Sunday, February 26, 2012

Bahrain: Where Trying to Solve a Political Conflict Only Creates More Conflict (and Perhaps Saudi Bahrainia)

Bahrainis today live under the shadow of two rumors that, if true, likely portend change of great consequence. The first is the widely-reported talks ongoing between, initially, the government and al-Wifaq and, more recently with the subsequent invitation of Wa'ad and others, the government and "the opposition"--or at least "the moderate opposition." The second rumor is one I'm not sure what to make of, and indeed when I first heard it a few weeks ago I dismissed it as idle propaganda. This somewhat old story has since been revived, however, by a Tweet from Gulf commentator Sultan al-Qassemi, who said last Wednesday:
"I was told by a Saudi researcher that an announcement is expected by the end of this year of some sort of 'union' between Saudi & Bahrain."
The first story--which at this point seems to have moved beyond rumor to something closer to fact--has inspired the title of this post. The prospect of some sort of opposition-state compromise has served to mobilize every segment of the Bahraini population (save, I guess, for apolitical tribal allies of the Al Khalifa), but essentially in opposite directions. Both parties engaged in Bahrain's not-so-secret political dialogue seem to believe that their respective constituencies can be convinced or coerced to accept any eventual deal. "If you can deliver the February 14th people," one can hear the government say, "then we can quiet al-Fatih." Each seems to expect a return to the pre-February 2011 status quo, where those outside the sway of al-Wifaq are a nuisance but are not destabilizing, and ordinary Sunnis are largely content to toe the government line.

In order to succeed in this, the opposition seems to be employing the somewhat clever strategy of trying to appear more radical and uncompromising in its positions/demands than it probably actually is. (In fact, one contact in Bahrain suggested that, in similar fashion, the government's entire "al-Wifaq is a Bahraini Hizballah" narrative is designed precisely to achieve the same: i.e., to give the group more cache among radical Shi'a, making them more likely to accept any al-Wifaq-brokered deal.)

On Friday, for example, the five opposition groups said to be involved in the government dialogue (as opposed to simply al-Wifaq) held a procession from Bilad al-Qadim to Sehla under the theme "No dialogue without recognition of our legitimate demands." Among these: an end to discrimination, full implementation of the BICI recommendations, release of political prisoners, reinstatement of all sacked employees, and prosecution of those responsible for violence against citizens. (Interestingly, the societies also stated that they were not opposed to dialogue with "any political actor whatever its type or affiliation," which would seem to imply the Sunni societies. But that is a separate issue.)

It is clear that many in the street movement are not buying it, however. Without even touching on the widespread contempt of al-Wifaq expressed on opposition forums, exemplary of this suspicion is an article in the Bahrain Times outlining "The Similarities Between the Regime and al-Wifaq," among which includes their "joint illusion" that "[t]here is no such thing as a 'Coalition of the February 14 Revolution Youth.'" The government, the author argues, "accuses al-Wifaq day and night but only suppresses the activities of the [February 14] Coalition." And for its part, says the author, "Al-Wifaq responds to these accusations as if it were the organizer of the Coalition," whereas it is more akin to a government pawn.

Yet it is not only the Shi'a who feel that the rumored opposition-government talks are unrepresentative of a majority (or important minority) of those on whose behalf the two sides purport to negotiate. As the five opposition societies were restating their political demands in Bilad al-Qadim on Friday, Bahrain's Sunnis were once again at the al-Fatih Mosque. Writing in Al-Watan, Sawsan al-Sha'ir asks, "A year after Al-Fatah... Did we learn anything?":
Today, no government, party, superpower or the whole world will ignore us. No one will impose their wishes on us while we stand watching. We have left the spectators’ seats and come down to the field as a major player to become real partners in building the nation.
Even more direct is al-Zayani, who describes how Sunnis are making a few demands of their own:
The state must take into consideration the strong points mentioned in the statement issued by the Youth Awakening since the majority of revolutions are led by young people and came out of universities and mosques. Most people of Bahrain do not accept to make concessions and do not accept any form of bartering (stopping terrorism in return for submitting to Al Wefaq’s disgraceful conditions). This is not acceptable on the popular [front] today. ...

Moreover, the state had better fight corruption, for what has been said about a party or a festival held by one of the ministries and which cost millions of dinars is not acceptable, bearing in mind that the country is in crisis. It is illogical to squander such a huge amount of money in one night and then make us lead hard living conditions, claiming that there is a budget shortfall. ... [T]he message of the gathering to those who want to sell Bahrain was also so strong.

[The government] should know that the people who attended the gathering are not the spare players, but rather the main players in the Bahraini equation. Also, giving gifts to Al Wefaq in order to silence its terrorism is no longer acceptable. They must know that this has become a dangerous game and that today there are people who won’t remain silent if the state makes concessions to those who want to overthrow the regime and who call Bahrain’s rulers dictators.
Once again, then, we hear two separate arguments from members of Bahrain's Sunni political movements: (1) the state should not negotiate with terrorists; and (2) the state needs to take better care of those who are loyal to it, specifically by clamping down on corruption and other wastes of state resources. As I've written previously, whereas the first argument is sure to further complicate the search for a solution to Bahrain's present political impasse, the second is much more worrisome to the country's rulers. It implies that Sunnis are beginning to connect the state's percieved leniency with the opposition with its larger (perceived) neglect of the pro-government faction generally.

It is one thing, in other words, for Sunnis to disagree with the government's approach in dealing with the opposition; it is another if they begin to suspect that this approach is not simply short-sighted but actually belies a coherent government strategy of checking Sunni ambitions through its dealings with the opposition. Put more bluntly, some Sunnis are beginning to feel duped.

A quick visit to supposedly "pro-government" Sunni forums is enough to evidence this fact. One popular thread asks, "Do you support demanding improvement in living standards?" Elsewhere one finds, for example, the following banners used as signatures for forum members:

"In every country in the world citizens demand improvement in living standards. Only in Bahrain do citizens think that doing so represents a danger to the government."

"Political Asininity: The state that devises in its tools and methods to occupy citizens in religious, sectarian, regional, and even village-level conflicts in other to distract them from demanding their rights of political participation and social justice."

