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Bahrain Analysis: Navigating a Rising Tide of Violence

Protesters chase security forces --- who had earlier dispersed a funeral, arresting youth and pushing away women --- out of AlEker village on Sunday

This analysis is also posted on Marc Owen Jones' blog:

In his Friday sermon three days ago, Bahrain’s most senior Shi’a cleric Isa Qassim sent a strong message out to the state security services, saying, "Whoever you see abusing women, you must crush them." Unsurprisingly, such words caused considerable anxiety in Bahrain, where tensions and violence seem to have escalated sharply since the beginning of the year. On Sunday, in what is one of the more powerful videos to emerge from Bahrain in the past year, residents of al-Eker videoed themselves chasing away riot police with Molotov cocktails, sticks and stones. Protesters have claimed that this was in retaliation to this incident, in which women appear to be struck and manhandled by riot officers after becoming involved over a man’s arrest.

With Qassim’s endorsement of violence in the defense of women comes the anxiety that Bahrain’s largest political opposition society al-Wefaq are taking on an increasingly hardline stance. It would, however, be inaccurate to suggest Qassim’s words reflect the will of the party itself. On the contrary, several months ago the opposition coalition (which includes al-Wefaq)  used the post-BICI [Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry] period of relative goodwill to affect some sort of rapprochement, and denounced the use of roadblocks and pouring oil on the road.  

To clarify al-Wefaq’s stance, Ali Salman outlined when it was acceptable to use violence, and stipulates clearly that it should only be used as a form of self defence in situations where the attack has clearly been established or when violations of property have occurred.  He also added that protests should be peaceful, and that if this peacefulness was met with violence, then it is only fair to defend oneself. Despite Ali Salman’s clarification, Qassim’s words may have swayed those still deliberating whether or not violence is a legitimate defensive strategy to counter continued state repression. Such rhetoric concerning the defence of women will not only resonate strongly within an Islamic context, but also amongst many men themselves, who see violence against women as an affront to masculinity and pride.

Regardless of Qassim’s words,  this escalation in violence seems to have been particularly notable over the last months, and a number of videos have surfaced that show residents of Bahrain’s villages resorting to increasingly extreme tactics to combat the presence of the riot police.

While violence towards the state security apparatus is not new, the uprising that began on 14 February 2011 was a largely peaceful movement, and generally rejected the violence that was  more commonplace in the 1990s. However, continued government reluctance to affect meaningful change and provide space for legitimate political opposition is inevitably leading to increased radicalisation amongst Bahrain’s youth. Recent events would suggest that the violence is becoming less sporadic, more organised,  and more widespread, as these videos show.

- Al-Daih. 22nd December. Unknown persons throw some sort of incendiary device off a roof, setting a policeman’s foot on fire. (This one particularly looks like it could have been a lot worse).

- Sitra. 23rd December. Protesters throw Molotovs and stones at passing police jeeps.

- Nabi Saleh. 24th December. Protesters throw Molotovs and iron rods at police, managing to set fire to a policeman’s leg

- Nuwaidrat. 30th December. Protesters wearing white smocks launch a co-ordinated attack on riot police

- Al Dair. 20th January. Protesters throw Molotovs and stones and riot police.

- A’ali. around 20th January. Protesters throw molotovs at the police.

-Uniformed protesters in Diraz march in a well-drilled and regimented fashion. They appear to be holding flags with Feb 14th Youth imagery....Similar to the previous video, this one shows youth in North Sehla marching in a regimented fashion, also holding flags that bearing Feb14th Youth imagery. A markedly similar procession is held in Sitra. These three videos all concern this idea of "holy defence" which will be discussed later. ِ

This is not an exhaustive list, but simply an indicator of increased militancy amongst Bahrain’s youth. Although the videos depicting violence speak for themselves, the latter 3 videos documenting the regimented processions are a bit more ambiguous to interpret. If, like their banners suggest, they represent the Feb 14th Youth, does this then challenge the existing conception that they are a "loosely organised" group. Possibly.

