March 18, 2012

Bahrain Burns at Low Intensity

Located at the opposite ends of the intensity spectrum, Syria and Bahrain's pro-democracy uprisings share one overarching similarity as they struggle for greater political freedoms and representation. An accumulated estimate of the dead has now passed 8,000 in Syria, with countless thousands wounded and deprived in Bashar al-Assad's onslaught. Using the more violent counterrevolutions as a shield for his smarter, more practical use of crowd control measures, Bahrain's King Hamad has kept his casualties below 100 and eluded unsustainable media attention - along with the political collateral that could follow.

Except both countries are snowballing down different paths to the same end: neither conflict is near a conclusion because the fundamental injustices remain uncorrected.

Bahrain may be entering a new period of stalemate following the polarizing February 14th demonstrations. Since then protesters have made fewer headlines as the monarchy diverts energy from their pro-democracy movement, although the government and its supporters claim to be treated unfairly by Western media. They ignore or refuse to concede the reality that false reforms, stalling mechanisms, and political slander are destroying any remaining bridges with a sizable portion of the Shia opposition. They accuse a youthful minority of provocative actions and slogans, prejudicing the wider opposition while holding themselves to the rebel's standard - an ominous sign in counterinsurgency. A wise king would have enacted the desired reforms within the year and relieved the tensions within his kingdom. Instead Hamad perpetuated the conflict into an uncertain future, telling Der Speigel on the eve of February 14th, "In a sense there is no 'opposition' in Bahrain, as the phrase implies one unified block with the same views."

Sheikh Isa Qassim, the Sunnis' public enemy number 1, responded by holding a massive rally with Al-Wefaq to prove that the opposition is real and organizing. Possibly exaggerating in the moment, leading activist Nabeel Rajab told Al Jazeera that the March 2nd protest was the largest in the history of the country.

Bahrain's monarchy later countered with a new "code of conduct" for police and security forces, a condition of the superficial independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). The "principles enshrined in international police codes" haven't trickled down to the lowest ranks of Bahrain's nebulous security apparatus, where imported security personnel have added muscle to the King's riot police. Interior Minister Shaikh Rashid announced that his code (taught by former Miami chief of police) "represents a new social treaty between members of the Bahraini society and the police which will mark the start of a new era"

Meanwhile protesters clashed with security forces around the outskirts of Manama, including the Shia areas of Sitra, Diraz, Malkiya, Saar, Jidhafs, Tubli and Bilad al-Qadeem. Both sides reported an increase in intensity as protesters condemned the violent March 15th intervention from the Saudi-bankrolled Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), another counterrevolutionary move that ultimately prolonged the conflict. Although a minority in the total number of incidents, these low-intensity battles of year gas, rubber bullets and Molotovs keep the conflict hot and influence non-violent demonstrators. Many opposite figures and parents have appealed to the more agitated youth, but their voices are drowned out by the many funerals and peaceful protests that have violently dispersed. As a result, the opposition as a whole loses its collective trust in the government.

Already stalemated by the February 14th and March 15th demonstrations, Bahrain's next big clash is penciled in for April 22nd's F-1 stop. Boss Bernie Eccestone has belittled the uprising since 2011's postponed race, telling the Guardian that he "expected there was going to be a big uprising with the anniversary. But what happened was that there were a lot of kids having a go at the police. I don't think it's anything serious at all." The King is determined to prove that his country has returned to normal by any means necessary, and the opposition intends to prove the opposite.

Several days ago Eccestone received a letter from the February 14th Coalition - the "lot of kids having a go at the police" - urging him to cancel the race because "the situation has not eased but exacerbated. Your statement has done much wrong to the F1 race and given a bad impression the F1 races." The coalition's sensible letter belies the label of extremist, which only applies relatively to Bahrain's non-violent demonstrators. Civil disobedience is often inevitable during an asymmetric political conflict, especially when the government wields force against non-violent protesters.

Interestingly, Eccestone responded with advice by telling protesters, "they don't need to resort to violence. All they need to do is stand on the road on the way to the circuit, with placards, and they would get their message out there. Nobody's going to shoot them. If I was the organizer I would wait until 4pm, or whenever the race starts, blocking the road, a few thousand of them, and then go home. And if they successfully delay the race then they would get more coverage than they could dream of."

However these niceties don't limit the probability that Bahrain F-1 race will further divide the island.

King Hamad could have avoided a long-term struggle through parliamentary reforms and the employment of his own security forces, but must now suppress a tangible movement to oust his royal family. By refusing to enact political reforms and applying constant force to demonstrations (often through Sunni mercenaries), the monarchy continues to push Bahrain's street movement away from the opposition. Private negotiations with Al-Wefaq then induce more friction at the popular level, generating an endless political cycle. Matar Matar, a prominent Al-Wefaq member who allegedly experienced the government's torture policy firsthand, offered an optimistic assessment of the latest backchannel talks.

"We said openly that we are willing to enter negotiations to end this conflict and we are confident that the majority of people will accept it," he said.

These types of comments, issued by Al-Wefaq's leadership over the last month, have perpetuated the belief that Bahrain's opposition cannot control the street movement. At the same time, Al-Wefaq is clearly attempting to hold the moral high-ground while avoiding blame for a political stalemate (the monarchy regularly accuses the group of failing to engage). The island's formal opposition would likely accept a political overhaul in order to reenter and ultimately change the system, but many elements could be harboring Rajab's endgame at the back of their minds. As this AP reported noted, the head of Bahrain's Center For Human Rights (BCHR) has become a moral compass in the process of organizing non-stop demonstrations.

Two weeks ago Rajab sent an unambiguous message to the King: "You captured the capabilities and resources and the territory of the country and without having the right, you distributed them on your family and while the people are living in poverty - I demand you to leave. You have brought all the armed forces and monsters of the world to kill, rob, humiliate, and torture the people and now your system is based on them and not on any local support - I demand you leave... I'm not claiming to overthrow the government because I do not have weapons nor do I believe in violence. This is a diagnosis of the situation and I'm saying it here to exercise my right of expression – Leave!"

At the minimum, King Hamad should realize that non-lethal force and half-measures still add fuel to a low-intensity conflict. Placing the burden to respond on the opposition contradicts the reality that Shia Bahrainis, having nothing left to offer the King, are demanding action from him. The monarchy must preemptively announce a time-line for political and judicial reforms in order to rebuild confidence, then use any lull in the demonstrations to pull back and retrain its security forces. Foreign hands must then be shipped out to restore trust in the national police force.

Otherwise the length and scale of Bahrain's current uprising could exceed the previous one.

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