Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Uprising is Over. But What Is the Price of Bahrain's Victory?

For a recent publication on Bahrain, I was forced to go back and forth with an editor over the question of whether the February 14th uprising should be introduced in the present or past tense.  Is it correct to say that the uprising is over?, that is, or do the continued clashes between riot police and mostly-youthful protesters constitute a continuation, qualitatively-speaking, of the original movement of early 2011?

I took--and do take--the former position: the uprising proper has ended.  Or, rather, it was made to end by the sweeping security response initiated with the State of National Security and subsequently entrenched via Bahrain's effective "sectarianism as security" political strategy.  In this sense, the actual rebellion has long been over, and "major combat operations," as some like to say, essentially were concluded with the second clearing (and for good measure razing) of the former Pearl Roundabout.

Now, judging by the aforementioned debate with my editor, which incidentally I lost, such a view evidently is a controversial--or rather an uncomfortable and unpalatable--one to express.  To reference the "failed February 14 uprising" is seen as insulting the very memory of those who died, and who continue to die and risk bodily harm, in their pursuit of basic societal and political reform. In fact, however, it is simply to admit the overwhelming material and tactical superiority of one side over the other, a military dominance that students of insurgency and civil war have long noted.

As part of a cross-national study of civil war incidence, Fearon and Laitin (2005) examined the case of Bahrain as a sort of diagnostic check on their model of civil war, which predicted a "a negligible probability for civil war in Bahrain during the entire period of its independence from 1971-1999."  As they note in their introduction,
There has been no civil war in Bahrain, so our model did not let us down! There seems at first blush nothing to explain. A narrative of Bahrain’s political conflicts, however, allows us to address several themes. First, Bahrain’s contemporary history helps illuminate why there is no positive relationship between grievance level and civil war. Bahrain’s contemporary history reads like a litany of grievances; yet these do not easily translate into sustained violence.
While the authors offer a multidimensional response to examine this last observation--why grievances in Bahrain "do not translate easily into sustained violence"--they identify several tactical factors as being particularly important, in particular the extreme smallness of the community.  They continue,
In Khuri’s formulation (1980, pp. 245-6), Bahrain is a “metrocommunity,” a form of rule that requires intimate knowledge by the rulers of their constituents. He notices that the Al-Khalifah sheiks know practically every family in Bahrain, its history, its size, and its social status. They are thus able to micromanage gift-giving, favors, and government posts to co-opt rival claimants to power. Speaking of the then current leader and his family, Khuri points out that one of the ruler’s brothers “talks” to “moderninsts” and “freedom fighters”; the ruler’s eldest son “talks” to youths in the cultural and sports’ clubs. ... [This way], a unified family can -- if it is willing to use brutal suppression and call in foreign troops -- maintain order in a changing society.
In short, they conclude, "[a] combination of 'metrocommunity' scale and political will to be brutal partly accounts for Bahrain’s avoidance of insurgency."

Now, anyone who has followed the previous nineteen months in Bahrain cannot fail to see the accuracy of these observations.  With its sustained deployment of police and military units along with a labyrinthine edifice of security checkpoints, the state has largely succeeded in penning demonstrators into their respective villages, now isolated even more than they were prior to February 2011 (which is saying a lot).  (More recently, the state has shifted to allow protests in finite areas, namely along al-Budaiyi' Road, while blocking them elsewhere.) Such an effort, combined with the decades-long exclusion of Shi'a from those professions that entail the use of weapons, has created a sort of double defense.

In the first place, in the face of concerted state effort, would-be revolutionaries face an almost impossible task in organizing into a mass capable of physically taking over the institutions of the state.  Witness, for example, the repeated unsuccessful attempts to "re-take" the ground surrounding the now-demolished Pearl Roundabout.  In February and March, activists were able to occupy the monument only because the state initially lacked the desire or resolve to stop them.  But when the Field Marshal finally moved to put an end to the protesters' camp and preclude their return, this was easily done, not least with the help of pervasive communications monitoring by which opposition plans are easily discovered.

How could police have stopped this advanced tactical operation?!

