The Middle East Channel

Bahrain's revolutionaries

Bahrain's February 14th movement has become a symbol of resistance and fortitude...and the most powerful political force in Bahrain today. This confederation of loosely organized networks, named after the date of the beginning of Bahrain's revolution, is faceless, secretive, and anonymous. Its tens of thousands of supporters have abandoned the failed leadership of the country's better established, but listless, political opposition. They have suffered the most and have weathered the worst that the regime has so far meted out.

Most outside observers, particularly policymakers hopeful that a political resolution is still possible, have mistakenly ignored the February 14th movement or deemed it irrelevant. The Bahraini government is not interested in reform or reconciliation. It has ignored calls for an end to its assault on pro-democracy forces, and in the last few weeks has actually intensified its crackdown. Security forces have once again laid siege to the country's many poor villages, home to most of its Shiite majority as well as the country's pro-democracy movement. Several people have been killed in the last month by police. Thick and choking tear gas has become a fixture across the island. This recent turn for the worse comes just over four weeks after the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), headed by the respected M. Cherif Bassiouni, released its report charging the government and security forces with using excessive force in its handling of street protests in the spring. Many had hoped that the report would signal a new opportunity for Bahrain's competing political forces to come together and forge a way through the country's impasse. Sadly, neither the government nor the mainstream opposition has risen to the occasion. The country's political crisis is worsening as a result, and the prospects of reform fading from view.

This crisis was avoidable. Earlier this year, most supporters of February 14th called for political reform and for changes that would have, for the most part, kept the country's power structure in place. This is no longer the case. Partly because of the government's self-destructive political instincts and its poor handling of the country's affairs, calls for the fall of the ruling al-Khalifa family have hardened, garnered greater support, and gained legitimacy. As February 14th moves in this more revolutionary direction, it will most likely pull the rest of the opposition along. Bahrain's future will be determined by a test of wills between a government unwilling to accommodate change and an increasingly politicized youth movement unwilling to surrender.

The Bahraini regime has proven consistently unable to understand and combat the February 14th movement. The impulse behind Bahrain's revolution and the foundation for today's decentralized, but highly disciplined and organized, February 14th movement first took shape on the website bahrainonline.org. Launched in 1998, this forum receives over 100,000 visits a day and has long been a source of political activism. Last winter, a loose affiliation of anti-government cyber activists took to its pages, as well as Facebook and Twitter, and collectively organized a social protest movement.

It was this movement that inspired tens of thousands of people to converge on the Pearl Roundabout, in the capital of Manama, in February and March. Demonstrators were violently expelled several times, first on February 17 and then again in mid-March, when Saudi Arabian and Emirati military forces arrived in support of the Bahrain regime. Energized by the massive street support in February and March, the activists took to more traditional forms of grassroots organizing and forged an umbrella network known as the "Coalition of February 14 Youth."  The Coalition operates more as a collective than a traditional organization. It relies on a broad base of supporters who first generate ideas for dissent or particular kinds of activism in various digital forums. Once they achieve consensus, members turn to grassroots campaigning. In almost every protest today, banners bearing revolutionary slogans are also adorned with the small logo of the "Coalition." Its inclusion is not just a symbol of affiliation, but it is also a signal of the power of decentralization and community, and is representative of the new kind of mass politics that has swept the region more generally.

Since the spring, the sophistication, reach, and influence of the movement have expanded. Indeed, the February 14th youth are not only focused on sustaining the protest movement, but they are also increasingly escalating it. While the Pearl Roundabout, which served as a central gathering point for protesters, has been destroyed, the protest movement lives on. Bahrain's revolutionaries have been neither quelled nor crushed. Rather, they have become dispersed. While they have been unable to congregate in mass, their power to mobilize nationally remains strong. The movement has successfully organized weekly protests by coordinating efforts across Bahrain's many small villages. It has also remained defiantly committed to non-violent protest. This is particularly remarkable, since the government has devoted considerable effort and resources to violently repressing the villages, isolating them, and imposing a rigid security cordon that limits mobility and people's ability to organize more broadly.

February 14th has demonstrated its power to mobilize time and again. In late September it inspired activists who tried to breakout from the security cordon to re-converge on the Pearl Roundabout. Demonstrators were pushed back by heavy security, but they made clear their determination to continue to test the government's resolve. The February 14th youth maintain a weekly protest schedule (under the theme of "self-determination") and have also taken up other kinds of civil disobedience. In September activists launched a campaign known as "dignity belt" that disrupted car traffic across the country. The campaign was repeated several times in the fall. In October thousands of activists participated in a symbolic act of dissent in which they successfully evaded security forces and passed over 15 "torches of freedom" from one embattled village to another. Villagers have also taken to burning tires, turning the country's sky black when all else has proven impossible. Mostly recently, the organization called for what turned into the most widespread day of protests in months. Deemed the "Decisive Movement," what started off as a coordinated day of family picnics outside their front doors, escalated to a call for everyone to take to the main road.

