The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged bahrain
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.

PostsPaul Mutterbahrain
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.

To reference the “failed February 14 uprising” is seen as insulting the very memory of those who died, and who continue to die and risk bodily harm, in their pursuit of basic societal and political reform. In fact, however, it is simply to admit the overwhelming material and tactical superiority of one side over the other, a military dominance that students of insurgency and civil war have long noted.

With its sustained deployment of police and military units along with a labyrinthine edifice of security checkpoints, the state has largely succeeded in penning demonstrators into their respective villages, now isolated even more than they were prior to February 2011 (which is saying a lot). (More recently, the state has shifted to allow protests in finite areas, namely along al-Budaiyi’ Road, while blocking them elsewhere.) Such an effort, combined with the decades-long exclusion of Shi’a from those professions that entail the use of weapons, has created a sort of double defense.

Bahrain has also seemingly won its other war on the international front. Having done its diplomatic duty in allowing the BICI to investigate the uprising, it has successfully resisted pressure to do anything more. On the contrary, since December 2011 political change has been in the opposition direction. As witnessed]( once more only days ago, protesters continue to be met with deadly force in confrontations with police.  Activists, including Nabeel Rajab and most recently Zaynab al-Khawajah, have been sentenced to prison for no more than insulting the prime minister and King Hamad, respectively. One political society (’Amal) has been dissolved, while another (al-Wifaq) may be on the brink.

Looks like those PR Newswire plants and anti-Iranian tirades paid off. Of course, such massaging of the facts on the ground don’t alone account for this. The US’s overriding concern was its 5th Fleet, but even the US saw no such thing as an Iranian hand in the protests. It wasn’t inclined to take anything but the most tepid of steps in support of the protestors, regardless, having “lost” Egypt and Tunisia already.  Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, was willing to throw thousands of security officers across the border, terrified of what might happen in its Shia-heavy Eastern Province should dangerous thoughts like constitutional reform spill over, as the Washington Post reported recently, outlining how Shia activists and (Wahhabi) security officers are trading bards (and according to both sides, gunfire) in the key, but impoverished, oil producing region.

While some demonstrators have resorted to violence and sectarianism, Gengler has  shown how the regime used disproportionate force against the opposition and worked to make the atmosphere as sectarian as possible to discredit the predominantly Shia initiators of the protests. Not unlike how Assad wants the world to think that his fight can be reduced to a narrative of cosmopolitan Syria versus angry Sunni peasants (beards!) and foaming-at-the-mouth jihadists (even thicker beards!) being armed by a neo-Ottoman Empire.

The Syria comparison (minus the snark, obviously) is Gengler’s. He sees a Bahrain now increasingly riven by sectarianism, as two of the short-term benefits the monarchy won for itself was a more energized Sunni minority and a discredited Shia parliamentary bloc. These accomplishments diffused the “Arab Spring” in the Gulf state, to the delight of the royals, but what are you left when your core supporters are now demanding a bigger slice of the welfare cake to “keep the peace,” and the critics now view the constitutional reformers as naive at best, Quislings at worst?

To turn an old Russian saying on its head, no matter how hard you hit them, they don’t stay quiet forever afterwards. 

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.

Since the weapons in this sale are, as usual, clearly aimed across the Gulf at Iran[1], the US also risks (or, perhaps, even intends?) to signal the royal family that it hears and takes to heart their dubious Iranian fifth columnist concerns. Which, of course, actually undermines the opposition, specifically, the Al Wefaq party, Washington says it wants the Bahrain government to — and I’m sorry for the word choice — engage. Much of the protestor “black bloc” actions that regime supporters are criticizing seems to have started appearing more and more as Al Wefaq failed to secure significant concessions from the government. As blogger Mohammad Hasan ruefully opined, “the opposition has lost the initiative.”

And lest we forget, the Ahmad brothers have been blaming both the US and Iran for encouraging the protestors for some time. Our signal to them, Justin Gengler notes, is that the demonstrators are indeed a security issue to be resolved by force, rather than a political issue to be addressed by implementing the reforms promised in the post–2001 constitutional changes. And by not making it clearer that we do not see Iran’s Gulf aspirations and Bahrain’s reformists as being in bed with each other, we are almost certainly making the state media’s propagandizing easier - though if we were clearer, then they’d simply take the extra effort to demonize the US.