Notably, one increasingly-prominent feature of this Sunni movement toward greater political participation and influence is the notion that behind the Bahraini government's manipulation of citizens is a second, even more sinister puppet-master: the United States. Certainly, anti-American sentiment has been present since the early days of the al-Fatih movements. (See, e.g., my July 2011 article in Foreign Policy on "The Other Side of Radicalization in Bahrain.")

Yet this tendency would seem to have reached a new level on Friday, when the al-Fatih Awakening rally was joined by some new Sunni friends from Kuwait: Nabil al-'Awadi, Mushari al-'Afasi, and university professor 'Abdullah al-Nafisi. The latter in particular is an interesting inclusion given his rather notorious reputation as an al-Qa'ida sympathizer following a 2009 Al-Jazeera interview in which he called for a biological attack against the United States.

Al-Nafisi's fifteen-minute address to the al-Fatih Youth--which Al-Watan's al-Zayani describes as having been "undoubtedly strong and valuable"--is available on YouTube (and has viewed already more than 7,000 times).

As is his Al-Jazeera interview, which is indeed notorious enough to have earned a MEMRI translation:

To what extent the arrival of Sunni reinforcements from Kuwait represents a significant shift in the organizational membership/affiliation or tactics of groups like the National Unity Gathering and al-Fatih Awakening remains to be seen. But I find it difficult--despite the insistence of several commenters on my previous article--to believe that these citizens will be content to retreat to the political sidelines if given the word by the government.

Finally we come to the second rumor fresh in the political consciousness of Bahrainis: the idea that King 'Abdallah's bold initiative to move the GCC from "a phase of cooperation to a phase of union" will start--and end?--with some sort of formal political integration of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia into a greater Saudi Bahrainia (or, if you prefer, the USSR: the Union of Saudi Salafist Republics). Of course, in the minds of some Sunni forum-goers, this event occurred some time ago:

Given the uncertainly of the claims, there is perhaps little to say about this speculation. One might view it as a mere negotiating tactic as government-opposition talks resume. A recent Bahrain Mirror article takes this line in a piece titled, "King Hamad to the People of Bahrain: It's Either Me or Riyadh!" Or perhaps the "rumor" is a signal from the Saudis that concessions to Bahrain's opposition will not be tolerated, although it's not clear why this couldn't be expressed privately.

For its part, Al-Watan quotes 'Ali Salman as telling CNN in a press conference that "the region will explode in the event of a union between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia," which seems reasonable enough. There is also some discussion of the topic on Sunni forums, with commenters largely enthusiastic. On the other hand, another popular thread on the main pro-government forum polls members, "Do you agree with the unification of official [Bahraini] attire with Gulf attire (i.e., thawb and gitra)?"

As it turns out, less than half of Bahraini Sunni forum-goers agree that Bahrain should abandon its national dress in order to adhere to the Gulf (i.e., Saudi) "standard." Despite clever graphics and Saudi flag-waving at political rallies, then, what percent are likely to agree that the entire country be abandoned to Saudi rule? Considerably fewer, I suspect, than 48%.

Update: An op-ed in yesterday's GDN titled "Let's Be Frank!" again restates the Sunni position:
"Any behind-the-curtain negotiations to try to seal a 'marriage of convenience', cannot garner durable popular support unless it proves to be inclusive of all political parties. Otherwise, it's going to be a futile exercise and will be vehemently denounced."
Update 2: According to the Khaleej Times, Bahrain has announced the creation of an "independent ombudsman" outside the purview of the Interior Ministry who will "oversee and conduct investigations into the serious allegations made against the police and other issues affecting the public confidence in police." The Interior Ministry is also set to establish a new "Internal Affairs Department" to handle the disciplining of officers. While such measures fall short of establishing (in the government's words) "a new social contract between police and Bahraini society," still they must be seen as positive steps.

Less positive, however, is the impending departure of the head of Bahrain's sovereign wealth fund, Talal al-Zain, a long-time ally of the crown prince and his project of economic reform and diversification. As the Financial Times notes,
"[T]he effort to diversify the economy into an outward-looking commercial and tourist hub appears to be in retreat, replaced by an even greater dependence on Saudi Arabia." But I'm sure Saudi Arabia will be happy to prop up an even greater share of the Bahraini economy without asking for anything in return.

Update 3: Al-Ayam summarizes an address yesterday at al-Safriyyah Palace by King Hamad to "important persons" in the Bahraini and Arab media. Included among the king's main points are the following gems: that
  • "Bahrain's main issues are Jerusalem [i.e., the Arab-Israeli conflict] and the Iranian nuclear program," and what's happened since February 14 has been a distraction from these priorities
  • All Bahrainis--Sunnis and Shi'a--came originally from Zubara
  • The "Western media" has stigmatized Bahraini Shi'a as being anti-government, which they are not
  • The February 14 uprising was a conspiracy led by followers of wilayat al-faqih
You'll have to read for the others!

Update 4: Some enterprising individuals have created a funny video spoof on the king's address yesterday, in particular his claim that "we all [i.e., Sunnis and Shi'is] came together [to Bahrain] from Zubara."

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Anti-National Dialogue

Call it a Formula 1 miracle: a day after tickets went on sale for Bahrain's (now slightly postponed) race, Al-Wasat reports that the royal court has contacted three opposition societies--Wa'ad, Hasan Madan's Progressive Tribune, and the Nationalist Gathering--to join al-Wifaq in "a dialogue" with the government. Of course, the news here is not that these three groups have been invited to join talks--only Wa'ad has any significant following at all--but rather the seeming confirmation of recent rumors that opposition-government talks are actually ongoing. Presumably the inclusion of these (secular) societies is meant to allow the government to deny engaging with "the Shi'a opposition" per se. It's unclear who will be buying this.

Indeed, if last summer's National Dialogue was a failure precisely because it was designed to fight dialogue with more dialogue--that is, to include so many voices that participants inevitably could only agree upon the lowest common denominator of recommended "reforms"--then this current iteration involving the government, al-Wifaq, and the three secular societies may rightly be called the Anti-National Dialogue. And this Anti-National Dialogue is likely to fail also, though for the opposite reason.

In reaching out only to the "moderate" opposition (I guess that means al-Wifaq is not a Bahraini Hizballah after all?), there are perhaps more parties excluded from this initiative than are included. Without even mentioning the exclusion of al-Haqq, al-Wafa', and 'Amal al-Islami as their respective leaderships continue to sit in prison, the government seems to be under the odd impression that the majority of Bahrain's political opponents today are under the sway of al-Wifaq. As the visceral reactions to the Al-Wasat story in this opposition forum thread indicate, however, few are praising al-Wifaq's effort to return to the negotiating table. Even fewer, perhaps, are confident in the genuineness of the government's re-engagement, coming as it does conveniently in the run-up to the Formula One race, as always seems to happen in Bahrain.

