Dickinson on Bahrain: "Who shot Ahmed?"

Friend of the blog Elisabeth Dickinson, a correspondent for The National , has a Kindle Single out today about the 2011 uprising in Bahrain and its subsequent repression. From the blurb: 

Who Shot Ahmed? recounts the murder of a 22-year-old videographer, killed in cold blood in the dead of night at the height of Bahrain’s Arab Spring revolution. On a small island Kingdom swirling with political, economic, and sectarian tensions, Ahmed’s murder epitomized everything that had gone wrong since 2011, when pro-democracy protesters took to the streets in droves. Drawing on dozens of testimonies, journalist Elizabeth Dickinson traces the tale of Ahmed’s death and his family’s fearless quest for justice. Darting between narratives and delving into characters, it is a tale of a life lost and the great powers—from Washington to London, and Riyadh to Manama—that did nothing to stop the crisis. Dickinson has a deep knowledge of the region, but she brings a story from a foreign land straight back home: Ahmed could be any of our sons.

You can find out more about the book on the publisher’s page, its Facebook page or on Twitter at @WhoShotAhmed. I just bought my copy, get yours by clicking on the cover above!

Bahrain bans Guy Fawkes masks

Via The Independent:

“The Kingdom of Bahrain’s Industry and Commerce Minister, Hassan Fakhro, issued an unusual decree this week: he banned the importation of a plastic face mask. Anyone caught importing the V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes mask now faces arrest, as anti-government protesters in the country have been using them to stay anonymous.”

Practically Pythonesque. The order for this also includes the phrasing “anything similar to it that conceals the face.” But it isn’t clear which other anonymity-granting facial covers used by Bahrainis such as t-shirts gas masks, scarves, bandanas, cardboard cutouts, paint respirators, niqabs, drywall dust masks and balaclavas are next on the state’s prohibited items list.

Of course, the Bahraini photojournalist Mazen Mahdi tweets that wearers of the banned masks are now proliferating in the crowds he’s observed: 

It’s worth noting that the documentation obtained by Al Akhbar authorizing the ban refers to them as “face masks” in Arabic, but then uses the English phrase “revolution mask” right after.

That this is the language the authorities chose to label, and then ban, this particular piece of political paraphernalia with is telling. It isn’t about keep the “black bloc” off the streets, or even keeping Bahrainis off the streets in general. No, the mask symbolizes something iconic, something readily understood in Bahrain and worldwide as opposition to the Khalifas and their order, and that’s the real “threat.” And the Khalifas are no strangers to Pythonesque efforts to manage their international image.

Censorship in the UAE

I have a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Ed about the abrupt cancellation of an academic conference on the Arab Spring.

The London School of Economics and Political Science abruptly canceled an academic conference on the Arab Spring it planned to hold over the weekend at the American University of Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, citing "restrictions imposed on the intellectual content of the event that threatened academic freedom."

The last-minute cancellation took place after Emirati authorities requested that a presentation on the neighboring kingdom of Bahrain—where a protest movement was harshly repressed with the support of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates—be dropped from the program.

The paper was to be given by a professor who the Emirati authorities say has "consistenly propagated views deligitimizing the Bahraini monarchy" (and who has written critically about political repression in the UAE).

Here's London School of Economics professor Kristian Coates Ulrichsen's own account. 

Bahrain, One Year Later

↪ Bahrain, One Year Later

From POMED's report assessing the implementation of the BICI report:

We have found that the Government of Bahrain has fully implemented three of the BICI report’s 26 recommendations. Two other recommendations were impossible for us to properly evaluate due to a lack of available information, and 15 recommendations have only been partially implemented. Finally, the government has made no meaningful progress toward six of the recommendations, which are precisely the most important steps that need to be taken – accountability for officials responsible for torture and severe human rights violations, the release of political prisoners, prevention of sectarian incitement, and the relaxation of censorship and controls on free expression.

Nearly as troubling as the failure to address key areas has been the unrealistic assessment by the Government of Bahrain of its own progress. Bahraini government officials, including the Ambassador to the United States, have claimed in public statements to have fully implemented 18 of the 26 recommendations. It is difficult to expect the government to make significant progress on the many unfulfilled recommendations while it maintains that most of those steps have already been completed.

"The Uprising is Over. But What Is the Price of Bahrain's Victory?"

The Uprising is Over. But What Is the Price of Bahrain’s Victory?

