Monday, December 31, 2012

When What Happens in the Villages Doesn't Stay in the Villages

While conducting my survey of Bahraini citizens in 2009 I spent a good amount of time in the island's (mainly Shi'a) villages, attempting to convince potential respondents that my field interviewers and I were not government spies and so on. As a consequence, I was afforded an interesting opportunity to witness first-hand village life, and the everyday difficulties that this geographical, socioeconomic, and in many ways political isolation entails.

One elderly villager in the seaside Shi'a enclave of al-Malikiyya told how he was banned from fishing in the bountiful waters adjacent to the village when large palace compounds were erected all along the Western coast. When asked about a dilapidated fence blocking what looked to be a beach in Sitra, villagers recounted how a young boy had drowned when sand was illegally dredged from the shore, creating a steep drop-off. The fence, they said, was the municipality's solution. And, in the northern village of Karranah, a resident complained bitterly that the police themselves refuse to enter unless to make an arrest or to chase away teenagers burning tires. Even in the event of a simple car accident, he explained, exasperated, the police demand that villagers themselves drag the damaged vehicles to the main (al-Budaiyi') road for examination, so that any facts of the incident gained by observing the wreckage or through interviewing witnesses are necessarily lost.

As a result, many of the Shi‘a villages, though the capital and most ministry headquarters be but five miles away, have learned to operate to a startling degree independently of the state, referring disputes to local notables, aiding poorer residents through the local village charity, and undertaking infrastructure repairs and construction. They also, as one might expect, have come to have little trust in the state's various agents, in particular the police--and this well before their brutal role in suppressing the February 14 uprising. Several questions in my 2009 survey asked respondents to indicate their level of trust in several government institutions, among them the police. Predictably, Shi'a respondents expressed little confidence in the latter, with only 7% indicating "a lot of trust" in the police and only 25% even a "moderate" level of trust. Instead, nearly half of all Shi'a respondents said they had "no trust at all." And this, again, was nearly two years before February 2011.

In stark contrast, very few Sunnis--a combined 15%--expressed anything less than "moderate" trust in the police. Indeed, the police earned more trust among Sunnis than any other institution inquired about in the survey save for the prime ministership. (The others were the parliament, political societies, and the courts.) This too is perhaps unsurprising, given the survey's other finding that 13% of all Sunni households had at least one member (husband or wife) employed in the police or armed forces.

Of course, it may also have something to do with the fact that, with the exception of Ebrahim Sharif, Mohammed Al Bu Flasa, and a handful of others, Sunni citizens are not regularly and needlessly harassed, insulted, and/or assaulted by police. Even apart from the disproportionate involvement of Shi'a in protest and opposition activities, the extreme isolation of many/most Shi'a communities would seem to embolden police, encouraged by presumed anonymity and impunity to adopt the slogan of another sin city: "What happens in the Shi'a villages stays in the Shi'a villages."

Except, that is, when someone records it on a cell phone camera and posts it to YouTube. In that case, you get the following, which France24 has dubbed "the police slap heard all over Bahrain." The setup according to the cameraman:
That day, Haider was on his way to visit his aunt, who lives very close by, which is why he didn’t have his papers on him.

The neighbourhood where his aunt lives was full of policemen, because Bahrain was preparing to host the Gulf Cooperation Council summit [on December 24 and 25] and the government feared that protests might take place.

What you don’t see in the video is that a policeman first stopped Haider’s car and asked him to step out of the car. Haider agrees, but refuses to leave his child alone in the car. The tension is palpable, which is why the eyewitness decided to film the scene from his window [the video begins before the father enters the frame, as if the cameraman was indeed waiting for something to happen].
And the video:

The Interior Ministry has since been reported to have detained the offending officer, presumably to reprimand him for drawing negative attention to the country's now-reformed police force (not to be confused with reprimanding him for slapping the villager). Conveniently for Bahrain, this also coincides with another legal case against "rogue" policemen.  Yesterday two officers were given seven years in prison each for the beating to death of Kareem Fakhrawi, who in April 2011 dared to complain to police about the demolishing of his house by... the police. For those keeping track, the seven-year sentence is only three times shorter than the 25-year sentences handed to several of the opposition leaders last June by closed military tribunal, and about infinity times shorter (infinity divided by 7) than the life sentences given to 'Abd al-Wahhab Hussain, Hasan al-Mushaimi', Muhammad al-Miqdad, 'Abd al-Jalil al-Singace, and four other main opposition figures.

So it's been a great week for evidence of police reform in Bahrain.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

National Day in Bahrain: Yet Another Thing People Can't Agree Upon

Although Bahrain formally gained independence from Britain on August 15, 1971, it marks its National Day--technically, "National Day and Day of Coronation"--on December 16, the day on which Sh. 'Isa officially assumed the throne. In protest of this seeming desire to elevate the monarchy above independence, members of the opposition (and probably others) routinely mark a shadow "National Day" on August 15 and deride that celebrated in December.

Thus has some poetic Bahraini photoshopper hit upon the following pun addressed to King Hamad: "The people wish you the best seat [jaloos] on the occasion of Coronation Day ['eid al-jaloos]."

And, on the other side, a National Day paean to King Hamad's sons Nasr and Khalid, who express their patriotism the old fashion way: by jumping out of an army helicopter:

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

With New Plans for Dialogue, February 14 Uprising May Come Full Circle

How fitting it would be if Bahrain's uprising were finally resolved in the same manner in which it originally was not resolved--with a political deal brokered by the crown prince--an appropriately absurd result to highlight even more starkly how far the turmoil, bloodshed, and political posturing of the previous two years accomplished *literally* nothing.

The most decisive moment of the uprising was of course the two days March 12 and March 13, in which time Sh. Salman failed to coax opposition leaders to the bargaining table despite offering a generous seven-course menu of thorny political issues that he, and by implication King Hamad, was ostensibly prepared to discuss.  Al-Wifaq demanded the government first agree to an elected constitutional assembly empowered to revise the 2002 charter, and got nothing.  The ill-fated Coalition for a Republic demanded--well--a republic, and got thrown in jail.  And, finally, senior Al Khalifa conservatives demanded that the king's son (as my friend Jeremy Cochrane's dad used to say) stop horse-assin' around, and got in touch with their friends from Saudi Arabia to help put an end to all that crazy dialogue talk.  

Now, nearly two years later, history may be on the brink of (hopefully not) repeating itself, with Crown Prince Salman issuing a surprise call for renewed political talks at last week's appropriately-named Manama Dialogue conference.  While some criticized the event both for its percieved legitimation of the government's position as well as for the seeming lack of attention on Bahrain at a forum on regional security (I will acknowledge that I underestimated its usefulness and, later, the seriousness of Sh. Salman's announcement), it seems--and I've heard from some who would know--that Bahrain was indeed on the agenda.

Sh. Salman's Speech

Of course, the sudden transmutation of the crown prince into a relevant political figure in Bahrain does not guarantee that this latest attempt at dialogue will fair any better than the last.  There are, however, some reasons to be encouraged.  In semi-particular order:

1.  A senior and (more or less) neutral royal is finally taking the lead.

Following Sh. Salman's very public March 2011 failure, the government set out to ensure that it would not be embarrassed again.  To this end, its choices of sponsor for subsequent dialogues--or what it called dialogues--were either powerless to broker any actual agreement (Khalifa Al Dhaharani, during the National Dialogue); or so uncompromising that it could be sure not to lose face (Sh. Khalid bin Ahmad, earlier this spring).  The problem with Al Dhaharani, and with the entire National Dialogue, should be clear enough.  The main problem with Sh. Khalid was that he was hopelessly partisan: not only does he despise the opposition (and Shi'a generally), but he is an active supporter of one segment of the Sunni counter-opposition.  This leads directly to encouraging sign number two.