I know it’s a gross oversimplification, comparing US foreign policy in the Gulf to a pizza, but then, I’d wager that to many harassed, assaulted, tortured, disappeared and jailed activists (both Shia and Sunni) in Bahrain, our largesse might seem rather “gross” to them. And whatever influence the US has allegedly given the Crown Prince back home, the situation on the streets has not changed much in the past week, judging from reports of “mass arrests” and France 24’s Nazeeha Saeed’s latest rundown of events in several predominantly Shia villages in the Northern Governorate of Bahrain:

Incidentally, the Crown Crust Pizza is marketed by Pizza Hut exclusively in the Middle East.


  1. Josh Rogin at FP: “six more harbor patrol boats, communications equipment for Bahrain’s air defense system, ground-based radars, AMRAAM air-to-air missile systems, Seahawk helicopters, Avenger air-defense systems, parts for F–16 fighter engines, refurbishment items for Cobra helicopters, and night-vision equipment. The United States also agreed to work on legislation to allow the transfer of a U.S. frigate …”. With the exception of the night-vision googles, the U.S. refused to send over anything that could be put to use by the regime’s riot police, though an extra US$10 million in military aid payments for 2013 was promised as part of the deal.  ↩

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?

And I love this line — poor Khalifas! 

The opposition wants the prime minister to resign, but neither the king nor the crown prince can dare ask a family elder to depart in ignominy.

It's so unfair that they are being asked that their family members, who invited an outside power to help repress citizens, be held accountable. And of course this is entirely about family dynamics and has nothing to do with the strong backing of the PM by Saudi Arabia or anything.

He also doesn't want Bahrain to be under any diplomatic pressure for its abuses:

It is crucial that Western nations help the country achieve this balance, and that they not provide diplomatic cover for rioters and clerics in the name of human rights and democracy.

Instead, they should be using every pressure point to strengthen the reformist strands within the monarchy in support of political change, equal rights for women and an end to the language of Shiite sectarianism in Bahrain. Negotiations around the political table are the only way forward in Bahrain.

But that can't include asking — for instance — for the PM who oversaw the worse of the repression to step down, right, because it would be too embarassing at the Khalifa family dinners? The other irony here is that the Bahraini state press has been full of anti-US attacks, often timed when the Obama administration is applying pressure... for genuine negotiations. See this informative blog post for examples.

And this bit is most disingenuous:

The demands of the opposition for an end to discrimination in government jobs and for greater political freedoms are valid. But calls for greater human rights must not be selective. Last year the opposition blocked bills that gave women equality and freedom in Bahrain because the ayatollahs opposed it, while the monarchy and Sunni parties supported it.

So the idea is that Bahraini women should have equality but still be subject to late-night arrests, detention, torture, etc. 

The most insidious thing about Husain's writing on Bahrain is this faux act he does of pretending no one understands anything about the place, the regional setting in which the conflict is happening, and his insinuation that the attention on human rights abuses has created a warped view of the situation. Of course the world understands the situation: the US basically endorsed the Saudi intervention, it's hardly raised by the EU, David Cameron gave a great welcome to the crown prince a few months ago, etc. 

The argument for a negotiated outcome is a strong one given the reality that the Khalifas' supporters will not allow them to fall. But even accounting for radicals in the opposition and Iranian influence (which is disputed), the terms Husain presents are essentially that the opposition has to agree to the Khalifas' terms, while the latter should be under no obligation to to yield or be held accountable. Ed Husain is taking the Khalifas' spin hook, line and sinker — and most surprising of all this appears to be genuine naiveté on his part. The sad thing is, the Khalifas — try as they might — could not buy that kind of PR.

[Thanks, PM]

Update: See also this response by Gregg Carlstrom at the recently revived Majlis, which adresses Husain's shallow analysis of the Bahrain opposition — or should that be "opposition"?

Update 2: Paul Mutter also weighs in.

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.

According to Justin Gengler, the pro-government camp is starting to list some “reformist” demands of its own:

Once again, then, we hear two separate arguments from members of Bahrain’s Sunni political movements: (1) the state should not negotiate with terrorists; and (2) the state needs to take better care of those who are loyal to it, specifically by clamping down on corruption and other wastes of state resources. As I’ve written previously, whereas the first argument is sure to further complicate the search for a solution to Bahrain’s present political impasse, the second is much more worrisome to the country’s rulers. It implies that Sunnis are beginning to connect the state’s percieved leniency with the opposition with its larger (perceived) neglect of the pro-government faction generally.

