November 22, 2011

Bahrain Opens New Political Theater

This week, if only for a few days, the world’s attention will be redirected onto Manama. Bahrain’s government is due to release its anticipated Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) on Wednesday, and King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has decided to the preempt his critics by highlighting the commission’s results. According to an official within the Information Affairs Authority (IAA), "We are expecting more than 60 journalists attending the launch from international media outlets such as Al Jazeera English, CNN, BBC, Reuters, AP (Associated Press), Al Arabiya, LBC, Le Monde and Russia Al Youm."

Bahrain’s embassy in Washington also invited media personnel and dignitaries to a 7 a.m. live viewing. Would they be so graciously welcomed if the King was preparing to accept responsibility for human rights abuses?

Appointed by King Hamad himself and lodged at a Ritz Carlton, BICI officials have compiled complaints under intensifying skepticism since the commission’s formation in June. Chairman Cherif Bassiouni, a noted UN war crimes expert, triggered a wave of criticism for downplaying evidence of “systematic torture”; he would later concede 300 cases as a “limited” trend. Many Shia protesters harbor no doubts of the government’s intentions in the streets or jail cells. While oppositional leaders must await the results and attempt to leverage them, popular protesters question the legitimacy of a government’s investigation into its own abuses.

“We’re the only game in town,” Bassiouni reminds the King’s opponents, as if this statement would boost their confidence.

"We hope that the report will be an opportunity for real reform and reconciliation between the people and the ruling family," said Mattar Mattar, a former parliamentarian of Bahrain's largest Shi'ite opposition bloc, Al Wefaq. "Currently the regime is on the wrong track when they think that they can solve problems by denial, ignorance and procrastination.”

Wednesday is likely to unfold in tragically predictable fashion. The King will personally receive Bassiouni’s findings, take limited responsibility for “isolated” cases of abuse, and issue a hard rhetorical line against police abuse and torture. Suddenly the King becomes a hero. Monday and Tuesday’s developments have already fleshed out the minutes of the ceremony: affirm the rule of law, take responsibility for individual cases, make examples out of lower ranking officers and blame protesters for the majority of the incidents.

“Twenty prosecutions against the officers involved have been initiated,” according to a statement issued by the government information office in Manama. “This is in no way the limit of the steps that will be taken... We cannot condone mistreatment and abuses by our officials. There will be no impunity. All those responsible for abuses will be held accountable.”

After tentatively greeting the commission’s initial findings, opposition figure Nabeel Rajab labeled the government's abuse as "widespread and systematic.”

"It's not isolated cases, it's an order for something happening systematically,” explained the head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. It was from ministers and above ministers. We don't want them to try to simplify the crime, it's bigger than they have been trying to present."

As a second line of defense, many documented cases of abuse may be excused as accidental or the protesters’ fault. 16-year old Ali Yousif Al Satrawi wasn’t run over on Saturday - “miscreants attacked a police vehicle.” Police claim that the driver swerved around a group of protesters, forcing him to eject and lose control of the vehicle. Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier Tariq Al Hassan explained, "The police patrol was surrounded from all sides by groups who pelted stones, iron rods and poured oil across the road. The driver had to escape from these attacks and moved his car that skidded because of oil on the road.”

The government’s version shouldn’t be automatically disqualified. Protesters have organized a road-blocking campaign at their own risk, and bad things are known to happen when many people agitate a small space. However the government also has an excuse for each death and injury reported by the opposition, a narrative should dominate the release of Bahrain’s “Independent Commission of Inquiry.” Taking cues from Hussein Tantawi, Ali Saleh and Bashar al-Assad, King Hamad will personally oversee the development of these themes on Wednesday.

The de facto leaders of Yemen and Syria are deep into a delegitimization campaign against the revolutionaries, labeling them bandits or terrorists, and Hamad isn’t far behind. Under the banner of “Unite against vandalism,” Bahrain authorities are flanking out to disengage the youth and paint the uprising as an illegal movement. Last week Bahrain’s Interior Minister, Lieutenant General Sheikh Rashed bin Abdullah Al-Khalifa, affirmed the government’s “tight control of the internal security situation,” doubling up the protesters and Iran’s alleged plot.

Brigadier Al Hassan similarly told a press conference that,"the ministry will not hesitate to protect national security, stability and safety of citizens and residents as well as public and private property... And to achieve this, we are following an integrated security plan being implemented in co-ordination with all the authorities concerned. We have adequate security and are not exhausted.”

As Bahraini officials urge parents to keep their children away from protests, security forces sprayed Al Satrawi’s funeral with tear gas on Tuesday.

Protesters are certainly “guilty” of low-intensity violence, but this reaction is justified by the government’s long-standing political oppression. Protesters bet on the government’s use of disproportionate force to raise international awareness for their cause, and low-intensity violence (especially rocks) forms the crux of fourth-generation warfare (4GW). Civil disobedience is designed to provoke the authority’s aggression and sympathy among the populace, along with the ensuing media coverage. Although Bahrainis have little to show for 10 months of protests, their strategy has partially succeeded in forcing the government on the defensive.

Bahraini officials are obsessed with discrediting a legitimate pro-democracy movement.

Manipulating the BICI, another shield for U.S.-Saudi influence (like the failed “National Dialogue”), is the opposition’s next looming hurdle. Beyond faking an aura of accountability, King Hamad and his royal circle hope to relieve international pressure for genuine reform. U.S. officials have deflected incidents of abuse for months, pointing to the BICI as an “encouraging sign” while refusing to comment on the specifics of a proposed arms deal. Individual cases are rarely addressed - we must wait for the BICI’s future results before commenting on present violence. While Bahraini officials have promised new anti-torture laws, limited attention is being devoted to the oppositions’ original political demands.

“I don’t want to be told what happened,” says Hadi Hasan al-Mosawi, Al Wefaq’s human rights officer. “I was here. I saw it.”

Any meaningful process of reconciliation will begin with major reforms inside Bahrain’s government. Sticking to isolated acts of abuse and “moving forward” will confirm the BICI’s primarily function: protect the monarchy, stall reform, safeguard Saudi and U.S. interests. Justice comes last on the list.

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