2. Bahrain's Sunnis will not be excluded.

The most recent attempt to restart dialogue sponsored by Sh. Khalid ultimately was scuttled because it was stuck in the old paradigm of backdoor talks between the government and opposition.  Entirely excluded from the negotiating table, that is, were representatives from Sunni society, and this despite Sunnis' decisive role in checking the momentum of the uprising in February and March 2011.  Upset that the state would seek to negotiate without their input, the National Unity Gathering and Sahwat al-Fatih both rallied against the still-theoretical dialogue, and it was never to be heard from again.

By contrast, the crown prince's new initiative will reportedly take the form of "a conference on human rights that would bring together Shia and Sunni parties and pave the way for a political dialogue." 'Ali Salman also is said (in the same Financial Times article) to have agreed to three-way talks.  Certainly, many Sunnis will continue to oppose on principle any government talks with the opposition.  They will (and, as will be discussed shortly, already are) decrying the weakness and stupidity of a government that negotiates with "terrorists."  Yet, as demonstrated already in the case of Sh. Khalid's failed initiative this spring, a sizable proportion of Bahraini Sunnis will welcome the opportunity to articulate their own political grievances and vision, something they have not often had the occasion or liberty to do.

3. The United States is not involved.

Somehow, the crown prince was able to achieve a two-for-one coup at the Manama Dialogue.  If his plan to resume talks remains the top headline, not far behind is his alleged "diplomatic flap" and "public slap against Washington" (per the Associated Press).  As described by Simon Henderson,
U.S. diplomats at the conference ... were surprised when [the crown prince -- ]previously seen as the royal family's leading reformer -- failed to mention the United States by name when listing allies that have provided critical support during the disturbances. He also spoke of countries that "selectively" criticize Bahrain's leadership, without citing specific examples.
Aww SCHNAP! Not citing examples? I bet he didn't show his work either.

Henderson continues,
Meanwhile, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who led the U.S. delegation, emphasized "the urgent challenges of Iran's reckless behavior." On reform, he stated, "There is no one-size-fits-all approach to such transitions or reform processes; much will depend on local circumstances and the quality of local leadership." However, he also noted that "Long-term stability, and enduring security, depend on the full participation of all citizens in political and economic life; the belief of all citizens that their peacefully expressed views are heard and respected; [and] the conviction of all citizens that they share a stake in their country's future." In the email text of the speech distributed by the State Department, the three mentions of the word "all" were each in bold type.
Ya, that's right, you heard him: bold!

Like others, Henderson concludes that "[t]he exchange suggests that the gap in perceptions between Washington and Manama is as wide as ever"; and that, "[g]oing forward, two dangers threaten U.S.-Bahraini relations. The first is that Iran will attempt to further weaken the relationship; the second is that Washington has made seemingly little effort to repair it."

All together, now: GOOD!  If there is one sure-fire way to derail any attempt at political compromise in Bahrain, it is by involving--or even hinting at the involvement of--the United States.  Do we somehow need to be reminded of the "Ayatollah Obama" columns in Al-Watan?  And of the National Unity Gathering rally against the quadrilateral terrorist axis of Iran, al-Wifaq, Hizballah, and the United States?  And of the defense minister's explicit claim of a U.S.-Iranian conspiracy behind the uprising?

In fact, I would hazard that this public "affront" is a bit of well-calculated political theater aimed at (1) ensuring Bahrainis that the U.S. is not involved in the crown prince's initiative; and (2) distancing him from the U.S. altogether--indeed, maybe even earning him a few points with (the mainly Sunni) critics of American "interference" in Bahrain.  It is certainly a more clever crown prince comeback plan than sending him home from Washington with a few spare helicopter parts and humvees.  And since the State Department has already tried that twice, and failed twice, perhaps a change of strategy is even to be expected here.

4. The formal opposition is on board but remains defiant.

Here we have another delicate balance that must be achieved if dialogue is to succeed or even proceed: the formal opposition (i.e., al-Wifaq) must remain defiant enough to be seen as representative of and, from the state's perspective, in relative control of the protest movement, while at the same time not so provocative as to aid in the (inevitable) mobilization of security-minded citizens and royals against the intitiative.  'Ali Salman's fiery but still moderate speech last Friday--in which he lectured and corrected those chanting the familiar "down with the regime" slogan--is seen to indicate that al-Wifaq has now grasped the importance of this dialectic.

As you see from the following video excerpt (others are on al-Wifaq's website here), his voice says pissed off and maybe a bit crazy, but his words say coherent and reasonable.  That's what al-Wifaq needs to aim for, as eventually they will (if talks are successful) be asked to convince their own constituents to accept the deal they have bargained. (You can follow the opposition forum debate over his speech here.)

It looks like al-Wifaq and the rest of the formal opposition will keep the pressure coming, with another (now-illegal) rally planned for Friday titled "The People's Demand is Democracy":

5. Hardliners are flipping out. 

Finally, perhaps the most encouraging sign that Sh. Salman's new dialogue initiative may actually come to something is that security-minded citizens and Al Khalifa conservatives are already desperately rushing to the offensive. Indeed, Al-Watan's editorial page today is going an impressive 4-for-4 on anti-crown prince dialogue stories, including one by anti-American specialist-turned-editor-in-chief (and personal spiritual and menu adviser of this blog) Yusif Al Bin Khalil.  In another, Hisham al-Zayani asks, "What is the price of dialogue?" Still another by Faisal al-Shaikh is titled "America to al-Wifaq: Don't bring down the system, but!," and seems to be getting good play on Sunni message boards, which are filling up with posts about "the coming dialogue." A final article by Sawsan al-Sha'ir also focuses on alleged U.S. sponsorship of the proposed talks. (And this is AFTER Sh. Salman's "public slap against Washington"!  Do I require further evidence for point #3 above?)

Thus, if one assumes that this vehemence is roughly in proportion with perceptions of the likelihood that Sh. Salman will succeed at least in initiating talks, then one should be fairly optimistic.  With his out-of-the-blue resurrection, the crown prince has caught Al Khalifa hardliners off guard.  

Of course, it goes without saying that Sh. Salman still faces an uphill battle.  Whether Saudi Arabia would accept any political reform next door at a time when it faces its own domestic challenges--and a looming decision regarding succession--remains a question.  So too is the U.S.'s willingness to exert real pressure against potential spoilers within both the Al Khalifa and the Al Sa'ud.  I am told that, from the tone of U.S. participants at the Manama Dialogue, U.S. patience may indeed have reached a breaking point, and that unusual and potentially important meetings took place.  I suppose we shall have to wait and see.

Update: 'Ali Salman talks to the BBC (with audio), suggests British mediation if talks with crown prince fail.

Freelance journalist Reese Erlich, whose reporting from Bahrain has recently been made an NPR segment, now has a new three-part series in The Global Post called "Bahrain: The Forgotten Uprising."

Update 2: Good stuff from The Economist:
More tellingly, Sunnis are no longer mere cheerleaders for the Al Khalifas. Inter-sect marriage rates are still sharply down, but the boycott Sunnis waged on Shia merchants is petering out. Sunni thugs who went on pogroms armed with swords have retreated back to Muharraq, an island suburb of Manama. And many Sunnis are increasingly voicing the same socio-economic grievances as Shias. They gripe about the lack of affordable housing, the low pensions, utility hikes and the ruling family’s penchant for grabbing land and power. “We feel the Al Khailfas are defending their own interests, not Sunnis,” says a member of the National Unity Gathering, a Sunni caucus. Ten of the 22 cabinet posts are filled by royals. The country’s prime minister, an uncle of the king, has spent 41 years on the job, longer than even Libya’s late Colonel Qaddafi.

