January 18, 2012

Al Wefaq Endures Silent U.S. Counterattack

They didn’t fail due to lack of effort. Whether organizing rallies to condemn international silence or defending deceased individuals who are accused of having “psychological problems,” Al Wefaq officials actively direct global attention to the movement’s cause. Bahrain’s leading oppositional force has experienced struggle before and knows the stakes now; massive social events such as revolution are the product of countless individual actions.

However Al Wefaq’s initiative has failed to pay dividends in the short-term, and continues to advance Bahrain’s pro-democracy movement outside of the international spotlight that it seeks.

Following a week of international silence between the alleged beating Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa released another counterattack on Sunday to maintain his country’s blackout. Drawing exclusively from a failed “National Dialogue” and Bahrain’s “Independent Commission of Inquiry” (BICI), an internal investigation of the government’s own crimes, the King issued a number of “reforms” intended to finish Bahrain’s uprising. One amendment will substitute the parliamentary chairman as the deciding vote during joint meetings of the National Assembly, replacing the head of the Shura Council (upper chamber). Another change gives parliament members the “constitutional right to question ministers on the open floor,” along with the ability to hold a no-confidence vote. King Hamad is now obligating himself “to explain the criteria for appointing members of the Shura Council” and dismissing lawmakers. He’s also “limiting his ability” to dissolve the Lower House, impotent as the organ is.

"It is beyond doubt that the National Dialogue recommendations have outlined the shape of the reform that we are aiming to achieve and emanate from the solid base of our national experience,” he told his audience... “Our people have proven their desire for continuing with reforms. We complete the march today with those who have an honest patriotic desire for more progress and reform.”

Frequently commenting on the inability to reform “inside a vacuum,” King Hamad appears to have foreshadowed his own vacuous speech and misleading revisions. His proposal indicates just how authoritarian his rule is and how far Bahrain’s democracy has to grow. Al Wefaq has capitalized on popular dissent to transition from political and judicial reforms, including a reconfiguration of Bahrain’s parliament, to a full government overhaul. Another demand would replace the King’s uncle with a representative prime minister. Yet the prevailing fear is that Hamad has reached his limit to reform, missing a series of opportunities to repair the country’s divisions.

"People very clearly wanted an elected government, they want parliament that has actual power," said Rajab. "If we go into this detail, and go step by step... it's going to be 100 years before an elected parliament has power."

Unwilling to repeat its participation in the “National Dialogue” - Al Wefaq explicitly attended in order to disprove its credibility - the opposition met King Hamad with blunt force. A statement from Al Wefaq ridiculed the “insignificant trivia” of his reforms and expressed concern over his disconnect with Bahrain’s Shia majority. Sayyid Hadi Hasan al-Mosawi, one of the group’s resigned MP, told The New York Times, “His speech fell short of our expectations. The measures did not reflect any of the opposition or the people’s demands. The speech did not even tackle the core of the problem.”

Bahrain’s government and opposition are reading totally different books. While Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa was “drawing lessons” for the 1990’s uprising, Al Wefaq’s Ali al-Aswad told Al Jazeera, "Nothing was new. The opposition was expecting something like this from 10 years before. This is not the demand of the street. The demand is different now, after what has happened in all the Arab countries."

Keeping these demands at the forefront of its platform, Al Wefaq and political allies scheduled a "no to tyranny, yes to democracy" procession for downtown Manama. The Bahraini government rejected Al Wefaq’s proposal on Tuesday night, warning that the march will cause “traffic congestion and disturbance to embassies, commercial and government organizations.” Bahrainis were warned not to take part, and security forces crushed the pockets of activists who rallied on Wednesday. The monarchy’s excuses primarily appeal to Sunnis, many of whom are fed up with protesters, and international powers such as Gulf states and the U.S. (which defends Bahrain’s right to keep order).

The reality is that protests are often intended to disrupt, particularly during an uprising or revolution. King Hamad wants to return his island to “normal,” not fix Bahrain’s fundamental tensions that have resulted from unrepresentative rule.

As usual the Obama administration has issued no reaction to any of these events, instead following King Hamad’s lead and hiding behind the BICI. Both governments are producing parallel rhetoric, affirming Bahrain’s democratic values while lauding those reforms already undertaken. Washington has put up a wall that simultaneously absorbs criticism and reflects silence at the opposition; hollow initiatives such as the National Dialogue and BICI are then advanced to deliver military packages in accordance with U.S. law. On cue, King Hamad and Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa just received CENTCOM commander James Mattis for new security discussions.

This strategy is unlikely to change until the opposition forces Washington to alter its position through dynamic action, otherwise the King must commit a large-scale massacre to draw international attention.

Ignoring Bahrain’s uprising nevertheless remains a dangerous policy, one that has irresponsibly suppressed and ultimately increased dissent in the streets. What began as calls for reform evolved into widespread demands for regime change, generating an unsustainable political environment. Bahrain currently lacks pivotal moments to mark its trajectory - the fall of a tyrant, mass defection of troops - leaving the conflict to burn for years without the necessary response. However the country’s low intensity doesn’t eliminate the possibility of sporadic detonation. Another resigned MP, Matar Matar, predicted that the King’s speech, "won’t impact the situation, rather it could make things worse, reaffirming the idea that genuine reform is impossible for this regime.”

al-Aswad agreed: "If we accept this, we will have no power in the streets. We couldn't control the streets. The youth might go in a different direction now."

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