Saturday, July 21, 2012

A Sectarian Ramadan Kareem to You!

Coming to the "ethnic greetings" section of a Hallmark near you, Sunni and Shi'i Ramadan cards.

First, the late Pearl Roundabout shimmering among the mountains of Bahrain and among the clouds:

Whereas, someone posts in the Bahrain's main Sunni forum, "This is how the Sunni Lions break the fast in Syria":

Can you feel the togetherness and reconciliation?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Final Political Salvo before Ramadan: The Sectarianization of Bahrain's Labor Unions

I've now returned from Cambridge, where participants on my panel were witnesses to a good show compliments of the Bahraini government, which sent a contingent from the Bahrain Centre for Strategic, International and Energy Studies (formerly the Bahrain Centre for Studies and Research) to refute my paper on the politics of public-sector employment in Bahrain. Notably, this 6- or 7-strong group included no less than former Information Minister and current chairman of the aforementioned center Dr. Muhammad 'Abd al-Ghaffar. Fortunately, my paper was (strategically, I'm sure) reserved for the very last spot, so the fireworks did not disrupt the panel generally, which was mostly very informative.

In addition to my paper, the group also attacked (on my panel) the presentation of Laurence Louër as well as (on other panels) those of 'Abd al-Nabi al-'Akri, Muhammad Matar, and others discussing Bahrain. I am also told that the group then proceeded to the other main Gulf studies conference at the University of Exeter, only to repeat the procedure anew. You stay classy, Bahrain!

Of course, as tends to happen, the hecklers succeeded only in making the state's case look worse. If Al-Watan has finally conceded that its English-language website was a liability rather than a tool to convert Western audiences to its position, then one wonders why the government cannot reach a similar conclusion, namely that it has failed to gain sympathizers not because its arguments are unknown but because they are unpersuasive.

In any case, with all this traveling it's been a while since I've posted, and much has happened in the meantime. Most notable is the formation of a new, Sunni-oriented labor union to compete with the current General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU), which is presumed, like everything in Bahrain, to be controlled by al-Wifaq and the opposition. Please excuse the bullet points.

  • On July 10 the BNA reported that new editor-in-chief of Al-Watan and personal friend of this blog Yusif Al Bin Khalil has been received by "the Field Marshal" Khalifa bin Ahmad. Quite strange for a defense minister to congratulate the editor of a newspaper, you say? Well, when you consider their shared interests in anti-Americanism and riling Bahrain's Sunnis with the specter of foreign interference in the country, then it is perhaps less so. Oh, and the defense minister's brother bankrolls Al-Watan. It could be that too.

  • While we're on the theme of Al-Watan and newspapers, the recent re-arrest (and three-month jail sentence) of Nabeel Rajab has occasioned an interesting spat involving Reuters. It seems that the government was/is upset with an article describing the circumstances of Rajab's arrest, which Reuters linked (correctly) to his Tweet claiming that citizens in Muharraq held a rally in support of the prime minister only because they were paid to do so. Two separate articles--first in Al-Watan, then in Al-Ayam--accuse the agency of false reporting, partiality, etc., while the Information Affairs Authority submitted its own formal complaint.

    The sticking point seems to be the explicit linking of Rajab's arrest to the prime minister (Al-Ayam is run by one of his cronies). Perhaps this is because, according to Rajab's lawyer Muhammad al-Jishi, the complaint that led to his arrest was filed by around 50 residents of Muharraq, including "Military Society" organizer 'Adel Flaifel. For one with a vivid imagination, such circumstances might suggest that--*gasp*--Khalifa bin Salman is somehow involved with Flaifel and other of his militant supporters, whether financially or otherwise. Support for the prime minister based on patronage relationships?? No way!

    Beyond Bahrain's continued persecution of journalists and media attempting to offer substantive coverage of events in the country, the other implication of the Reuters spat involves new Minister of State for Information Affairs Samira Rajab. From what I've been told, her April appointment was meant to offer a more media-friendly (and, more to the point, less prime minister-controlled) foil to the Information Affairs Authority led by Sh. Fawaz. Her ability to serve such a function in practice, however, would seem to be in question, as any movement on this front has been in the wrong direction.