In addition to the above videos, a number of alarming discussions have been taking place on one of Bahrain’s popular opposition forums. This short thread focuses on the best way to run over policemen, whilst this one requests the addresses of thugs, "mercenaries" and officers.  This use of violence is often justified in the context of "holy defence".

Indeed, today sees the launch of  "BahrainFist", an operation of "holy defence" whose aim is to send a clear message to the security forces. The operation will not rely on peaceful means, and it seeks to "crush" the "mercenaries" should they decide to park at the entrance to the villages (which they inevitably will). Despite all the aforementioned talk of running over policemen, BahrainFist seems mainly to promote the use of Molotov cocktails, though there is a post on their website linking to this bizarre, marble-firing-gun made by some people in Barbar (though I imagine such weapons are more frightening than they are effective). [Note, the video of the marble-firing gun has since become private --- odd. Another two (1,2) clips resemble martyrdom videos, and show men talking about their commitment to the BahrainFist operation.

Although it is not clear who is behind BahrainFist, it would be safe to assume it is a youth-based endeavour. Interestingly, those behind BahrainFist made a point of noting that the Feb 14th Youth endorsed their operation, suggesting that the two are not necessarily linked.  BahrainFist also took Isa Qassim’s recent speech as an endorsement of their operation, though this may be a somewhat liberal interpretation of his speech.

While BahrainFist claims it is an operation of holy defence, the line between defence and pre-meditated offence can be somewhat nebulous. Do the riot police simply being parked at the entrances to a village constitute a transgression worthy of violent self defence? I imagine most would tend to disagree, though if the ability to protest peacefully is not provided, then is violent self-defence an inevitability? All valid questions, yet there does seem to be something pre-meditated about today’s operation.

Predictably, Qassim’s words and the advent of BahrainFist are not doing much to pacify loyalists, who have posted videos such as this, which shows them denouncing the likes of Isa Qassim and friends. They state that they will force them back to their original country (Iran) if they don’t stop what they’re doing. Although such threats are decidedly vague, the belief amongst many loyalists that the Government are refusing to enforce laws increases the possibility of vigilantiism. Indeed, thugs seemed to be out in force at the funeral of Yousif Muwali two days ago, and a number of people complained about being attacked. A new video has emerged of thugs and riot police officers beating up a man in Nuwaidrat. This comes a few weeks after thugs were reported to be loading up unmarked cars with molotov cocktails. The previous video also shows a thug throwing a Molotov cocktail with a riot officer doing little more than shooing him away. Let’s not also forget that the police themselves indulge in throwing molotov cocktails.

In the usual fashion, the Government’s obsession with the rhetoric of legality seemed to increase proportionally in relation to the transgressions perpetrated by its own representatives. This deflection was no more evident than in the circumstances of Yousif  Muwali’s funeral, which the Ministry of Interior claimed to be illegal --- no doubt to detract from the suspicious circumstances surrounding his death. The official version is that he drowned, though photos of his body seem to indicate signs of torture. The Government’s argument is made all the more dubious by the fact that Yousif’s mother claimed he had been detained by the Criminal Investigation Directorate prior to his disappearance and that they claimed he was "fine". As you can imagine, the funeral followed the usual tradition, genuine tears mixed with those created by tear gas, which can be seen here. Another notable event included the arrest by masked thugs of Deputy General Secretary of al-Ekha’ political society Yousif Qudrat.

So with little sign of the security apparatus turning over a new leaf, and increased defiance amongst protesters, questions of whether violence is a legitimate form of defence are becoming  an increasingly important and divisive topic. Isa Qassim’s speech will lend some legitimacy to those who already support/are on the fence about using violence. Many will wish to further the assumption that Isa Qassim’s endorsement means that al-Wefaq support violence, not an unvalid claim but one that would be ignoring Ali Salman’s more cogent analysis.

