Bahrain Is Nervously Awaiting Report on Its Forgotten Revolt
By Anthony Shadid
The New York Times
November 21, 2011
MANAMA, Bahrain — Bahrain’s forgotten revolt sometimes reads like the script for a film of international intrigue, where the truth remains elusive.
There is the beleaguered crown prince of a veteran American ally, and a scheming royal family that believes, with seeming sincerity, that it was almost overthrown. An ensuing crackdown made chauvinism against the majority the effective policy of the state. Inscrutable and aggressive, Iran and Saudi Arabia lurk over a body politic where the opposition waits, restrained, even as it warns that far worse is yet to come.
Bahrain’s protests in February and March stand as the opening credits to a plot that remains unresolved today, in an oil-rich region that sits at the nexus of American hegemony, regional rivalries and looming instability. In all the revolts that have roiled the Arab world this year, Bahrain’s government managed a tactical, perhaps ephemeral victory through force.
But in doing so, it may have destroyed a society that once took pride in its cosmopolitanism. The question not only for Bahrain but for other Arab countries in tumult — like Egypt and Syria — is whether reconciliation can stop an unraveling spreading across the region.
The answer may be in the hands of an Egyptian-American law professor asked by the king last summer to investigate the protests, crackdown and aftermath, in what the king’s supporters called a bid to heal Bahrain. His task: essentially arbitrate a crisis in which neither side even agrees on what to call the landmark traffic circle where the revolt erupted.
“We’re the only game in town,” said the professor, M. Cherif Bassiouni.
The commission of jurists and scholars led by Mr. Bassiouni is scheduled to issue its report on Wednesday, which has become the defining moment for Bahrain, its Sunni Muslim monarchy and its restive Shiite Muslim majority.
Its promise is to chart a way forward for changes to blunt the fires of revolution that have swept Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
Its peril is that it comes too late for Bahrain. Critics, and there are many, already contend it will whitewash the crimes that were committed, a conclusion that will almost certainly condemn the country to more years of unrest and volatility.
“We have a goal, and the goal is to establish the facts because only when you establish the truth can you then find the basis for a political solution and a future solution,” Mr. Bassiouni said on a day he met both King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and the head of the largest legal opposition group.
But in a society where no one even agrees on the share of the Shiite majority, or who really wields power, this is the question facing Bahrain and so many other countries: Is it possible to reveal, let alone agree on, the truth?
Nature of the Repression
The commission bears the mark of one of the world’s leading experts in international human rights. Mr. Bassiouni essentially drafted Royal Order No. 28, which outlined the commission’s task, and chose the four other members, all recognized internationally in their fields.
In 14-hour days, often stretching far longer, the commission carried out 2,343 interviews, took 4,483 statements, held 48 meetings and carried out 35 investigations, one of them stumbling on a jail where an adolescent had been burned by a cigarette butt only minutes before. (By virtue of the visit, the youth was released, and police officers suspended.)
The report is expected to detail the scope of the crackdown, beginning in March, in which Mr. Bassiouni said “it was fairly standard procedure to mistreat people.” He said investigators had compiled more than 300 cases of abuse, 64 qualifying as torture. About 3,000 people were fired from their jobs, and more than 1,000 students dismissed from college. (About 500 employees returned to work, along with most students.) The commission documented 30 instances in which the government destroyed or damaged Shiite religious sites, inflaming the sectarian divide.
“It’s not that they went and destroyed St. Peter,” said Mr. Bassiouni, who has an academic’s zest for intellectual give and take that is not always suited to the reserve of diplomacy. But, he added, “if these places meant something to them, and they felt that they were their religious places, the government should have respected that.”
With those words, Mr. Bassiouni captured the challenge of the commission’s work: what was the nature of the repression — systematic and orchestrated by the state, as the opposition insists, or the authorities’ acting arbitrarily and independent of one another across a landscape in which even the king’s orders were ignored, as Mr. Bassiouni suggests?
“This is a situation where there is an enormous amount of suspicion and whatever you say is going to be interpreted in light of different political interests or different perceptions,” Mr. Bassiouni said.
Was his task impossible?
“It is the environment that is difficult,” he said. “It is the sense of suspicion. It is the sense of paranoia. It is the sense of mistrust.”
Royal Family and Politics
Perhaps the pivotal figure these days is Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the 42-year-old heir to the throne who straddles the West, where he earned a master’s degree from Cambridge, and the Bedouin environs of a family that conquered Bahrain in the 18th century. Described by one opposition figure as “the last samurai” of a ruling clan once more open and oriented to the West, and now firmly entrenched in a more conservative Saudi ethos, Prince Salman led talks with the opposition that verged on a breakthrough in March before crumbling amid the recriminations of each side.
Echoing others, he said the report was less about truth, more about politics.
“The report will produce a narrative that both sides can use to hold themselves accountable for what happened, and only through shared responsibility will progress be made,” he said at Al Zaher Palace.