Activists have also recently been successful at chipping away at the security forces' efforts to contain them in villages. Video from a protest that took place this fall at the Centre City shopping mall, one of the country's main retail outlets located close to the Ritz Carlton Hotel, was distributed widely. In December the movement organized an effort to occupy one of the country's main thoroughfares, the Budaiya Highway, an effort that was partly inspired by the international Occupy movement. The protest, which might have otherwise gone unnoticed outside Bahrain, gained international attention because security forces were videotaped arresting, and treating harshly, the prominent youth activist Zainab al-Khawaja, whose father, the human rights activist Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja, was sentenced to life in prison earlier this year.

February 14th's anonymity has proven to be a political necessity. In February and March the country's political powerbrokers, both from within the regime and the traditional opposition such as al-Wefaq, called for leaders of the February 14th movement to identify themselves and air their demands. Skeptical, the movement's dispersed leadership refused, fearful that a formal declaration would result in their imprisonment. Their reticence proved wise. Since March over 40 people have been killed, up to 3,000 arrested, and thousands more fired from their jobs. Considering that the revolutionary movement has gained in strength and is flourishing in spite of the crackdown, many Bahrainis take delight in the belief that that the government has failed to arrest the right people. Security forces have detained notable activists, but have failed completely to understand the nature of the movement and its capacity to regenerate.

The revolutionaries' resilience has also come at a cost. Because the regime has been unable to control the protest movement, let alone to identify a leadership, they have taken to viewing everyone as a threat. The result has been the assumption of collective guilt and the imposition of collective punishment. The regime and its supporters view all villagers as potential traitors, part of the logic that has fueled its vindictiveness. And while the February 14th movement has steadfastly prioritized non-violent resistance, the regime has made no such promise. Security forces continue to use a variety of means, including the heavy use of tear-gas to break up protests, and to punish entire communities.

February 14th has also challenged the power of the traditional political opposition, most notably al-Wefaq, the country's largest Shiite political society. Al-Wefaq has continued to call for political reform as the answer to the political crisis. But it has failed to convince the government to make serious concessions and it has failed to convince supporters of February 14th that reform is still possible. While al-Wefaq would prefer a negotiated resolution, its leaders understand that any attempt to work with the government alone would result in marginalization from the youth and undermine its authority. As a result, al-Wefaq has been forced to follow. As violence escalates, it will eventually be put in a position where it will have to reevaluate whether it will remain pro-reform or whether it too will become a revolutionary force.

Because the February 14th movement is clearly committed to sweeping political change, the network is more closely aligned with opposition figures who are currently in prison, including Hassan Mushaima', Abd al-Jalil Singace, and Ebrahim Sharif, than they are to al-Wefaq. Many Bahrainis believe that only those in prison wield influence over the February 14th youth. Therefore, any deal that excludes them or is struck by al-Wefaq through dialogue with the government alone would be disregarded by the youth. And protests would continue.

There are risks for the government and its supporters in continuing to ignore the substance of the February 14th movement's demands. Although they have remained mostly committed to non-violence, the youth are radicalizing and increasingly seeking to provoke confrontations with security forces. But, a violent turn is not inevitable. Whatever choices February 14th makes about tactics, considering their growing power, the legacy of their efforts will be with Bahrain for a generation. Finding a political resolution that will appease them and end the protests will prove difficult unless the core issues that mobilize them are addressed. Since repression has failed, Bahrain's revolution lives on.

Toby C. Jones teaches Middle East history at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. He is the author of "Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia" (Harvard, 2010). Follow him on twitter @tobycraigjones. Dr. Ala'a Shehabi is a British-born Bahraini and an economics lecturer in Bahrain. She has a PhD from Imperial College London and previously worked as a policy analyst for RAND Europe, part of the RAND Corporation. Follow here on twitter @alaashehabi.

Marc Lynch

Best Books on the Middle East, 2011

It's time for the official, Aardvark-certified list of the Best Books on the Middle East for 2011! (See last year's winners here.) Next year's list will undoubtedly be dominated by books addressing this year's uprisings which have transformed the Arab world, but not many significant books on the topic were published in 2011.  That'll hopefully change on March 27, when my own book The Arab Uprising comes out -- don't worry, it won't be eligible for the 2012 awards of course! -- and, all joking aside, when a number of great journalists and scholars weigh in with books in the pipeline.  In the meantime, you can always go back to Revolution in the Arab World, the eBook based on Foreign Policy articles, which I think remains an outstanding guide to the first few months.

First, the ground rules. The awards are limited to English-language books that were published in calendar year 2011 and which dealt primarily with the contemporary broader Middle East. I read more than 65 books published this year which fit that description, from academic and trade presses alike. The award is entirely subjective, based on what I found impressive or interesting. There's no committee, no publishers sent me free copies or offered up lucrative swag, and I couldn't read everything -- especially if books were published too late in the year or if publishers insisted on releasing them only as $90 hardcovers. If your book didn't make the list, however, then you know what do do (hint: you really can't go wrong by blaming Blake Hounshell).

