in Bahrain, see Khuri's well-known account--starting on p. 69--or Chapter 3 of my dissertation.) Officials quoted in a Gulf Daily News story claim that authorities had urged organizers to change the route of the procession to avoid passing by Sunni homes, but they failed to oblige.

The confrontation, broken up only after the arrival of riot police (or, by other accounts, made worse by the police's violence against procession-goers), left many injured and much property destroyed, prompting a visit yesterday by the Crown Prince and Interior Minister (on their way to the British Embassy) and a column by our friend Yusif Al Bin Khalil titled "Our Local Chaos." Some indication of this may be gleaned from the many photos here:

Along with several videos posted to YouTube, including this one showing a stand-off between Sunni and Shi'i rock-throwers:

And this longer (8 minute plus) video:

Still more disturbing is that the confrontation seems to have been planned in advance, with one Twitter account, Eti7ad_Alqadsia (see Comment 1 for explanation), inciting Sunni residents of Muharraq to take action to stop the procession. The Bahrain Mirror reports the involvement of 'Adal Flaifel, who was present at a subsequent meeting involving the Crown Prince, the Minister of Interior, and the heads of the funeral processions. While the story describes the meeting in intimate detail and is worth reading at length, the upshot is that Flaifel was told harshly to leave security up to the Ministry of Interior and to stop the actions of his group.

Finally, the Bahrain Mirror report also contains a funny exchange involving one of the procession heads and the Crown Prince. The former says in reference to the Sunnis who attacked the procession that it is strange to find 'azzah participants holding photos of the prime minister and chanting "The people want Khalifah bin Salman." The Crown Prince is said to have smiled and replied, "These [people] are few."

Speaking of Khalifa bin Salman, he has given a lengthy interview to the Kuwaiti newspaper/magazine "Policy." A summary is available via the Bahrain Mirror, which describes the interview with the title: "The Prime Minister Launches a Violent Campaign against the Bassiouni Commission, and Describes the King's Acceptance of It as 'Good-Intentioned.'" The subtitle of the full interview in "Policy" is a more cordial: "There are those who resent the BICI report because it 'faults' the government and ignores the criminals."

Perhaps as a way to make sure these 'faults' do not translate into concrete punishments of officials, the prime minister's office has organized a post-BICI "working group" separate from the "national commission" announced by King Hamad on November 26. This working group, to be headed by Deputy PM Muhammad bin Mubarak, will report to the cabinet this week on how best to implement the BICI's recommendations. At the risk of reading too much into this, it seems that we may have dueling commissions under the patronage of the king and prime minister, respectively, aimed presumably at checking the actions of the other. As one would expect, the commission attached to the prime minister's office seems to have a much wider (and clearer) mandate than the King's "national commission" of mostly former and current Shura Council members.

Finally, meanwhile, the main pro-government web forum Mamlakat al-Bahrain was hacked, though apparently by a non-Bahraini group linked to a forum called "Noor Fatema," which I'd not heard of previously. Its front page was defaced with various pro-Shi'a images along with graphic photos of dead children, as you would expect.

Update: the Bahrain Mirror is running a shortish interview with 'Ali Salman recorded on the sidelines of a conference he attended in Doha.

And following months of trashing the king in his column for his perceived weakness in dealing with protesters, Al-Watan's Faisal al-Shiekh is making up for it today with the mother of all ass-kissings: "Our love and high esteem, Hamad." Yes--today at least.

Update 2: Some new, uprising-inspired 'azzah music for this year's 'Ashura' has been passed along to me:

Update 3: Another first-hand account of John Timoney's "Miami model" in action. And yet another from Florida's St. Petersburg Times dating to 2003.

Also, an interesting exposé in The Independent: "Special undercover investigation: Executives from Bell Pottinger reveal 'dark arts' they use to burnish reputations of countries accused of human rights violations." Only surprise is that Bahrain does not pop up explicitly as a client.

Update 4: Maybe a bit too much wishful thinking, but:

Update 5: A Cartoon Movement comic on Bahrain's social tensions after the revolution: "Lines in Ink. Lines in the Sand." By cartoonist Josh Neufeld.

Update 6: More police restructuring. Not so much political restructuring.