In the second place, even if demonstrations could again achieve the levels of mass participation witnessed in February and March 2011, still these citizens lack the one thing they would require to do more than, say, block traffic or occupy the Financial Harbor and other downtown sites: that is to say, guns.  Indeed, I was once stopped at Bahrain Airport when I attempted to bring in a traditional Yemeni tribal dagger I had bought as a souvenir.  It is simply unimaginable that individuals or groups could smuggle in the sort of arms required to wage an effective guerrilla campaign. Meanwhile, Bahrain spent $883 million on its military in 2011 alone, while Stratfor reports (subscription needed) that the country is now recruiting an additional 5,000 police and military personnel from among Sunni refugees who have fled Syria (to go along with the many tens of thousands recruited and naturalized over the previous decade).

Bahrain has also seemingly won its other war on the international front.  Having done its diplomatic duty in allowing the BICI to investigate the uprising, it has successfully resisted pressure to do anything more.  On the contrary, since December 2011 political change has been in the opposition direction.  As witnessed once more only days ago, protesters continue to be met with deadly force in confrontations with police.  Activists, including Nabeel Rajab and most recently Zaynab al-Khawajah, have been sentenced to prison for no more than insulting the prime minister and King Hamad, respectively.  One political society ('Amal) has been dissolved, while another (al-Wifaq) may be on the brink.

And yet, on the occasion of Bahrain's recent human rights review at the United Nations, the most the U.S. State Department could muster was the following anemic statement by Michael Posner:
Today Bahrain is at a crossroads. The government showed great courage last year in commissioning and accepting the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report, implementation of which 13 states recommended during the review. Ten months after the release of the report, however, we are concerned that the government is losing momentum on implementation. We urge you once again to fully and swiftly implement the BICI recommendations as well as those generated through the UPR process. This will help create an environment where meaningful dialogue can take place.
So that's one "concern" and one "urge," partly offset by one "showed great courage."  Not exactly a strong reprimand likely to spark a change in political calculations.

What is more, in the few days since its review in Geneva, Bahrain has somehow been selected as the "Asian group representative" on the U.N. Human Rights Council Advisory Committee--and this, as CNN points out, on "the same day a young protester in the country was killed."  The view from Bahrain's Information Affairs Authority is somewhat more optimistic: the nomination "represents the international community's confidence in Bahrain's progress in the human rights field."  One might also entertain a more cynical interpretation.

So, then, one may as well just say it: Bahrain's uprising is over.  The government has prevailed, and there is no reasonable expectation of either an internal change in political dynamics or outside pressure to tip the present balance of power.  But one must be careful in the conclusions one therefore draws.  In particular, that the government has won in its tactical battle with protesters (and diplomatic battle with disapproving but still dependent allies) does not mean that violence and instability is likely to dissipate.  On the contrary, it is precisely this victory--a victory that has magnified already-considerable grievances a thousand times while crushing any hope for their redress--that is likely to invite a new, even more destructive sort of violence.

Only two months into the uprising, Hussein Ibish asked in Foreign Policy, "Is Bahrain Creating a New Terrorist Threat?"  At the time, his question garnered no little rebuke from Bahraini activists, insulted by his insinuation that theirs was anything but a non-violent protest movement.  Some 18 months later, no one can deny his conclusion, that "[b]y leaving no room for peaceful dissent, the Bahraini monarchy is creating [or rather, has created] the conditions for a violent revolt."

Yet the issue is not simply that there is no longer any room in Bahrain for "peaceful dissent."  The problem is much more pervasive: that for an entire generation of Bahrainis, not least Shi'a Bahraini youth, there is simply no room for ordinary living.  Even were protest activities to end today and a political ceasefire declared, still an entire class of Bahrainis faces the reality of dead or incarcerated loved ones and/or family members; little prospect for employment or societal advancement (and thus marriage); trouble gaining admission to the country's one public university--in short, lifelong memories and repercussions of the February 14th uprising.

Last month in The New York Times was a poignant if disturbing article that examined the attitudes of young Syrian refugees toward their erstwhile 'Allawi oppressors.  It begins,
Like all the small children in the desert refugee camp here, Ibtisam, 11, is eager to go home to the toys, bicycles, books, cartoons and classmates she left behind in Syria.