  • Bahrain is now home to yet another offshoot political "movement," this one known as the "Front for Jihad and Change" (or 'Aqab for short). No one seems to know quite what the group does; indeed, one opposition forum commentator asks derisively whether it is a "movement" or a "media organization," since despite a threatening manifesto its main activity thus far seems to be limited to the publishing of photographs, including of guns and ammo. (Curiously, the photograph below is taken from a pro-government Sunni forum, and the song in the YouTube video also has a Sunni feel and dialect.) The group does have a cool logo, though, so that's something I guess.

    And obligatory martial YouTube video:

    The Front's website only has three posts dating to July 14, the first a message of congratulations from al-Sayyid Qasim al-Hashimi, "Bahraini political opponent."(Al-Hashimi is a former member of the IFLB, then of al-Wifaq, and now directs the revolution from his computer in London.) In any case, the group clearly styles itself a Shi'i movement, but it's probably too early to tell what to make of it. Some Shi'a already assume it is a government front meant to smear the opposition.

  • We arrive at the most significant news item. The National Unity Gathering has been busy lately, and its relationship with the state continues to grow in ambiguity. Al Mahmud and other TGONU leaders were prominent attendees of yesterday's press conference announcing the creation of a rival to the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU), called the Bahrain Labour Union Free Federation (BLUFF). In effect, BLUFF is meant to be the Sunni counterpoint to the GFBTU, which critics accuse of being controlled by al-Wifaq. Notably, one of the founding members of BLUFF is the union chairman at Alba, 'Ali Al bin 'Ali. Given Bahrain's success with political societies based around religious affiliation, the polarization of the country's trade unions along the same lines must be a welcome development. (That's sarcasm.)

    As always seems to be the case with the National Unity Gathering and the other post-uprising Sunni groups, this latest move lends itself to two competing interpretations depending on one's view of the movements themselves. On the one hand, given the historical importance of labor unions in spurring political action in Bahrain--whether in the 1950s, 1990s, or in 2011--one might suppose that the post-uprising Sunni movements are seeking to embed themselves more deeply into Bahraini political life, especially given their absence from other formal institutions such as the parliament. By this view, the launching of a competing labor union is not aimed necessarily at the opposition but perhaps at bolstering Sunnis' position vis-a-vis the state. If one would ask whether such a thing is necessary, consider, for instance, the recent arrest of outspoken Sunni Muhammad al-Zayani, former BDF colonel-turned-government critic, which has not gone unnoticed by the TGONU:

    Moreover, an article in Al-Ayam (linked on TGONU's Twitter feed) reports on a joint statement by al-Asalah and al-Manbar expressing their wonderment over the failure of the Labor Minister (Jamil Hamidan, a Shi'i appointed in King Hamad's post-uprising cabinet shake-up) to attend the press conference. The groups accuse the minister of bias in favor of the (Shi'i-controlled) GFBTU and say that he does not want a "free union."

    Others remain convinced, on the other hand, that the move is no more than a state-backed attempt to break the relatively powerful GFBTU, which one will recall organized several nationwide strikes in the early days of the uprising. Such an interpretation coincides with the more general view of TGONU and other Sunni movements as being far from politically-independent--to say nothing of a genuine Sunni political opposition. According to this view, the state is simply applying the lesson of the majlis al-nuwab, which is that so long as political factions exist along sectarian lines they will expend a majority of their energy fighting each other rather than focusing together on resolving shared grievances.

    As noted already (and as examined in a classic paper on "Bahrain's Labor Movements" by 'Abd al-Hadi Khalaf), trade unions have been a perennial loci of popular--cross-sectarian--political movements in Bahrain since the discovery of oil. By structurally dividing the labor movement into Sunni and Shi'i components, one eliminates an important potential source of the type of cross-societal mobilization that represents the only real threat to the maintenance of the political status quo in Bahrain. Whether or not the government (or certain factions of it) had a hand in the creation of the new union, one suspects it will be very happy at the news.

  • If TGONU and the other new Sunni movements thus continue to elude easy political categorization, at least one can be more sure about the nature of some others. Earlier this week a group in Muharraq held a protest demanding the release of three imprisoned Sunnis--'Abd al-Rahman al-Murabati, 'Abdallah al-Na'imi, and Muhammad al-'Ubaidli (I'm not familiar with the background of the cases)--as a Ramadan makrama. A thread on the main Sunni forum explains that the individuals have been held for 4, 10, and 15 years, respectively, without being tried. (A million photos here.)

    Interestingly, one commenter asks why the thread is directed at the "Good Sunnis" of Muharraq, saying, "Why calling on Sunnis only? If you're being wronged then you should appeal to the Bahraini people as a whole? Don't you agree?"

