February 14, 2012

Bahrain’s Feb14 “Anniversary” Burns Bright

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has demonstrated his ability to blend into the Arab revolutionary wave and minimize the international fallout on his island. Employing low-intensity riot control, a decision partially based on the absence of a mechanized army, is keeping casualties and their ensuing scrutiny to a minimum (this ratio increases on a per capita basis). The King swiftly demolished Pearl Monument to prevent protesters from gathering at its base; the site now goes by the name of Al Farooq Junction, in reference to Caliph Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb, or "Gulf Cooperation Council Roundabout.”

At Bahrain’s political level King Hamad crafts the appearance of being eager to reform his government, further reducing international pressure to act. U.S. politics, media and lobbyists contribute to the blackout of Bahrain’s uprising, primarily under the banner of containing Iranian influence in the Gulf.

"We don't get as much coverage as Syria or Libya, but with our limited resources we have done our best," Nabeel Rajab, founder of the Bahraini Center for Human Rights (BCHR), told The Atlantic's Karen Leigh. "The global media has ignored Bahrain. I understand that, and I don't expect the American media to talk about a revolution when no one [in] the American government is talking about Bahrain. The same with the British and Europeans. Because of that, we were marginalized in the media."

However denial often increases the scope and depth of a problem, and the King is equally prone to aggravating his island’s fault-lines. Inviting the Saudi-led Peninsula Shield into Manama created a back-draft effect, temporarily suffocating the uprising’s oxygen before releasing its energy. Superficial “dialogues” and reforms have eroded the political opposition’s remaining trust and irreversibly alienated street protesters - yesterday Hamad went so far as to claim Bahrain has no opposition. He also told Der Speigel that “there are no ‘political prisoners’ as such in Bahrain,” only “criminals.”

When asked how the word “Arab Spring” sounds, the King responds, “Arab Spring? That's the business of other countries. If you mean by ‘Arab Spring’ the call for democratic reform, then we started that process 10 years ago. We were one of the first to have parliamentary elections in the Arab world. It worked.”

Al Wefaq boycotted September’s snap election for Bahrain’s impotent Lower Chamber, citing the need for comprehensive political reform. Its response on Tuesday: “What is happening in Bahrain is an integral part of the uprising of the Arab peoples against oppression, dictatorship, and administrative and financial corruption and sectarian discrimination, sectarian, tribal and human rights violations and violating domestic and international laws and transform our countries into private farms controlled by the few at the expense of other citizens.”

Hamad staunchly denies that Peninsula Shield units roved Bahrain’s streets during 2011, even though the force was instrumental in suppressing the initial outbreak of protests. Personnel from two Saudi moons, non-GCC members Jordan and Pakistan still helm checkpoints across Manama. The cumulative effect of his politico-security campaign is now filling the international media with accounts of Bahrain’s atmosphere, including numerous statements from human rights organizations. Rajab would mock the government for removing foreign monitors, Twittering, “There are a lot of international observers now in the villages where protests are in Bahrain & deporting 5 of them will not have much impact.”

A partial rejection of various international media figures, such as the NYT’s Nick Kristof and CSM’s Kristen Chick, doesn’t appear to be yielding fruit. Even hackers such as Anonymous are joining the netwar by taking down Combined Systems Inc (CSI), the main supplier of tear gas to Gulf states.

The King should realize that “zero tolerance” often encourages political defiance, but this understanding doesn’t appear to have set in. In a statement issued on Monday night, Gen. Tariq Hassan al-Hassan blamed “terrorists, rioters and saboteurs” (the most common revolutionary slander) for the day’s violence. Bahrain's public security chief argued, “Security forces had to deal with the situation legally to restore things into normal." That a minority of protesters are engaging in more violent acts cannot be denied; “Molotovers” have been criticized by opposition members and average demonstrators alike. At the same time, maintaining a purely peaceful uprising is nearly impossible when violently suppressed.

Al Wefaq’s legally-approved rally and periphery protesters were still assaulted, and Mohammed al-Maskati (president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights), said by phone, “They are storming houses suspected of harboring demonstrators, using tear gas, closing roads and arresting people." Senior Al Wefaq member Abdul Jalil Khalil warned of Bahrain’s more radicalized youth: "Of course we can't control them.”

After funneling protesters to al-Muqsha’s ad hoc “Freedom Square” as a crowd control measure, police vehicles finally occupied the spot in an attempt to smother all pro-democracy demonstrations. This tactic will disperse protesters into Manama’s outskirts and the capital’s core, creating the type of organized chaos witnessed on Monday and Tuesday. Numerous groups of protesters managed to reach the edge of Pearl before they were met with tear gas and birdshot. In one of many statements released by Al Wefaq and its political allies, the oppositional umbrella condemned security forces for “reverting to the worst of medieval practices, including assaulting peaceful people.”

The ultimate result of King Hamad’s “reform” is conflagration on February 14th.

While the King busies himself convincing his followers and the international community that 2011 was an anomaly, Bahrain’s pro-democracy movement aims to prove the opposite: this is no one-year event, but an indefinite struggle for equal rights and representation. To this end King Hamad has staged several “dialogues” with the opposition, each collapsing due to imbalanced representation, and another is reportedly coming down the political pipeline. The King naturally blamed the opposition for these developments.

When told that some Bahrainis desire more than a welfare state - “more participation and political reform” - Hamad responded, “We have made political reforms. We have just passed a number of amendments to the constitution which allow parliament to dismiss the government. We invited everyone with openness. But some people boycotted the election and certain people just walked out of parliament. If you want a better system you have to join...”

The King has a point about joining a process to improve it. Other times the system must be scrapped or totally renovated in order to function properly. Bahrain’s political opposition is unwilling to engage on the King’s present terms, within a fabricated “National Dialogue” that will jeopardize its standing in the streets. Al Wefaq’s president, Ali Salman, explicitly addressed his negotiating dilemma on Monday, saying, “They talk about it. They don't mean it." Al Wefaq and its allies later called a dialogue “pointless and not feasible” for not meeting “basic demands.” Thus the government is simultaneously blocking political outlets and condemning the use of violence.

“The authorities have essentially opted for the security solution, which has led to the current impasse and the resumption of large-scale protests,” said Mansour al-Jamri, who was reinstated as editor of the Al Wasat daily after being temporarily removed in April. “A year later and we’re back to square one. The crisis could escalate unless the authorities come up with a positive initiative to revive dialogue with the opposition.”

Yet King Hamad and his family has displayed no signs of implementing extensive reforms in parliament, the judiciary and security apparatus, instead opting for minimal refinements to the present system. Bahrain’s monarchy will only give what it is forced to give, leaving protesters no other choice except to intensify their activities. Failure to channel the streets’ energy also trends towards the more disturbing scenario of Shia-Sunni civil strife. International attention will presumably fade away after February 14th and assume Bahrain’s normal cycle, but 2011 should have taught King Hamad that protesters will keep returning to Pearl. The only way to stop them is by satisfying their political aspirations.

Al Wefaq advises, “The political associations call for the King of Bahrain to listen to the voice of his people and stop the machine of repression.”

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