One may judge for himself whether Bahrain's activists seem likely to accept an al-Wifaq brokered deal. The following graphics come from a popular thread outlining "the Opening [فتح] of the Pearl Roundabout" via a new campaign of "holy attack." A grenade sporting the slogan of this new "stage" of protest:

A brilliant military strategy overlaid with the words, "This is [how they did it] in Vietnam":

Even more brilliant strategies for the "opening" of the Pearl Roundabout (probably too advanced for us to appreciate here):

Finally, something right out of the playbook of Stormin' Norman himself:

In short, the vast majority of those involved in the street movement could care less about any dialogue involving the government and al-Wifaq, and indeed may simply be incited by it to act even more violently. Although one would imagine that this is already the operating assumption of all parties, the fact that the government is even willing to talk to al-Wifaq implies that both sides believe the latter can ensure the acquiescence of "the street" in the event of any agreement. Anyone taking bets on that? Because I want in.

As obvious and basic as this question is, an even greater potential roadblock is the inevitable push-back from the other side of society, i.e. from among ordinary Bahraini Sunnis unhappy to be excluded from any eventual deal struck by the government and the formal "opposition" (of which, for the sake of the argument, we may say there is some non-zero possibility). Indeed, conspicuous in their absence from Al-Wasat's report on the Anti-National Dialogue are Bahrain's newly-mobilized Sunni groups--at the very least, the National Unity Gathering, but also other groups such as the Al-Fatih Awakening.

Quite apart from the likely possibility that Sunnis will reject any compromise with the opposition, this is a delicate situation for the government, whose basic problem is this: if Sunni groups were allowed to participate in some three-way talks involving the government and al-Wifaq, it may turn out that they have more in common with their Shi'a "enemies" than they realized. Indeed, already they agree on much. The lingering fear among reformist Sunnis is that through their efforts they will inadvertently enable a Shi'a agenda from taking hold; but if both sides can fashion their demands for institutional reform in such a way that protects against or precludes this possibility, then the possibility for coordination may not be so far-fetched.

Because the Bahraini government must avoid at all costs a dialogue at which al-Wifaq and the National Unity Gathering sit in the same room, expect it to reach out separately to Sunni leaders. If the latter are smart (and if they really have not yet been co-opted, as other Sunni movements like the Al-Fatih Awakening claim) they will insist on taking part alongside al-Wifaq, whatever their ideological differences and personal aversions.

Conveniently for Bahrain's Sunnis, the National Unity Gathering is already scheduled to have a mass rally tomorrow on the anniversary of the first counter-revolutionary gathering at the Al-Fatih Mosque. The rally's slogan: "Al-Fatih is the Nation's Shield"--as opposed to, say, the Peninsula Shield? I suspect that the government's dialogue with al-Wifaq, with Wa'ad, but not with Sunni groups will be a prominent topic of conversation.

It is indeed true that the National Unity Gathering played a fundamental role in checking the momentum of protests in February and March, thereby (in the famous words of Khalifa bin Salman) "standing united as a bulwark defending their country against subversive conspiracies." Yet in the intervening year things have changed. While Bahrain's rulers seem confident in their ability to return to the status quo ante, I'm not so sure that most Sunnis will agree. More and more, the latter perceive that their previous "arrangement" with the government--whereby they support the state against the opposition and ostensibly receive benefits in return--was not such a great bargain after all.

In the first place, apart from preferential employment practices in a few key ministries and the armed forces, Sunnis didn't seem to enjoy such a preponderant share of state benefits anyway. The government, forced always to deal piecemeal with the latest Shi'a grievance, seemed destined to expend more time and resources on precisely those who oppose it, rather than upon "loyal" Sunni subjects.

And, in the second place, staunch Sunni support for government initiatives--particularly in the parliament--masked displeasure with many state policies, including most notably mass naturalization of non-Bahraini Sunnis and the (mis-)utilization of land resources. Whereas government pressure led to the passing of an unpopular Sunni Family Law, al-Wifaq effectively blocked the passage of a Shi'a version. Sunnis, it seemed, continued to bear a heavy political onus while receiving disproportionately little in return save for assurance against a "Shi'i takeover," "terrorist plots," and "Iranian interference."

We are left, then, with two questions: Are Sunnis willing to return to the Bahrain of January 2011? And, if not, are they prepared to put aside their fear of cooperation (or at least coordination) with Shi'a in order to oppose a return to the previous political order?

Update: Pro-government Sunnis have released a video counterpoint to the recent Al-Jazeera documentary aiming to chronicle the violence of protesters:

Update 2: The Bahrain Mirror is reporting a bit more information on the royal court's invitation to dialogue, which it says is set to kick off in March. Representatives will include Hasan Madan (Progressive Tribune), Hasan al-A'ali (Nationalist Gathering), and Radi al-Musawi (Wa'ad). The article states that the government is willing to discuss the principles outlined in the opposition's "Manama Document," but that its two red lines are: an elected government, and the dissolution of the Shura Council. Does that mean booting the prime minister is on the table? Finally, there is still no mention of any participation from Sunni groups.

I also noticed that the Bahrain Mirror has translated my recent MERIP piece on Bahrain's "Sunni awakening," which for those more comfortable reading in Arabic is here.

Finally, another Formula 1 cartoon.

Update 3: Al-Jazeera's Listening Post program examines Bahrain's bid to control the message coming out of the country.

Update 4: In a letter to the head of the Bahrain International Circuit, Bassiouni has "commended" Bahrain on its use of the Formula 1 race to "promot[e] national healing and reconciliation." Until the race is over, that is.

Update 5: Writing in Al-Watan, al-Zayani articulates the Sunni position on the rumored government-opposition talks:
I find it important to draw the state’s attention not to make the unforgivable mistake which has been made for many years now and which consists of submitting to terrorism and making concessions at the expense of the interests of the nation and the main components [read: the Sunnis].
Update 6: A bit behind, but: Reuters: "Bahrain's Sunnis warn government over dialogue."