In other words, they’re asking the Al Khalifas where are their welfare checks?

Gengler continues:

“It is one thing, in other words, for Sunnis to disagree with the government’s approach in dealing with the opposition; it is another if they begin to suspect that this approach is not simply short-sighted but actually belies a coherent government strategy of checking Sunni ambitions through its dealings with the opposition. Put more bluntly, some Sunnis are beginning to feel duped.”

“Notably, one increasingly-prominent feature of this Sunni movement toward greater political participation and influence is the notion that behind the Bahraini government’s manipulation of citizens is a second, even more sinister puppet-master: the United States.”

Given that the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, and the tepid response of the State Department to the Bahraini protests, this suspicion is already well-founded among the demonstrators, but apparently, it is taking a very nasty turn among Sunni critics of the government thanks to the arrival of some very questionable, anti-American firebrands from Kuwait in their forums.

So there is, according to anonymous Congressional staff, another rationale for this PT boat deal: “‘state is trying to show appreciation for them changing but every time there is a step forward there is also one step backward,’ said a senior Senate aide close to the issue.”

And considering that this aide then snarked that the State Department was essentially saying “Have a nice day, thank you for your interest in Bahrain. It’s just boats so it’s no big deal,” I think it’s likely that said aide hails from an office in the Congressional bloc led by Wyden and McGovern that is holding up a much larger US$53 million arms deal. As for the one step forward, one step backward situation, the aide could be referring to the announcement that the controversial U.S. and UK ex-police chiefs the royal family has brought in are setting up an accountability office for Bahrain police force as questionable trials and protestor-police clashes continue.

PS: Gulf watchers Sultan al-Qassemi and Justin Gengler have both reported on rumors about the KSA and Bahrain forming some sort of political union (the United Arab Autocracy?). Outlandish, yes, but it’s not like there wouldn’t be a precedent: after a popular uprising in Poland in 1848, the “Year of Revolutions,” was put down by the Prussian Army, Berlin formally annexed the region where the revolt took place. Perhaps the deployment of the Peninsula Shield Force has given Riyadh similar ideas. As professor Toby Jones told the AP, “Bahrain can be looked at as something of a Saudi colony now in the sense that policies are merged.” Might as well make it official.

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.

Security ties such as this are by no means uncommon in the region, though the focus is usually focused on counterterrorism rather than public demonstrations. The Monitor Group, a Massachusetts-based lobbying firm, helped Muatassim al-Qadhafi train and staff his proposed National Security Council before the Libya uprising curtailed its creation. The New York Times reported last May that Erik Prince, former Blackwater chief, was building up a mercenary army in the UAE on the Crown Prince’s dirham. Israel and the US often share counterterrorism techniques and trainings. The US has been involved in past Bahraini police trainings, as have trainers from the UK: “British police have helped to train their counterparts in Bahrain, Libya, Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Saudi Arabia,” The Independent reported. The Saudi National Guard, which was deployed in force to Bahrain last spring, also received UK training. Military and intelligence training for security forces is also common – Iraq, of course, is the most notable Middle Eastern example of such a (multinational) effort, but the US has also funded and trained Lebanese, Egyptian, Saudi Arabian, and West Bank Palestinian security forces.

Although Washington places great emphasis on the place of ethical conduct in these courses, ethics don’t mean much when the police in question are not held accountable to civil society and operate as a state within a state. WikiLeaks shows that the FBI had trained members of the notorious State Security Investigations in Egypt.

Elham Fakhro and Kristian Coates Ulrichsen note that while “recruiting John Yates and John Timoney to re-train Bahrain’s security services may play well in London and Washington,” it “leaves unresolved the structural exclusion of large numbers of Bahraini citizens from an organisation many perceive as exclusionary and deeply-partial.”

Blogger and Bahrain watcher Justin Gengler is a bit more forthright in his criticism:

Bahrain is covering all of its bases. If you are going to bring in a expert trainer in police brutality [Timoney] then you are definitely going to want someone [Yates] specialized in illegal wire-tapping and police surveillance as well, not to mention someone who recognizes the need to withhold a page or two (or 11,000) of evidence for reasons of political expediency.

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. 

