Inside Bahrain After the Crackdown
Nada Alwadi was a reporter for Al-Wasat, Bahrain’s most popular daily newspaper and one that has a reputation for independence. Its editor, Dr Mansoor Al-Jamri, was removed from his position between April and August of 2011, when the paper allowed the views of the popular rebellion to enter its pages. Nada Alwadi was one of the journalists who reported honestly about the events on the streets of Manama, Bahrain’s capital, and in the rest of the small kingdom. She was detained for 10 hours in April when a photograph of her at a journalists’ protest at the Pearl Roundabout surfaced. At the time of the crackdown, she spoke bravely about what was happening in her country, including the arrests of fellow journalists. She lost her job at Al-Wasat and at a semi-governmental media agency. Nada Alwadi then left the country. She founded the Bahraini Press Association as a vehicle to fight for the right of journalists to report stories freely. She now lives in Washington, D.C.
Bahrain, a monarchy since the 18th century, has had a long-standing constitutional movement—a demand for genuine political rights for the people. This movement has oscillated between the provision of reforms by the monarchy and then the rescinding of these reforms, be it in the National Assembly or the promises of the Constitutions of 1973 and 2002. It is assumed that the movement is republican, that is to say that it wishes to do away with the al-Khalifa dynasty. Is this entirely true? Is part of the movement not simply a liberal demand for a genuine constitutional monarchy?
Yes, Bahrain has had a long-standing political movement demanding genuine political rights for the people since the 1950s. Some even date the first movement to the rising of the divers and fishermen in the 1920s. Over the past century, this movement has taken so many shapes, raised different demands, from calling for independence from the British to labour rights, to political participation. If there is something all those different movements show, it is the vibrant nature of the people who live in this island. This vibrancy explains their movement in 2011.
It’s hard to explain the actual demands of the movement in Bahrain without explaining the different political groups on the ground who are keeping the movement alive. Since the 2011 uprising, we were able to distinguish between two camps: the pragmatic camp, which consists of the formal opposition parties [al-Wefaq, Waad, al-Menbar and others]. The main demand of this camp was described in a document the parties issued in 2011, called “the Manama Document”. In this document, they explained that their main political demand was the formation of a constitutional monarchy with an elected government [prime minister] with less power in the hands of the King and more in the hands of Parliament. The second camp, which we can call “idealists” or radicals, consists of several other political groups not formally registered under Bahraini law. They were the ones who called for a republic and refused to deal with the existing government authorities and the ruling family.
Regardless of the political framework or demands, the essence of what the Bahraini public are calling for remains the same: social justice, political rights, freedom of expression and respect of human rights, as well as putting an end to the system which favours those in the ruling family and discriminates against others.
In 2011, on February 14, the opposition decided to conduct a “Days of Wrath” protest to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the successful referendum for a national charter. If events in Tunisia and Egypt had not unfolded in the way they did (with the departure of Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak in each), would the Bahrain protests have had the character that they had? In other words, would they have been as forceful?
This is an extremely interesting question to explore. And in order to answer this question we need to go back to the events leading up to February 14, 2011. Political events started to heat up in Bahrain by the middle of 2010. And in August, the government jailed several political activists who were very critical of the government. Restrictions were placed on the media, with several websites and blogs being blocked. Things were leading to a political explosion. The Arab Spring provided the perfect opportunity.
The wave of the Arab Spring can explain two major reactions: the first one is the reaction of the people in Bahrain, when hundreds of thousands of citizens joined the protests, which were originally organised by a few groups. The huge participation can definitely be attributed to the Arab Spring, what happened in Tunisia and Egypt. In other words, if there was no Arab Spring, people would still have organised protests in Bahrain, but the participation wouldn’t have been as big.
The second reaction, which can also be explained by the wave of the Arab Spring, is the reaction of the government. From the beginning, 2011 was a very intense year for governments in the Arab world, and Bahrain was not an exception. The Bahraini government decided to use force and violence against the protesters. It realised later that this was a major mistake. The use of force created sympathy towards the protesters and more people joined the movement. I would argue that the effect of the collapse of regimes in the region was very scary to the Bahraini government and led it to use excessive force to contain the movement from the beginning before it could spread. The backfiring of this policy was seen over the past two years in Bahrain. Regardless of the harsh treatment towards the activists, the movement continued to grow stronger.
So, it might be safe to say that this was bound to happen in Bahrain anyway, but the wave of the Arab Spring intensified it and speeded it up.
You were in Bahrain during the uprising of 2011. How would you characterise the protests? The regime says that they tended towards terrorism and that they were inspired by Iran. How accurate is that assessment? If it is not accurate, then why did the regime try to push that narrative forward?
