Keeping the country off balance is good for royal business.
- By Fahad DesmukhFahad Desmukh is a Karachi, Pakistan-based journalist and former Bahrain-based blogger.
A military tribunal in Bahrain has sentenced eight prominent opposition activists to life imprisonment and 13 others to lesser prison sentences, on charges of seeking to topple the monarchy and collaborating with a foreign terrorist group, among a host of other charges.
The group was arrested in March as part of the Saudi-backed security crackdown on pro-reform protesters who had occupied the Pearl Roundabout in the capital Manama. Most of those sentenced are leaders or sympathizers of a coalition formed during the uprising that advocated the establishment of a republic and an end to the 200-year-old Sunni monarchy.
One of the sentenced men is Ibrahim Sharif, the Sunni leader of the secular left-of-center Waad party, which never called for a republic but rather for a transition to a genuine constitutional monarchy.
The sentencing comes just a week before the launch of a "national dialogue" by the government to discuss reforms in the country.
Due to the closed nature of the military tribunal, it is not exactly clear what evidence was provided to prove that the men were guilty of the charges against them. There’s no doubt that all except Sharif openly called for the fall of the Al Khalifa regime. But there is no proof that they planned to use violence or that they were being aided by a foreign terrorist group (read Hezbollah and Iran).
If the government did have evidence to prove its claims, you can be sure that it would have already been broadcast on Bahrain’s state TV network during the televised witch trials that take place every night in parallel to the one in court.
Government spokespersons have repeated in the media ad nauseam the claim that the defendants, and specifically Hassan Mushaima, called for the establishment of an "Islamic Republic" à la Iran. Once again, no evidence has yet been provided to prove this allegation, even though all their speeches at the Pearl Roundabout are publicly available online. In fact, there are several videos showing the leaders at Pearl Roundabout calling for unity between Sunni and Shiite and equal rights for people of all religions in the country — but no statements calling for an Iranian-style theocratic regime.
So why have these individuals been specifically targeted and not some other opposition leaders? From the regime’s point of view, these individuals pose far more of a threat than the mainstream Shiite opposition group al-Wefaq, which held 18 of 40 seats in the lower house of parliament, prior to resigning in protest in February.
Of course, these individuals — barring Sharif — did call for the fall of the regime in a Tunisia/Egypt-style revolution. But the history runs deeper. Even before this year’s uprising, the defendants formed the rejectionist faction of Bahrain’s opposition. When al-Wefaq chose to end its boycott of parliamentary elections in 2006, then members Mushaima, Abduljalil al-Singace, and Abdul Wahab Hussein (all given life sentences on Wednesday, June 22) broke away to form their own parties: Haq and al-Wafa. Their argument was that participation would give legitimacy to a Constitution that was imposed without the will of the people.
Their strategy since then has been to lead a campaign against the regime using street protests, and also to try to internationalize their cause. In 2006, for example, the Haq party led a nationwide signature-collection campaign to petition the United Nations to intervene on the question of constitutional reform.
Similarly, human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja (also sentenced to life imprisonment Wednesday) has played a central role in bringing economic and political rights to the top of the human rights agenda in Bahrain. His group has encouraged youth to speak out and take to the street to address issues like unemployment, poverty, and sectarian discrimination. In 2004, he publicly stated what no one else in Bahrain dared to say before. At a seminar, he criticized the long-serving prime minister — the king’s uncle — for corruption and accused him of being a major cause of poverty in the country. He was arrested the next day, sparking protests demanding his release. Those protests paved the way for more demonstrations and organization, which eventually culminated in this February’s uprising.
In other words, the men sentenced this week have been a consistent thorn in the side of the regime. Almost all have been arrested at one time or another over the past 30 years on very similar charges. But there is also something about their ideology that the regime finds threatening. The rejectionist camp represents a new trend among Shiites in Bahrain, in distinction to more traditional groups like al-Wefaq. For all the government’s attempts to paint the rejectionists as religious radicals, this trend emphasizes rights rather than religious duties and piety, much like what University of Illinois scholar Asef Bayat calls "post-Islamism."
For example, in a speech given by Khawaja in January 2009 in central Manama during the commemoration of Muharram, a Shiite festival in remembrance of the martyrdom the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, he lays out his view of how standing up to injustice is a more important part of Shiism than practicing the Shiite religious rites. He prefaces his argument by stating that his message goes out to all people regardless of sect or class.
And though the rejectionist camp is more radical in its political demands, it is in many ways less sectarian than al-Wefaq. For example, Haq’s central committee originally consisted of a Sunni cleric and a noted leftist (though they parted ways with the group during the uprising).
The rejectionists are also far less reliant on the Shiite clerical establishment for legitimacy than is al-Wefaq — which makes it more difficult for the regime to control or co-opt the movement.
In all of this, why has Sharif, the leader of a political society with far more moderate demands, been lumped in with the rejectionists? For starters, he was the first of the non-rejectionist politicians to endorse the Feb. 14 protests. But more importantly, as the most prominent Sunni political leader in the protest movement, his presence challenged the sectarian narrative that the regime has been so desperate to sell to the international media. Indeed, when he arrived at the Pearl Roundabout for the first time after its occupation, he was given a hero’s welcome and lifted on to the shoulders of the mostly Shiite protesters as a symbol of Sunni-Shiite unity. Another prominent Sunni, Mohammed al-Buflasa, was arrested after he gave a speech at the roundabout in support of the protesters, and he remains in detention today without having been charged.
So what’s next? There is still an appeal process for the sentenced activists. We may also see a repeat of past routine, wherein the king pardons the detainees — a sign of his magnanimity — without the suspects being declared innocent. It is by no means clear, however, whether the king is in full control this time around.
Buoyed by the backing of Saudi Arabia, the hard-liners within the Al Khalifa regime (led by the prime minister) may not want to see these activists pardoned. Surely they know that putting them in jail will not lead to a return of stability (scattered protests against the ruling class have already reportedly started in Shiite villages across the country). Rather, they may be relying on instability to stay in power.
Whereas the king and crown prince would remain in their positions if there were a transition to a genuine constitutional monarchy, many others in the royal family stand to lose a great deal. They will no longer be guaranteed their postings as ministers, advisors, judges, ambassadors, and military officers, and they will correspondingly lose their ability to extract rent as a source of income. Continued instability allows the hawks in the family to rally support from the Sunni establishment and more importantly from Saudi Arabia to ensure the continuation of the status quo.
After all, it’s worked for the last 40 years. Why change now?