May 6, 2012

Bahraini King Battles His Worst Enemies

Adam Rajab (front L, in black), son of arrested human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, leads an anti-government demonstration outside his father's home in Bani Jamra

The symbolism of politics and war leaves few moments to outright chance. Perhaps King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa was marking the 11 months since his National Dialogue opened on June 2nd, 2011, or last Wednesday could be the day that he finalized the reforms based on that dialogue. A more plausible conclusion would view the King's latest speech as an attempt to build momentum after Bahrain's Grand Prix concluded without a stoppage. Some conspiratorial theories are no conspiracy either. Anticipating a showdown with the opposition's leading popular activist, the King must have felt an urgency to deflate large-scale protests with his olive branch. 

"This move proves the exercise by our people of remarkable dialogue and exchange of views with genuine patriotic intentions, within the constitutional institutions." 

King Hamad's embracing rhetoric is polarizing an island nation that cannot hide from its fundamental issues. Some of his loyalists express the need to crack down harder on the Shia opposition; Hamad has infrequently criticized Bahrain's street movement, preferring to let his royal officials tear down Al Wefaq and "the youth." As a result, the disconnect between Bahrain's monarchy and the political environment continues to expand and add fuel to the conflict. King Hamad's parliamentary reforms were hailed as "a new renaissance for Bahrain" and a "quantum leap forward," among other superlatives. "The constitutional amendments are the fruit of the National Consensus Dialogue," said GCC Secretary General Dr. Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani. 

Naturally Al Wefaq and its allies disagree. The group quit weeks into the process due to a variety of inequalities in the system, while Waad finished out before labeling the dialogue as a bust. Uninvited to the party, February 14 Youth Coalition branded the dialogue as a "fraud" and "media tool" that "aims to reduce the severity of popular and international pressures." The only fruit they smell is poisonous. Soon after King Hamad's speech, Al Wefaq held a press conference to reject his amendments and later posted videos of mass demonstrations on YouTube. "There is no way these amendments can reflect popular will," Khalil Marzouq, one of five members chosen to participate in the dialogue, told reporters on Friday.

Despite feeling the pressure to enact these reforms, King Hamad refuses to admit the totality of his island's unrest. He would use the International Day for Freedom of the Press to scold the international press, saying, "It is quite clear that Bahrain has been targeted by purposeful, willful campaigns in some foreign media that sought to distort true facts, instigate violence, sabotage, hatred and hostility among citizens in our united nation." No specific references are made - the King could have Iranian media or the New York Times in mind - but numerous press officials issued a similar response: stop barring journalists from acquiring visas. Regardless, the Bahrain described by foreign media doesn't veer too far from its ground conditions: Bahrain's Shia majority is protesting against a real and perceived disparity with the Sunni minority. They seek reforms that would give them greater representation in both chambers of parliament and limit the monarchy's control over them. 

These conditions are less exaggerated than the threat of an Iranian takeover. 

Equally fallacious is King Hamad's promise to protect freedom of expression and assembly, voided by regular crackdowns on Shia villages, anti-government protests and funerals. Human rights groups continue to publicize allegations of torture. Declaring that there should be no "ceiling to freedom and creativity" in Bahrain, he would argue that policemen need to defend themselves against violent youths, who in turn are funneled to the outskirts of society. What limits the average Bahraini from expressing their opinion, in the King's own words, are the "national and ethical responsibilities and observance of the people's unity and national interest." In even blunter words, one cannot protest against the monarchy in Bahrain. 

King Hamad's dual track of crowd control and shallow reforms is largely responsible for his island's civil disobedience and low-intensity violence, and Nabeel Rajab is currently detained because of this intolerance for dissent. After Bahrain's Interior Ministry issued a statement on his arrest warrant, the head of Bahrain's Center For Human Rights was arrested at Manama's airport following his arrival from Lebanon (where he met the representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights). Some supporters and media personnel expressed surprise over Rajab's arrest because he was already due in court on May 6th to face two charges of organizing "illegal" protests. He has since been charged with "participating in illegal assembly and calling others to join," while a police investigation "revealed that the defendant's cyber incitement proved detrimental as they fueled rioting, road blocking, arsons, acts of sabotage targeting public and private properties." He's being held for seven days and is due in court on May 22nd. 

Aside from the backlash that immediately developed against his arrest, the government has many reasons to temporarily remove Rajab from political battlefield. Not only does he lead impromptu protests in Manama and reject any participation in a false dialogue, Rajab's influence online and with the international community visibly agitates King Hamad and his royal officials. Rajab's lawyer, Mohamed al-Jishi, told reporters that he had been arrested for insulting the Interior Ministry on Twitter. One government official threatened him via Twitter after a March interview with BBC's Hardtalk. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange believes that his own interview with Rajab led to his arrest, but the activist has given dozens of similar interviews over the last 14 months.

He told Australia's SBS on Wednesday, "Politically, we are constricted and there is no dialogue with Bahraini regime whatsoever," once again undermining the King's version of the National Dialogue. Rajab also listed the opposition's basic demands: "We would like a government that is democratically chosen by the people instead of the pre-ordained selection of electoral circles in a biased fashion to suit the regime’s needs."

"We want true justice and economic rights for all. We cannot express our democratic vision while the government suppresses our freedom of speech." 

Although Rajab openly believes that the youth's combative actions are a reaction to the King's crackdown, he hasn't ordered or encouraged the use of sabotage or Molotovs. He simply believes that the monarchy is "hindering my rights work and my right of expression." Whatever the case, Rajab's arrest is a foolish act that offers minimal benefits to Bahrain's government. "Arresting Bahrain's predominant human rights activist is a clear violation of human rights," Al Wefaq posted on Twitter soon after his arrest, as well as a quick way to attract unwanted international attention. Selling a dialogue is impossible with Rajab held up in a cell and no oppositional figure (including Shia cleric Isa Qassim) has garnered such a loyal following in the streets. Organization efforts for mass demonstrations and online protests are already underway. 

The cumulative effect of King Hamad's latest actions have already extended the timeline of Bahrain's uprising and increased its polarization. Rajab is defiant - he was preparing to boycott his trial and rejected the court's legitimacy - articulate, unconnected to Iran and generally non-threatening to the West. The King continues to demonstrate that he is his own worst enemy, but the fearless Rajab is next on the list.

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