In a fiery speech given at the Shiite opposition bloc Al-Wefaq’s rally entitled ‘Homeland for Everyone’ on June 11, the group’s secretary general Shaikh Ali Salman exclaimed with reference to Army Chief Marshal Shaikh Khalifa bin Ahmed, “You have to know that we have been raised to prepare for death. You have to know that with only two words of a Fatwa (religious command), this nation would give tens of thousands to martyrdom.” The sudden escalation in Shaikh Salman’s rhetoric came as a surprise; it seemed at first unprovoked and inexplicable. In response, His Majesty the King appeared two days later in military attire at army headquarters and vowed not to tolerate insults against the army, warning that, “without doubt it is our duty not to allow this to be repeated.” He said, “The executive agencies must take the necessary legal measures to deter these violations.” However, the government to date appears to have taken very little action, if any at all, against either Shaikh Salman or his group.
On June 12, CNN Arabic reported that Bahrain’s main political parties - including Al-Wefaq - had unconditionally agreed to enter a British-sponsored dialogue with the government. The report came one day after British Chief Envoy to the Middle East Sir Alistair Burt’s visit to Bahrain during which he met with several figures including the Minister of the Royal Court Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed – Army Chief Marshal Khalifa bin Ahmed’s brother – well-known for his ultraconservative stance. Sir Burt’s visit also coincided with the announcement of the Bahrain Foundation for Reconciliation and Civil Discourse, an initiative that aims – as its name suggests- at facilitating social reconciliation and that is seen as having the Crown Prince Shaikh Salman bin Hamad’s support.
With this in mind and given this context of pre-dialogue talks, does Shaikh Ali Salman’s sudden attack of rhetorical hyperbole seem strange? I think not. Consider Bertrand Russell’s famous metaphor known as the ‘game of chicken’ wherein two fast cars head towards one another at great speed. The first player to swerve in order to avoid a head-on collision loses and is consequently called “chicken!”, allowing the other player to win. Clearly, if neither player swerves, the cars end up colliding, leading to catastrophic results for all.
Over the past year or so, the government and the opposition have both been locked in a game of chicken. As long as both parties adopt a hawkish stance, they are sure to lose: the government witnesses a deterioration in its sovereign credit risk rating, the economy and its reputation worldwide, whereas the Al-Wefaq opposition bloc loses increasingly more ground to radical revolutionary groups and remains excluded from the political system. With both parties refusing to back down though, Shaikh Ali Salman resorted to an arm-twisting intimidation tactic through his aforementioned speech called “throwing the steering wheel out of the window”. This helps him appear more radical before the imminent dialogue and may potentially allow him to obtain greater concessions. He could rightly, up until now at least, count on his crucial role in this supposedly British-American sponsored dialogue for immunity against any potential government action directed at him.
By using inflammatory rhetoric however, both the opposition and the government run the risk of radicalizing their respective constituencies and decreasing the likelihood of agreement, a prospect most likely to be analogous to shooting oneself in the foot.
The government seems to have finally gotten around to replying personally to Shaikh Ali Salman who was injured in an unauthorized rally last Friday, indicating that he may have overplayed his hand. The King’s most recent speech also cast a shadow of doubt on the prospect of a British-American sponsored dialogue.