But not if that means living with Alawites, members of the same minority offshoot of Shiite Islam as Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. “I hate the Alawites and the Shiites,” Ibtisam said as a crowd of children and adults nodded in agreement. “We are going to kill them with our knives, just like they killed us.”
Even if the scale of the violence in Syria is greater than that witnessed in Bahrain, can one really expect a qualitatively different result in the latter case?  Even before the uprising, the country was divided into what Clive Holes aptly describes as an “almost apartheid-like system of voluntary segregation.”  What hope is there that this division--geographical and otherwise--will stand the chance of lessening in the near- to medium-term?

More to the point, with hope fading for any political solution to the present government-opposition standoff, and indeed with the mounting popular disillusion with the formal opposition societies in any case, it is not unthinkable that some will decide that the only way to get the attention of the government (and/or of foreign governments) is to pursue more radical alternatives.  Already in June the government claimed to find in Salmabad tons of materials for the production of homemade bombs.  Due to Bahrain's massive "boy who cried wolf" problem as a result of repeated past claims of "terrorist plots," it was (and I suppose still is) difficult to know what to make of this find.  But the incidence of attacks using homemade explosives has only increased, with deadly results on the side of both protesters and police.

Consider the latest casualty, a boy of 17 who died only last night.  Photos of the boy (warning: graphic) clearly show bullet holes from what seems to be bird shot.  The Interior Ministry, on the other hand, claims riot police acted in self-defense when protesters began throwing Molotov cocktails.

Now, following the death of the boy in the village of Sadad, youths in another village (Shahrakan) caused a large explosion when they ignited a gas cylinder. A video posted to YouTube describes the explosion, apparently meant as a threat, as having been carried out "in condemnation of the murder of martyr 'Ali Hussain."

Meanwhile, the father of the boy attended a press conference along with members of the (recently-dissolved) political society 'Amal in which he essentially blames his son's death on the stance of "opposition societies," i.e., al-Wifaq.  "I cannot stand hand-in-hand with political societies who are in dialogue with a murderous regime," he says.  This came apparently after remarks by Deputy Head of al-Wifaq Khalil al-Marzuq to the effect that protesters should not use Molotov cocktails against police.  Opposition message boards are now filled with condemnations of al-Marzuq, described among other things as an Interior Ministry spokesman.

Neither does the United States escape the blame of opposition activists.  A statement by al-Wafa', for example, dismisses Posner's remarks at the UN--in particular his suggestion of dialogue--as disingenuous and emblematic of the U.S.'s "negative, hostile, and hypocritical role toward our people, disguised as friendship and advice, meant to halt our people's march toward achieving [its] demands."

Yes, the uprising itself has been extinguished.  But what is the price of the government's victory?  So far, it is a fractured society; a more diffuse and more radical opposition (among both Sunnis and Shi'is); overwhelming economic and political reliance on Saudi Arabia; and a self-perpetuating cycle of suspicion and violence that only continues to fuel these trends.  How long until one must add genuine armed insurgency to this list?

Update: As an additional "f you" to its international critics, Bahrain has upheld the controversial convictions in the trial of the Salmaniyya medical workers.

Update 2: It's good to see that Al-Watan has not lost any of its journalistic integrity since Al Bin Khalil took over as editor-in-chief.  Last Sunday (sorry I just caught this), the newspaper dedicated a full page to publishing the names and photographs of Bahraini activists who were said to have participated in the UN human rights review in Geneva, i.e. "the participants in the discrediting of Bahrain."

The article also purports to outline the "funding network" behind the activists, using the same flowcharts as Al-Watan's famous outline of the opposition's "terrorist network."

Update 3: There is a very interesting paper just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that uses statistical techniques to detect two different types of electoral fraud.  Unfortunately, it looks like the method requires a relatively large number of electoral districts (the average population per district must be smaller than 5,000), because otherwise it would be interesting to repeat their procedure using 2002-2010 electoral data from Bahrain!

Update 4: The Bahrain Mirror reports that Bahrain is now attempting to strong-arm another of its traditionally supportive-to-politically-neutral communities, namely Bahrainis of Persian origin ('Ajam). Sh. Rashid is said to have sent a strongly-worded letter to both the al-Manama Club and the Grand 'Ajam Ma'tam, two of the country's most prominent Persian-dominated civil society organizations, threatening the community with "deportation" if it "continues supporting opposition activities."  I suppose, then, that this explains the recent (seemingly random) statement of the Grand 'Ajam Ma'tam "reiterating its loyalty to His Majesty King Hamad bin 'Isa Al Khalifa" and criticizing "perpetrators of rioting and terrorism."