So asks Bahrain watcher Justin Gengler in a post on September 30 regarding the state of the protests there that began on February 14, 2011 in the island nation, where despite an ever-growing dearth of international media coverage, tweeps are still being arrested for criticizing the ruling family, the riot police are surrounding entire villages to go after “enemies of the state,” whether they are dissidents or street thugs, and jail sentences are upheld against doctors who treat injured protestors:

[T]he uprising proper has ended.  Or, rather, it was made to end by the sweeping security response initiated with the State of National Security and subsequently entrenched via Bahrain’s effective “sectarianism as security” political strategy.  In this sense, the actual rebellion has long been over, and “major combat operations,” as some like to say, essentially were concluded with the second clearing (and for good measure razing) of the former Pearl Roundabout.

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When Pizza Becomes Policy

Like US policy in Bahrain, this looks repulsive. Credit: Arabian Business

Paul Mutter sends in this inspired analogy on US policy towards Bahrain, where the crackdown continues.

Pizza Hut’s Crown Crust Pizza is a good metaphor for up the US’s Bahrain policy: stuff ’em full of meats and cheeses in the hopes that such largesse predisposes them to better hear us out on human rights. This month the US lifted restrictions on a host of sales to the Bahraini military, going well beyond previous exemptions made since the 2011 freeze on a US$53 million arms deal, reportedly in the hopes of raising the profile of the Crown Prince at home following his visit to the US:

“The administration didn’t want the crown prince to go home empty-handed because they wanted to empower him,” said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, who was arrested in Bahrain while documenting protests there last month. “They placed a lot of hope in him, but he can’t deliver unless the king lets him and right now the hard-liners in the ruling family seem to have the upper hand.”

The crown prince has been stripped of many of his official duties recently, but is still seen as the ruling family member who is most amenable to working constructively with the opposition and with the United States.

Problem is, several commentators have noted, is that often times after a big meal the last thing you want to do is talk. The Crown Prince is thought to be facing down a hardline clique helmed by the Defense Minister Khalifa bin Ahmad and his brother, Royal Court Minister Khalid bin Ahmad who have conspired to force the prince out of his perch in the Defense Ministry to buttress the Sunni factions that reject dialogue with the opposition.

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Ed Husain ❤ Bahrain's monarchy

CFR's Ed Husain, still defending the indefensible in The Prince and the Ayatollah:

In Bahrain, I was a guest of the king’s son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, who, in the context of the country’s current political climate, is a liberal’s liberal. Educated in Washington and Cambridge, England, the 42-year-old prince spoke about Britain’s constitutional monarchy, the dire need for political reform in his country, and his yearning for a political settlement with the opposition.

I bet he's computer-savvy and really cares about the environment, too. Reminds me of what was written about Bashar al-Assad, Gamal Mubarak, and Seif al-Islam al-Qadhafi a decade ago.

He appeared genuinely contrite about the excesses of the government in Bahrain, but also convinced that the opposition has no vision of how to improve matters. “The path to hell is paved with good intentions,” he said. Constantly, he referred to the need for “evolution” rather than “revolution.”

That's real deep stuff. What a visionary statesman! And I notice Husain is no longer talking about the "opposition" in quotation marks. What gives? Have they become more real?

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What’s up with CFR’s Ed Husain and Bahrain?

The Council on Foreign Relations is the most establishment of foreign policy think tanks in Amreeka, and we know the US military establishment loves Bahrain, its Saudi backers and the nice naval base it provides. Still, considering the repression of protestors, the torture, the kidnappings, and all that oppression by a kleptocratic ruling family representing the minority of the population, how come CFR’s Ed Husain is so gung-ho about the Khalifas?

Here’s what he’s been writing on Twitter:

He doesn’t have nice things to say about the opposition though — and by the way, why 'opposition'? Does he believe they are not real, or ironic?

Could that come from the fact that he appears to be given access most journalists and NGOs are denied:

There’s already a fuss on Twitter about this. Husain says he’ll respond on his blog when he returns to Washington:

I look forward to hearing more about it too — I think. I get being in favor of reconciliation, as Husain is. But this frankly sounds like either paid-for PR or incredible naiveté. 

 

Swift boat to Bahrain

If it looks like an arms deal, walks like an arms deal and quacks like an arms deals, is it an arms deal? The State Department says no:

“Today, officials from the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs and State’s Legislative Affairs office briefed select congressional offices about their decision to transfer seven rigid-hull inflatable boats and 12 32-foot Boston Whaler boats from the U.S. Navy in Bahrain to the Bahrain government. Offices briefed ahead of the Friday formal notification included aides to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the offices of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-WY) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), two lawmakers who have been leading the congressional opposition to continued U.S. arms sales to Bahrain.”

