Bahrain: The Stories that Aren't Being Covered
May 7, 2012
Anonymous Activist / Al Jazeera
Bahraini human rights activists discuss issues that aren't getting covered. Nabeel Rajab -- arrested on May 5 -- is one of Bahrain's most well-known human rights activists and president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. Mohammed is a pseudonym for an activist. Abdulhadi Khalaf is a professor of sociology at Lund University and Ala'a Shehabi is a political activist based in Manama. These interviews were conducted by Al Jazeera via email, skype and in person.
(May 6, 2012) -- Nabeel Rajab -- arrested on May 5 by Bahraini authorities -- is one of Bahrain's most well-known human rights activists and president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. Mohammed is a pseudonym for an activist. Abdulhadi Khalaf is a professor of sociology at Lund University and Ala'a Shehabi is a political activist and commentator based in Manama. These interviews were conducted by Al Jazeera via email, skype and in person.
What is the story that's not being covered?
Mohammed:The scale of the ongoing and continual violations of human rights are not being explained by the media. Even compared with Syria, the numbers of Bahrainis who have been tortured and otherwise abused and killed is quite high.
Nabeel Rajab: The problem is still that most commentators focus on the Sunni-Shia split as the most important issue, when the real story is about a nation fighting for democracy and a proper political and economic system, free from corruption.
Ala'a Shehabi:If we want to get away from general terms and move to more specific stories about people's daily lives during the uprising, the way people are living with being tear-gassed on a daily basis and the long term effects of tear gas on people's health is an important story. The volume and frequency of exposure in Bahrain is much higher than anywhere else in the world. At least 500 canisters a day are being used within what is geographically very small areas, most of them residential.
Just a few days ago I counted fifty empty tear gas canisters just walking down the street. But because tear gas is considered "non-lethal", the media and foreign governments assume it's not such a big deal. But police use tear gas as a weapon of collective punishment; it's being fired inside homes and in confined spaces in villages.
Rajab: In fact, the US no longer supplies tear gas to Bahrain because the company that makes it realised that it's not being using properly. Now it's mostly China and Brazil that are the main suppliers, although the Brazilian government claims that its tear gas was re-exported without permission by countries to which it was legitimately sold.
Mohammed:In addition, the tear gas has caused a high number of miscarriages by women, about which Nabeel's organisation recently published a report. More recently, shotgun or bird shot pellets are also becoming a major source of casualties. Especially in the lead-up to the Formula One race, many protesters were shot at close range with bird pellets, causing serious injuries.
What about the larger political context in the wake of the F1 race?
Rajab: It's clear that the situation is heading more towards confrontation than towards any kind of amelioration.
Abdulhadi Khalaf:It's important to note that the effects of the tear gas in a small country without any trees or a way to absorb the chemicals and break them down naturally is compounded by the disastrous situation of environmental pollution in Shia areas of the country. More positively, however, one issue that isn't talked about enough is the fantastic change in women's participation.
This is fascinating and very important for the dynamics and future of the protests. For students of Bahrain's history, when the villages have always been spaces where women were excluded from the public sphere by religious authorities and tradition, to see their greater participation now marks a major cultural and political shift.
In fact, now it's more women than men protesting. In the 1970s, those religious authorities that called for protests or marches wanted women to stay at home and to be excluded from public space. Now they are tolerating and even encouraging their presence, which is actually being celebrated within Shia society. Mothers are celebrating that their daughters are out on the streets; they aren't calling them to stay home or to "keep their honour".
Shehabi:There's a clear reason for that, as the conflict became more about survival. During a state of emergency when men were being arrested, disappeared, tortured, etc; that's when women started going out, in part as a way of protecting men. At least that is the transformation that happened in me, after my husband was arrested for ten months.
Rajab: Of course, many of the leading campaigners and activists, like Abdulhadi and myself, are so-called liberal and secular. That has played a role; we have more women participating because we encouraged women a lot.
Khalaf:True, but that's not unique for the secular opposition to encourage women. What's unique I think is that women's public role was formerly a mostly urban phenomenon, and now you also see it in the villages.
Shehabi:Society as a whole, particularly men, are celebrating the presence of women in the protests, whether they face police directly, treat the injured, or paint or do other forms of street art.
Are Sunni Bahrainis becoming more involved in the protests?
Shehabi:In general there isn't a culture of protest among the Sunni community, though Sunni were present in significant numbers during the occupation of Pearl square. Pro-government Sunni have been mobilised by the state and have organised a few rallies the past year.
But it's clear that greater numbers of Sunni are becoming sympathetic to the protests as they come to understand that the intense government propaganda and even incitement against Shia are grossly inaccurate and unfair. But with a few exceptions it hasn't yet translated into significant political action, though that is beginning to change, as we saw when a Sunni MP demanded the resignation of the prime minister -- who has been in power for 42 years.
Rajab: There are two types of Sunni reactions. First, there are the people who have benefited from the current political and economic system, and for whom the continuity of protests is going to hurt them, and so they are no longer as strongly supporting the government -- and even beginning to oppose it. The second group is the Sunni who were misled, as Ala'a explained, and are now realising this. For example, there are now more Sunni involved in Twitter conversations and exchanges questioning the government accounts and rationale for its actions. This is very important.
