February 8, 2012

Bahrain’s Uprising Gathers Under Blackout

Signs of massing demonstrators are everywhere. On the capital’s outskirts, oppositional groups rehearse for D-Day as protesters resist government orders to disperse and fight off the stench of tear gas. Some engage in more violent behavior by picking up Molotovs and blocking traffic. Elsewhere, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa continues to meet with foreign leaders in an effort to maintain normality on the unstable island. Media visas to certain personalities - Nick Kristof and Adam Ellick of the New York Times, Gregg Carlstrom of Al Jazeera, Cara Swift of the BBC and Kristen Chick of the Christian Science Monitor - have been denied.

Shaikh Fawaz Bin Mohammad Al Khalifa, chief of Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority (IAA), says the Kingdom hopes to receive them in the future.

"The Information Affairs Authority (IAA) has received an unusually high number of media visa requests for the period February 11 - 18 and had been processing them accordingly over the last month once visit dates had been specified... However, media that did not specify exact dates with their requests, or those who were late in applying, were asked to delay their visit, in order to insure their safety and their chances of securing interviews with key figures."

There is, of course, nothing abnormal about the number and timing of international media requests. Although Fawaz attempts to reason, “We wanted to make sure we had a wide range of international media here during this time, rather than having five to ten journalists from the same organization,” the perception of many Bahrainis and observers is trending in the opposite direction. Perhaps Kristof (who was briefly detained “by accident” in December) and company will secure their interviews “with key figures” at a later date, but they will miss the one-year mark of Bahrain’s uprising and all corresponding demonstrations.

Just another square in King Hamad’s veneer of normality.

Pearl Roundabout may or may not come under occupation when February 14th dawns on Bahrain. For months government security forces (bolstered by foreign police and ex-military) have swatted pro-democracy protesters away from the quarantined square, which remains on a high state of alert. The volume of security precautions indicates that protesters should consider themselves lucky to get anywhere near the void of Pearl’s razed monument. Enough to make international headlines are likely to try.

For now the oppositional Al Wefaq party is currently rallying protesters to al-Mughsha, a small village lying four miles outside Manama. An unstated rehearsal for retaking Pearl, the week-long demonstration at “Freedom Square” began last Friday after Al Wefaq was unable to secure approval for an open-ended demonstration. The Interior Ministry further announced that protesters could only demonstrate for two days, yet they continue to gather for their “steadfast rally” as the 14th approaches. Security units remain on Freedom Square’s periphery to monitor protesters and activists, helicopters fluttering overhead.

"The sit-in is the determination of the people to not go back to what the country was before Feb. 14,” Al Wefaq’s Secretary-General, Shaikh Aai Salman, told the crowd on Wednesday. "As we were in the Pearl Roundabout, we are here in Freedom Square, welcoming all to attend and confront dictatorship.”

Al Wefaq and its political allies continue to channel the reality that many street protesters demand more from the opposition than initially requested. The first embers of Mohammed Bouazizi wasted no time escalating their demands straight to regime change, leaving Al Wefaq behind the emerging curve despite its rapid merger with Pearl Square. The group still called for dialogue with King Hamad after boycotting September’s assembly election, settling for parliamentary and judiciary reform. Al Wefaq’s leadership eventually increased its focus on neutralizing the monarchy’s power after King Hamad’s Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) revealed and concealed government abuses in one sweep.

Naturally, government officials and complicit media figures blame Al Wefaq and Bahraini protesters for the island’s unrest, arguing that King Hamad has repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to reform. Protesters are too disorganized, relying on nothing more than democratic slogans, while Al Wefaq and its allies are political opportunists. Or worse, agents of Iran. Sheikh Abdul-Aziz bin Mubarak al-Khalifa, a senior adviser in the IAA, warns, "We definitely see an escalation from the radical elements of the protesters. We see their use of homemade weapons that have hurt our policemen in a bad way. The door is still open... but don't give me preconditions and don't give me that the government has to resign."

Part of this statement is true. Vanguard groups such as February 14 Youth Movement and February 14 Revolution participate non-violently within Al-Wefaq’s political organization, but most oppositional violence stems from youthful and energetic protesters. Allied cleric Shaikh Isa Qassim intensified his fiery rhetoric throughout 2011, raising the height of his lightning rod in the process. However these factors represent the edge of fourth-generation warfare (4GW): multiple governments vs. mobilized civilians. Particularly destructive acts such as police assault and arson have no formal use in a non-violent uprising, but these acts inevitably result from the suppression that accompanies non-violent uprisings.

The protesters’ more radical behavior and Al Wefaq’s refusal to engage on the King’s terms are both products of the government’s hollow appeasement. Throwing rocks doesn’t justify disproportionate force, nor are protesters responsible for the government's reaction - the frequent gassing of funeral processions, for example. Similarly, King Hamad’s failure to satisfy the urban resistance has left Al Wefaq no choice except to multiply its political demands (and thus social tensions). Worse still, the superficial manner in which he conducted all of his “reforms,” “dialogues” and “investigations” has generated a wider gap between the opposition. The tone of King Hamad’s speeches inflicts damage, while accusing the opposition of serving Iran’s interests could be the most inflammatory slander of all.

"We've been hearing this rhetoric for many years,” said Farida Ismail, a senior member of the Waad party. “Whenever there's a movement with political demands they play this song.”

Robert Taber called this song the “conspiracy theory.” One of the more astute revolutionary journalists to emerge during the 1960s, Taber would accompany Fidel Castro's small guerrilla force as it entered Havana in 1959. He proceeded to write extensively on the topic of national liberation movements - from Vietnam to South America - and the response of global powers. In the first chapter of his seminal War of the Flea (1965), Taber cautions against believing a guerrilla nucleus is “made up of outsiders, conspirators, political zombies... who somehow stand apart from their social environment...”

“On the more naive level, it seems to be assumed that people would scarcely choose the revolutionary path of their own accord; certainly not if the revolution in question were out of joint with the political traditions and ideals held dear by Americans.”

Bahraini officials and their foreign allies either refuse to admit this environment, or else hope that protesters will eventually tire. The Interior Ministry recently issued a full denial of Nabeel Rajab’s alleged run-in with Pakistani, Jordanian and Syrian personnel, presumably to Washington’s approval. Several low-ranking U.S. officials voiced concern over Rajab’s claims, but their attention quickly dissipated and the Obama administration has since broken down an arms package to avoid Congressional customs. U.S. officials such as CENTCOM’s General James Mattis and Michael Posner, US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights & Labour, continue to meet with royal officials on a regular basis. All to create the impression of normality in Bahrain.

They can try to blackout February 14th, but they will merely add oxygen to the revolutionary spirit.

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