    Acknowledgment that you're in the same boat as the Shi'a? "She's a witch! Get her!"

    Muhammad Al Bu Flasa likewise is continuing his quest to be re-imprisoned, appearing in a rally in front of Nabeel Rajab's house following the latter's arrest.

  • Finally, some random interesting stories:

    1. An American passenger traveling to Bahrain from Italy was accused in an al-'Arabiyya report of attempting to smuggle in $11m in cash destined for the opposition. Bahrain then denies the report, but it sure does get you thinking... See what they did there?
    2. A report from the Danish Institute for International Studies: "Bahrain and the Global Balance of Power."
    3. Toby Matthiesen in Foreign Policy: "Saudi Arabia's Shiite Escalation."
    4. 'Abbas Bu Safwan writes in the Bahrain Mirror on ruling family politics and King Hamad's post-1999 project to unseat Khalifa bin Salman: "The King Stymies the Prime Minister in the (Constitutional) Arena."
Update: Quite clever are these new Sunni trade unionists. Not only is BLUFF now pushing for a minimum wage for Bahrainis in the private sector (as well as additional social benefits), but also for a minimum wage for skilled and unskilled EXPATRIATES. Since the new union cannot currently compete with the GFBTU in terms of membership, it seems it is reaching out to an untapped pool of potential supporters (and perhaps even members?): expats.

They've also apparently figured out that BLUFF is probably not the best English acronym to go with.

Update 2: An insightful update on the state of the National Unity Gathering by Hasan Tariq al-Hasan.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

With al-Wifaq out of Parliament, Bahrain's Pro-Government Bloc Needs a New Enemy

I am preparing to leave for the annual Gulf Research Meeting in Cambridge, where I am happy to have learned recently I will sit on a panel along with Laurence Louër, whose 2008 book on transnational Shi'a politics includes some of the best insights on Bahrain in many years. I have had very good luck with conferences lately, as my most recent panel also included 'Abd al-Hadi Khalaf, whom I'd not met previously.

As I've mentioned before, I will present a paper on the politics of public-sector employment in Bahrain, while Laurence's is titled "The political dimension of the labor market reform in Bahrain." It should be quite interesting. For those interested, I have uploaded my presentation slides here.

While I don't have too much time now to write on substantive matters, a few weekend developments deserve some attention. All relate to the same issue, namely the ongoing push among Bahrain's Sunni and "independent" (i.e. pro-government tribal) MPs to remove the sitting U.S. Ambassador for his--what else?--"interference in Bahrain's internal affairs." More specifically, according to al-Asalah MP 'Abd al-Halim Murad (from Muharraq):
"He is demanding the empowerment of Al Wefaq under the guise of democracy and human rights. ... The ambassador has since his appointment been particularly active in putting pressure on Bahrain and on threatening and blackmailing the country. His meetings with the opposition do not stop and the US interference in our affairs has reached unprecedented levels."
Of course, by modern Interweb standards this story is old news. Yet coverage thus far has been superficial, and no one seems to be making the most obvious connection. A partial exception is regular Bahrain Mirror contributor 'Abbas Bu Sawfan, who offers an extended analysis (Arabic) in Thursday's al-Quds al-Arabi. The source of the anti-ambassador drive, he argues, is the royal patron of the Sunni groups in parliament, Khalid bin Ahmad. So his explanation revolves around Al Khalifa politics.

Which is perhaps true. But the more obvious observation is this: with the absence of al-Wifaq, Sunni groups in parliament have lost their raison d'être, which since 2006 has been precisely to obstruct any opposition efforts--legislative or otherwise. Indeed, it is not a coincidence that Bahrain is the only country in which the Muslim Brotherhood serves as a pro-government political faction. This is because it MUST be such if the opposition is to remain a minority in parliament.

A question--and, for the state, a problem--thus arises: if they need not concern themselves with blocking al-Wifaq, at whom exactly should (nominally) pro-government groups in parliament direct their energy? Since last fall's by-elections, the answer has been clear, with MPs assuming an increasingly confrontational stance vis-a-vis the government. They have blocked state proposals regarding the reorganization of the flagging Gulf Air; they have clashed on the streets and in parliament with (and even attempted to quiz) Bahrain's Culture Minister Sha. Mai for her purported support of "un-Islamic" events; and one Sunni opposition MP, Usama al-Tamimi, has been calling for corruption investigations into the practices of the ruling family (his business was subsequently attacked). In the second instance, the conflict was so severe that parliament was paid a visit by no less than Khalifa bin Salman, who urged "cooperation" between the legislative and executive branches.