“This isn’t a new package or policy decision. This is part of what was briefed to Congress in January. We are still maintaining a pause on most security cooperation for Bahrain pending further progress on reform,” a State Department official told The Cable today. “The transfer of these boats are necessary to protect U.S. naval personnel and assets based in Bahrain. None of these items can be used against protestors. The transfer does not include any arms and the boats are intended for patrol missions, which is critical for ensuring a robust and layered defense of Bahrain’s coast and for enhancing Bahrain’s ability to counter maritime threats to U.S. and coalition vessels.”

The real story out of Bahrain these days, though, is not the gift of some old PT boats, but with the vagaries of the dialogue going on between the pro-government camp and the predominantly Shia opposition groups, increasingly splitting between the leading pro-dialogue al-Wifaq group and younger demonstrators opposed to al-Wifaq’s stance.

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Controversial US Police Chief hired by Bahraini Interior Ministry

I missed this, but it turns out that in addition to a bevy of lobbying – much of it centered on English-language media management – before and after demonstrations peaked, Bahrain’s government was also quick to tap American expertise in containing public demonstrations following the release of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report:

… the former police chief of Philadelphia and Miami, John Timoney, has been recruited by Bahrain’s Interior Ministry to advise the Bahrainis on policing strategies, will come as no comfort to those in the opposition hoping that the next American intervention would be more constructive. They may be particularly sceptical considering his policing style was so notorious it came to be dubbed Timoney’s ‘Miami Model’ by Jeremy Scahill, a journalist who covered the chief’s heavy-handed policing of protests around the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000 and the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit meeting in Miami in 2003. Timoney’s militarized crowd control strategy involved ‘the heavy use of concussion grenades, pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets and baton charges to disperse protesters.’

Timoney has a reputation as a turn-around police chief from his work in the US, but his handling of these demonstrations has made him controversial. Another controversial cop, John Yates of the UK, (who gained notoriety during the News of the World voicemail hacking scandal) is also working with the Interior Ministry now. Given the charges of torture presented against Bahraini police, I imagine everyone in these circles is keeping the case of Ian Henderson in mind, a former British colonial officer who led Bahrain’s secret police for 32 years and gained the sobriquet “Butcher of Bahrain” because of the security apparatus’s use of torture against dissidents during that time.

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Freeze on US Arms Deal with Bahrain Ending

This first paragraph of this post was updated on 2012-Jan-31 to add new information.

A US$53 million arms sale, put on hold in November pending an investigation by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry into Bahraini security forces’ human rights violations, is being pushed forward by the Obama Administration in defiance of Congressional opposition and criticism from human rights observers. In the meantime, a new arms sale is going through, which the US State Department claims has nothing to do with the original one. The Cable reports that the new deal was going to be done “without any formal notification to the public,” and that the State Department told Congress that it has “gone above and beyond what is legally or customarily required” to address critics’ human rights complaints.



At the same time, the Kingdom of Bahrain is denying entry to observers from the US-based Physicians for Human Rights and Human Rights First organizations, which have been sharply critical of how security forces and the judiciary have behaved towards demonstrators.

I think the logic behind the Obama Administration's approach works (in theory) as follows: a trickle of aid coming at the same time the government is reportedly taking investigators' reports into consideration will compel the royal family to do more to democratize the country in exchange for more aid.

If the royal family changes its mind about those observers, I'll start entertaining more optimistic thoughts about the efficacy of this "behind the scenes diplomacy." Why? Because if they were being let it, it would demonstrate that the US is actually accomplishing a conditional aid policy that is pushing the government to fully implement the recommendations in the Commission's report. I often turn to the concept of "uncivil society" to discuss entrenched interests in countries experiencing democratic protests, and it's clear that the US is going to have to offer tastier carrots, and brandish much heavier sticks, if it is truly committed to democratization in Bahrain (and Egypt).

Granted, if these observers' entry became permissible (and it's not an impossibility), it could just as easily be read as a decision by the government to chaperone these people around to mute further criticism - something their PR firms back in the US have already been working very hard at (the Kingdom of Bahrain has retained the US lobbying group Qorvis for US$40,000 a month since 2010, with a particular emphasis on English-language media management).