So nervous do the Al Khalifas seem of their people—Sunnis and Shias alike—that they disinvited both from a security studies conference held earlier this month in the capital. The organisers opted for pliable migrant worker drivers to ferry delegates, not local ones who might speak their minds. And while giving the podium to Syria’s Sunni opposition, they kept Bahrain’s Shia ones safely away with road-blocks defended by armoured cars. Fittingly for a conference called the Manama Dialogue, Bahrain’s supposedly reformist Crown Prince launched the event with an appeal for an internal dialogue as “the only way forward”. But given that few of his subjects were present, it seemed primarily aimed for international consumption.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

If the World Got Serious about Gulf Reform, Who Would Buy Our Stuff and Host Conferences?

In a world of tightening state budgets and immense citizen scrutiny over government spending, the Gulf states have exploited the practical advantages of non-democracy to carve out a useful niche as hosters and buyers of things whose traditional sponsors and markets are either already saturated or simply no longer willing or able to spend the money.  Climate change conferences, advanced weapons systems, security forums, university campuses, luxury goods franchises, international sporting events, football clubs--these are just a few of the items that Gulf governments have found it useful to buy, rent, host, sponsor, and otherwise front the cash for.  This of course is a win-win situation for everyone, as Western companies and organizations secure sales, funding, and continued existence, while otherwise obscure countries in a scary-sounding region can introduce themselves to international audiences, gain a bit (or a lot) of good PR, and in some cases perhaps even a return on their investment.

Such endeavors may also, of course, work to the immediate or indirect benefit of Gulf citizens, as in the case most obviously of local branches of Western universities.  Yet, in case one should make the mistake of imagining that this--benefiting ordinary citizens--is the primary aim here, one need only look at Bahrain's recent embrace of American musicians (and good-looking people who happen to be dating American musicians and/or athletes but whose profession otherwise is unclear) in its latest attempt to show just how normal things are nowadays in Bahrain.  Here is where the aforementioned organizational advantages enjoyed by Gulf governments comes into play.  In the first place, the state's budget (and actual income, and spending) is anyone's guess, and in any event is not subject to public debate.  For the one who thinks this or that is a waste of money: too bad, that isn't your concern.  Second, and relatedly, who are you to tell us how to spend our resources?  Are you smarter than this $500/hour market research company we just hired to help improve our international image?  Ya, that's what I thought.

The December 1 visit of Kim Kardashian is especially illustrative because it's not clear who exactly wanted here there apart from teenage girls, Bahraini royals, and others willing to drop 500BD (~$1,250) for a seat at a private reception.  Certainly, the opposition was not impressed with the visit, which it considered a legitimation of the state's recent escalation of repression.  As Marc Lynch tells in a Foreign Policy column yesterday, the BCHR sent a critical open letter to Kardashian inquiring about her professed plans to meet with "local leaders." (See also the Washington Post's coverage here.)

But, as the video and photos below show, it was not simply the opposition that opposed the plan but also many Sunni Islamists, which organized a large protest in Al-Rifa', the sight of one of Kardashian's public appearances.

One sign, picked up by the NY Daily News, read: "[N]one of our customs and traditions allow us to receive stars of porn movies." (Bahrain's Sunni web forums similarly saw heated discussion about the appropriateness of Kardashian's visit.)

Interestingly, among these "porn movies" was a contribution by the Gulf Daily News, whose story on the visit achieved an impressive boob-to-text ratio:

Even Islamists in parliament attempted fruitlessly to block Kardashian's visit, whom, according to Al-Arabiya, they "describ[ed] ... as a woman with a 'bad reputation.'" The MPs, Sky News reports,
submitted an urgent proposal at the end of a parliamentary session where they referred to her as "an actress with an extremely bad reputation." ... But the motion was dismissed because other MPs [presumably government allies] quickly left the chamber.
Silly parliamentarians, thinking they can actually alter policies with which they disagree!

Fortunately, some in the United States are now openly questioning the complicity of international stars and organizations in forwarding the public relations agenda of countries such as Bahrain.  Already, the State Department canceled the planned upcoming "diplomatic tour" of some guy named Andrew W.K., who, as recounted in another informative Washington Post story,
announced on his personal Web site [in November] that “The US Department of State in partnership with the US Embassy in Manama, Bahrain, has invited Andrew to visit the Middle East to promote partying and positive power.” It continued, “Andrew will begin his journey sometime in December, 2012 and will visit elementary schools, the University of Bahrain, music venues, and more, all while promoting partying and world peace.”

The Post story continues,
Andrew W.K. tweeted late Sunday, “Shocked by the confusion over my trip to the Middle East? It’s NOT fake! I really am going there to party!” The Huffington Post reported he would be a cultural ambassador; W.K. later hinted that preparations had been ongoing for a year.

It now turns out that there was actually some truth to W.K.’s claims, though the State Department’s version of events is significantly different, and perhaps more plausible. It’s difficult to tell for sure, but it appears that what may have begun as a quiet event got blown out of proportion by a rock singer new to the subtleties of diplomacy, probably dooming the event, if it hadn’t been canceled already.

“And here I thought we were going to get through this whole briefing without that point coming up,” State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland sighed when a reporter asked this afternoon about the W.K. confusion. ”So we had a Bahraini entity that approached the embassy about co-sponsoring a visit by this guy, who I take it is pretty popular there in Bahrain,” she said. “That was initially approved, and then when more senior management at the embassy took a look at this, the conclusion was that this was not an appropriate use of U.S. government funds.”
Now, bravely, Marc Lynch is (respectfully) questioning the wisdom of another high-profile international event-cum-public relations boon sponsored by Bahrain, namely the annual Manama Dialogue forum organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Last year's event was canceled amid BICI scrutiny, yet the 2012 event is set to kick off on Friday. Perhaps it is too late to change things now, but Marc's words deserve repeating in any case (and unlike Marc, I need not worry about a snub next year, as I am not allowed in Bahrain anyway):
The 2012 Dialogue is scheduled to begin on Friday, December 7. It boasts "the highest concentration to date of policy-makers involved in regional security," including "world-class journalists, experts and business leaders" (though not, presumably, Kim Kardashian). Canceling the Dialogue last year was the right call. I would like to see a case made for the value of resuming it this year, given that it sends a signal to the policy elite that it is once again legitimate and normal to do business in Bahrain. In terms of the rehabilitation of an unrepentant regime, what is the difference between resuming the Formula One race after a one year suspension, visiting to promote milkshakes, and convening a high profile regional policy forum?

I do not mean to single out the IISS, an organization for which I have great respect. In past years, by all accounts, the Manama Dialogue has been an outstanding event of its kind (full disclosure: I've been invited before but was never able to make it). But if we are going to hold Kim Kardashian to account, shouldn't we as a policy community do the same for ourselves? At the least, let's hope that the journalists and policy wonks who do take part in this regional forum take Maryam al-Khawaja up on her call to find the time during their visit to meet with activists and to draw attention to Bahrain's human rights and political issues.
Yes, that--and take Andrew W.K. up on his call for PARTYING, POSITIVE POWER, and of course WORLD PEACE!  (Not to be confused with Bahrain peace.)

Update: Kristin Smith Diwan breaks down Kuwait's post-electoral slide toward sectarian politics. If you're asking what that has to do with Bahrain, you missed this.