And Gulf commentator Sultan al-Qassemi shook the Bahraini Intertubes yesterday with his Tweet: "I was told by a Saudi researcher that an announcement is expected by the end of this year of some sort of "union" between Saudi & Bahrain." Union would be one word for it.

In any case, it is clear that such a "story" is a useful one to have out there as government-opposition talks resume. It reminds me of the title of a recent Bahrain Mirror article: "King Hamad to the People of Bahrain: It's Either Me or Riyadh!"

Friday, February 17, 2012

"Shouting in the Dark" 2?

In a new 25-minute documentary, "Bahrain: The Audacity of Hope" (is that title a coincidence?), Al-Jazeera English's People and Power series "revisits activists featured in an earlier film and hears tales of arrests and torture but also of hope." Not sure where the hope part fits in.

Qatar should expect another call from its friends in the Bahraini foreign ministry. I'm currently an at event in Kuwait so I don't have time to check pro-government forums (or Sh. Khalid's Twitter feed) for disparaging remarks about Qatar as with "Shouting in the Dark," but I'll go out on a limb and assume they're there.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Five Things the Past Year Has and Hasn't Taught Us about Bahrain, Part II

For those who haven't seen the first half, this post is a continuation of last week's article, the purpose of which is to distinguish between two sets of observations: (1) lessons learned in the year since the start of Bahrain's uprising; and (2) things that may have been highlighted by or become more apparent in the post-February 14 period, but that nonetheless are not strictly-speaking new phenomena. That is to say, what has the continuing crisis actually taught us about Bahrain that was not already apparent in January 2011? And, on the other hand, what are the things that seem to dominate media coverage of the current situation but in fact are not "news" at all?

The latter category--or at least five items from among the latter category--are summarized already in the first half of this article. These are the observations that:
#1: Bahrain's Shi'a are unhappy;
#2: Bahrain's opposition is fragmented;
#3: The state would resort to violence in confronting reformists;
#4: Bahrain's leadership is divided; and
#5: Bahrain's underlying political conflict is an intractable one.
Of course, more interesting than these non-lessons is what we have learned in the previous twelve months--what has changed in Bahrain and the region since February 2011--and what these lessons imply about the prospects for short- and long-term resolution of Bahrain's political conflict. So, without further ado:

What We Have Learned about Bahrain
in the Past Year

#1. That Bahrain's Sunnis are unhappy, too

While most treatments of post-Feb. 14 Bahrain have tended to focus single-mindedly on the Shi'a opposition-Sunni government narrative, the trajectory of the past year owes as much to ordinary Sunnis in Bahrain as it does to the opposition's standoff with the state. Not only were pro-government Sunnis instrumental in checking the momentum of mass protests in February and March, but their ongoing counter-mobilization has continued to shape the terms of political debate in Bahrain--as well as the prospects for an exit from the crisis.

One may object that, as with Bahrain's Shi'a, Sunni grievances were known well before the start of the uprising, and as such should not be included in this "What have we learned?" section. Yet, while this certainly applies to some notable causes of Sunni complaint--land corruption and political naturalization especially--it is also true that the uprising itself has given birth to other, arguably even more fundamental sources of conflict with Bahrain's rulers. The latter I discuss at length in a recent article on "Bahrain's Sunni Awakening." For present purposes, however, these can be summarized as stemming from two main causes: first, dissatisfaction with the state's percieved leniency in dealing with the opposition; and second, the feeling that Sunnis are being repaid poorly for their continued support of the state.

Here we could simply repeat the analysis offered in the aforementioned article. But we need not, for the Sunni community's continued mobilization in the month since it was published provides fresh examples in support of the argument there. On February 10, the National Unity Gathering held another massive rally--they claim an attendance of "at least 100,000"--at the Al-Fateh Mosque to protest against ... protesters. The message was clear:

More than simply reminding the opposition that "we too have a voice," however, the Sunnis at Al-Fateh were directing a message at the state as well: "We support tough action against these trouble-making protesters (and those in the police and armed forces charged with executing it); why don't you?"

Thus we see posters lauding the "men of the Interior [Ministry]: we're all with you." (Not to mention the poster on the right featuring the catchy slogan poking fun at the "Not Sunni, Not Shi'i, Just Bahraini" campaign, rendering it: "Not Sunni, Not Shi'i, We're all against Safavidism," the latter being a common slur for Shi'ism in Bahrain.) Even more photos from the rally--some featuring Saudi flags--are here.

Of course, there is no need to rely on interpretations of photographs in explanation of these Sunni concerns. A set of recent articles in Al-Watan by Yusif Al Bin Khalil describes Bahrain's "Sunni awakening." In a first he asks, "Do we really fear February?," concluding,
We should look at this issue [i.e., the uprising] from another angle--as a sign of strength towards higher political mobilization. In fact, the gathering of hundreds of thousands of [Sunni] citizens in Al Fatah square was not a sign of weakness but rather reflected willingness to make the voices and specific attitudes of the community components and forces heard within the political system and even regionally and internationally.
And, even more explicitly, in a post titled "The next awakening will be in Bahrain" (I won't ask where he got the inspiration for that title),
[Th]e burgeoning political movement that can be described as a “political awakening” ... is so evolving among the Sunnis that it has become very difficult to control or at least to keep track of. For example, if an observer decides to follow the development of political awareness among the Sunni sect, he won’t only come to know the prevailing political values and ideas but he will also notice fast-paced developments consisting in sit-ins and spontaneous gatherings here and there. The situation also includes the rise of political organizations which are also so many and mostly active online to be controlled. ... The outcome of this political awakening or mobility of the Sunni sect is currently unpredictable but it will certainly yield concrete results in the future and will play a role in resolving the conflict among the Bahraini political system various trends. And ignoring these developments more and more will lead us to an impasse, the fact that will require a clear road map with specific deadlines to overcome the standstill. The future scenarios that the Sunni sect and political system will end with appear to be more frightening when they are thought of in an unconventional way amid many options that are not largely dealt with neither by the elite nor by the ordinary people.
Finally, even more to the point is another Al-Watan column by Hesham Al-Zayani--complete with two exclamation points, so you know he's serious.

He writes,
None of us can pretend that he loves Bahrain or is keener on its security than our leaders, but we, as citizens, we share in their fears and we share in their love for Bahrain. If there are signs of any settlement, or any dialogue, or any other issue, the most important thing that worries people is the fear that the state would step back or make concessions under the threat of Molotov cocktails and terrorism and would give more opportunities, more gifts and more gains or strike any other bartering arrangements with a group to stop terrorism or to stop the violence.

