Monday, February 18, 2013

Looking into Bahrain's crystal ball

It has been a violent week in Bahrain. During clashes coinciding with the two-year anniversary of the uprising, police shot and killed a teenage boy with their shotguns. In retaliation, skirmishers killed a policeman using a homemade explosive. The violence shows no sign of abetting. Who knows who many more were and will be injured.

Ominously, the Bahraini government announced yesterday the arrest of eight members of a "terrorist cell" only a few days after defusing a 2 kg bomb on a major highway. The government has made many such claims before, most of them hard to take at face value. Yet, even the boy who cried wolf was eventually eaten by one.

In short, this week left little room for optimism - except for the extremists on all sides who oppose any compromise that could ameliorate the crisis in Bahrain. The violence has overshadowed whatever meager light of hope the new National Dialogue offers. And without a political solution, whether from this dialogue or another, the future of Bahrain looks quite grim. Recent posts on social media can give us a preview of what we might expect if current trends hold.

On one side, you have the extreme anti-opposition who despise the protesters in the street and whose support for the government extends only to the extent that the authorities crack down on the protesters. Take for example the recent tweets of Mohammed Khalid (@boammar), a Sunni known for his inflammatory rhetoric. After the foiling of the purported terror cell, Khalid tweeted a line of rhyming Arabic poetry, "Cell after cell ... Wefaq has become the final arbiter ... The state has hollowed the law into a forgotten memory ... Terrorism has become like the American state ... This is the Khalifa's Bahrain." In another tweet, he asks "Why does Bahrain tremble before human rights organizations and doesn't tremble before the Creator of Man? Where are our rights as people and as security men before the rights of terrorists who betray the nation?"

A burning tire runing over "The Dialogue." Khalid tweets a pun, calling it "The Mooing" which differs in spelling from dialogue by only one letter.
For Khalid and those like him, Bahrain faces an existential threat from "terrorists" and yet the Khalifa regime does nothing to confront that threat. The risk is that they'll take things into their own hands, as has happened before. The worst case scenario is significant violence between civilians on the streets, as opposed to the current bad case scenario of protesters clashing with police. The risk is real because Khalid et al. confuse the entire opposition for Iranian-backed terrorists. For example, the controversial anti-opposition Twitter account @7areghum blamed a recent fire bombing of a bank on "Wefaq's militias" and used the hashtag "Wefaq's terrorism."

The accusation is ridiculous. Sheikh Ali Salman, the head of al-Wefaq, has consistently urged protesters to remain peaceful because such methods strengthen the democratic movement and make it more effective. Just today, he tweeted, "The opposition's approach is peaceful. It rejects violence and believes in serious dialogue. It insists on its right to peaceful protest and to communicate with the international community, and it will not give up on the demands of the people." If it were not for his leadership among others, this week - and the past two years - would have witnessed far more violence.
Khalid would scoff at such statements as lies. But he would not be the only one scoffing. Those actually responsible for the fire bombing of the bank would also object. Not because they believe Salman is lying, but because they reject his thesis altogether. Today, the People's Resistance Brigades claimed responsibility for the attack. In a statement on their Facebook page, the group warned "We are still in the beginning of avenging the martyrs" of the revolution.
In fact, their entire Facebook page is comprised of one statement after another claiming responsibility for attacking the Khalifa regime. In one yesterday, they write "God as our witness, we have targeted the entire mercenary system defending the criminal Khalifa regime and we promise the people we have some surprised for the regime."After claiming responsibility for another attack on Friday, they warn, "If the message was not clear to the regime and its followers, wait and you will see more."
Today, the People's Resistance Brigades has only 315 likes on their Facebook page, and Ali Salman's arguments about peacefulness still hold the greatest sway in the opposition (Note some might question whether the entire Facebook page is fake, but there's no evidence of that). But the consensus is shifting in Bahrain as moderates across the spectrum lose influence.  As it does, groups like the People's Resistance Brigades will gain popularity, the threat of actual terrorism will grow, and reconciliation will grow ever more distant.
For now, however, Wefaq and its allies can still mobilize massive protests that remain remarkably peaceful in the midst of violence. And there are still those across the political spectrum who seek a political compromise. So even if the future of Bahrain looks grim, we can at least take solace that there are many striving to change what they see in the crystal ball.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Long View on Bahrain

This week will mark the two-year anniversary of the uprising in Bahrain. A lot has changed since those first early protests, and yet so much remains the same.

New political groups have formed, but the main cleavage remains between those who have and those who have not. Broad political movements have fragmented, but the Khalifa have always taken advantage of such schisms to maintain their rule. The contagion of sectarianism has spread, but it has always infected Bahrain to some degree. The pearl monument has fallen, but its memory remains fresh as ever.

So, much remains the same as two years ago. And in fact, much remains the same from two centuries ago. The Bahraini uprising is only the latest iteration of Bahrain's long history in uprisings that have wracked Bahrain every generation under the Khalifa regime. The problem boils down to one simple truth: a minority of have's control the economic and political order, and the majority of have-not's will continue to revolt periodically until they succeed in building a more just system.