Mohammed:The Sunni were fed the story that if the revolution succeeds, Bahrain would become just like Iran. But now they realise that there is just no chance there's going to be an Islamic Republic in Bahrain. My Sunni friends increasingly have exactly the same demands as I do, so it's only a matter of time before we start stating them together. The local Bahraini Sunni also have increasing troubles with all the newcomers -- Pakistanis, Syrians, Yemenis, Jordanians -- who've been brought in as mercenaries and given Bahraini citizenship to boost the percentage of Sunni in the population. The Sunni are starting to understand that it's not our fault that this is happening, although they won't support us yet politically.
Why haven't they become more active yet?
Rajab: First, you have to realise that to be a Sunni in the opposition is not easy. Not only will the government turn against you and your job threatened, but very often your own family will go against you. Shia have nothing to lose, but if you look at someone like Sunni politician Ibrahim Sharif, half of his family has boycotted him. Other politicians like Ussama Tammimi, who is a Sunni MP and the only member of parliament to have served in the 1973 and the 2002 parliaments, has suffered for his support for change.
Khalaf:It's clear that the poor and working class Sunnis are discovering that they are also losers in the current system. Before, they always new that, whatever else happened, they could always hope that their sons and daughters would be recruited into the system, especially the army and security services.
But now the government just hires the Pakistanis and other foreigners, so they are losing out. Now they're not sure they'll get a job. They don't have to compete only with poor Shia now, but also 100 million Pakistanis. So this gives them reason to reconsider their position. Some, of course, react by being even more loyal, to win favour, and others are starting to join those groups that start to put demands on the regime.
Mohammed:This is definitely scaring the royals. Essentially today the Sunni are taking the same position here that the Alawi are taking in Syria: They're the minority and will be wiped out if the majority takes over. But that discourse can't last forever.
Shehabi:The class dimension is also key; the way Sunni leaders and the state-controlled media speak of the protesters with such revulsion. It can't continue much longer without turning even other Sunni against them.
Khalaf:This is similar to the views of poor whites in the US against blacks who have, in the past, been their main competition for jobs, but when even cheaper immigrant labour comes in, their positions change.
But at one point, will the Sunni join the revolution?
Khalaf:They won't join the revolution as it is now. They will have their own revolution, on a different but parallel track. It's starting, but it's not the same as the Shia revolution and won't converge just yet. The schism is still so deep, but no one can know precisely when it will converge.
Shehabi:We're not necessarily confused about the Sunni position, but no one can really know the direction it will move. One thing is for sure, they are just as fed up with the political conflict as the Shia and are finding ways to configure their movement to put their demands for reform that are largely economic, such as housing, education, health.
What's the US and broader Western role at this point in the internal Bahraini dynamic?
Rajab: The Americans realise that more groups are coming out against them, so they're becoming worried. In fact, some of us are also worried that people are becoming more anti-American and that could create a self-fulfilling prophecy of moving towards Iran. It is increasingly the feeling among people now. And, if tomorrow, Iran would offer people help, even through violence, the reaction would be different than a year ago, when it would have been largely dismissed out of hand.
The problem is that the Americans have felt that in a proper democracy, Bahrainis would be pro-Iranian, but that wasn't true before. And now it is starting to happen, especially given the amount of coverage the Iranian media is giving to the protests, compared with the Arab and Western media.
Shehabi:Of course, the US is still firmly backing the al-Khalifas, backing "legitimate demands" but not really pushing fiercely for any substantive change. None of the major powers are backing the opposition, even the al-Wefaq party, which the US considered "moderate".
And because of this, because of the predominant US role (given the presence of the fifth fleet), the US is creating hatred for its foreign policy now more than ever. For the first time, we see protests specifically directed against the US. People aren't against Americans, but US policy. And the British as well, given its colonial legacy.
Khalaf:Yes, but the most vocal anti-American voices are, in fact, the Sunni -- who are angry at any pressure put on the regime. So it's coming from both sides now, for opposite reasons.
What about the youth? They've been central to the protests -- and now the resistance -- from the start. How is their role changing?
Rajab: Their role is, more than anything, being in the streets, keeping the pressure up. This and ensuring unity within the Shia opposition and with the Sunni who are close to them.
Shehabi:There is an underground youth movement that is developing, which we haven't begun to understand. It's called the February 14th Youth Movement and, for a long time, the government wouldn't acknowledge its existence, but it's there. It's the youth self-identifying with themselves. Every new social media account on Twitter or Facebook set up by a protester has the movement's icons, either the Pearl monument, the date February 14th on it, pictures of martyrs, etc.
But the new thing is that they are completely anonymous, decentralised, and work in provincial networks across villages. This is the very opposite of the way activists like myself work -- we on the other end are very open; I publicise precisely where I am and what I'm doing and saying, the idea is that there's safety in complete exposure, which makes it harder for me to be a target.
In this regard, the indiscriminate government repression has created a new generation of activists. when you are suddenly arrested for no reason other than your sect, you lose all agency. I never had the chance to decide to become political and to consider the consequnces. it happened so fast I had no time to make the calculations of whether I should and could risk everything.