Update 5: As if on cue, Bahrain has suffered yet another deadly homemade bomb attack on police in the village of Eker.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Dangerous U.S. Double Standard on Islamic Extremism

I have an article in Foreign Policy's Mideast Channel today on "The Dangerous U.S. Double Standard on Islamic Extremism." The focus is the U.S.'s continued support for and tolerance of Sunni Islamic movements in Syria and (as examined in the bulk of the article) in Bahrain, even as it falls victim to adherents of this very same ideology in Libya and elsewhere. In short, the U.S. seems not to have learned the lesson either of its ill-fated support for the mujahidin in Afghanistan or, relatedly, the attacks of 9/11.

Also, Freedom House has released a new "Countries at the Crossroads" report on Bahrain covering the period through November 2011. Not surprisingly, Bahrain's scores have been downgraded across the board.

Update: Christian Caryl agrees with me in the New York Review of Books blog: "Islamist Déjà Vu: The Lessons of 1979."

Update 2: Obligatory story from The Onion (warning: multiple phalluses).

Update 3: Chatham House has released a summary report for its June 2012 workshop on Bahrain titled "Youth Perspectives on the Future."

Update 4: Definitely Not Exaggerated Story of the Day® courtesy of the Jerusalem Post: "Bahrain seizes items Iran likely sought for nukes." As Black Bush would say, "Do I need to tell you what the fuck you can do with an aluminum tube!?! ALUMINUM!"

Update 5: Intelligence firm STRATFOR reports (login required for full text) that "Bahrain -- with the support of Saudi Arabia -- has begun a process to naturalize Sunni Syrian refugees in an effort to augment the minority Sunni population amid rising Shiite dissent." Shocking.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

To Ban or Not to Ban ... Al-Wifaq

The big news this week in Bahrain is actually old news. Following the latest "unauthorized" protest by al-Wifaq in response to the opposition leader court sentences, first the Ministry of Interior and now the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs is once again threatening to take legal action against the society. While the word "dissolve" has not yet been thrown around, the initial MoI statement confirmed that it "has taken legal action to file a case against Al Wefaq," whatever that means. For those keeping track, this is now at least the third time that the government has either moved to ban al-Wifaq (in April 2011) or seemed poised to do so (a few months ago in June) since the uprising.

The newest campaign would appear to be led at least in part by ordinary citizens. Activists have been circulating an online "Petition of Popular Demand for the Application and Enforcement of the Law against al-Wifaq." Addressed to Justice Minister Sh. Khalid bin 'Ali and consisting of the standard fare about the need to crack down on al-Wifaq terrorists and saboteurs, the initiative is not signed by any particular group apart from "Bahraini loyalists."

Coinciding conveniently with the anonymous online petition is a similar if more euphemistic statement by the Justice Ministry's High Committee for Islamic Affairs titled "A Statement by the 'Ulama' and al-Da'wa on the Matter of Condemning Violence and Sabotage." And, just so you're sure that this isn't a sectarian affair, the Justice Ministry's official Twitter account posted photos of both Sunni and Shi'i members of the committee signing the document. Of course, whereas the former photo of Sunni clerics was retweeted only 15 times, the latter--ostensible proof of Shi'a clerical disapproval for the (Shi'a-led) opposition--gained 42 retweets and various responses.

Yet, notwithstanding the Justice Ministry’s seeming support for action against al-Wifaq, it is not clear what Bahrain’s rulers would gain from such a move at the present time. If the aim is strictly a security calculation rather than appeasement of public opinion (which I doubt), then certainly banning al-Wifaq, which remains the most moderate of an increasing number of opposition factions, is unlikely to achieve that goal. If anything, it would simply further convince al-Wifaq supporters (and erstwhile supporters) of the ultimate futility of its post-2005 strategy, pushing them toward more radical alternatives.