Update 2: An odd piece from two days ago that I just came across now in The Huffington Post.  It is written by a "research and advocacy officer" of the BCHR, and its opening paragraph reads,
While some commentators [with a link here to a blog post by me] have recently been ringing the death knell of the Bahrain uprising, there is one place where the Bahraini government and their apologists have entirely failed to impose their authority: online. Given the recent complete banning of public protest in Bahrain, online dissent has become increasingly important to a revolution that refuses to go away.
This is odd not only for the suggestion that I am a linkworthy "Bahraini government apologist," but also because the article in which I supposedly "ring[] the death knell of the Bahrain uprising" is, of course, online, where we are told "apologists have entirely failed to impose their authority." So: my post is at once a representative (and one presumes reasonably influential, if it is singled out here) piece of apologia, but at the same time entirely without influence or authority. Very strange.

The final bit of oddity comes later in the article in paragraph six, where Lubbock paraphrases a section from my dissertation regarding the ubiquity of Ahmad Al-Fatih--in fact, the bit: "al-Fätih" ( الفاتح ; literally, "the opener, conqueror") is copied directly.  Once again, it is odd that a non-authoritative Bahraini government propagandist could provide useful background material for an article decrying Bahraini government propagandists.

Update 3: A Bahrain riddle: if Crown Prince Salman calls for political talks where no opposition representative can hear him--say, in a closed-door meeting with foreign ministers at the Manama Dialogue--does he make a sound?

Update 4: Apparently the crown prince's call for renewed talks was serious after all, or at least 'Ali Salman is under that impression.  Reuters reports that the latter has been contacted "indirectly" but does not know when the talks would/will take place.  Speaking to Reuters, Salman said that al-Wifaq would enter dialogue without preconditions but wants a popular referendum on any deal.  Somehow I don't see that happening.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Understanding Sectarianism in the Persian Gulf

I know, two posts in one day: crazy, right? I just couldn't hold off on this one. Those who follow the blog somewhat regularly will know that I've made frequent mention of a book project sponsored by Georgetown University in Qatar (and edited by Columbia's Larry Potter) titled "Sectarian Politics in the Gulf," for which I contributed a chapter. Well, although we'll have to wait a bit long for the actual book to be published, Georgetown has now released its own "summary report" of the project, which includes a 2-3 page synopsis of my chapter. It is titled "Understanding Sectarianism in the Persian Gulf." Other contributors include, inter alia, Laurence Louër and Kristin Smith-Diwan. I encourage you to read it.

The Three Reinforcing Conflicts of Bahrain

In an unprecedented development, tonight's Brookings event on Bahrain went off without so much as a single thrown shoe or sectarian epithet. This is likely due to the fact that the panel--myself, POMED's Stephen McInerney, and Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi--did not include any actual Bahrainis (thanks to the government's refusal to participate and threats against any Bahrainis thinking of doing so). 

In any case, some attendees asked if I could e-mail my remarks, so I thought it would be easier simply to post them here.  Supposedly there will also be an audio and/or video recording (via Al-Jazeera Mubasher) of the entire event, so I will also post these once/if they materialize.

The theme of the talk was "The Three Reinforcing Conflicts of Bahrain":

Update: Audio is now up via the Brookings website.

I will say a little bit about the underlying social and political dynamics reinforcing the present conflict in Bahrain, a conflict which involves many more parties than simply “the government” and “the opposition.”

This discussion is useful I think for two separate reasons:

First, rather than simply describing Bahrain’s lack of implementation of the BICI recommendations, and its reluctance to undertake political reform generally, it helps explain why it has failed to do so in a way that avoids recourse to moral arguments or judgments. That is to say, understanding the web of conflict in Bahrain helps explains why the country’s decision-makers presently have no real incentive to alter their current, post-uprising political strategy.

Second, it is useful in focusing the discussion away from the BICI specifically and back to the larger political picture. Obviously, the BICI arose to investigate the aftermath of the uprising, and to recommend changes to help ensure that the violent mishandling of the crisis would not happen again. Somewhat lost in all this attention on what happened after February 14, then, are the root causes of the uprising itself, which are well-known and have been since at least the early 2000s. It also distracts from what has gone on since the BICI recommendations were issued, including additional arrests of political activists and critics, the upholding of sentences against opposition leaders and medical personnel, legal threats against senior Shi‘i religious leaders and religious institutions, and most recently the stripping of citizenship from opposition figures, including former members of parliament and even academics abroad.

The misdirection afforded by disproportionate focus on the BICI process of course is to the government’s benefit, and fits into its larger strategy of simply working to become better prepared (from a security and to a lesser extent diplomatic standpoint) to handle the next large-scale uprising—as if such a thing were inevitable anyway—rather than working to rectify the underlying conditions and grievances driving political discontent. And it’s probably safe to say that, as a result, Bahrain’s leaders will achieve a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Three Reinforcing Conflicts of Bahrain

Since I’m limited here to ten minutes, I will briefly outline what I would describe as Bahrain’s three mutually-reinforcing political conflicts, each working to preclude resolution of the others. You’ll notice that none of these three is “the opposition” versus “the government.” This is for two reasons. First, I think both groups are sufficiently heterogeneous that it makes little sense to speak in these terms. Second, even if we were revise this formulation to be something more workable such as “the moderate opposition” versus “moderates in the ruling family,” still I think this is not the main sticking point today in Bahrain. Disagreement between, say, al-Wifaq leaders and Bahrain’s nominal leader King Hamad, is not the primary cause of political stagnation or regression in Bahrain.

The Intra-Al Khalifa Conflict

On exactly this point, the first and arguably most important conflict precluding resolution of Bahrain’s political deadlock is disagreement among senior members of the ruling family. Unfortunately, this disagreement is not simply over the best way to handle the political problem posed by the uprising, but over the much more fundamental question of how to understand the problem itself—how to understand the problem of Shi‘a political mobilization in Bahrain. When you look at the period following King Hamad’s succession, and at the political and especially economic reforms that were introduced, it is easy to see what was the thinking underlying these initiatives. The idea was that by offering opponents at least some political space in which to operate, and by improving the living conditions of citizens through economic revitalization, diversification, and efforts to stamp out corruption, Bahrain could escape from the chronic discontent that had plagued the country—and King Hamad’s father—throughout the second half of the 1990s.

However, there were two significant problems related to this reform agenda. First, King Hamad’s initiatives, ultimately superintended by the crown prince, were a direct challenge to the economic-cum-political interests of other senior members of the ruling family, namely the prime minister whose political influence originates in expansive patronage networks with links to Saudi Arabia. Thus each of the tenets of the crown prince’s economic agenda—diversification away from reliance upon natural resources generally and away from Saudi Arabia in particular; labor market regulation; and efforts to limit corruption—all served to undermine the prime minister’s economic and thus political position. And indeed one assumes that this was precisely the intention.

So this was one problem. The second problem is that not everyone within the ruling family was sold on the basic premise of the economic and political reform program—or alternatively one could hypothesize that even King Hamad and his son had doubts about the state’s ability to co-opt political support through limited political liberalization and economic improvement. In either case, the upshot was that on the political front at the state proceeded on two parallel tracks—the second being a sort of preemptive back-up plan in the event opponents were not satisfied with the changes instituted.

So, for example, at the same time that Bahrain reintroduced an elected parliament, it also took steps to ensure that the opposition could never gain a majority, by redrawing electoral districts around sectarian boundaries. Even though Shi‘a citizens comprise a majority of the overall population, for example, al-Wifaq has never bothered to field candidates in more than 18 of the 40 total districts, out of recognition that it cannot hope to win the others. Besides redistricting, other preventative measures included the onset of Bahrain’s now decade-long program of naturalizing Sunnis from Syria, Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere for work in the police and armed forces, as well as the near wholesale exclusion of Shi‘a citizens from those services. Finally, certain agencies of the state—in particular the royal court and its various public outlets, including the inflammatory newspaper Al-Watan—also worked to cultivate anti-Shi‘a orientations among ordinary Sunnis such that these citizens will be happy to fight the government’s battles for it if and when the need arises.