I found myself as a single mother when my husband was arrested, I found myself in a military court to see him, I saw him sentenced and jailed before I could comprehend what was happening. This is what impassions and radicalises activists and makes the Bahraini protest movement so dynamic.
Where did the movement emerge from?
Shehabi:Most met at the Pearl last year. The crackdown was severe and it took one to two months for many to emerge online and form new networks, and then suddenly they were on the street in the villages -- despite the presence of Saudi and other GCC troops. This time they were decentralised and anonymous, wearing masks.
Mohammed:The youth know what they're giving up their life for. They are inspired and committed in a way that inspires the rest of the community.
Who is the biggest influence on the protest movement more broadly now?
Rajab: In beginning we had outside inspiration; Egypt and the other revolutions. But now [we have] our own models that have developed over the course of the struggle. It's not like it was at the beginning.
Shehabi:The protests are sustained by the belief that this is an extension of decades of national strugge for self-determination. the continuing suppression by the state has also turned the protests into a form of resistence against the state and people have remoulded their lives around their perceived need to agitate. Meanwhile, we have entered a vicious cycle of protest, suppression, killing, more protest.
I think the growing success of protests is epitomised by the Formula One disaster for the government -- the way events spiralled out of their control -- the F1, the hunger strike, etc all had an impact. The media attention was finally focusing on Bahrain and the protests. The US and other Western governments have responded with verbal pressure on the government, to release political prisoners for example.
The response has been so strong, that today in the media the government is even saying that if it's going to suffer this much just for hosting an international event maybe it's not worth it. The hope is that the state heeds the message and enacts change. Alternatively, pressure could go in the opposite direction as the ruling family grows more isolated; it now wants to become an explicit vassal state of Saudi Arabia. The ball is in the government's court, as protests rage unabated.
Khalaf:I'm not sure this view is not too optimistic. We're in a stalemate. There is no apparent way out, and the regime and the opposition recognise this but the regime has more options. One that is now being raised in fact is some sort of formal liaison with Saudi Arabia, some sort of official confederation that would give the Saudis the cover to remain militarily in Bahrain for a long time. This shows how desparate they are, and it will cost a lot to the Saudis.
Shehabi:Would this mean that Bahrain would become a province of Saudi Arabia?
Khalaf:No. It would focus on unifying foreign policy and security, to make the Saudi presence more legitimate. The problem is that, at the same time, elements of the opposition are saying that they might even accept more direct Iranian interference, which is a sign of desperation on their side too. So they have to come up with a reasonable solution, but neither side is yet ready or able.
Rajab: The main thing now is to try not to let the government get used to the current situation, to make problems and keep them on edge. We have to agitate. Bahrain is too small to push out the Shia from their minds, so Sunni do feel the realities on the ground. For the past 20 years the government created apartheid, with Sunni controlling most land, and limiting or excluding Shia presence on much of it. But this isn't sustainable.
Mohammed:Economic sanctions would be key, from Western countries against regime members involved in torture and the like. Of course, this won't happen, but at least it's being brought up in the relevant UN bodies.
Rajab: It's also affecting the artistic scene. For the past 20 to 30 years the scene has been dominated by Islamists, and even now the Bahraini government can still "buy" artists, from Egypt for example, who will essentially sing its praises. But now we are in a new era and there are young people creating new art, finally, which is having an impact.
Are there difference capacities that the protesters are acquiring, and what role is the diaspora playing in this development?
Mohammed:What upsets us is how the media outlets have put out the idea of the protests having stopped and then started again, when in fact they've continued without end since the beginning. Our goal then is to raise awareness and encourage and support the changing of opinions in Western countries and to help support the legitimate demands on the streets.
To develop further a democracy [instead of security] discourse. We don't really focus on fundraising for relief or things like that, but more getting out the message from the ground on a daily basis.
Khalaf:Bahraini exiles have long played a decisive role in the struggle for freedom. This ended in 2001 when most of us were allowed to return, some joining forces with other activists in the country, while others were co-opted by the regime. Following March 15, 2011, when the Saudis entered the country and the state of emergency was declared, the massive crack down on the political opposition led to many fleeing the country -- going to places like Lebanon and various countries in Europe.
The emerging diaspora political community, comprised of journalists, writers, poets and academics, is taking a more visible role in Bahraini politics all the time. This role is not limited to publicising activities at home, but also, increasingly, in redefining the political agenda of various opposition groups. Their social media presence has blurred the barrier between local and diaspora activism.
Shehabi:Over the past year, people have organised themselves provincially in different villages and have developed their own local media committees to report on and identity the problems. This is the counterpoint to the government PR efforts, but on a grassroots level. It's important to note here that Bahrain is the most wired country in the Arab world -- 40 to 50 per cent is on Facebook and Twitter, and because of the complete state control of traditional media, everyone gets their news from social media, even as the government also uses social media, for direct persecution and repression of journalists, cyber and citizen journalists.
The big problem is that the revolutionaries are radicalising at a very fast pace, and I fear that the struggle will turn into an armed conflict in the absence of any resolution in the near future.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.
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