But if, as seems more likely, legal action against al-Wifaq represents deference to those in society and in the royal court desirous of a harsher security crackdown, then still the timing seems wrong. Popular demands for “enforcement of the law” against al-Wifaq—i.e., a ban on (and appropriate security measures to physically prevent) its protest activities, and perhaps even legal proscription of the society altogether—are not new. Indeed, Al-Watan has been running stories and op-eds to this effect, decrying the machinations of "Bahraini Hizballah," for the past 18 months. So why heed them now? In the past month or so alone, Nabeel Rajab has been arrested and convicted, while the prison sentences of the main opposition leaders have been confirmed. Why expend all of one's political tools at one time?

"A present from the Sunni loyalists of Bahrain to the February 14th Shi'a."

A penetrating documentary linking al-Wifaq to Iran's Revolutionary Guard.

This dilemma is but the latest evidence of the destructive, self-perpetuating nature of Bahrain's present political strategy, which I discussed in the previous post. Having successfully mobilized citizens against the opposition, the state faces increasing pressure to finish the job it started, by executing a decisive crackdown on protest activities and in effect barring the entire (Shi'a-led) political opposition. Yet, at least from the perspective of those whose position forces them to take a long-term view of politics--namely the king and crown prince--such an option can only be seen as a last resort.

In the first place, it produces diminishing returns. Say, for instance, that al-Wifaq were banned. But now opposition activity continues and perhaps augments, not least in protest of the very decision to ban the group. So, after a few weeks, conservatives in society and in the ruling family again agitate for additional measures. What then? Arrest 'Ali Salman? 'Isa Qasim? Ban access to and from villages? What is the end game? It should be clear by now that protesters, most of whom now have one or another friend or family member arrested, injured, or killed, will not be deterred short of being physically locked inside their homes.

The state's most recent "solution" has been to allow the opposition a defined space to protest--namely, along al-Budaiyi' Road--while attempting to block access to Manama proper. But how sustainable is this? Western housing compounds that used to be located along this route, including that of U.S. Embassy employees, have been abandoned in favor of "safer" areas in the northeastern quarter of the island. But at the end of al-Budaiyi' Road is the Sunni-dominated area of al-Budaiyi', al-Janabbiya, al-Jasra, etc. Do all of these people need to move as well in order to get to work on time? Will they not eventually begin to complain? And what of all the opposition strongholds in the south (Sitra, Nuwaidrat, 'Akar) and west (Karzakhan, Dumistan)? Where will be the "permissible" area of protest for these villagers?

A second and no less significant question is whether it's even in the state's interest to rid itself of the formal opposition. Since al-Wifaq's departure from parliament, the body has assumed a decidely more confrontational posture vis-a-vis the state, as "pro-government" MPs no longer need to waste their energy fighting with al-Wifaq. Similarly, if al-Wifaq were banned as a legal opposition society, what is Bahrain left with? A loose coalition of genuinely pro-government tribal MPs, two Sunni Islamic groups--both affiliated with what are elsewhere powerful opposition parties: Salafis, and the Muslim Brotherhood--and two new Sunni movements in TGONU and Sahwat al-Fatih that may or may not represent a new opposition current. Oh, and Wa'ad sans Ebrahim Sharif. I think it goes without saying that this is not a political balance that favors the status quo.

So why then the threat of legal action against al-Wifaq every few months? The answer stems in large part from another aspect of Bahrain's current political strategy (which I describe in a forthcoming article as "The Securitization of the Shi'a Problem in Bahrain"): in short, it can be imposed unilaterally by dissenting members of the ruling family. That is, by using their own position and resources to mobilize society against al-Wifaq and political compromise with the opposition generally, conservatives within the Al Khalifa can effectively foreclose options--say, a resumption of political dialogue--that might be preferred by other members of the ruling family, even more senior members.

My article talks in particular about the post-uprising ascension of the khawalid. Yet one might now perhaps add another royal to this list, viz. King Hamad's son Nasr, who has been building a reputation for himself as uncompromising toward the opposition. (I've been told that he is held in particularly high esteem among members of the military establishment, in contrast to Crown Prince Salman, in no small part on account of the former's reputed involvement--true or false--in the torture of detainees during the State of National Security.) Some individuals with whom I've talked are even convinced that Prince Nasr is eying his brother's position as heir apparent.