This is the biggest “danger sign” that worries people. Under this terrorism, things happened in the nineties and they got respectable gifts, and now, after a decade or more, we are witnessing the same experience and what they require--under threat--is to get a bigger share of the cake than what they got in the nineties. Shall we give them what they want, we might end up with a compromise, but it will never be a solution!! It is like a chronic headache, you take a pill to assuage the pain and when the pill’s effect is over the pain returns after a while. This is the most serious problem in the whole issue. No one is against compromises, no one is against a settlement, but the question is: when will the settlement be broken?! And when the effect of the settlement is over, will we return to the game of Molotov cocktails in the street for the sake of the “cake” again?” I do not know the size or value of the cake!

Yes, we want to live our lives without disturbances; we, the city dwellers and the villagers, want to live in peace as we always used to. A large part of the community is not to blame for what happened as they have nothing to do with it, but they have all paid, in one way or another, the bill. Yes, we want to lead normal lives. This is our demand, but for what price? Who will pay? And is the alleged settlement a temporary solution or a final one? How will the cake be divided? Will those who terrorize people get bigger shares than the others who do not intimidate and will accept anything? I am just thinking aloud and voicing some questions and concerns.
I apologize for the long quotation, but I think it is instructive, in particular the closing line: "How will the cake be divided? Will those who terrorize people get bigger shares than the others who do not intimidate and will accept anything?" Or, less diplomatically: "What, should we loyal Sunnis be content to watch government concessions handed out to the very people who oppose the state, while we once again get nothing?" Here exactly is the core of the Sunni-state conflict in Bahrain, and it is the primary source of the newfound political mobilization of ordinary Bahraini Sunnis in the post-February period.

#2. That it's not just the economy, stupid

Bill Clinton's now-famous observation embodies the standard starting point for analysis of politics in the Arab Gulf countries. If Gulf Arabs are quiet, it's because they're too rich to care about political participation. If they're politically-active, it must be because they're poor. Predictably, then, early interpretations of Bahrain's uprising honed in on the socioeconomic drivers of Shi'a frustration. The country's (Arab) Shi'a tend to be poorer. They are disproportionately excluded from public sector jobs. Thus Shi'a simply have more cause for political complaint than do Sunnis. But were this underlying economic disparity to be rectified through more equitable government policy, so the argument continued, it would go far toward eliminating Bahrain’s apparent, but ultimately epiphenomenal, Sunni-Shi'a divide.

Even King Hamad joined the rentier state bandwagon. To return to a point made in my May Foreign Affairs article, "How Radical Are Bahrain's Shi'a?"
Shortly after the onset of protests, the government announced generous social welfare packages including increased salaries and benefits, cost-of-living stipends, and plans for new subsidized housing. The GCC even kicked in a $10 billion aid package of its own, dubbed a “Gulf Marshall Plan” for Bahrain. But this overt attempt at political buy-off only enraged protesters further. As aptly summarized by Ebrahim Sharif, the imprisoned head of Wa'ad, a now-dissolved secular political society, “This is about dignity and freedom -- it’s not about filling our stomachs.”
Sharif's statement in February 2011 accords well with the principal findings of my mass political survey of Bahraini citizens administered two years earlier in 2009. Comprised of nearly 450 respondents selected from a random sample of households spread across the island, this study of ethnic conflict and political mobilization in the Arab Gulf aimed precisely to discover the relative influences of economics and religion on Bahrainis’ political actions and opinions.

It turns out that the political opinions of everyday Bahrainis—from their trust in basic state institutions like the police and judiciary, to their overall satisfaction with government performance, to their evaluation of Bahrain’s health services—-are determined almost entirely along ethnic lines, with Sunni ethnicity associated with much more pro-government opinions even after accounting for relevant individual factors like age, gender, education level, economic satisfaction, and so on.

What is more, heightened religiosity among respondents serves only to augment this between-group difference, driving opinion farther apart. Among Sunni ethnics, measures of personal religiousness correspond to even more favorable government opinion; among Bahrain’s Shi‘a, to more anti-government views. At the same time that religion pushes Shi‘is toward more adversarial political orientations, that is, it marshals Sunnis further to the regime’s defense.

As for the influence of household economy, on the other hand, its effect on opinion is inconsistent and relatively weak. Indeed, even where it does alter Bahrainis’ views, its substantive impact remains on average some three to four times less in magnitude than that of ethnic affiliation. Even the additional, augmenting effect of personal religiosity is more robust. While it is true then that, on the margin, more economically dissatisfied Bahrainis may tend to hold less favorable positions toward their government, this relationship is but a footnote in the larger narrative of Bahraini politics, which has been woven firmly around ethnic difference since the day the Al Khalifa and their Sunni tribal allies captured the island and its Shi‘i inhabitants from Safavid Persia in 1783.

Beyond the immediate context of Bahrain, moreover, the past year has seen other examples in the region of political mobilization independent of economic concerns. The United Arab Emirates saw a petition signed by several hundred academics--the leaders of which were subsequently arrested and tried--calling for the establishment of a parliament. Saudi Arabia continues to witness political mobilization among Eastern Province Shi'a. And the Kuwaiti government had to be dissolved entirely when the country's involvement in the GCC Peninsula Shield force in Bahrain ignited sectarian tensions to a degree not seen for some time.

In short, in light of events in Bahrain and their repercussions across the region, the previous year has (hopefully) dispelled the myth of the politically-disinterested Gulf "oil sheikh," happy to abandon politics in exchange for material comfort paid for by his cut of the nation's oil revenues. If there remains any Gulf states where this rentier formula retains considerable explanatory power, it is precisely in those contexts least caught up in the sectarian rhetoric overtaking the Gulf--namely, Qatar, the UAE, and Oman--where relatively more homogeneous populations preclude the sort of broad ethno-religious division witnessed in the other half of the GCC.