- Could you describe what led to your dismissal in some detail? (What was your dismissal based on; during the investigation, who questioned you, what were the questions)

In April 2011, I have received a call from the vice-president office of the University of Bahrain (UoB) asking me to come urgently for a meeting on the same day. I was surprised that the meeting was with an investigation committee on the crises and events during February and March 2011. The committee consists of six faculty from the University.  Almost all the question were about my off-campus activities such as participation in off-campus protests, my political opinion in my Facebook and emails that have political nature, communicating with international media or journalist, memberships in any political associations. Some of the questions are:

v     Did you go to the pearl roundabout and how many times, what was your role?

v     Did you participated in any protest?

v     Do you support the fall of the regime and the government?

v     Are you a member of any political association? Are a member of Al-Wefaq party?

v     Have you forwarded any email that has a political content during February and March?

v     Do you have a Facebook account and is there any content of political nature?

v     Did you sign in any petition, or record in the pearl roundabout?

v     Do you know any of your colleagues that have participated with you in the protests and in the pearl roundabout?

v     Do you talk with your students or colleagues about politics?

 In fact, I have refused initially to answer the questions related to my personal off-campus activities. However, I was forced to answer their questions as I got threatened by the committee that my case will be transferred to the police if I do not cooperate!


In June 2011, I received another letter from the UoB president stating the charges and asked to sit in front of the disciplinary committee. [Ed. Note: the charges against professors have included: participating in protest and sit-in that took place in the Pearl Roundabout, attending seminars that inflame hatred on the goverment and the regime, signing a petition, criticizing the Bahraini government in front of foreign collegues, forwarding emails defaming Bahrain, etc.]

Unfortunately, the disciplinary board was biased, not transparent, and unfair as they did not consider my defense and decided to dismiss me [...] I believe that all of my off-campus activities did not violate the laws and I have just expressed my opinion peacefully as a basic human right and freedom of expression. Although I have sent a letter [...] to the UoB president for an appeal, I have not received yet any response or even an acknowledgment!

- In addition to the dismissal, did you face other consequences (police interrogation, legal action)? 

 Yes, I was arrested during a night raid (early morning) from the first by several masked civilian men supported by security forced with gun. They broke the doors of my house and did not identify themselves or what they want and did not show any official paper or order for arrest. I have been hand cuffed and blindfolded and humiliated physically and verbally during my arrest and interrogation and not allowed to set down. I was not allowed to change my pajama or wear my shoe or sandal during my arrest. In addition, was slapped and threatened of torture by the interrogator officer if I did not confess on what he says. I could not identify the interrogator as I was blindfolded and handcuffed during all the time and standing for several hours. Before the interrogation, I have been humiliated by calling us animals and kept standing and handcuffed with my colleagues in hot room for several hours. The interrogator asked me the same questions that were asked by the UoB investigation committee. Therefore, it seems that the university has passed the investigation papers to the ministry of interior. I was forced to sign papers that I do not know their content. I was not allowed to have a lawyer during the interrogation or call my family. I was released on the same day after spending about 10 hours in the arrest.

Recently, I have received a letter requesting me to summon before the Criminal Court at the ministry of justice [...] The charge indicated in the letter is “national safety”.

- Did you have any idea that joining/supporting a protest could lead to you losing your job? 

I was not expecting that at all. I believe that I have not done any crime or anything that violate the laws. I have just expressed my opinion and practiced my rights peacefully as freedom of expression is a basic human right granted by both the Bahrain constitution and the universal declaration of human rights. I believe that I am innocent and hence not afraid of the consequences. I am welling to pay the price to get the freedom, dignity and real democracy in Bahrain.

- What affect would you say all this had had on the university? How are relations between professors and administration? How have your colleagues (both Sunni and Shia) responded to your dismissal? Are people intimidated, scared?

It seems that some of my colleagues are scared as I have not received any calls from them since my suspension date. Perhaps, they are intimidated because they might face the same consequences if they have caught in connection with us. However, there are many others colleagues (sunni, shia, and even expats) who are calling me regularly. They expressed their emotional support and willingness to support us financially and wishing that we will be reinstated soon. In addition, I am receiving call from my students calling me to express their sadness and missing us as we are not at the university.       


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…

Syria, the muted truth

By Fahmi Howeidy, al-Shorouk, 1 October 2011.

Strong participant solidarity with the oppressed people of Bahrain was a major feature of the “Revival” (Sahwa) conference, held recently in Tehran. Surprisingly, however, there was no similar concern for the fate of the equally oppressed people of Syria.

