April 28, 2012

Latest Evidence of Bahrain's Stalemate

Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa meets with Jeffrey Feltman, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs

Call it a premature victory lap. 

Fresh off a "triumph," Bahrain's monarchy has relished in the nuclear afterglow of its Formula 1 Grand Prix, which concluded on April 22nd without incident. A short-term win-win situation for King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the Grand Prix killed two birds with one stone by publicizing Bahrain's "normality" and slandering the opposition as violent extremists. Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa continued this narrative on Friday during an interview with Der Spiegel, the same publication that his uncle employed to ridicule the opposition before February 14th's demonstrations. 

Some points of Prime Minister Al Khalifa's transcript are factually inaccurate: "It [the Grand Prix] was a happy event for all Bahrainis." On a larger scale, "It simply isn't true that the Shiites in Bahrain are poor and oppressed." Those participating in the reform movement apparently don't count as Bahraini in his mind. They are busy committing terrorism on the scale of two U.S. boogeymen, al-Qaeda and Iran. The Prince believes that Bahrain's movement, "in the modern world," is what "we call a 'terrorist group'... supported by Iran and Hezbollah. What we are facing is exactly what the Americans are facing with terrorism.” 

Asked if he is "comparing serious Bahraini opposition groups like Al Wefaq with a terrorist network?" Al Khalifa responds, "I am specifically talking about all those who are calling for violence and destruction. About those who are burning tires, throwing Molotov cocktails at police and are terrorizing the rest of this country." 

In other words, "the youth." 

When questioned on the nature of Saudi Arabia's intervention in March 2011, the Prince responds with predictable denial: "Saudi Arabia has never put pressure on us. We are members of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf and it was our right to ask our allies for help." King Hamad surely welcomed the GCC's Peninsula Shied across the King Fahd Causeway (its first internal deployment), but Riyadh had already decided to act before he "asked." The Prime Minister then reverses position by arguing, "When the Americans went into Iraq and Afghanistan, they also asked their allies for help and no one said a word about it." Many countries issued statements of caution or criticism when the U.S. government and its allies invaded Iraq. Al Khalifa later asks, "But has the international community ever questioned the opposition or held them accountable for their actions?

He should read a few statement from the Obama administration, which irregularly condemns Bahrain's protesters and equates their violence to the government's. Other pieces of information are twisted with disinformation to reinforce the monarchy's position, highlighting the growing disconnect from Bahrain's oppositional environment. No one can deny the youth's use of low-intensity violence - Molotovs, metal rods, rocks - against Bahraini police and defense forces. For this reason the Prince's criticism of the "Arab Spring" isn't entirely inaccurate because the term fails to capture a revolutionary wave's dynamic properties. However these tools of popular, unarmed revolt don't compare with the organized militancy of governments or established terrorist organizations. Bahrain's younger demographic has been further marginalized by the government's superficial attempts to engage Al Wefaq in a dialogue, escalating the cycle of protests and political gridlock. By refusing the negotiate with Al Wefaq on terms of good faith, King Hamad and his royal circle have driven up the demand for regime change in the streets. 

The Prince claims that his government remains open to dialogue, but his rhetoric manifests the futility of his nephew's outreach by asking what Americans would say "to a dialogue with terrorist organizations, such as al-Qaida..." 

Der Speigel's Souad Mekhennet doesn't let Al Khalifa off easily, clarifying that "Al-Qaida conducted terrorist attacks against the United States" while the protesters "just say they want reforms." The Prince immediately rejects the term before leaning on the crutch that is Bahrain's Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). Ordered by King Hamad in June 2011, the BICI documented a limited number of government abuses and initiated a sweeping round of police reforms, headed by a British-American "supercop" duo. The report also pushed Bahrain's accountability down the chain of command and ignored the extensive parliamentary reforms demanded by Al Wefaq and its allies. Prince Al Khalifa, in turn, blames the political stalemate on Al Wefaq and holds, "the opposition's religious leader, Issa Qassim, responsible for everything that is going on in this country, especially for all the people who have been killed. And Qassim is taking his orders from Iran." 

"The opposition is only looking for excuses, abusing demands for 'more rights' and 'democracy, to turn Bahrain into a second Iran." 

No foreign issue generates more ambiguity and resentment than Tehran's mysterious specter. Ruling Iranian influence out entirely would defy its regional ambitions and public statements of support, but this power is exaggerated by Bahrain's government. Not only does the Prince accuse Tehran of directing the youth coalitions, an accusation that they reject, he ultimately accuses Bahrain's political opposition of "waiting to see what Iran would tell them." Blaming a foreign conspirator for internal revolt is among the most rudimentary propaganda that a government can release - and a strategic error in gauging popular unrest. 

Prince Al Khalifa's interview offers an uninstructed view into a dangerous mindset, and serves as fresh evidence for the continuation of Bahrain's uprising. His position, essentially the same as King Hamad, refuses to engage in a transparent dialogue with Al Wefaq, brands the opposition as terrorists and denies Saudi influence. Everything is the opposition's fault and the burden of Bahrain's street violence lies with the highest authorities, contrary to the BICI's method of burying responsibility.

Bahraini officials routinely criticize outsiders for exaggerating the crisis, but they are more disconnected from their own island than they can imagine.

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