#3. That sectarianism is a dangerous political strategy

Which brings us to the third lesson of Bahrain's uprising one year later: that sectarian balancing as a political strategy is a dangerous game for Gulf rulers. This is so for several reasons. In the first place, it inevitably draws in the regional patrons of each of the conflicting sides, which means the involvement of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and now Shi'a-controlled Iraq. In turn, the involvement of Saudi Arabia implies the involvement of the larger GCC, as the Saudis aim to impress upon their Gulf neighbors--sometimes with a bit of arm-twisting (see the case of Kuwait in point #4)--that "we're all in this together." One might observe that the Saudis would have intervened in Bahrain even if the uprising had been led by Salafis or by Mongolians, yet absent the religious element in the forefront such an intervention still would not have precipitated the type of regional showdown that came to be called "The New Cold War."

The second reason that sectarian balancing is a precarious political strategy is that, to the extent that it is based on an invented narrative, a contradiction inevitably arises between state rhetoric and state actions. That is, government claims that a foreign-backed, militant opposition poses an existential threat are exposed as disingenuous when the state subsequently embarks on dialogue initiatives with that very opposition, or, say, orders retrials for detainees sentenced during the crackdown. Hence the current public outcry among Bahrain's Sunnis, who accuse Bahrain's leaders of applying the law selectively in dealing with protesters, and of showing too little confidence in the ability of the police, army, and judiciary to discharge their duties.

Finally, once furious sectarian rhetoric on the part of the state gets the political ball rolling, it is difficult to stop. Not only does Bahrain's anti-Shi'a narrative complicate efforts to resolve the crisis, since Sunnis in society are now likely to mobilize against any possible agreement, moreover citizens on both sides of the conflict are increasingly prepared to take matters into their own hands.

The growing preference for violent confrontation with riot police among Bahrain's youth-oriented street movement is well known. And the attempt to return to the Pearl Roundabout over the next few days is likely only to augment this.

But Shi'a in the opposition are not the only ones prepared for a fight. Bahrain's Sunni community likewise is moving toward further militia-ization, whether via 'Adel Flaifel's "Military Society," the thugs attacking villagers in Dar Kulaib, or any number of Sunni groups aimed at combating "Shi'a traitors." The banner below is the production of but one of these.

The question, then, is the following: even if the government were able to come to an agreement with al-Wifaq--an agreement that must certainly involve concessions on both sides--who among Bahrain's citizens will be prepared to stop fighting and accept it?

#4. That the GCC is not as united as it would have one believe

Even as Bahrain's mass protests of March 2011 were eventually extinguished with help from a "joint" GCC intervention, and even as GCC leaders were seemingly united in their stand against Iranian "interference" in Gulf domestic affairs, the crisis in Bahrain has exposed differences in the political calculations and indeed political interests in the GCC member states that belie the notion of a Council that is likely, as called for recently by King 'Abdallah, to move from the phase of "cooperation" to a phase of "union."

Most obvious in this respect is the March-April 2011 controversy over Kuwait's participation in the Peninsula Shield Force. When they offered in lieu of ground troops to mediate talks between Bahrain’s government and opposition—a proposal designed to avoid riling the country’s own sizable Shi‘a population—Kuwait's rulers were quickly chastised by other GCC members and by their own Sunni politicians, who accused them of showing more concern for Shi‘a terrorists than for their (Sunni) brothers in Bahrain. When Kuwait next attempted to send a medical delegation to help treat Bahrain’s wounded, it was refused entry at the causeway, a further public embarrassment that precipitated the fall of the entire government some days later. Finally, shamed and bullied into participation, Kuwait dispatched a naval detachment to Bahrain. The apparent lesson: the GCC will stand together—like it or not.

Yet, how united was the GCC on the Bahrain issue? During the summer, as Saudi Arabia was busy verbally sparring with Iran over the latter's conspiracy to overthrow the Gulf regimes, Qatar's emir played host to Muqtada al-Sadr. Bahraini pro-government forums erupted with rebukes for the country's erstwhile rival:
"A slap in the face to the [Muslim] brothers in Qatar. How can they bring in some slob like this rafidi and talk with him about Bahrain??? This is strange and mysterious from Qatar??? And it begs the question what is the policy of Qatar?????
"Honestly, Qatar's policy is with Iran and Iraq."
A more serious spat was occasioned by the candid Al-Jazeera English documentary "Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark," due to the severity of which Bahrain was forced to deny reports of having severed its diplomatic relations with Qatar altogether. (The episode also had the benefit of prompting the following graphic from the Bahrain Mirror.)

Finally, in a May 2011 Times of Oman story that has since been removed from the web (but still exists via Google cache; oops!), the Omani Foreign Minister famously "denied Tehran’s interference in Bahrain’s internal affairs." And this coming once again near the height of Saudi-Iran rhetoric.

In short, despite obvious similarities in economic, social, and political organization that make the six nations of the GCC natural partners in cooperation, still they are distinguished by unique societal circumstances that at times manifest themselves as divergent interests and inter-state rivalries. For all their grandiose talk of moving toward political "union," it is clear that the GCC states still cannot agree even upon what exactly is implied in the word “cooperation.”

#5. That Bahrain's conflict will not be solved in the short term

Above all, the disparate developments of the previous twelve months have made it clear that Bahrain's underlying conflict cannot and will not be solved in the short term. Unless protesters somehow manage to revive large-scale protests on the scale of March 2011, which I don't think possible; or unless the United States announces it is moving its Fifth Fleet and sparks a mass exodus of foreign capital from Bahrain, which is perhaps even less likely (and, even then, the Saudis I'm sure would be happy to pick up the slack)--short of these two things, the government enjoys such a strong bargaining position at present that the terms the opposition would be forced to accept today are so far from their stated demands that such an agreement would be utterly unacceptable to large swaths of the Bahraini opposition, to say nothing of Bahraini Sunnis who are likely to reject on principle any political compromise.

Consider again al-Zayani's column above, which makes the same point (if obviously in a partisan manner):
[An uprising] happened in the nineties and they [the opposition] got respectable gifts, and now, after a decade or more, we are witnessing the same experience and what they require--under threat--is to get a bigger share of the cake than what they got in the nineties. Shall we give them what they want, we might end up with a compromise, but it will never be a solution!! It is like a chronic headache, you take a pill to assuage the pain and when the pill’s effect is over the pain returns after a while. This is the most serious problem in the whole issue. No one is against compromises, no one is against a settlement, but the question is: when will the settlement be broken?! And when the effect of the settlement is over, will we return to the game of Molotov cocktails in the street for the sake of the “cake” again?”
What al-Zayani does not say, of course, is that any "settlement" will be doomed to failure from the outset, as the government has already made clear that most of the opposition's key demands--a wholly elected government, a new prime minister, an end to political naturalization, and the ability to serve in the police and armed forces--are entirely off the table. (Indeed, the state denies the existence of the latter two problems altogether.) The only concessions one might think remotely possible are new, fairer electoral districts and changes to the structure of the parliament vis-a-vis the Shura Council. Farther than this the government is simply unprepared to go.