Instead, any allusion during the discussions, to the current plight of the Syrians would open the door for a debate in which supporters of the Damascus regime loudly defended their government as the leading protector of the so-called Resistance Front, and the target of arrogant powers aligned with Zionism.

Indeed, when I stood up and declared my sympathy with the oppressed in both of these two countries, supporters of President Bashar al-Assad and company were not happy. I constantly heard strong reservations and objections from Iranian enthusiasts, and others from amongst the Bahraini youth who fled their country and took refuge in Iran from which they use as a base to defend their cause by various means.

What worries me most about the Iranian stance on Syria is that it gives preference to its political interests and considerations instead of opting for the principled position it is known for. It is no secret that there is a strategic alliance between Tehran and Damascus, and that it has played a major role in support of the Lebanese Resistance, represented by Hezbollah and its allies. It has also been critical in anchoring the Syrian’s regime’s position in the face of multiple crises. At the same time, the positive impact of the alliance on Iran was two-faceted: first, it helped it break out of the isolation imposed upon it by the United States and its allies; second it allowed Iran to play an influential role in the political scene in the Arab world.

More important than this particular Syria-Iran alliance is the fact that the Islamic Revolution was fundamentally based on a firm stance against injustice, in favour of the oppressed and vulnerable, and from the first moments of the Revolution’s triumph, for its vigorous defense of the Palestinian cause, all of this stemming from a system based on ethics and principles. Thus, considering that moral foundation, it is incomprehensible to see the Iranian Revolution remain silent in the face of the brutal atrocities the Syrian regime is committing against its opponents. Not just for humanitarian and ethical reasons, but because these people are Muslims and people of God. The Syrian regime’s security services and “gangsters” are repressing the Syrian people worse than the Israelis repress the Palestinians!

I’m confident that Iranian officials are aware of what is happening on the ground and I’m surprised to see them informed and yet ignoring the happenings and keeping their silence. I’m also increasingly surprised to know that they have been misled to the extent that they believe that such happenings are part of a premeditated imperialist and Zionist conspiracy. 

While looking at this state of the facts, it is clear that Iran’s priority is for safekeeping certain interests and not the principles, which regrettably leads me to state that the Islamic Republic has lost its moral compass, and drifted from the ethical values which were such a defining feature of its Islamic orientation.

I can’t deny that Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s statement that the Syrian regime must be responsive to the wishes of its people has eased the situation to some extent in recent weeks. Still, this declaration is like one small bright spot in a bigger painting covered in blood. The bright spot is there but it doesn’t change the overall unpleasantness of the picture.

I spoke with some Iranians and I told them that I agree in full with what they say about the Syrian regime’s stance on the Palestinian cause and the Lebanon resistance, and its legitimate credentials as a member of the Resistance Front. This is absolutely appreciated; no doubt about that, and that’s the good side of the picture.

However, when one looks at Syria’s domestic policy, based on a brutal and inhumane repression, it becomes obvious that this is something that cannot be condoned under any circumstance. One cannot remain silent in the face of murdering, lynching and dismembering of opponents under a pretext of defiance and national interests; one cannot believe that the system can be honourable in its foreign relations while murdering its people at home.

The persistence of this logic would make the Syrians reject the so-called Resistance Front and other national slogans if they perceived such slogans were being used as a pretext to justify their humiliation and killings on a daily basis. If it weren’t for the authenticity of the Syrian people and the sincerity of their patriotism, there would be no doubt that these demonstrators would have rejected them since the start of their uprising, six months ago. As far as I know, the masses disagree with all these slogans with the same energy they use to defend their freedom, dignity and pride.

I told the Bahraini youth, who admonished me for not writing about the suffering of their people, that I stand with their fight against oppression, and that in my opinion they should not stop demanding an end to their mistreatment and for the organization of free elections. However, I disagree with some of them who call for the toppling of the regime in Bahrain because such a claim far exceeds what the Gulf region can actually tolerate. I encouraged them to copy the Kuwaiti experience, which followed Bahrain in its passage to democracy. This is because the Kuwaiti opposition is active from within the regime, might clash with it or challenge it, but has never raised the idea of permanently changing it or toppling it. I haven’t had the chance to hear their reaction to what I said, but I could say that I behaved in line with my conscience; I made my point and I moved on…

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.  