Perhaps the biggest substantive impact of the February 14 uprising, then, in my opinion, was to deal a real blow to the basic premise of Bahrain’s entire post-1999 reform agenda overseen by the king and crown prince. Those in the ruling family who opposed it on principle or out of self-interest, including not only the prime minister but also other security-minded individuals such as the royal court and defense ministers, were in their minds vindicated in their belief that citizens—in particular, Shi‘a citizens—will never be satisfied with anything less than wholesale political revolution, and that accordingly the only way to achieve social and political stability is through strong, proactive security measures and the incitement of ordinary citizens against the opposition as an imagined Iranian fifth column.

So, whether this means that King Hamad and his son have lost the internal Al Khalifa battle for political direction, or simply that they have finally come over to the view of more security-minded members of the family, the result is the same: Bahrain now working to solve its “Shi‘a problem” within a security, rather than a political, framework.

The Fractured Opposition

The second conflict underlying Bahrain’s political stalemate is the division within the opposition itself—namely, between those who hold out hope for the formal, moderate opposition represented by al-Wifaq, and who remain open in principle to political dialogue, and those who continue to pursue more radical and more violent means of protest and who would reject any political compromise. Certainly, there has been much talk lately about increasing radicalization and violence among members of the opposition, including among al-Wifaq leaders themselves.

But despite this attempt to paint al-Wifaq as mastermind of violence, the fact is that the increase in violence represents something even more worrisome to the state: a protest movement entirely out of the hands of the formal (and more moderate) opposition.

Indeed, from the state's perspective, it would be preferable if al-Wifaq WERE behind the violence, since then the group could credibly commit to ending it as part of political negotiations. As it is now, with al-Wifaq wielding almost no command over Bahrain's revolutionary youth, any promise by al-Wifaq to end violent protest activities in exchange for political concessions is entirely non-credible, giving the government no incentive to engage in dialogue in the first place. This is a classic commitment problem.

In short, not only does increasing violence give security-minded royals and citizens more fuel for their arguments in favor of an even harsher security crackdown against protest activities, but, even more importantly, al-Wifaq appears an ever more unreliable and inefficacious partner in political dialogue.

The Other Opposition

The third domestic conflict in Bahrain involves what are usually referred to simplistically as “Sunni loyalists” or “the Sunni counter-opposition.” In fact, the various groups and movements that arose in opposition to the February uprising—the largest and most important being the National Unity Gathering and Sahwat al-Fatih—are neither exclusively Sunni nor strictly-speaking pro-government. In a recent Chatham House paper, Jane Kinninmont offers an illustrative quotation from a National Unity Gathering supporter, who told her, “We are not for the government, just temporarily aligned with it.” And I think that is about right for many ordinary Sunnis in Bahrain, who share most of the same basic political grievances of the opposition, including discontent with corruption and wasted resources; continued naturalization of foreigners for work in the police and military; and a lack of say in political decision-making.

Both before and after the uprising, the government has been successful in dissuading Sunni citizens from joining the opposition in significant numbers—or of forming a parallel opposition based around Sunni identity—by raising the specter of Shi‘a empowerment. Prior to al-Wifaq’s resignation, the primary function of the two main Sunni political societies in parliament was to obstruct the opposition, and any Sunnis who dared oppose the government were branded as complicit in the larger Iranian conspiracy represented by al-Wifaq.

In the aftermath of the uprising, which saw an unprecedented and only partly state-sponsored Sunni mobilization, Bahrain’s leaders found themselves with two groups of discontented Sunnis: those that disagreed with what was perceived to be its lax security response to opposition activities, and those that harbored substantive political misgivings independent of this concern, such as those already mentioned. Even if the state could somehow broker some political agreement with the opposition, then, still it would face a different set of problems involving Bahraini Sunnis stemming from its very own efforts to mobilize the community.

The government learned this lesson the hard way during its most recent attempt to restart talks with the opposition in March 2012, where the problem was not intransigence on the part of al-Wifaq but the reaction of Sunni groups. Both the National Unity Gathering and Sahwat al-Fatih rallied against the dialogue—not because they symbolized compromise with the opposition but because they had not been invited. That is, Sunnis were angry that the state would seek a political bargain without their input, particularly given their decisive role in turning the tide of the uprising in February and March 2011.

Not coincidentally, reports of this new “political dialogue initiative” stopped almost immediately. The state is willing to do a lot of things to appease Sunnis, but allowing them a seat at the negotiating table alongside members of the opposition is definitely not one of them. Indeed, this scenario above all others is the one that the ruling family will work to avoid. The chance that Sunni and Shi‘i political leaders could agree some set of political demands is far too dangerous to risk by agreeing to multiparty talks. (According to longtime Bahrain scholar ‘Abd al-Hadi Khalaf, who incidentally is among those whose citizenship was revoked last week, the last time that members of the ruling family sat at a negotiating table with leading Sunni and Shi‘i figures was in the 1960s.) In this case, then, rather than reject the Sunni demand for inclusion directly, the state appears instead to have ended its pursuit of a new dialogue initiative altogether, and in the eight months since there has been no hint of another one.

The state thus seems to have decided that if it cannot placate both sets of Sunnis—that is, those unhappy with the state’s security response to protesters, and those simply unhappy—then it will have to take steps to appease at least the former group of more security-minded citizens. This group, then, can be conveniently mobilized against the latter more reform-minded Sunnis, who may be branded “traitors” or fools duped by the opposition. It was this dynamic, I would argue, that led to the high-profile arrest of Nabeel Rajab, and of the recent legal action begun against Sh. ‘Isa Qasim, against ‘Ali Salman, against al-Wifaq as an organization, and others accused of fomenting violence.

The problem, of course, is that the state’s capitulation to this pressure reinforces the larger self-perpetuating cycle ongoing for the better part of two years in Bahrain. Additional arrests and more stringent security measures fuel further radicalization, desperation, and violence on the part of the youthful opposition, whose members see little hope for a promising future in Bahrain in terms of employment, education, and so on, much less an agreeable political settlement.

In conclusion, then, yes, Bahrain has successfully fended off substantive political change, and the incentives are in place for it to continue to do so. (And I’ve not even had time to mention the role of the United States or Saudi Arabia.) But at what cost?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Brookings Doha Event on Bahrain

Please excuse my extended absence from posting as I've been completely occupied finalizing the details of my longtime childhood friend Kim Kardashian's upcoming visit to Bahrain, where, as she's already made clear in comments to reporters, she will "set the record straight" while being ogled by members of the royal family. Asked what "record" exactly will be "set straight," she continued, "You know, about how all the Tutsi rebels are killing innocent Hutus and other Bahrainites."  I hope everyone will wish her well in her fact-finding and record-straightening mission.