Whatever the case, he most definitely is on a public relations offensive as of late. The most recent episode comes after a Sept. 10 article in Al-Watan about "A Bahraini family of seven living in a car by the sea." (Not, as has been reported elsewhere, in a van down by the river. For comparison:)

Living in a car down by the sea

Living in a van down by the river

Who will step in to help this family in distress? But Sh. Nasr of course. The Gulf News reports that
A Bahraini prince has stepped in to rescue a homeless family of seven forced to live in a rented car.

Shaikh Nasser Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the chairman of the Royal Charity Foundation, offered a house to the Bahraini mother and her six children after hearing about their plight and how they were kicked out of their home and had nowhere to go.

The needs and school requirements of the children, aged between four and 16, should be met to help them and their mother live in dignity, Shaikh Nasser ordered. ...

Om Abdullah, the mother, said that she was deeply moved by the decision of Shaikh Nasser, the son of King Hamad Bin Eisa Al Khalifa, to assist her homeless family and rescue all its members from the relentless onslaught of difficult circumstances on them.
Now, I'm not here to make fun of homeless families (assuming the story of the family is true--we are talking about Al-Watan after all), but I think everyone can agree that a bit of opportunism is at work here. While Salman is conspiring to bargain away the country to Shi'a terrorists, Nasr is putting his position to use helping poor people. Of course, if Nasr were really THAT great he would be out hang-gliding with endangered Russian cranes. I mean, seriously, be a man like Comrade Putin!

In any case, Bahrain may soon have additional fuel for the primary debate here about the future of (the state's toleration of) al-Wifaq. According to this Al-Monitor story, al-Wifaq already has planned a new demonstration for this Friday along a contested route. Not to be outdone, the February 14th folks have organized an entire "Week of Loyalty to the Leadership" (presumably the opposition leadership), with a culminating demonstration planned for next Friday in Manama.

Update: Referring to a Sept. 9 press conference in which the Interior Ministry announced a new clampdown on blogs and forums due to what it called "defamation" of "national symbols and personalities," this thread in Bahrain's main Sunni forum asks "Are Sunnis the targets of the Interior Ministry's decision to prosecute blogs and forums?"

Update 2: In Libya, another example of why the mobilization of Salafi citizens against Western and Shi'a heretics is not in the long-term interests of the United States. How long until the State Department exerts pressure to put an end to it in Bahrain?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Bahrain Now Hostage to Its Own Sectarian Political Strategy

Whatever else it was, yesterday's verdict in the appeal of Bahrain's opposition leaders was certainly not a surprise. After a week in which the Minister of Justice was forced to retreat on a decision to relocate a critical Sunni cleric after protest from ordinary citizens and a "meeting" with Sunni 'ulama', it is difficult to see how the state could have weathered the storm of criticism that would have followed from an acquittal or even from reduced sentences for the main accused. (The sentence of one individual--Al-Har Yusuf Mohammed Al-Sumaikh--was reduced from 2 years to 6 months.) If Bahrain is unwilling to confront its nominal Sunni support base even over a minor matter, in other words, what were the chances it would initiate a much fiercer fight over the fate of opposition leaders--opposition leaders it has spent the previous 18 months demonizing as Iranian-backed terrorists?

In this sense, the outcome of the trial was determined long ago, back when 20-foot-tall billboards all across the island proclaimed the guilt of Bahrain's conspirators. "Disease," they read, "must be excised from the body of the nation: from now on, we won't keep quiet about any mistakes or excesses by those who abuse Bahrain and its people." Unfortunately for Bahrain, including for the government itself, these words would prove prophetic. The subject in this case, security-minded Sunni citizens, have indeed kept their word, refusing to "keep quiet" either about those seen as breaking the law with continued protest activities, or those deemed lax in enforcing it, including King Hamad himself.

Even today, following the confirmation of the original verdicts, Sunni message boards are dominated by those who want the state to go even further. As some are happy to celebrate the court's decision, another popular thread argues, "We need to go back to the State of National Security." Such is the catch-22 in which Bahrain finds itself: having fanned the flames of sectarian politics for so long, how can the government begin to pull the country back from the brink without igniting an even wider political conflagration by alienating its critical support base?