The government, in its usual wisdom, continues to emphasise the importance of the rule of law while employing tactics that blur the line between law enforcement and vigilantism. Furthermore, their continued insincerity about reform further deligitimises the legal political opposition, whose perceived ineffectualness will swell the ranks of groups advocating more militant strategies. And while far-reaching reform and justice are fundamental in addressing Bahrain’s political situation, any attempts by the government to remedy the situation will be  futile if the  transgressions of the state’s security services are not checked. Do bear in mind that Qassim’s words, and the rhetoric of BahrainFist, is directed mainly towards the security services.

Having said that, it is important to remember that continued violations by the security apparatus suggest that the State’s talk of reform is disingenous. The Government are fully aware that continued repression will only antagonise the opposition, and contribute to the radicalisation of youth, whose adoption of violent tactics will create a subsequent desire for law and order to be restored. A similar situation was seen last year immediately after 15 March, where despite the presence of the Peninsula Shield, the Bahrain Defence Forces, and public security vigilantism took hold of Bahrain and generated considerable panic. 

So not only does activist violence plays into the hands of the regime, but it also undermines attempts to garner broad-based popular support for a social movement, especially in a society where loyalties remain  divided. This somewhat paradoxical situation underpins a conundrum faced by social movements around the world who are dealing with intransigent regimes. These regimes know that by using violence to radicalise opposition that might otherwise be peaceful, they are creating more violence, which simultaneously bolsters support for the regime amongst existing loyalists or moderates.

While things are rarely black and white, and the Bahrain government has risked isolating those constituents on whom it usually depends for support, it is hard to imagine a fully-fledged all-encompassing Sunni backlash against the regime. For example, protesting against the commutating of death penalties, because they are a concession to the opposition that undermines Bahrain’s justice system, is not the same as wholeheartedly questioning the legitimacy of the justice system. To deem the death penalties that were handed out as just, is to assume that the sentences given out were fair, and not the result of a flawed and corrupt judicial process. (Let us not also forget that calling for a death penalty for someone who was tried in a court deemed by many to be illegitimate is not far from a call to violence.) This tacit support of the justice system is not the same as believing it to be fundamentally flawed.

This partial dissent displayed by elements of society who usually support the regime will only pose a limited threat so long as they do not question the fundamental legitimacy of the regime . Additionally, further acts of violence carried out by activists  will lead to an exaggerated sense of danger that creates a corollary need for protection.  If oppositional forces, and particular the youth,  chooses to become more violent, then that will work to the detriment of implementing regime change since it aggravates sectarianism and creates a further reliance on the regime amongst those who don’t whole heartedly embrace a change in the social order.  Yet this increase in youth violence seems to be fairly clear, and will inevitably make the state less inclined to compromise, thus appeasing its usual supporters by displaying a hardline stance towards activists.

On a personal level, I find it extremely difficult to condone any form of violence.  It is fundamentally dehumanising, and I truly feel as much pity when I see the dead body of a protester, as I do seeing the dead body of a riot officer. That any group of human beings should resort to any form of mutual destruction is absurd. The economic imperatives that drive many of these foreign nationals to carry out violence on behalf of a regime to whom they feel no natural propinquity do not make them less human. In a cruel irony, and one that is of course not unique to Bahrain, the opportunity to better their own lives comes at a cost, and unfortunately that cost is making the lives of many Bahrainis more miserable. That any groups of human beings should be pitted against one another in order that a small elite continue their privileged existence is tragic, and a phenomenon we see occurring around the world. After all, it is inequality that is fundamentally responsible for violence in society, and anyone who justifies a system that promotes inequality is tacitly endorsing a violent society.

In a somewhat paradoxical question, is violence, despite being inevitable,  the best way to affect change? I would say no. I realise I am not in a village that is being teargassed everyday, nor have I had loved ones tortured, killed or disappeared, yet what will it achieve? To justify violence as a form of "holy defence" is troublesome, for surely it will lead to a another crackdown that puts civilians at further risk. Is it not possible to continue the struggle using peaceful disobedience? Many in Bahrain would agree with that, as Friday’s opposition rally showed, and while one hopes that those who advocate peaceful methods outnumber those who do not, 2012 is set to get considerably worse.

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