February 12, 2012

Bahraini King’s Hubris Fuels Uprising

Maybe he wants to increase the scale of his crackdown.

Seemingly daring Bahrain’s opposition to erupt on February 14th, King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa issued one of his most inflammatory public statements since the uprising began. In an interview with Der Spiegel, Hamad hinted at the secondary objective of recent U.S. visits by telling Bashar al-Assad, “The best advice for him is to listen to the Syrian people.” He then attempted to deny the existence of Bahrain’s uprising.

"I regret the events of last year," the King told Der Spiegel during an interview due for Monday’s publication. "In a sense there is no 'opposition' in Bahrain, as the phrase implies one unified block with the same views. Such a phrase is not in our constitution, unlike say the United Kingdom. We only have people with different views and that's OK."

Hamad’s reasoning suggests a feigned ignorance towards fourth-generation warfare (4GW) and politics in general. By qualifying the definition of “opposition,” Hamad is announcing that no opposition exists to his rule - some people merely have “different views.” Except an “opposition” doesn’t necessitate unity in a political sphere, and the King’s formal usage of the term viscerally jars with the conventional defiance of asymmetric warfare. Netwar can operate on any level (albeit to greater and lesser degrees of effectiveness): different groups can orientate towards similar or varied goals, and pursue them through coordination, isolation and even confrontation.

Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria all experience the growing pains of a divided opposition, but the evolution of an ad hoc structure is inherent to netwar.

The net that is Bahrain’s streets will thicken on Tuesday, briefly illuminating one of the region’s darkest examples of 4GW. Only Yemen has received less media coverage, according to Google Trends, and Bahrain’s pro-democracy movement won’t allow the monarchy or international media to ignore their cause. Protesters plan to demonstrate the reality of Bahrain’s netwar by diversifying their activity. At the lowest level of coordination - but communicating at a high degree, relatively speaking - roving protesters seek encounters and probe the government’s force levels. Many protesters are constantly “on,” awaiting the next demonstration to join, and they can choose between a street band and organized protest.

"This is a continuous protest," said prominent activist Nabeel Rajab, who reached the edge of Pearl Roundabout with his 9-year-old daughter. "There will not be one central protest with thousands of people, it will be all over."

Although Sunday’s small march was chased away by tear gas, security forces dispersed Saturday’s protest before demonstrators neared Pearl. Protesters could successfully rendezvous at the site if divided into dozens or even hundreds of cells. Al Wefaq and its political allies plan to stage large-scale rallies that could free up street elements, and the opposition will presumably seek to establish its potency following King Hamad’s “dismissal.” Since netwar can be utilized by superior and inferior sides of an asymmetric conflict, thousands of security personnel (domestic and foreign) have been deployed to trim any unyielding gatherings, and construct barricades around Manama’s surrounding villages.

These measures are likely to yield an incomplete suppression of February 14th.

Undaunted, King Hamad launched another barrage at the political level by deploying his standard Iranian propaganda. Pieces of his interview contain a degree of truth: "There is no doubt that some in Iran have an unhealthy focus on Bahrain, as some of the broadcast coverage shows.” Iranian media coverage overwhelmingly favors Bahrain’s opposition as a result of the two countries’ strategic positioning and political alliances, but the King claims that Iran’s “threat” required him to summon the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Peninsula Shield - “in case Iran would be more aggressive.” Introducing the Saudi-led force into Bahrain’s equation accelerated the uprising, suggesting that Riyadh is an equal or greater source of instability.

Hoping to tamp down the opposition in his own unique way, Vice Admiral Mark Fox told reporters at Naval Support Activity Bahrain that his 5th Fleet is “ready today” to confront Iranian forces.

Just as one cannot definitively conclude that Tehran possesses no influence in Bahrain’s streets or Shia political parties, the opposite is also true. (The “conspiracy theory” was outlined in a previous analysis of Bahrain’s pre-14th organization.) Both layers of the opposition openly reject Iranian interference, and local activist groups deny engaging in “pro-Khamenei chants.” Rajab also rejected the accusation on Sunday, saying, "This is just another way for the government to try and deny the legitimate demands of the people.”

"We have no connection with Iran," Sheikh Ali Salman, Al Wefaq’s president, told BBC a night after his house was tear gassed. "We are not calling for the overthrow of the royal family. We want reform."

Salman’s reaction is the latest example of King Hamad’s missed opportunity. His situation, more than any other regional uprising, could have been prevented through reform. By resisting and signaling no intention to enact deeper reforms, Hamad instead left street protesters and the opposition without recourse to politically express themselves. Change will only come through increased political organization at the popular level, not internal reviews or superficial international pressure.

Salman is still holding the door open for “meaningful dialogue,” but he doesn’t expect the King to walk through. "They talk about it,” he says of the royal family. “They don't mean it."

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