Neither, finally, does it seem that the government's position can be influenced from the outside. In the past year Bahrain has already rejected Kuwaiti, Qatari, and U.S. mediation of the crisis. In fact, less than a week ago Crown Prince Salman reiterated to the new U.S. Ambassador the need for a "local solution" to the crisis. Fortunately for him, given the State Department's seeming reluctance to get involved anyway, the crown prince's position is probably just fine with the Obama Administration. Whether it bodes well for the long-term political stability of Bahrain, of course, is another matter.

Update: Seven months after telling an Egyptian newspaper that Bahrain's uprising was a result of a joint U.S.-Iranian conspiracy, Bahrain's Defense Minister Sh. Khalifah bin Ahmad is at it again. In a lengthy interview with Al-Ayam, "the Marshall" accuses 19 U.S. NGOs (along with 3 others in "a Gulf state") of "working against" Bahrain. These organizations, he says, are "managed and funded by the U.S. and this Gulf state." It must be comforting for U.S. policymakers to know how highly their allies think of them. (English Gulf News report now available.)

Update 2: TANGO DOWN: For the lulz, Anonymous marked February 14 by hacking both and the website of U.S. teargas manufacturer CSI (not that CSI), which is still down. (That may have something to do with the fact that, as the NYT tells, Anonymous has evidently threatened to reveal client lists and information if the website is revived.)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Five Things the Past Year Has and Hasn't Taught Us about Bahrain, Part I

In the six days remaining until February 14, one can expect a healthy dose of anniversary analyses claiming to explain what has occurred in the previous year, what it means, and what to expect going forward. In fact, the Associated Press got a jump on its competitors last week when it launched the preemptive strike of Bahrain uprising coverage in this article by Brian Murphy and Reem Khalifah carried in several newspapers: "Bahrain's year of unrest fed by sectarian rifts and region's rivalries." Many more can we expect on, say, the night of February 13. (Of course, since the Bahraini government has denied entry to journalists seeking to cover the anniversary, who knows what sort of coverage we will actually get.)

I will not attempt to compete with this media cacophony here. Neither will I review in detail the last week's events, although admittedly there are some interesting story lines. These include the obvious plan among some (see recent announcements by Nabeel Rajab and al-Wafa') to reoccupy the Pearl Roundabout (hence the postage stamp-like banner above--"All of Us Are Returning"--and the similar one below); several cases of attacks on foreigners, including a British man who had several of his fingers lopped off with sword when he evidently got lost in the village of Karranah late one night; and the ambiguous return of one M. Cherif Bassiouni, who is back in black in order to assess how far Bahrain has implemented the BICI's recommendations. (By my count, that makes at least three different committees--the others having been appointed by the King and Prime Minister, respectively--looking into Bahrain's post-BICI reforms.)

Still other items include an (I think facetious) article in the Bahrain Mirror with the headline, "The Al Khalifa Decide to Surrender Bahrain to Saudi Arabia: Announcement of Bahrain's Union with Saudi Arabia." Of course, even if sarcastic, the headline is perhaps not too far off the mark in any case. The political risk analysis firm Executive Analysis concluded in one of its assessments near the end of last year that Bahrain "has now effectively become a Saudi protectorate."

And finally, it took ten months or so, but the editorial board of a major U.S. newspaper has finally pointed out the patent contradiction in the U.S.'s position on Syria in light of its position on Bahrain. The Washington Post notes the irony of its demonization of the Russian and Chinese vetoes of the recent U.N. Security Council resolution out of concern for their political-military interests in Syria, given the U.S.'s own reluctance to apply any meaningful pressure on Bahrain out of concern for its... political and military interests in that country. For the record, I pointed this out immediately following President Obama's first statement on Syria's crackdown in April 2011, in the form of a "Middle East Politics Quiz."

In any case, the purpose of this post is offer something different than either the standard "Bahrain one year later" analysis; or a "week in review" piece that I sometimes have a tendency to write here. Rather, I think it's useful today to distinguish between the things that the past year in Bahrain has taught us about the country and the region, and the things that the uprising perhaps highlighted but that ultimately we knew already. This is all the more useful because I suspect a majority of the articles ready to be deployed in the next six days of pre-anniversary Bahrain coverage will tend to focus disproportionately on the latter category. Since this post is likely to be a long one, I will deal only with the first half here.

What We Have NOT Learned about Bahrain
in the Past Year

#1. That Bahrain's Shi'a are unhappy

This first point is perhaps too obvious to include in the list. Still, causal reporting of Bahrain's uprising tends to give the impression that the events of February 14 and the year-long aftermath sprang out of nowhere; that Bahrain's Shi'a had finally "had enough" and used the window afforded by the Arab Spring to make their displeasure known, to spectacular effect.

There is no need to devote much time to debunking this storyline, deliberate or not, as any serious study of Bahraini politics would point to a long history of political conflict, whether between Shi'a and state, Sunna and state, or Sunna and Shi'a. Indeed, sectarian unrest in the otherwise-obscure "principality" of Bahrain made such headlines in 1955 as to occasion an article by Qubain in the Middle East Journal meant to "examine the nature of these tensions and to evaluate their seriousness for the future." In the contemporary period, Shi'a-state tension in Bahrain can be dated to the ascension of King Hamad in 1999, when the latter's failure to deliver on promised political reforms gave birth to an organized campaign led by newly-repatriated opposition figures that would eventually coalescence to form al-Wifaq. The political development (or non-development) of the subsequent decade has been treated at length by both Bahraini (e.g., 'Abd al-Hadi Khalaf) and Western scholars, including in Ch. 3 of my dissertation.

What was surprising about the scenes of February and March, then, was not that such an opposition would mobilize, but that it was able to mobilize on such an unprecedented scale.