Here the recent episode regarding the (attempted) relocation of 'Adal Al Hamad is instructive. Instead of earning itself goodwill among Sunnis, the state's appeasement of Al Hamad's supporters has seemingly only emboldened them. One very popular thread on Bahrain's main Sunni forum offers photos of mosque-goers welcoming back a grinning Al Hamad. An attached article from the newspaper/magazine Al-Naba' gives the headline, "After the Return of Sh. 'Adal Al Hamad to the Pulpit of the Nusuf Mosque, Sh. Muhammad al-Husayni [says]: 'The Causes of Countries' Shame is the Lack of Deference to the 'Ulama'.'

At the same time, of course, Bahrain's appeasement of security-oriented citizens and royals (an action that includes also the recent arrest and conviction of Nabeel Rajab) serves only to further radicalize the Shi'a- and secular-led opposition, as the latter perceives increasingly little chance of a political resolution either of their post-uprising grievances or of their decade-old constitutional demands. The formal opposition has already announced mass demonstrations for Friday, while the U.S. Embassy in Manama has warned its citizens to brace for "72 hours" of potentially-violent protests.

The Reuters report on the court sentences quotes Jane Kinninmont as saying that "authorities may be trying to show their strength ahead of a planned dialogue with political societies." The article continues, "[She adds] this could backfire if protests and clashes escalated." Quite an understatement! In fact, the behavior of the opposition is only half of the government's problem with regard to a possible resumption of talks. Unless they have solved the riddle that has precluded dialogue since March, namely how to hold talks about political reform without the participation of Sunni groups that have substantive political demands of their own, it is very difficult to see how any dialogue will be able to proceed.

Moreover, as Jane also notes in the article, "[s]trong Saudi backing for Bahrain has made it less interested in what the West has to say." Not merely this, but the Saudis may well have drafted the blueprints of Bahrain's present political strategy, which is essentially Shi'a containment (and Sunni preoccupation) through selective Sunni mobilization. (A recent article by Toby Matthiesen on Saudi Arabia's crackdown on Shi'a activists describes this well.)

The time may come when the Al Sa'ud have bigger things to worry about than opposing a constitutional reform movement in their tiny island neighbor. King 'Abdallah is once again in New York seeking medical treatment, and the (also-ailing) crown prince is the last of a generation of leaders, with no clear successor in sight. Even more worrying, a new eye-opening report by CitiGroup suggests that by 2030 Saudi Arabia may be a net oil importer due to rising electricity demands, which are increasing at around 8% per year. But that time has not yet arrived.

Finally, one wonders about the seemingly paralyzed decision-making of the United States regarding Bahrain. One can appreciate the diplomatic stickiness of the situation at a time when elections are around the corner--to say nothing of a possible Israeli attack against Iran. Yet the long-term and even medium-term viability of Bahrain's present political strategy--or, more precisely, the lack thereof--must be clear enough to the policy gurus at the State Department and, one would hope, at the Pentagon. As one interlocutor aptly summarized recently:
I fully understand the constraints on the Obama administration by the current elections season, but Bahrain cannot continue business as usual. I don't think it will be long before that island country blows up in our faces in a big way. When you have angry Shia, "jihadist" Salafis, and xenophobic Sunnis in agreement against the US because of our perceived inaction (Shia), anti-Islam posture (Salafis), and pro-reform tendencies (Sunnis), Washington should take notice lest we truly become part of the problem. The Saudi driven Sunni strategy is rapidly reaching a dead end.
Hear, hear.

A cartoon from the main Sunni forum summarizes their view.

Update: A front-page (and 172-point font) headline in the Gulf Daily News warns citizens and diplomats to "RESPECT TERROR COURT VERDICTS!" The article cites a "comprehensive statement" issued by the Bahraini Human Rights Ministry that "rejected 'any intervention by any state'" in the case. United States: you're on notice!

Update 2: Emile Nakhleh develops many of the arguments here in a new op-ed, "Bahraini Repression Amidst a Failing Strategy."

Update 3: Third time's the charm? Bahrain once again is threatening to "take legal action" against al-Wifaq for its "unauthorized" march on Saturday. Oddly, though, this time it's the Interior Ministry leading the charge rather than the Justice and Islamic Affairs Ministry, despite the latter actually having jurisdiction over political societies. (Check that: Sh. Khalid has now weighed in with a statement of his own.)