Nothing signals "our priorities" like using a legal backdoor to funnel arms to a key Arab ally in the face of human rights criticism, and this holds true along the coastlines of both American littorals, the Mediterranean and the Gulf. How we will respond to growing pressure on NGOs in Egypt will address the dichotomies facing Egyptians willing to work with Western NGO. The resumption of arms sales to Bahrain, alongside the lockout of these groups, offers a much more concrete lesson of what Bahrainis can expect in the coming months.

At least when Moscow decides to send a message about a Mideast naval base, it sends that message clearly.  

The military-industrial complex, Bahrain edition

Lockheed Martin goes to bat for oppressive regime — by Justin Elliott in Salon:

A top executive at Lockheed Martin recently worked with lobbyists for Bahrain to place an Op-Ed defending the nation’s embattled regime in the Washington Times — but the newspaper did not reveal the role of the regime’s lobbyists to its readers. Hence they did not know that the pro-Bahrain opinion column they were reading was published at the behest of … Bahrain, an oil-rich kingdom of 1.2 million people that has been rocked by popular protests since early 2011.

. . .

On Nov. 30, the Washington Times published an Op-Ed under the headline “Bahrain, a vital U.S. ally: Backing protesters would betray a friend and harm American security.” It was written by Vice Adm. Charles Moore (retired). Moore was formerly commander of the Navy’s Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet. From 1998 to 2002, Moore notes in his Op-Ed, he “had the opportunity to develop a personal relationship with His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s leader, as well as many senior officials in his government.” Moore passed through the revolving door and is now regional president for Lockheed Martin for the Middle East and Africa.

Of course the Washington Times did not reveal Lockheed's interest in Bahrain, or that Bahrain lobby firm Sanitas coordinated the op-ed with Lockheed.

Crack-down in Bahrain

We talked about Bahrain in our last podcast. I have been in touch with students and professors there for a story on the how the crackdown on the country's Shia protest movement has affected universities for The Chronicle of Higher Education. The incredible verdicts against doctors have gotten the most attention, but students and professor have also been targeted: 

On October 3, six university students were sentenced to 15-year jail terms and another student to an 18-year term by a special military court. They were accused of attempted murder, arson, and vandalism in connection with clashes that took place on the campus of the University of Bahrain, the main national university, on March 13. The students and their supporters say the violence that day was carried out by Bahrain security forces and government supporters, none of whom have been charged.

Other students and professors are facing charges of illegal assembly, incitement, and disturbing the peace. At least 100 professors and university administrators have been fired, and about 60 students have been denied the right to continue their studies.

After the jump I'm attaching an interview with an (anonymous, by necessity) fired Bahraini university professor that didn't make it into the piece. 

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Podcast #14: The Ones That Didn't Make It (Yet)

This week we discuss those Arab revolutions that are still in progress or are being stopped dead in their tracks: Yemen, Bahrain and Syria.

Links referenced in this week's podcast:

Podcast #14

In Translation: Fahmi Howeidy on Iran, Syria and Bahrain

We bring you another commentary piece from the Arab media in translation, courtesy of Industry Arabic, a  full-service translation company founded by two longtime Arabist readers, which specializes in English-Arabic-French technical, legal, and engineering translation management services.

Fahmi HoweidyThis week I selected an article by Fahmi Howeidy, a conservative Egyptian columnist who is widely believed to be the most influential pundit in the Arab world. Howeidy is well-connected and writes for multiple audiences (he is syndicated in Egyptian papers and several Gulf-owned ones). He has long championed a kind of elitist Islamo-populism which I personally abhor, but does have some resonance in the region. At his best, Howeidy is (was?) incredibly cutting of (some of) the regimes in place; at his worst he defends silly conspiracy theories and makes crude, unsupported attacks against his ideological enemies — including at times rather nasty personal attacks.

In recent years, Howeidy had been a defender of Iran in its standoff with Israel and the United States. As the author of several books about Iran with excellent access in Tehran, he consistently defended the Islamic Republic and its foreign policy. Even when the Hizbullah and the Iranian Republican Guards were said (plausibly) by the Mubarak regime to have operated an espionage network with links to Hamas in Gaza, Howeidy slammed the Egyptian regime. This shocked many at the time, since after all covert operations had been uncovered and public opinion tended to be critical of any foreign meddling. In other words, there was a time when, for Howeidy, Iran could do no wrong.