#2. That Bahrain's opposition is fragmented

Neither is it news that Bahrain's Shi'a-led opposition is now in February 2012 clearly divided between a formal opposition in al-Wifaq that continues to hold out hope for a negotiated political bargain, and a youth-dominated street movement that prefers to (attempt to) inflict political and economic damage on the regime rather than to engage with it. Fragmentation has been the natural state of Bahrain's opposition in the "contemporary" period referenced above. Disagreement about whether to participate in Bahrain's 2006 parliamentary elections precipitated the split between the al-Wifaq of today and the offshoot al-Haqq Movement (and later al-Wafa'), which eschewed any formal political involvement as tantamount to co-optation. For this, the leaders of these "hard-line" movements are now serving life sentences following the post-February crackdown.

More recently, even the ill-fated dialogue offered by the crown prince in March was never to involve a monolithic "opposition" but instead some half-dozen societies representing diverse political views, a diversity that indeed served to hasten the collapse of the talks after several groups opted out in order to form an uncompromising "Coalition for a Republic."

#3. That the state would resort to violence in response to demands for reform

According to the authoritative database compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, between 2000 and 2009 Bahrain ranked number 11 on the list of top military spenders as a proportion of GDP. And given that (despite what the government would have one believe) Bahrain faces no immediate external threat--especially so long as Bahrain remains only a stone's throw from Saudi Arabia and the Fifth Fleet remains based in al-Juffair--a majority of this expenditure is aimed at the domestic front, through the funding of disproportionately large and well-equipped police and intelligence services.

Now, if one thought the BICI's documentation of torture in Bahrain were disturbing, one ought to read about the Bahrain of the 1990s, when the country again faced a Shi'a uprising. Then, however, security services enjoyed an even less restrictive carte blanche via more nebulous "state security" laws, and British-born intelligence adviser Ian Henderson was busy cementing his reputation as the "Butcher of Bahrain," a title he earned over the course of 32 years at the head of Bahrain's secret police. So, even if 2011 proved a more deadly year than those of the 1990s uprising, the cause is not a change in the Bahraini government's position on the use of violence in dealing with political opponents.

#4. That Bahrain's leadership is divided

Anyone who's seen The Lion King knows what happens when a deceased king's uncle meets his nephew-turned-fledgling-king. In short, something like this:

Or, in non-animated form:

And, since The Lion King has been out since 1994, it should have given everyone at least five years warning about the intra-Al Khalifa competition for political influence that would unfold in Bahrain.

More seriously, while part of the dominant narrative of post-February Bahrain involves the coming to power of more conservative elements of Bahrain's ruling family--in particular Khalifah bin Salman and the khawalid--when conducting research in the country in 2006-2008 I found that even then most political activists and ordinary citizens alike assumed that Bahrain's prime minister of four decades was really the one running the show. Indeed, of more than one hundred questions included in my mass political survey of Bahrainis, only one question--asking about a respondent's level of trust in the office of the prime minister--proved so sensitive that it became questionable whether it could be asked at all. Many ordinary people--Sunnis and Shi'is--responded with varying degrees of seriousness, "What, are you trying to get me thrown in jail?"

Although it is clear, therefore, that Bahrain's response to the February and March crisis signaled the clear influence of less conciliatory factions of the Al Khalifa (and their friends in Saudi Arabia), cause and effect should not be confused here. Rather than playing an independent causal role of its own, in other words, more likely is that the crisis simply revealed the existing distribution of power within the ruling tribe.

#5. That Bahrain's underlying political conflict is an intractable one

Though in some ways related to point #1 made already, it bears anticipating here the observation, the spirit of which is sure to be repeated consistently in the upcoming anniversary analysis onslaught, that "Wow, Bahrain's government and opposition have been in a standoff for a year now, and they still haven't resolved it!" In fact, they've been in the same essential standoff for a decade now. Its resolution has been made more difficult, certainly, by one phenomenon that IS a new development since February 2011 and that will be discussed below, namely the mobilization of ordinary Sunnis. But the nature of the government-opposition conflict itself has not changed since King Hamad's ascension and subsequent renege on promises of political reform, as discussed already.

To know this one need only look at the date currently being awaited with much apprehension: February 14, 2012, which not incidentally marks the 10-year anniversary of Bahrain's 2002 Constitution, promulgated unilaterally by King Hamad and, for regime opponents, a document symbolic of the country's aborted political reform initiative. Supposed to outline a constitutional system in which an elected lower house of parliament would be endowed with supreme legislative authority, in fact the text established a bicameral system dominated by an unelected upper house along with ethnically-gerrymandered electoral districts ensuring pro-government control over the elected body.

Accordingly, when one looks at the demands of the formal opposition in Bahrain--which unlike in some other Arab Spring countries are not vague calls for "reform" but specific constitutional changes--they stem precisely from this original betrayal (from the opposition's point of view) of King Hamad. They include fair electoral districts, an empowered lower house of parliament, an elected government, and so on. Of course, such demands are no more likely to be entertained today than a decade earlier in 2002. For Bahrain's fundamental constitutional problem is this: the country has gone as far as it can with fake political reform. Yes, there is a parliament; yet it has no independent lawmaking ability. Yes, there are political "societies"; but the notion that these would compete for political influence with the ruling family--or rather, that the ruling family would stoop to their level--is utterly foreign. As Khuri describes of Bahrain’s first-ever parliamentary elections in 1972-73 (pp. 225),
Like all other ruling families in the Gulf and Arabia, Al-Khalifa of Bahrain consider government a legitimate right that they earned historically by defending the island against external aggression—a “right” that must not be subjected to “the fluctuating, controversial moods of public opinion,” as one Al-Khalifa sheikh put it. Members of the ruling family were not permitted to run for election because they were aloof from politics, above the National Assembly and the appeal to public opinion.
This same sentiment--of a ruling family "aloof from politics" and "above" the legislature and public opinion--rings as true today as it did in 1973. Hence a recent work of Bahraini political cartoonist Bazzaz:

Many hurdles impede progress toward a political solution in Bahrain: opposition among Al Khalifa conservatives and their Saudi backers; the fear that any deal will be rejected by those in the opposition outside the sway of al-Wifaq; as well as the likelihood of backlash by a newly-mobilized Sunni community. But the government's structural inability to agree to opposition demands without moving Bahrain's fake democracy qualitatively down the road toward real democracy is perhaps the greatest obstacle of all. This has not changed since 2002.

What We Have Learned about Bahrain
in the Past Year

Continued in the next post..