Even by Persian Gulf standards, the politics of the ruling al-Khalifa family are opaque. Rivalries are balanced by the urgency of the clan’s unity, where the collective authority of al-Khalifa overwhelms the power of a single individual, the king included.
Few in Bahrain believe the king is pre-eminent any longer. Many believe real power is vested in two brothers — the army chief of staff and the royal court minister — along with Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the king’s 75-year-old uncle and the world’s longest-serving unelected prime minister. All of them enjoy close ties with Saudi Arabia. By that measure, the king ranks fourth, followed by Prince Salman.
While Prince Salman enjoys standing among the opposition, he lacks it among the country’s Sunni minority, whose fears of domination were stoked by the government. The community is far more mobilized, skeptical and anxious than it was even a year ago. Abdul-Latif al-Mahmood, the head of the largest Sunni bloc, suggested the crown prince was naïve in believing he could strike a deal with a Shiite opposition.
“The crown prince is just one person from the leadership,” he said bitingly.
Within the family, there is a sense the crown prince had his chance. “He tried his way, and it didn’t work,” said Abdel-Aziz bin Mubarak al-Khalifa, a senior government counselor and member of the royal family. The opposition, he added, “let him down.”
Mr. Bassiouni is blunt in expressing a hope, echoed by American officials, that the report could serve as a tool for the prince to re-emerge as a more dynamic political force in trying again to negotiate a solution. One idea is for him to lead a committee that carries out the coming recommendations.
“In a sense, I think that the moderates on the reform side want to have their hand gently pushed,” Mr. Bassiouni said. “And so in a sense, a report of the commission that gives them the appearance of being gently pushed as opposed to being hit on the head with a hammer can become useful.”
Prince Salman was careful with his words, seemingly aware his ascent to the throne was by no means assured. “We either all lose or we all win,” he said, under a portrait of his grandfather.
The words, though, seemed more hopeful than realistic.
“Is the capacity for forgiveness still present?” the prince asked. “That’s what concerns me.”
Fixing a Broken System
Al Wefaq, the largest legal opposition group in Bahrain, is remarkable in the Arab world for the modesty of its demands. It is not calling for revolution, or the execution of the ruler, or the overthrow of his family, as in Syria or Yemen. It has no arms. But it does call for deep political reforms — a constitutional monarchy with an empowered parliament, an elected government and an end to gerrymandering that has left Shiites disenfranchised.
In the view of the monarchy’s supporters, the system can be fixed. Al Wefaq says the system is broken. And to empower a process of reconciliation, the report must say so. “We’re not looking for explanations; we’re looking for a decision on whether any party was responsible for what happened,” said Hadi Hasan al-Mosawi, a former lawmaker who is the human rights officer for Al Wefaq.
Mr. Mosawi organized carloads of files to be sent to the commission. Gaunt and balding, he cringes at Mr. Bassiouni’s contention, in an interview, that he is not seeking “to blame or to hang.”
“I don’t want to be told what happened,” Mr. Mosawi said. “I was here. I saw it.”
Even before the commission finished its work, critics worried that it was too compromised. It was appointed by the king, whose government paid its $1.3 million budget. Its members lodged, free, at the lavish Ritz-Carlton hotel and spa. It was too cozy with the government to call the repression systematic, the critics said, or to deliver the finding that bureaucratic reform matters little in an apartheidlike system.
“It’s going to be a committee delegating to a committee that will delegate to a subcommittee, and it worries me that it could take many, many years for anything to happen,” said Mansour al-Jamri, editor of the newspaper Al Wasat and a government critic. Mr. Jamri was forced to quit his job in April under government pressure, only to be allowed back when the newspaper was given a reprieve in May.
At the headquarters of Wefaq, Mr. Mosawi and another former lawmaker, Jasim Husain Ali, speculated that the report might offer promises of jobs and housing, better salaries, a streamlined security apparatus and perhaps more aid from Saudi Arabia, opposed as it is to democratic reform in the gulf. But the opposition would reject a report that amounted to a partial truth in its eyes. It would be unappeased.
“A golden opportunity,” Mr. Ali called the commission’s work. But, he added, “by and large, many people are preparing themselves to be disappointed.”
Reconstructing the Truth
Mr. Bassiouni, a war crimes expert, in a career spanning decades, has worked in some of the world’s most dysfunctional places — Libya, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq. But neither he nor his staff has faced a challenge like Bahrain.
“There is no neutral account,” said Mohamed Helal, the commission’s legal officer and a protégé of Mr. Bassiouni. “The community is almost living in parallel universes.” In investigating one episode, Mr. Helal said he found on the same day, at the same moment, “there was not one moment of overlap.”
“How can you reconstruct the truth when there’s no overlap?” he asked.
Mr. Bassiouni added, “We’re out on that limb all by ourselves.”