I have some suitcases to unpack, so I don't have time to get into all the details of BICI anniversary mania; 'Ashura' madness (although I will say that I did get a chance to witness 'Ashura' celebrations among the Lawati in Muscat; very interesting); and, of course, Kim's trip to Bahrain.  Instead, I wanted to note that I will be taking part in one such BICI anniversary mania event this Wednesday at the Brookings Doha Center.  The forum, which is billed as "a policy discussion on the political situation in Bahrain" and will include a Q&A session, will run from 5:30 to 7:00pm.  My sole co-panelist (though they are looking for a third) is Jamal Khashoggi, whom I do not know personally but is a well-known Saudi journalist and editor-in-chief of the Saudi-owned but Bahrain-based Al-Arab news channel.  The executive director of POMED, which just released a comprehensive assessment of Bahrain's BICI implementation, will also be joining via the Interweb from Washington.  In any case, it should be good fun and not at all contentious, since discussions on Bahrain are usually very civil and always based on sober and objective consideration of relevant facts.

If you're in town but don't know where Brookings is located, here is a map.  The event is public but requires pre-registration by e-mailing  Kim Kardashian may or may not be in attendance.

One additional note is that sometime in the next few days Middle East Policy will publish its Winter 2012 issue, which contains an article by me entitled "The Political Costs of Qatar's Western Orientation."  It is based on two years of survey data from Qatar and although not related to Bahrain may be of interest to some insofar as it is an analysis of popular political attitudes in a Gulf state.

Update: An informative article in Al-Ahram on Bahrain's recent revocation of opponents' citizenship. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Kuwait, Not Escalating Violence, Could Be a Game-Changer for Bahrain

One day early last month I received several not-quite-frantic e-mails asking if I knew anything about a meeting said to be scheduled to take place in Doha, where I am located, between members of Bahrain's government and opposition.  As I was indeed not aware of it, I read with interest an article written by the editor of Akhbar al-Khaleej, Anwar 'Abd al-Rahman, decrying this "suspicious meeting in Doha" and comparing its prospective participants to those traitors who had returned just a week earlier from Bahrain's human rights review at the United Nations in Geneva.

Though some of his information proved to be wrong--the event was not organized by the Carnegie Endowment, for one--it turns out that there was an attempt to bring together a group of Bahrainis in a workshop format.  However, the editorial by 'Abd al-Rahman, combined with several other articles in various outlets, amounted to a preemptive strike on the whole enterprise, a less-than-discrete warning to those invited that it was in their interest not to go (to say nothing of Qatar's continued treachery in daring to allow such meetings in its territory). The event was called off for lack of participation and, one suspects, for fear of a possible diplomatic incident.

Later, at the end of October, The Guardian reported that an NGO run by a former aide of Tony Blair was "advising Bahrain on conflict resolution," with "Bahraini government and opposition figures ... being trained in negotiation and conflict resolution techniques." Once again, Bahrain would not tolerate the suggestion that it was anything but staunchly opposed to any political compromise with the opposition and to foreign interference in this "internal matter."  Minister of State for Crazy Affairs Sameera Rajab was promptly dispatched to deny explicitly the Guardian story in remarks later carried in the Bahrain News Agency.

Now, I've not written here for some time.  That is due in part to an increase in other commitments.  But it owes also to a more substantive cause, which is that it's tedious to rehash the same thesis week after week.  The securitization of politics in Bahrain has thrown the country into a destructive, self-perpetuating cycle, whereby the lack of even a hint of political compromise encourages increasingly radical protest tactics, which only reinforces the state's (and security-minded "pro-government" citizens') resistance to compromise or even dialogue.  Indeed, in the aftermath of yesterday's bombings (which occurred in my old neighborhood), Interior Minister Sh. Rashid was quick to declare that "there can be no negotiation with terrorists."  This is just as well, of course, since those responsible for the explosions are presumably not interested in talking either.

The question, accordingly, is not whether Bahrain is likely to continue down (or, in this case, around) the same political path, but what it would take for it NOT to.  That is to say, what event or development would be sufficiently transformative to alter the government's calculus on the usefulness and/or necessity of an actual political solution to Bahrain's conflict as opposed to the present (and now months-old) artificial stalemate imposed via a sweeping security crackdown? (A security crackdown that, as of a week ago, now includes an outright ban on demonstrations.)

In the first place, one can rule out homemade pipe bombs and other acts designed ostensibly to get the attention either of the government or, more likely, of the international community.  Momentarily stealing headlines away from Syria serves little purpose if the headline is something like "Two Killed in Terrorist Attack by Bahrain Opposition."  Similarly, targeting foreigners in areas popular with foreigners--and 'Adliya, the site of one of the injuries, is perhaps the most popular of all--is unlikely to convert additional supporters.  More fundamentally, such actions only feed into the narrative of those within the state and in society who are most opposed to "compromise with terrorists." Take the graphic below, for instance, which comes from Bahrain's main Sunni forum and compares yesterday's incident to a Hizballah bombing in Lebanon.

Not only do such events strengthen the resolve of those opposed to dialogue, moreover, but it gives fuel to those advocating a further escalation of the existing security crackdown, including most notably the immediate closure of al-Wifaq and arrest of 'Ali Saman and especially 'Isa Qasim as alleged inciters of violence.  Already last month the former was summoned for police questioning, while the Bahrain Mirror reported on October 1 that one of King Hamad's advisers, Nabeel al-Hamar, announced that "a number of Bahraini lawyers" are preparing to bring a legal case against 'Isa Qasim "next week"--i.e., this week--relating to his infamous "crush them" sermon.  (Remember this one?)

Leading the charge as usual is the editorial board at Al-Watan.  Of the five headlines on today's (electronic) front page, the top two are stories about 'Isa Qasim.  One, featuring a photo of one of yesterday's victims, reads: "MPs and Shura Council members: Qasim's incitement is behind the development of terrorist methods and mechanisms."

A second asks, "Why does 'Isa Qasim hate foreigners and incite [violence] against them?" I'm not even sure how to describe the photograph.

In keeping with the general cycle of violence and mutual recrimination which is now a defining feature of Bahrain, the response from the other side--both with respect to yesterday's events specifically as well as the larger attack on 'Isa Qasim--has been equally defiant.

The Islamic 'Ulama' Council--I'm not sure exactly whom this represents--continues to criticize the "attack on Ayatallah Sh. 'Isa Ahmad Qasim."  In a new statement released Sunday, the council says that "the defense of this symbol of jurisprudence ... is the defense of all the targeted [opposition leaders]," and closes with the words,  "May God help you [all] to protect the security of this nation and to defend its loyal symbols."

The February 14th movement has also joined in with the flashy graphic seen below, which offers a generic warning to no one in particular: "He is our Shaykh ['Isa] Qasim: Beware." 

Neither are al-Wifaq and 'Ali Salman adopting a conciliatory tone.  Caught between the dual threats of dissolution by the government and irrelevance on the street, al-Wifaq faces a precarious balancing act, to say the least.  Opposition forums have picked up on an interview by 'Ali Salman on the al-Mayadeen television channel (I have no idea what this is), in which he is reported to have said, "If a person entered my house I would kill him in self-defense." Some of course are taking "a person" to mean "a police officer," while others say it was a general statement now being blown out of proportion and to substantiate claims about incitement toward violence.

Al-Wifaq also has not done itself any favors with its Twitter response to yesterday's bomb blasts, which as you can see below is being interpreted as another lost opportunity to condemn acts of violence.

Finally, with the politically-charged festival of 'Ashura' little more than two weeks away, some--more specifically, Sh. 'Abd al-Wahhab Hussain's group al-Wafa'--are attempting to put the holiday to even more explicit political use, dubbing it the "'Ashura' of Resistance."  As the Interior Ministry has already announced that the new ban on public gatherings would not apply to 'Ashura' processions, it is perhaps not surprising that the latter would transform into genuine political marches.