Qassim Omran is one of those medics who was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but he is in the United States and said he has no plans to return to Bahrain any time soon. According to Omran the charges are politically motivated and the medics were simply doing their jobs. “It’s just total fake fabrication against us,” he said. 

For example, in mid-March Omran said a protester was seriously injured by the army and was taken to Salmaniya Hospital where the medics tried to save him, but they could not. The neurosurgeon who worked on him, Nabeel Hameed, is now awaiting trial, Omran explains:

This neurosurgeon (Hameed) was accused of killing this protestor. Just imagine (the government) wants to reverse things for you. The one who killed this protester is free and alive, enjoying his time. And the one, the surgeon, who spent his life, his hours, his time…to revive that patient is being sent to jail. It is a paradox.

Forty-eight medics in total have been charged. They were split into two groups: those facing felonies, who were sentenced last week, and those charged with misdemeanors, including Hameed. The second group has been released from detention but they are still on trial. 

Many of the Bahraini medical professionals are either suspended or in jail because of the comments they wrote in patients’ charts, according to Omran, who said that Bahraini authorities searched patients’ medical records to see what the staff had written about protesters’ injuries and causes of death. 

For example, one of the medical professionals instructed a hospital resident to write on a death certificate that a protester was killed by a gunshot, which Omran said was the actual cause of death. That medical professional has now been convicted by the government and will serve 10 years in prison, Omran said.  The majority of medical professionals in Bahrain are Shiite, and Bahrain is endangering its ability to deliver emergency and specialized medical care, Omran believes.

  • Ali Al Ekri is a senior pediatric orthopedic surgeon.
  • Basem Dhaif is a senior orthopedic surgeon.
- Ghassan Daif is a maxillofacial surgeon. 
  • Mahmoud Ashgar is a pediatric surgeon. 
  • Nader Diwani is a pediatrician.
  • Rola Al Saffar was the head of head of Bahrain Nursing Association

All are among the medical professionals who will now serve 15 years in prison. (Full lists here and here.)

There were five intensivists at Salmaniya Hospital, including Omran. “Three of us are out,” Omran said. One of the remaining intensivist is an expatriate and the fifth one is on leave. “Just imagine the ICU services in Bahrain.”

The medical professionals can appeal their sentences.  The President of Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, Mohammed Al-Maskati, said he was surprised by the government’s harsh sentences against the medics:

We thought the government wanted to send a positive message to the international community, but… the government is not in the right direction of respecting human rights…They don’t want to have change in the country.

More than 200 civilians have now been sentenced in a military court, roughly 300 remain in detention, according to Al-Maskati.

The same day the medics were found guilty, one protestor was sentenced to death and another was sentenced to life for killing a police officer by running over him with a car, according to the Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority. Earlier in the week Bahrain upheld sentences against 14 opposition leaders and activists on charges that included plotting to topple Bahrain’s leadership.  Abdul Hadi Alkhawaja, a leading human rights activist, was among them. Seven others were tried in absentia. Amnesty International commented on the case:

By upholding this verdict, Bahrain’s military justice system has once again shown it has no intention of meeting international fair trial standards for anyone the authorities perceive as a political foe.

Others who were found guilty by the court this week included the president and vice president of the Bahrain Teachers Association. They were given 10 and three years, respectively, according to Bahrain News Agency (see also here). Thirty-two individuals, including three international athletes, were sentenced to 15 years in jail on charges that included theft, damaging property and possessing explosive materials (molotov cocktails), according to the BNA.

Many of the crimes people are being charged with — spreading false rumors, gathering, speaking out against the regime — are not generally crimes “in systems that we would consider to be well functioning systems, or just systems,” according to Faraz Sanei, a research at Human Rights Watch, which is currently banned from the country. “They allow the government to go after whomever they want and whose opinions they don’t like.” The trials have also raised red flags as people have reported that they did not have access to their lawyers, some defendants have appeared in court unaware of the charges against them and some people are essentially being found guilty based solely on confessions. “These things should not be happening,” he said.

The medics, who said they were ill-treated and “tortured to extract confessions,” have appealed to the Secretary General of the United Nations to intervene. The medics said they had hoped that the authorities would have waited for the report from an independent fact-finding commission, set up by the king.  

At the time the medical professionals were sentenced, Bahrain’s IAA said, when the commission does publish its findings in October, “everyone will know what happened during those dark times, which will help all of the country to move onwards.”

But will the commission rule in the government’s favor?