In the column below, Howeidy reports from a conference in Tehran and slams the Iranian stance on Syria, going as far as arguing that the Islamic Republic “has lost its moral compass.” He comes out strongly against the Assad regime and makes a compelling argument that what he had admired about Assad — his commitment to the “Resistance Front” against Israel and the United States’ imperial policies in the last decade — cannot take precedence over the regimes’ murdering of its own population, and that it further risks souring that population on supporting the Resistance Front. I recommend reading alongside Rami Khouri’s latest column, on the fall of Iran’s star in the Arab world this year. Howeidy’s take may be the surest sign of this trend. Finally, his equivocating on Bahrain in the latter part of the piece is also interesting — Howeidy is not quite ready to abandon the Bahraini royals, and their Gulf allies…

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Bahraini justice on trial

Last week was a bad week to be on trial in Bahrain. 

On September 29, a military court — or what Bahrain calls the National Safety Court — sentenced 20 medical professionals from five to 15 years in jail on charges that included inciting to overthrow the regime, possession of weapons, and forcefully taking over control of the main medical complex, Salmaniya Hospital. 

The medics all say they are innocent and the international community has not found fault with them, but they have found fault with Bahrain’s courts.  

“These are medical professionals who were treating patients during a period of civil unrest, as their ethical duty requires them to do. To imprison them as part of a political struggle is unconscionable,” said Physicians for Human Right’s Chief Policy Officer, Hans Hogrefe, in a press statement.  

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Elections in the Gulf 1/2: Bahrain

Two elections are taking place in the Gulf — in Bahrain and in the United Arab Emirates — on Saturday. The political environments could not be more different, but the results of both elections are not expected to change much. First, let's look at the dynamics in Bahrain.

In Bahrain the election was called to replace the 18 seats formerly held by the main Shiite opposition group, Al Wefaq, which resigned earlier this year protesting the government’s crackdown. Al Wefaq and five other opposition groups are boycotting the vote. Several candidates have already won unopposed. Al Wefaq said it was powerless against the government and since the group has walked out of parliament, the government has not conceded anything, they say. How could they return under such conditions?

“We were not able to help the people when the crackdown started,” according to Matar Ebrahim Matar, a former Al Wefaq MP, who himself was arrested, held and beaten in detention — an accusation the government denies. “The government doesn’t listen to anybody so even if we are inside (the parliament), the government are ignoring all those who are speaking about violations, people who are fired from their jobs, tortured inside the jail and the patients who cannot reach medical services,” he said. “The denial will not stop the issues.”

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The state of Bahrain's national dialogue: all talk?

The following is a guest post by Jenifer Fenton.

Bahrain’s main opposition group took to the streets on Friday demanding a credible dialogue with the King.  

“We will continue to rally,” said Khalil Al Marzooq, a senior member of  Al Wefaq.  It was their seventh - and likely not their last - Friday gathering.  The group walked out of the Kingdom’s National Dialogue on July 19.  “General efforts to make it credible were rejected and ignored,” Al Marzooq said. 

More than 300 people in Bahrain began “talking” in July in line with a directive from the king following widespread unrest that shook the island nation earlier this year. Five people from each political society were invited, as were select NGOs, members of the business community, some unionists and 70 or so public figures. 

The talks were biased from the onset, Marzooq said. Opposition and those critical of the government only made up between 10 and 15 percent of those participating in the talks.  In Bahrain, a Sunni minority rules over a Shiite majority, who feel disenfranchised. 

The country remains in a tenuous status quo.  

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Bahrain: A year in jail for a poem


On Sunday a court in Bahrain sentenced Ayat Al Qurmazi, a 20-year-old education student, to a year in prison for insulting the king and inciting hatred. Al Qurmazi became famous after reciting poetry Pearl Square that includes the lines such as:  

We are the people who will kill humiliation and assassinate misery 
We are the people who will destroy the foundation of injustice 
Don't you hear their cries, don't you hear their screams 

You can see her reciting her poetry -- dedicated directly to the king -- here.

According to the Associated Press, while in detention Al Qurmazi was lashed in the face with electrical cables and forced to clean toilets with her hands. Here is a Facebook page dedicated to her case. 

The Battle for Bahrain

This is a good report on Bahrain (and Libya) from PBS' Newshour. It features veteran Gulf expert Gary Sick, who on his blog noted this:

 

I suggested that, in addition to the battles in the streets of Bahrain, there is a battle within the royal family. The king apologized for the one death on the first day, then the security forces launched an incredibly ugly attack shortly thereafter, killing at least 5 more Bahrainis. They then attacked people coming from the funerals today. They have prevented ambulances from reaching the wounded, and they have brutalized doctors trying to tend to the wounded.
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