And with that...the 2011 Aardvark Awards for the Best Books on the Middle East:

Book of the Year

Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia, by Stephane LaCroix (Harvard University Press). Awakening Islam is an astonishingly rich, detailed analysis of the fascinating world of Saudi Islamism. The young French scholar Stephane LaCroix spent significant time in Saudi Arabia, and got deep inside the competing networks that have shaped Saudi Arabia's distinctive Islamist milieu. He unpacks the role of Muslim Brothers and Salafis and their sometimes-uneasy relationship with the state. He carefully traces the evolution of the Sahwa (Awakening) networks, and how they both carried political dissent and re-structured the pathways of political mobilization. And while he certainly pays attention to militant jihadism and the worldview which helped spawn al-Qaeda, that does not overwhelm his broader analytical mission.  This book is simply an extraordinary accomplishment, and should be required reading for anyone interested in the politics of Islam. Read LaCroix on the Middle East Channel: "Saudi Islamists and the Potential for Protest" (June 2, 2011).

Runner Up

Violence, Non-Violence and the Palestinian National Movement, by Wendy Pearlman (Cambridge University Press). Pearlman has produced a beautifully written, deeply researched, and theoretically sophisticated overview of a century of Palestinian political mobilization. She goes deep inside the political opportunities and obstacles which have shaped Palestinian decisions about violence and non-violent mobilization, with a particularly rich and insightful reading of both of the Intifadas.  Nobody should ever again dare ask "where is the Palestinian Gandhi?" before reading her book.  This is the best kind of scholarship, and deserves a wide readership -- which I fear it will not get, unless Cambridge decides to quickly issue it in an affordable paperback version instead of as an absurdly expensive $99 hardcover. Read Pearlman on the Middle East Channel: "A New Palestinian Intifada?" (Oct. 10, 2011).

Honorable Mentions

Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, by Timothy Mitchell (Verso). Mitchell offers an alternative reading of the political and economic history of the Middle East that offers new interpretations of the impact of the struggle for the control of oil. Carbon Democracy ranges widely over the 20th century, placing oil not only at the center of U.S. foreign policy and the evolution of state structures and popular protest in the Middle East but also at the evolution of the disciplines of economics and political theory. Like many such alternative readings, Mitchell sometimes pushes his argument too far and produces contestable historical interpretations. But Carbon Democracy is a challenging, sophisticated, and important book that undermines expectations in the best kind of intellectual provocation. Read Mitchell on the Middle East Channel...next year!

The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square, by Steven Cook (Oxford University Press). Cook's timely, well-written history offers the best up to date review of Egypt's modern political history through the opening months of the revolution that brought down Hosni Mubarak. His account of how the 1952 Egyptian revolution produced the Nasserist authoritarian regime is more relevant today than ever, as is his discussion of the final years of the decaying Mubarak regime -- including intriguing new evidence about Gamal Mubarak's activities.  I'm still just glad that he didn't go with his editor's original suggested title, "Why the Mubaraks Will Never Ever Fall No Matter What Even If Martians Attack and Eat the Pyramids." Read Cook on the Middle East Channel: "The Frankenstein of Tahrir Square" (Dec. 19, 2011).

Also....
Finally, I found a huge number of books about other regions of the world to be critically important in shaping my thinking about the unfolding events in the Arab world this year. Of those, I'd like to recommend one in particular: The Justice Cascade, by Kathryn Sikkink (Norton). Sikkink, a leading IR scholar and Latin America specialist, details the growth of the norm of human rights prosecutions for regime officials responsible for atrocities against their own people. Whether such a norm can take hold in a changing Arab world strikes me as one of the most interesting and important questions out there -- I'm developing an academic research project on it, at any rate, so I hope so!  Sikkink presents an invaluable guide to the possibilities of normative and political change in world politics.

Congratulations to all the winning authors -- we hope that the honor and prestige and Aardvark love compensates for the complete absence of any cash prize.

And then, tradition demands.... 


Tradition demands that I also present here my picks for the top hip-hop albums of the year. And so I shall. Top of the list is Watch the Throne, by Jay-Z and Kanye West. I wasn't blown away by this one at first, especially after the ridiculously high bar set by the first single Otis.  But this adventurous, playful, and surprisingly mature album really grew on me over repeated listenings and after seeing them perform at the Verizon Center in DC. See Jay-Z and Kanye on the Middle East Channel here: Jay-Z's Hegemony in the Age of Kanye.

Next comes J. Cole's wonderful, smart debut Cole World: The Sideline Story, which finally brought one of my favorite rappers from the mixtapes to a wider public. Pusha T's Fear of God II EP was wicked (I think I played the first verse of Trouble on My Mind 17 times in a row at one point). I liked Kendrick Lamar's Section 80, and Monumental by Pete Rock and Smif n Wessum. I wanted to like the new albums by Wale, Big Sean, Game, the Roots, Talib Kweli and especially Lupe Fiasco but I just didn't really feel them.   And I really liked the various collections of revolutionary Arab rap that everyone kept sending me this year, and I hope y'all will keep sending them. I'm still bummed that Lauren Bohn managed to track down El General in the south of Tunisia for an FP interview while I had to settle for seekng J.Cole, Jay Z and Kanye in DC.

Thanks for a great 2011, everyone -- and get on those great books and great albums which might earn you an Aardvark Award of your own in 2012!