July 31, 2012

Bahrain's Prince Toes Path of Less Resistance

Maybe he's learned some sort of lesson after all. 

Considered the savviest and most "modern" member of Bahrain's royal family, Prince Salam Bin Hamad Al Khalifa has watched King Hamad counterproductively agitate protesters throughout the island's 18-month uprising. He's also supposedly keeping watch on his father's hardline uncle, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, in an attempt to gradually force the Prime Minister from power after 41 years in office. It's not implausible that Salam views Khalifa as the primary source of instability in Bahrain, given his staunch support for counterrevolutionary tactics, and at some point the Prince must have realized that his family's survival strategy has become its own threat.

“The directives of His Majesty the King," he announced on Tuesday, "the Supreme Commander, are very clear and stress the full respect of the constitution and the law and that they should not be abused in any way."

Speaking to senior officers from the Interior Ministry at an Iftar banquet, Salam came armed with meticulous rhetoric that could have been written by the U.S. State Department or a Western PR firm. Freedom of expression and assembly, private property and equal rights were all enshrined as fundamental values of Bahrain's royalty. He also tried to reduce the boiling tension in Bahrain's streets by ordering security officials to use force "only when all security alternatives have been exhausted." The Prince would pour an extra sweet layer over his statements, declaring that "we must extend bridges and bolster optimism in order to fulfill our ambitions of protecting and moving forward with the nation."

“Bahrain has always been for all people. The diversity of its society makes mutual respect a duty for everyone. We consider maintaining social peace and cohesion a principal objective. This is a responsibility that we assume fully in order to ensure that the future generations inherit the values of co-existence and tolerance between all the segments of the society."

If only he were sincere enough to manifest real change.

While Prince Salam could ultimately facilitate a political resolution between the monarchy and Bahrain's diverse oppositional network, he currently remains a counterrevolutionary tool in the region's grander scheme. Viewed as "the best possible partner" for Al Wefaq, a realistic position is negated by the fact that "there is no alternative to him." Such a non-competitive arrangement is far from productive and has yet to yield tangible benefits for the opposition. When Salam first attempted to engage Al Wefaq's coalition in negotiations, the Prime Minister led the Saudi-bankrolled Peninsula Shield across King Fahd Causeway and smashed protesters in Pearl Roundabout. His second "National Dialogue" quickly collapsed in summer 2011 before descending into another of the Prince's creations: Bahrain's Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). The BICI would simultaneously concede human rights abuses and whitewash the King's responsibility by passing down blame to low level officers.

“We are for legitimacy and stability and we do not hesitate to engage in introspection," Salam claims. "Whoever says otherwise is wrong as was clear following the publication of the report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry and the implementation of its recommendations."

How openminded.

The Prince also plays an integral role in Washington's counterrevolutionary strategy; by providing a democratic figurehead to promote in U.S. policy, Salam has further contributed to the long-term suppression of Bahrain's opposition. Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta would welcome him to Washington in May with the intention of releasing a new arms package, one that had been delayed by Congressional concerns. "We wanted to show that he could deliver," argued a senior U.S. official briefed on the Bahrain policy, but this logic is riddled with fallacies. Leading Bahraini activists such as Nabeel Rajab and Zainab Alkhawaja derided Salam's tour on Democracy Now!, explaining how they mocked U.S. and Bahraini statements from their jail cells.

Salam only returned with arms and conflict. His "moderate" voice continues to be shouted over as the regime and Washington exploit him to create a false sense of responding to Bahrain's conflict.

In the three months since Salam went stateside, Bahrain's situation has only grown more hostile to organized political movements and independent activists. Al Wefaq now endures a partial ban on protesting in the capital and Nabeel Rajab was thrown back in jail without any public response from Washington. A massive security presence continues to tamp down large-scale demonstrations, sparking dozens of conflict zones inside and outside of Manama. Security units have yet to tone down their non-lethal but violent (and noxious) response in the streets, while Al Wefaq is documenting a rise in home arrests. When the group's leadership approached a security blockade with flowers, they were gunned down in the head with bird shot, beaten and gassed into dispersal. Yet the Obama administration is only willing to break its silence to lobby a "dialogue" that cannot lift off the ground in its present condition.

According to one U.S. official, "The crown prince is one of the remaining, one of the only leaders and members of the royal family, who can reach across sectarian lines." Unfortunately for all Bahrainis, overly relying on the Prince to strike an end-all agreement with the opposition could be a fatal assumption. Bolstered by the confidence that Bahrain has "succeeded in addressing" past social conflicts - the new uprising proves that King Hamad failed to resolve the last one - Salam claims to understand the “need to use wisdom and objectivity in dealing with alien ideologies." He believes "we will succeed again by joining our efforts."

These words sound pragmatic until they start to sound delusional.

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