Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Movement at Last? Rumors of Change in and Outside Bahrain
I've recently returned from a very enjoyable weekend in Norway, where I had a chance to meet new and old acquaintances as part of the 2013 Rafto Prize ceremony. (Click here for a frightening photo of a Molotov cocktail-wielding Bahraini Shi'a mob terrorizing the streets of Bergen.) At the same time, I have managed to acquire some interesting pieces of (secondhand) information about some potentially significant domestic and international political developments concerning Bahrain. And, no, the rumors do not originate from the angry Shi'a mob.
The first item relates to everyone's favorite subject: the U.S. Fifth Fleet, and whether or how long it's likely to remain in Bahrain. As readers will know, until now the status of the base in Juffair has not been called into question by American defense officials, who claim instead (and one hopes disingenuously) to have no contingency plan in the event the political situation devolves even further. Thus, the question of the Fifth Fleet outwardly at least has failed to realize its potential as a political pressure point, precisely because the U.S. government has sent no costly signals to the effect that a re-evaluation of the base is even under consideration.
The rumor, then, originating from journalists at leading Western newspapers, is that one or more publications is preparing to publish in-depth feature article(s) recasting the Fifth Fleet in a new strategic light. Rather than an essential pillar in the fight to contain Iran's maritime belligerence, and of Gulf security generally, the role and importance of the base is described in more modest terms: as a mere "support" station (that is its name after all) rather than a lynchpin of regional security. To what extent these stories come at the direct instigation of U.S. officials was not made clear, yet it was said that the shift in tone and substance is justified in the articles as reflecting perceptible changes in the government's own language.
Of course, given the fluid strategic landscape of the Gulf, any potential change in policy or even tone regarding the Fifth Fleet may have less to do with Bahrain than a desire to moderate U.S. military posture vis-a-vis Iran. Yet it would in any case still serve the useful purpose of reinstating the question as a functional lever of American diplomacy.
The second item is, if possible, of even more potential significance, and one could speculate not unrelated to the first. This is the rumor of an impending political bargain, allegedly brokered by the British, between the mainstream opposition societies (i.e., al-Wifaq) and the Bahraini government. The announcement, again allegedly, will be made sometime in December, and the terms would be something like the following: revision of the country's gerrymandered electoral districts, along with a few junior ministers from the opposition, in exchange for al-Wifaq's return to parliament and a commitment to (put pressure on activists to) end protest activity. Whether the opposition ministers would be elected or appointed I have no information. The prime minister's position, reportedly, is not under question.
The possibility of a government-opposition bargain puts in a new light the unprecedented persecution of top al-Wifaq officials, including Khalil al-Marzuq and 'Ali Salman. As of Sunday, when the latter was charged with the heinous crime of "insulting the interior ministry" for his group's display of items and images from the uprising (in what was billed a "museum") at an al-Wifaq office in Bilad al-Qadeem, both individuals have been charged and subsequently released, and one presumes they are now awaiting trial or adjudication. For Salman, this is the first time he has been summoned, much less charged, since the uprising began.
As always, we have the conspiracy interpretation and the non-conspiracy interpretation. The latter would note that the government is likely using the court cases -- not only against individuals but against al-Wifaq as an organization -- as a way to pressure the group's acceptance of what are ultimately probably hard-to-swallow political terms, especially compared to what they might have gotten from the crown prince in March 2011. This would perhaps help clarify al-Wifaq's description of Salman's summons as "political extortion."
An alternative version, which one often hears when al-Wifaq is involved in some controversy, is that the arrest of the leadership is part of a deliberate effort to make the mainstream opposition appear more "radical" and thus in tune with the "Shi'a street." The latter, the argument goes, are assumed then to be more likely to accept the legitimacy of an eventual political deal.
Assuming for a moment that a compromise such as this is in the works, it will be interesting to see the relative importance of political ideals and political fatigue in shaping the response of various constituencies in Bahrain. Has nearly three years of daily fighting taken its toll on youthful activists such that they are now ready for peace or at least a ceasefire? Will Bahrain's Sunnis fall in line behind yet another compromise with the opposition brokered behind closed doors and ultimately at their political expense? Will security-minded royals in the royal court and defense ministry give up their campaign to deliver punitive justice to all those deemed traitors? One hopes that we will have the opportunity to find out.
Update: It have been told that Iran's English-language satellite station Al-'Alam is presently phasing out its daily hour-long program on events in Bahrain. Perhaps a coincidence, but also perhaps a bid to foster a calmer political environment.
Al-Wasat reports an "agreement" to resume Gulf Air flights between Bahrain and Iran, which have been suspended since 2011, beginning on December 15. More coincidence?
Update 2: Sh. Nasr demonstrates brilliant "leadership abilities" in leading Bahraini princes to an "honorable placing" in a Florida Ironman triathlon. Watch out, Crown Prince Salman!
Update 3: Over the weekend I happened to speak with a Western source familiar with political discussions in Bahrain, who confirmed efforts toward a December deal. Interestingly, however, he was not so sanguine about the political position of the prime minister, who the person said would be unlikely to retain his post even in the short term.
Posted by Justin Gengler at 6:47 AM