- An elected government with mechanisms to confirm and remove ministers;
- Revised electoral districts (see my map of the current, ethnically-gerrymandered districts) and increased independence of electoral institutions;
- A new single-chamber parliament with sole lawmaking powers;
- A fair and transparent judiciary; and
- An end to Shi'a exclusion from the police and armed services.
As far as I can tell, the domestic and international attention the statement has received is a function mainly of its timing, coming as it does in the same week that Bahrain introduced its new elected parliament and supposedly started down its path toward political normalcy. That the country's opposition groups have now reaffirmed their commitment not only to the demands themselves but also to continued popular protest as a way to achieve them seems to have served as a useful reminder that, notwithstanding some well-placed PR in recent days and weeks, the political deadlock in Bahrain has not actually been resolved.
Yet despite this overt attempt to rally and reinvigorate the opposition, rather than renewed confidence one senses in this "Manama Document" not a small whiff of desperation--and for good reason. At the same time that al-Wifaq and its leadership (which with the partial exception of Wa'ad is the only group that matters of the five) has come under intense government pressure in recent weeks for being nothing more than a Bahraini Hizballah--at the same time, it is also in real danger of losing its core constituency to groups and movements seen as more effective and/or less willing to compromise on what some still see as the core aim of the "revolution," namely the unconditional end of the Al Khalifa monarchy. In other words, the moderate opposition is caught between Charybdis and Scylla: a government skewering it for being too radical, a constituency threatening to abandon it for not being radical enough.
The first of these--the precarious position of al-Wifaq as a tolerated opposition movement now that it has shirked "the official channels of politics," as they say--was discussed at length in the previous post, so little more needs to be said. I will add only that I have since received some unofficial confirmation from sources in Bahrain of my suspicions expressed there that al-Wifaq risks being targeted again for wholesale dissolution such as was attempted in April.
In the meantime, one need not look far to find evidence of the government's media blitz against al-Wifaq--and since yesterday against its "Manama Document" statement. Employing its typical indefinite noun + passive verb headline construction, the Gulf Daily News reports "Group condemned":
A BAHRAINI opposition group has been blasted by the government, which accused it of trying to impose its will on the rest of the population.Etc., etc. You can fill in the rest.
The Information Affairs Authority (IAA) said Al Wefaq National Islamic Society had "no right" to force its demands or dictate its conditions on the nation.
Al-Watan's coverage is even better. Sawsan al-Sha'ir's editorial from yesterday starts, "Hezbollah is the last one entitled to speak of national unity. Its structure, history, mindset and practices have nothing to do with national unity. On the contrary, they all tend to thwart it."
And her article from today: "The statement published by Hezbollah titled “Political Societies” reveals that the party is still far away from reality."
Still others, of course, abound. (Also, don't miss the other popular pro-government link going around: MEMRI's English translation of some Bahraini cleric's sermon from March in which he says that the uprising will lead to a "state of the Mahdi.")
Yet even if al-Wifaq somehow manages to avoid the fate of Wa'ad, the Islamic Action Society, and other now-defunct political societies, still it must face a no less difficult uphill battle in convincing ordinary Bahrainis that it remains their best hope for achieving political reform. And, as evidenced by the considerable popular push-back in response to its "Manama Document," one gets the impression that this argument is becoming harder and harder for the group to make.
One well-commented post on an opposition forum is titled, "Sh. Abd al-Wahhab Hussain warns the people against the Manama Document." Another discusses to a great deal of popular agreement "The Secretary General and His Fatal Mistake." Still another implores readers to "save the revolution from some of the political parties." Finally: "The Manama Document or the Humiliation Document?" ("humiliation" rhymes with "al-Manama" in Arabic). And so on.
Two details in particular have caught the attention of these and other commentors: first, the abandonment of the slogan "Fall of the Regime" for the obviously more measured "Reform of the Regime," which the statement identifies as one of the opposition's guiding principles. In fact, however, this change was made at least as early as mid-August, as it forms the basis of this post's title.
The second and more substantively important part of the statement not lost on commentors is its proposed "Road to a Solution":
Undoubtedly, the wrong practices of threatening people demanding reforms and democracy could not [succeed]. Hence, the only [way] forward is that of a dialogue between the authorities and opposition forces for the goal of achieving democracy, based on the seven principles outlined by the crown prince on 13 March 2011. Amongst others, the principles press for a government representing the will of the people, an elected parliament with comprehensive powers, and fair electoral districts. Still, the dialogue should take place with international guarantees.In other words, the parties to the statement (all of which were part of the seven-group alliance formed in February at the height of unrest that ultimately rejected unconditional dialogue with the crown prince) are now asking--begging, even--8 months later for the chance to take Salman's deal.