The newfound concern among parliamentarians with the actions of the United States and its representatives in Bahrain is therefore at the very least a welcome development for the state, no longer the main focus of Sunni ire. But the main question, of course, is the nature of this shift in agenda. Pro-government movements and media have been decrying U.S. "interference" in Bahrain for more than a year, yet only now has the issue been taken up systematically by MPs. Has the sustained media onslaught finally served its purpose of encouraging popular action against Western influence (and precluding cooperation with the Shi'a and secular opposition)? Or is there more direct prodding on the part of the government--or, that is, on the part of certain members of the ruling family (which is Bu Sawfan's conclusion)?

This question becomes even more interesting when one notes the disparity between the actions of Bahrain's parliamentary blocs and other politically-active Sunni personalities. While MPs from al-Asalah and al-Manbar are busy petitioning the Foreign Ministry to convert the U.S. Embassy into a shrine to Muhammad 'Abd al-Wahhab, other Sunnis are reaching across the sectarian aisle to the opposition. Muhammad Al Bu Flasa, the Salafi former army officer who gained notoriety (and a 3-month detention) for his speech at the Pearl Roundabout in the early days of the uprising, has recently reappeared on the political scene. He was rearrested several weeks ago for what was called a "family dispute," and then last week requested the release of a video statement addressed "to the regime and to the people of Bahrain." (My understanding from this forum thread is that the video was actually recorded sometime in early 2011.)

Then, on Friday, Al Bu Flasa--along with outspoken opposition MP Usama al-Tamimi of 'Isa Town--visited several Shi'a villages. Al Bu Flasa turned up in a village in Sitra, while al-Tamimi went to Tubli and Nuwaidrat, the latter being the (somewhat claustrophobic) home village of al-Wafa' leader Sh. 'Abd al-Wahhab Husain. Not only did these two prominent Sunnis visit "dangerous" Shi'a villages, moreover, but they visited on the very Shi'i religious occasion of the birthday of the Mahdi. Both were received with much fanfare. (Pro-government Sunnis seem to be split. See this thread addressed "To those who criticize Al Bu Flasa.")

Al Bu Flasa apparently exiting/entering a mosque/ma'tam:

Al-Tamimi in Nuwaidrat, where he also visited a ma'tam:

Thus, as they say, is the battle for Sunni hearts and minds in Bahrain. As usual, the losers are ordinary Sunni citizens, as their MPs in parliament debate not corruption or political reform or economic revitalization but the nefarious role of Bahrain's most important Western ally (and probably the main reason why the political status quo was not qualitatively altered by the February uprising). And al-Asalah and al-Manbar wonder why they fared so poorly in the 2010 elections.

Also as usual, it will be up to charismatic Sunni activists outside the mainstream political fold--whether Ebrahim Sharif, Al Bu Flasa, al-Tamimi, or others--to see through the game of preoccupation that the state is so adept at playing. If not the Shi'a opposition, it is Iran, or the United States, that must be opposed--so long as it is not the government. In fact, anything sufficiently threatening (that is to say, an actor whose true interests are not easily discerned) will do the trick, such that it is likely that we will soon find tsunamis, earthquakes, and sharks on the list of foreign conspirators against Bahrain.

On the other hand, depending on one's view, Al Mahmud and other leaders of the new Sunni movements may have a more constructive role to play. Jane Kinninmont's recent Chatham House paper on Bahrain contained the following observation from a Sunni supporter (but not representative) of the National Unity Gathering: "We are not for the government, just temporarily allied with them" (p. 8, n26). I suppose we'll see about that.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Downside of Bahrain's Counter-Terrorism Prowess

Bahrain: 3,017, Terrorists: 0!

By now readers will have heard of the "bomb plot" uncovered by the Interior Ministry (with dramatic video) and now being investigated with the help of a forensic team from the British Metropolitan Police. (It seems that Yates' advisory role with the Interior Ministry did not end as scheduled in April after all.) Three individuals have already been named as suspects, and anonymous "senior political officials" have told the BBC that the devices are so sophisticated that they "could not have been put together without help from outside the country"--namely from Hizballah, with whom the three suspects are purported to have trained.

