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Bahrain Analysis: The PR Game, the BBC, and Alkhawaja's Hunger Strike

The surprise news that resonated throughout Tuesday was the five-minute visit of BBC reporter Frank Gardner to detained human rights activist Abdulhadi Alkhawaja on Day 83 of his hunger strike. The photograph of the meeting and Gardner's article testified to a thin but alert Alkhawaja, who maintained that he had been force-fed during the previous week but that he would continue his fast.

Opposition activists were pleased to see that Alkhawaja --- cut off from his family, his lawyer, and the Danish Ambassador for six days until the ban was lifted on Sunday, briefly missing from his room in the military hospital, and feared near death --- was sitting up and coherent. (The BBC went even farther in its article, reporting that Alkhawaja said he had been walking for three days.) But at the same time, some of those activists noted the regime's game in allowing the interview.

After the difficulty of trying to establish that their Grand Prix was a success of "normal" life in a vibrant kingdom, Bahraini officials had found themselves in another jam. In his third month of the hunger strike, Alkhawaja was weakening and refusing to relent on his demand that he and other political prisoners be freed.

The regime cannot or will not back down on that issue. It continues to stall on any resolution and did so again on Monday, under the cover of a "retrial" for Alkhawaja and 20 other activists, 13 of whom are serving lengthy prison sentences. But that meant it cover soon be facing a martyr, bringing in an angry reaction uniting all the factions of the opposition.

The immediate "solution" was to ensure that Alkhawaja stayed alive by force-feeding him. Although no one can prove this, I suspect this is why he was briefly missing from his hospital room eight days ago and why he was cut off from visits. He was fed through a nasogastric tube until the weekend, when it was painfully removed.

With the feeding --- dressed up by the regime media as "drinking nutritional supplements" --- not only staving off death but boosting Alkhawaja's appearance, a photo opportunity could be arranged. Gardner is considered a "safe" reporter by Bahraini authorities, unlike a Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times or Amber Lyon of CNN, and news from the BBC would get speedy international attention. 

The regime could also extract a side benefit from the encounter. For weeks, it has maintained that policemen have been seriously injured by protesters throwing Molotov cocktaills, but photographs of the wounded officers have not circulated, at least outside regime media. Soon after Gardner was granted his visit with Alkhawaja, he posted a photograph of him at the bedside of one of the policemen, accompanied by the Twitter message that hospital staff had told him the officers were in critical condition, with burns over 70% of their bodies.

Regime supporters immediately proclaimed that Alkhawaja, a leader of the "terrorists" who had injured those policemen, was faking his hunger strike and putting out the false claim that he had been force-fed. They propped up Gardner's quote of hospital staff that the activist had received "VIP treatment" but that  foreign media had refused to acknowledge this.

All of which tried to answer the question we put at the start of Tuesday, "How much breathing room can the regime find in this situation?" Unfortunately for Bahrain's leaders, that answer is no more than a few days, unless Alkhawaja relents and resumes a IV drip providing the saline to keep him alive. The only alternative --- barring Alkhawaja's release and that of the other political prisoners --- is the cycle of force-feeding.

Gardner, a careful correspondent in his political manoeuvres as well as his reporting, avoided any assessment beyond his five minutes with the activist. But the BBC had another witness for its article. Alkhawaja's wife, Khadija Almousawi, referring to the court order on Monday for a "retrial", captured the situation in five words:

"They are playing for time."

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