In short, then, there is no reason to believe that yesterday's attack represents anything more than the new normal in Bahrain.  Certainly it will not prompt the state to rethink its present security-based strategy, nor invite outside pressure for it to do so.  Quite the opposite, such acts of violence will only engender a more complete crackdown as security-minded royals and citizens gain ever more fuel for their arguments, and, even more importantly, al-Wifaq appears an even more unreliable partner in political dialogue.  For, despite the attempt of some to paint al-Wifaq as mastermind of violence, the fact is that such violence represents something even more worrisome to the state: a protest movement entirely out of the hands of the formal (and more moderate) opposition.

Indeed, from the state's perspective, it would be preferable if al-Wifaq WERE behind the violence, since then the group could credibly commit to ending it as part of political negotiations.  As it is now, with al-Wifaq wielding almost no command over Bahrain's revolutionary youth, any promise by al-Wifaq to end violent protest activities in exchange for political concessions is entirely non-credible, giving the government no incentive to engage in dialogue in the first place.  Here is a classic commitment problem.

So, I return to the question asked at the outset: if not the recent escalation in violence, what is it that may force the government to reconsider its present security-cum-political strategy?  Previously I have suggested that such a revision in thinking would most likely be prompted by a substantive change in external/regional rather than internal political dynamics: the inevitable question of succession in Saudi Arabia, which may draw the kingdom's attention away from Bahrain; a shift (unlikely as it seems) in U.S. policy toward Bahrain; or the mobilization of Sunni citizens in Saudi Arabia--beyond the perennial protests in the Eastern Province--sparked by Sunni activism in Bahrain.

Now, none of these three scenarios has come to fruition.  But if you tweak the final item a bit, changing Saudi Arabia to Kuwait, then you may see where I am going.  Imagine, for instance, that Kuwait's ongoing parliamentary stalemate devolves into a full-blown political crisis, complete with violent clashes between protesters and riot police.  As already threatened by the emir, the Kuwaiti army is deployed to forcibly quell protests, and one popular uprising in the Gulf (excluding for now the case of Saudi Arabia) becomes two.

Such a scenario would have two important implications for Bahrain.  First, since there is no question of Iranian involvement or "outside interference" in the case of Kuwait, and since the Kuwaiti opposition is a rather heterogeneous coalition of nationalists, liberals, youth, tribes, and so on, it would be much more difficult for the United States and other Western countries to write off a Kuwaiti revolt as a "special case" not representative of the "truly democratic and popular" uprisings seen elsewhere in the Arab world.  If Bahrain is no longer viewed as an isolated and unique case, in other words, but as part of a larger phenomenon of "demands for political reform in the Gulf," then the entire narrative surrounding U.S. and Western support for GCC governments--including Bahrain--changes.  (Of course, some are already questioning, however fruitlessly, U.S. policy on Bahrain.)  And, since the U.S. election will have been decided by then, Washington may have more political will--assuming Obama is re-elected--to act.  Finally, the U.K.'s recent decision to launch a parliamentary review of its relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain could further isolate the U.S.

Second, it is possible that a Kuwaiti revolt could re-energize the large contingent of (mostly Sunni) Bahrainis whose fear and dislike of the opposition has so far precluded a coordinated and sustained pursuit of their own political agenda and resolution of their own grievances.  But these political grievances nonetheless persist, and individuals may be more likely to overcome their fear of inadvertent Shi'a empowerment if Kuwait's (also largely Sunni) opposition is seen to achieve substantive political gains--for example, a sizable number of cabinet seats or an elected prime minister.  Moreover, because the newly-reconvened Bahraini parliament now consists almost entirely of these nominally "pro-government" citizens, they already enjoy an institutional mechanism by which to push a reformist agenda if they so desired.  Signs that Bahraini Sunnis are re-awaking from their recent stupor, then, could push the government to end the current cycle of perpetual political crisis.

Gulf foreign ministers will meet tomorrow in Manama "in preparation" for next month's GCC summit, also to be held in Bahrain. I suspect that one of the agenda items will be how to stop isolated political sparks across the Gulf from transforming into a wider regional conflagration.

Update: Sh. Fawaz announces on Twitter that Bahrain is now returning to the methods of the 1990s, taking away the citizenship of 31 activists, including respected Bahrain scholar 'Abd al-Hadi Khalaf and two former al-Wifaq MPs (Jalal and Jawad Fayruz). The BNA has posted an English list of names. (Interestingly, in the English list they omit the "Khalaf" bit for 'Abd al-Hadi, presumably so he is not readily identified.)

Already, some ingenious Twitter activist has responded with the following:

Monday, October 15, 2012

Will Bahrain's Parliament Go the Way of Kuwait?

As usual, I've been quite busy lately with various writing commitments. The most substantial of these is the fabled dissertation-to-book-manuscript project, a revision process of which I am sorry to say I have a lot remaining. In addition, grant proposal season is now upon us, sucking up additional free time. What is worse, since all of these submissions take an excruciatingly long time to play out, there is seemingly little immediate payoff for what are considerable investments in time and energy. One small piece that has finally made its way through the academic pipeline is this review of Sean Foley's The Arab Gulf States, published just a few days ago in IJMES.

More pertinent for today's post on Bahrain, however, is another recent writing project: a chapter for a forthcoming book on sectarian politics in the Gulf to which I've alluded before. The chapter, a theoretical framework for understanding the region's sectarian politics, explains why the outcome of "sectarianism" is in fact a particular case of the Gulf's more general tendency toward group-based politics of all sorts. The explanation, in short, is a combination of (1) specific institutional characteristics that privilege political coordination on the basis of ascriptive social categories--region, religion, ethnicity, tribe, etc.--and (2) active efforts on the part of Gulf rulers to institutionalize this group-based, as opposed to individual-based, political competition, in order to maximize their own economic and political welfare.

Now, one hardly needs a special occasion to point out the existence of group politics in Bahrain.  For almost no one is a Bahraini anymore, but BahrAni (بحراني), or 'Ajmi, or Mujannas, or Hawala, or Shirazi, or Al Khalifa, or Ahl al-Sunna, or whatever.  And, not coincidentally, that's the way the state likes it.  Indeed, when the opposition launched its well-publicized "No Sunni, No Shi'i, Just Bahraini" campaign at the height of mass demonstrations in March 2011, the government was none too pleased, as this image clashed with its reading (or at least its outward portrayal) of the uprising.  Those found wearing stickers and other "Just Bahraini" paraphernalia were singled out at security checkpoints and generally were dismissed either as disingenuous or as unthinking pawns in others' sectarian agenda.

In recent days, however, the government's manipulation of societal groupings qua political constituencies has reached notable levels even by local standards.  This may correspond to Sunday's opening of the new session of the National Assembly, or it may be entirely independent of the parliament.  However the case, Bahrain has gone out of its way to put various societal groups on notice, Stephen Colbert-style.

The fun kicked off last week when Sh. Rashid sent a "strongly-worded letter" to two institutions affiliated with Bahrain's sizable Persian community: the Grand 'Ajam Ma'tam and the Al-Manama Club.  According to an article in the Bahrain Mirror, members of the community, which in recent decades has attempted to remain apolitical, were threatened with "deportation" if they are found to "participate in opposition activities."  Almost immediately thereafter, the Information Affairs Authority carried a press release announcing that the Grand 'Ajam Mosque "reiterated its loyalty to His Highness the King and rejects the perpetrators of rioting and terrorism":

Soon a loyalty stampede ensued among Bahrain's various civil society groups, especially football and sports clubs, including those not affiliated with Bahraini 'Ajam. God knows why; it's not like the government would arrest and/or torture athletes thought to support the opposition, right?