In fact, however, as one contributor to the Gulf2K mailing list notes,
The "bombs...with hundreds of iron balls" sound like a standard AP device, in which (steel) ball-bearings are laid over the explosive charge to function as shrapnel. The set up has been used in suicide vests, in improvised hand-grenades, and in "claymore" type devices, whether improvised or manufactured. Such a system in itself is not indicative of any particular geographic or organisational origin.
One will observe further that the original report in the Gulf Daily News of "five tonnes of explosive materials" has since been downgraded (in the BBC story linked above) to "over 100kg," a difference of merely 1.5 orders of magnitude (~45 times). So more or less the same.

Yet, media exaggerations aside, the more general difficulty in knowing what to make of Bahrain's newest foiled terrorist plot is that the country may well be the historical origin behind Aesop's "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." (Which would vindicate Sunni claims of being the original inhabitants of the island!) When every activity of the unregistered opposition or trip to Lebanon by someone linked to Shi'a groups--to say nothing of the February uprising--is a new terrorist scheme, who can blame observers for being skeptical when the Interior Ministry insists, "No, srsly, this time it's a real plot we even have a video LOL!!1"

On the other hand, could one really be surprised if after 18 months of political stalemate and little hope for a breakthrough individuals would begin to turn to more radical alternatives in order to get the state's attention? Indeed, already in April 2011 Hussein Ibish wrote a Foreign Policy article asking, "Is Bahrain Creating a New Terrorist Threat?" Since then, few in Bahrain have escaped involvement in the turmoil either directly or indirectly via family and friends. At the same time, Bahrain's political factions have undergone marked polarization, with many in the opposition oriented not only against the government, but also against the state's Sunni and Western supporters. On the other hand, Sunni movements continue to decry the Iranian-backed opposition as well as Western (i.e., British and especially U.S.) meddling, and this has been actively encouraged by none other than ranking government officials such as Defense Minister Khalifa bin Ahmad.

The signs indeed are not encouraging:

"My blood is at your command, Sh. 'Ali Salman."

"Muhammad Al Mahmud: WANTED: alive not dead"
for spreading sectarianism, etc.

"The Sunni Lions" with al-Qa'ida-style flag

The main question for the Metropolitan Police, then, will be not simply who is behind the alleged plot, but at whom it was aimed. Given the recent escalation in anti-Western rhetoric, one wouldn't be surprised to find that its target was not the regime in Bahrain but some other government.

Whatever the case, having already denounced the plot and those involved, al-Wifaq plans to continue on this Friday with its weekly "The People Won't Retreat" protest marches; while its opponents have seized on the story to redouble calls for a crackdown on its "promotion of violence." Writing in Al-Watan (which seems to have removed its English-language site, sorry), al-Zayani tells that as the government is busy talking of dialogue, the opposition plots against it with impunity:
When 'Ali Salman says [see here for background], "We didn't use 50% of our power," is this the peacefulness he alleges and that the state believes? This is a clear threat of terrorism and the use of violence, and it's not the first. So with whom are they dialoguing? We all know what he wants Bahrain to become, and we all know the plan called the terrorism of February 14th, which is the seizure of the entire Bahraini state. And perhaps ['Ali Salman] will do with the people of Bahrain what Bashar is doing to his people, as they are of the same thinking and of the same sectarian tendencies. We all know the plan, but we lie to ourselves and say "dialogue." And we say a lot of things, but we know within ourselves that the question isn't of "reform," or of "democracy," but of an obsessive, exclusionary sectarian project.
To our dear brothers in the Ministry of Justice, [the minister of justice] said a while back that there will be accountability for and control over any provocative voice coming from the pulpit, and certainly this statement came after the king's talk before the Council of Ministers. But allow us brothers in the Ministry of Justice, and allow us Mr. Minister, Minister of Justice, [to say] that what we see and what we are witnessing is not the case. Talk in the press is one thing, and practice is something else. Stop all the voices of incitement from any party whatsoever--this is what we ask, to apply the law to everyone. But your ministry [has] applied [it] in one direction only, and is unable to apply the law to others, and this is disaster. Give us one example, Ministry of Justice, of any arrest [of] the instigators at the pulpits? Or do you even to this day still not hear [their] voices?"
Update: The Metropolitan Police have released the following photo of the suspected terrorist plotters. Can you help identify these individuals? Please write in!