During the period of two months when the protesters decided to camp in the Pearl Roundabout, I was going there almost every day interviewing people and writing their stories. The atmosphere during that period [February and March 2011] was something similar to a celebration. People were meeting each other and learning about each other’s stories. Political debates and discussions were held every night. Organised rallies and marches were held every day. There was an art section for creative work and artists. There were women, children and old people in the crowd. It basically felt like a festival of ideas and dreams for many people. However, the everyday images which I saw were wrongfully portrayed by the local media. While people chanted for unity between Sunnis and Shias, the Bahrain TV talked about how violent and sectarian the protesters were. Many stories have been fabricated by the state media, and many rumours spread since the very early stages of the movement to frame it as sectarian. Basically, the state media was acting like a hate machine to spread lies in order to make people scared of this huge gathering at Pearl Roundabout so that they wouldn’t join.
The reason for using the sectarian card framing the protesters as Iranian agents was clear from day one. It was an attempt to divide the public and scare them away from joining the movement. This narrative is still being pushed by the regime in Bahrain even after much evidence which proves that the movement in Bahrain was indigenous and that there was no Iranian involvement in it. This was proved in the report of the independent commission of inquiry.
I think this narrative will continue to be pushed by the government in Bahrain, especially with the rise of sectarianism in the region. It is the only card left to avoid facing the reality of change, which must happen soon, especially since people in Bahrain, and in the region, have made it clear that they will not tolerate authoritarian rule any longer.
When the Saudi-driven Jazeera force crossed the causeway in March 2011, the assumption was that it wanted to crush the rebellion because the Bahraini regime had lost control of the events. Is this a reasonable assessment?
Not really, the protesters in Bahrain were peaceful and they were not carrying any weapons. And the Bahraini police forces were very much able to crush the gathering if that was their main objective. The use of the Dera al Jazeera in the event in Bahrain was mainly to send a very important political and symbolic message to the Bahrainis and to the United States in particular. It was a reminder that Bahrain is still Saudi territory and that the ruling family in Bahrain is backed by the Saudis. It was a symbolic message to the U.S. to back off from pressuring the Bahraini government, and a message to the Bahraini opposition groups to scare them away from the results of their actions.
Despite the crackdown in 2011, the movement has not ended. There has, however, been a major, and barely reported, attack on human rights activists, members of al-Wefaq party and journalists. Recently, Maryam al-Khwaja was denied entry into Bahrain on a British Airways flight. She is the one of the leaders of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. Her father and sister are in prison, as is Nabeel Rajab, the former head of the BCHR. You yourself left Bahrain in 2012 because you felt unable to practise your craft as a journalist. Could you characterise the situation for the opposition, as well as for journalists?
The situation of Bahraini journalists, activists and human rights defenders has not been easy since the crackdown. A number of journalists, activists and bloggers died after being tortured in prison. Until today, no one has been held to account, which sheds some light on the issue of impunity in Bahrain.
Many activists, politicians and normal citizens decided to leave the county after receiving major threats or on being targeted by the authorities. A recent development was the jailing of al-Wefaq’s leader, Khalil al-Marzooq, who is accused of “advocating for terrorism”. These acts show that there is no hope for the ongoing dialogue with the government, especially since al-Marzooq’s party was one of the few opposition groups that were calling for peaceful demonstrations and were engaged in the dialogue with the government despite being criticised by the hardliners.
It is also safe to say that there is no real freedom of expression in Bahrain now. With the media being controlled by the government, independent journalists being attacked, and bloggers and photojournalists being jailed, the real story in Bahrain doesn’t really get covered.
Finally, the Bahraini regime has taken some steps that have appealed to the idea of tolerance. For example, Bahrain has sent two women to be its ambassadors, one of the Jewish faith (Houda Nonoo, in 2008, to the United States) and the other a Christian (Alice Samaan, in 2011, to the United Kingdom). Bahrain is the only Arab country with a Jewish ambassador. Houda Nonoo is also head of the Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society. These are impressive appointments. How do you square the circle between these high-profile appointments and what the opposition sees as a highly intolerant and illiberal polity?
The Bahraini government pays a lot of attention to its outside image, and it’s not a secret that it hired over 12 public relations firms in Washington, D.C., and London and other places to make sure that its image looked good. Hiring a Jewish woman as its ambassador in Washington even before the events started in Bahrain was one of the attempts to portray itself as a tolerant and liberal government. After the crackdown in 2011, the government hired a Christian woman as its ambassador in London to do the same. Those actions, like many other actions taken by the government since the crackdown, were only cosmetic and not real changes. The minority Christian and Jewish families in Bahrain are considered among the elites and they have always had close ties with the ruling family. Putting a member of these communities in such a position doesn’t reflect tolerance, especially when around 65 per cent of the population, who happen to be Shia, are complaining about systematic discrimination.
The government uses empowerment of women as another act of [introducing] cosmetic changes, while in reality most of the women who get selected to high positions in the government serve in a patriarchal system where they don’t have any power to change anything even if it was in favour of women.
In simple words, they are being put in positions of decision-making where they can’t make any decisions beyond what they are being told while the government presents itself as the champion of women’s rights.
Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is The Poorer Nations: a Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013).
A version of this article originally ran in Frontline (India).