Inevitably, of course, the state's public message to Bahraini Persians had the opposite effect of that intended, or in any case was likely only to convince those who were content to remain outside of politics in the first place.  Soon after the Grand 'Ajam Ma'tam's letter declaring its deference to King Hamad and denouncement of the opposition, another letter appeared signed by the "Movement of the Lovers of Martyrdom" (nice name) that said, in effect, that although "the Grand 'Ajam Ma'tam is one of the largest Hussainiyya in Bahrain, it doesn't represent all 'Ajam" and doesn't represent us.  So, once again, by demanding formal declarations of political support from a heterogeneous group of citizens, Bahrain has succeeded only in pushing would-be opponents underground.

The second group that has been put on notice is a more familiar face: al-Wifaq. In a seeming escalation of threats of "legal action" from the Islamic Affairs / Justice Ministry that have continued for the previous several months, on Sunday 'Ali Salman was summoned to a Manama police station to be questioned.  "What did he do this time?" you ask?  Perhaps it was al-Wifaq's latest rally over the weekend?  Or a controversial Friday sermon?  No, in fact, the summons indicates that he was to be questioned regarding his "interference in the internal affairs of a friendly nation," namely Egypt, whence he had recently returned.  I wonder if he talked to my old friend, 'Isa al-Qattan?

That's right: Bahrain, which in late August saw four members, including the former head and current deputy head, of al-Asalah LITERALLY SNEAK INTO SYRIA (or, as I've since heard, sneak NEAR the Syrian border in Turkey) to play guns with the Free Syrian Army, and then brag about it publicly--yes, this same country is now questioning the head of al-Wifaq about interference in another nation's affairs.  (By contrast, one of the al-Asalah members that went to Syria was received by King Hamad the next week for 'Eid.) In fact, over the weekend news even circulated on Twitter of a 21 year-old Bahraini fighter killed while WAGING WAR INSIDE SYRIA. In short, Bahrain seems to maintain an odd interpretation of what constitutes interference in other countries' affairs (perhaps the operative qualification is "friendly" countries).

The GDN reports that Salman was questioned after the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Revolution (whatever that is) "urged Bahraini authorities to ban him and other Al Wefaq National Islamic Society leaders from travelling to Egypt, describing them as 'pro-Iranian agents' who were a 'threat to the country's unity.'"  (Evidently the Bahraini government is now taking political orders from civil society groups abroad.)  More specifically, according to the Council's "general co-ordinator": "The presence of pro-Iranian agents on Egyptian soil is a threat to the country's unity and the true Islamic religion."  Yea, the Council should watch out lest those Shi'a Wifaqis introduce sectarianism into the group's otherwise very tolerant-sounding political agenda. (For those interested, the Bahrain Mirror has published what it claims is a full transcript of Salman's questioning. Sunni forums also have their own account.)

But here is where the story really gets weird.  For around the same time that Salman was called in for questioning, 'Isa Qasim made news of his own by reporting, in comments since rejected by various ministries, that Bahrain had reached out to Iran--in particular, the Iranian counsel in Bahrain--to help solve the country's political impasse.  According to Qasim, the initiative began as early as the August Islamic summit in Mecca, where King Hamad reached out to the Iranian Foreign Minister 'Ali Akbar al-Salehi.  This report was later repeated via Twitter by al-Wifaq officials, including Khalil al-Marzuq, and denied by Sh. Khalid and others. (And, of course, Al-Watan's Sawsan al-Sha'ir has picked up on Qasim's "relationship" with the Iranian Consul with predictable journalistic consequences.)

The final group that the Bahraini government has put on notice, and I think not coincidentally, is the just-reopened parliament.  One will recall that, in the absence of al-Wifaq, the body has largely shed its traditional quiescence as it has enjoyed the luxury of pursuing a legislative agenda that goes beyond obstructing the opposition.  This led to considerable deadlock between the upper and lower houses of parliament, not to mention the memorable clash with Culture Minister Sha. Mai which required the timely intervention of Khalifa bin Salman himself.  After the latter's "visit" to parliament stressing legislative-executive "cooperation," MPs turned in traditional fashion to focus on a new political enemy, namely the United States and its wily ambassador, to the benefit of government ministers.

Now, in his inaugural address on Sunday, King Hamad reiterated that the current parliament will not be dissolved to make way for new elections or al-Wifaq participation, though he says that the "door for dialogue is still open."  Yet, at the same time, his remarks as well as those of parliamentary chairman al-Dhaharani make clear that the government is already anticipating another relatively confrontational session, and is preemptively warning MPs not to go down that road.  The GDN reports, for example (my emphasis):
Dr Al Dhahrani said His Majesty King Hamad has affirmed on numerous occasions that parliament will not be dissolved. However, he stressed that no one can abuse the principle behind publicly questioning ministers – there are clear guidelines about this. A number of draft laws have failed because the National Assembly has not sat in session, following disagreements between Shura Council and parliament. They will be reviewed again and re-submitted to the assembly.
One assumes that parliamentary gridlock must be on the mind of Bahrain's rulers especially following recent events in the only other Gulf state with a functioning parliament, Kuwait, where the emir has just been forced to dissolve the body for the fifth time since 2006 due to an obstinate opposition with a penchant for quizzing ministers from the ruling family. Whether or not Bahraini MPs will be inspired by their Kuwaiti brothers is anyone's guess, but I can't imagine that issues like corruption, political naturalization, or uneven economic development have dissipated since parliament last met.  Many parliamentarians may be united in their hatred for the opposition, or for the United States, or for burned Starbucks coffee.  But passing resolutions denouncing the opposition doesn't get you re-elected when most of the voters in your district are hit hard by Bahrain's post-uprising economic stagnation and witness other citizens--royals, elite families, and naturalized citizens--doing disproportionately better.

Bahrain is still busy playing the game of group politics, whipping Bahraini Persians in line while raising the stakes in its ongoing cat-and-mouse with al-Wifaq.  Ironically, in remaining outside of formal politics, both groups--the Baharnah and 'Ajam--are putting the government in a more difficult place, as it is left to face a parliament comprised almost exclusively of its own (nominally, at least) supporters.  There, the post-2005 excuse of opposition subterfuge no longer obtains, as al-Wifaq and others have abandoned the stage.  Whereas before the state could avoid a parliamentary inquisition by painting it an opposition initiative, which pro-government MPs would dutifully oppose, now there is nothing to stop members but fear of another visit from Khalifa bin Salman.  That fear is powerful, of course, but over the past two years it has shown itself to be a rather unreliable indicator of political behavior in the Middle East region, as the difference between fear and hatred is a difficult one to discern.

Update: Looks like we have a few Al-Watan readers over at DHS:

Update 2: The Manama Voice is reporting Iran's own response to the controversy surrounding the Bahraini government's claimed request for political mediation. The headline should clear things up: "Iran: Bahrain's King, Foreign Minister, and Ambassador Requested Mediation."

And, from the BBC, the Saudis are not too happy about the UK's parliamentary inquiry into its foreign relations with Saudi and Bahrain.

Update 3: In what is being seen as a severe provocation, Bahrain's Shi'a awqaf has announced that prayers at the Imam Sadiq Mosque in al-Diraz, home mosque of Sh. 'Isa Qasim, will be phased out as the mosque is replaced by a newer, much bigger one on land donated by the king. There is no mention of the fate of Sh. 'Isa Qasim--i.e., whether he will be reassigned to the new mosque--but there is likely to be a fight brewing here.

Update 4: Yet another deadly bomb attack on police in the southern village of Eker. I am not in the habit of quoting State Department spokesmen, but in this case it's appropriate: "[A resumption of political talks] is still the only path forward that we see and we are encouraging both sides to roll up their sleeves and get to it."