[The] outcome of the dialogue should lead to a new constitutional framework resulting from [majority] approval via a constituent assembly, [which is] the best possible option, or a referendum, as put forward by the crown prince on 13 March 2011.
Unfortunately, things don't work like that. In the first place, the crown prince is only now starting to recover from the devastating political damage caused by the failure of his February attempt at dialogue. His renewed participation at this point is almost certainly out of the question. More fundamentally, however, that deal was offered at the height of the anti-government movement's bargaining power; whereas we're now arguably at the height of the government's.
In this I am reminded of a Yemeni antique shopkeeper who, when I told him his $100 price tag was too high but that I might change my mind later and return, said in reply: "If you come back tomorrow the price will be $400."
Al-Watan and Sawsan al-Sha'ir have one thing right, anyway: the Bahraini opposition's statement is "still far away from reality." And sadly, that political reality now appears stacked against them.
Update: Bonus coverage from Al-Watan: one of Bahrain's several al-Dawasir MPs has called upon al-Wifaq to condemn the fake Iranian terrorist plot against the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Because well, you know, al-Wifaq are Shi'a and Iran is Shi'a. No word whether he is also asking them to apologize for the Iranian hostage crisis.
Update 2: So this update is going to have to be a doozy. First, Bassiouni gave another interview over the weekend--you would think he would have learned by now--to a local Chicago public radio station (his home university is DePaul) in which he seemed to cast principal blame upon protesters and doctors for Bahrain's post-February events and expressed support for the trials and verdicts that have proceeded thus far. (Direct link to .mp3 audio here.) Like everyone else, the Gulf Daily News was quick to pick up on his comments, today reporting: "Commission head backs death penalty verdict." Anyone want to take bets as to the conclusions of the BICI final report?
Next, Bahrain TV aired an extended news segment/documentary purporting to reveal what *REALLY* happens in Bahrain's villages during protests, etc. The video immediately caught peoples' attention for a comically fake segment in which a BTV "reporter" supposedly tries to interview some thuggish looking Shi'a youth, who dance around like monkeys and gently throw rocks (I can almost hear the cameraman say, "Don't actually hit us, you idiots!"). I suggest you watch the video (or at least the thug interview starting at 4:45):
The segment is so hilariously done, in fact, that some intrepid young Shi'a actors have taken it upon themselves to create a mock version:
From the BBC, Frank Gardner has somehow earned the good graces of the Bahraini leadership, who not only received him personally on a visit to the parliament's opening ceremony (his report here), but also has managed to ride around with riot police and visit a detention facility.
A new contender has emerged to take the place of the once notorious pro-government Bahrain Independent blog run by Saqer al-Khalifah and friends: the Bahrain Views website (any relation to Riffa Views?) which has published the results of its (I assume) 2-year empirical investigation into Iran's foreign agenda titled "Iran Orders Attacks on Saudi Interests Worldwide."
Finally, from The Economist, a cartoon for the road:
Update 3: Another good watch, even if you don't read Arabic: a militant anti-Iran/-Shi'a Sunni group has produced a 20 minute-long "Letter to the Gulf Rulers" calling for tough action against the Shi'a traitors/heretics/bad guys:
Update 4: A Eurasia Review piece offers some updates on the U.S.'s proposed weapons sale to Bahrain. The headline says it all: "Bahrain PM Says Supports Human Rights, As US Arms Deal In Offing." Khalifa bin Salman is quoted as telling a visiting U.S. congressional delegation--the point of which is presumably that the Obama Administration can now say it sent a "fact-finding team" to Bahrain to make sure its hummers and TOW missiles will be put to good use--that the $53 million contract is "aimed at protecting the country from a potential attack 'or nefarious activity by countries like Iran.'"
Which is approximately as disingenuous as his other quotation mentioned in the piece: “[the PM] stressed the importance of dialogue – as a strategic choice – and the protection of human rights and liberties as the cornerstone of Bahrain’s reform policies.”Well, at least he is honest in saying that he's not interested in dialogue apart for its strategic political value.