Bahrain's Quiet Opposition

A look at political life in the US ally hosting the 5th Fleet in the Persian Gulf.

By TIM LYDDIATT, THE MEDIA LINE NEWS AGENCY
January 14, 2008 14:21
Bahrain's Quiet Opposition

manama 224.88. (photo credit: Courtesy )

Friday morning brought with it the first daylight downpour of Bahrain's brief rainy season, and Manama, the capital, was puddle-filled and cold. Exhibition Road, one of the country's throbbing commercial zones - a place swarming with electronics shops and seedy, urban hotels frequented by weekending Saudi's - was dank and quiet; and last Friday it was quieter than usual. American President George W. Bush would arrive in Bahrain Saturday. But the first official demonstration of the weekend kicked off on Friday, followed by several more official protests and several that were unofficial. AP said Saturday's protesters would chant anti-Zionist slogans and burn United States flags. But, as it turned out, there were also arrests. On Sunday, the Interior Ministry Assistant Under-Secretary for Legal Affairs, Colonel Muhammad Bu Humood, tells the English press that these were not political arrests. There is no state of emergency in Bahrain, he points out, and those arrested were merely criminals, not political prisoners. Depending on who you spoke to, Bush's two day visit to Bahrain was either welcome, derided, or irrelevant. A local taxi driver just grunted his opinion when asked about the visit and was the first of many to first learn of the visit when asked what they thought about it. Bahrain is not an overtly political nation. This is due partly to the fact that over half the country's residents are not Bahraini at all, but expatriates drawn, in the main, from the Indian subcontinent. Expatriates cannot vote and have very limited rights inside Bahrain, other than the right to work and live there; and for many, silence is the safest policy. The government is, of course, upbeat about the opportunity to welcome President Bush who, for the next 11 months, at least, is still the most powerful man in the world. The protesters saw this visit as just part of the US desire to assert its will over the region, sell its weapons, and ensure a continuous supply of oil from the Gulf. The UN building is deserted, even the gate security is temporarily absent. But on the stroke of three o'clock, cars began arriving, and from them, protestors poured out wrapping their Che Guevara scarves about them, protection against the cold wind. It is a statement of style that is difficult to understand in Manama. Tariq Abd Al-'Aziz, one of the protest organizers explains that for Americans, Che Guevara is a symbol of resistance, and that they identify with his struggle: Iconography with communist connotations in a country like Bahrain where democracy is so young. A former Getty Images photographer, Andrew Morton, makes a wry observation about symbols of blood shed by a resistance movement being worn at a supposed peaceful protest. Locked out of the main event with Bush, huddled over notebooks and wielding cameras like they were rifles, Morton wore something akin to a flak jacket and the Reuter's photographer, Muhammad, had PRESS emblazoned across the back of his bulging hunting jacket as though this were Baghdad and not Bahrain. The local press was certainly hoping for action. Of course, a peaceful demonstration is not news; just something that takes up time before the real action begins. To help track the demo down, contacts had been endlessly exchanged and double checked. "The Hat Man" was mentioned more than once as the man to direct you to a 'good demo,' with a killer image of a burning US flag or police brutality. Morton, who is arguably the most veteran war hack of all, has "done" Iraq, and dodged (and been hit by) plastic bullets in other Bahraini riots. He speaks with reverence of his contacts within Hamas and Hizbullah. Assuring the assembled hacks that both organizations have representatives in Bahrain, he offers no clues as to how we might contact them. It is a game of one-upmanship, not dissimilar to experiences of tracking down raves in early 1990's London. Clearly, it is not just who you know, but how you let everyone else know who you know. This was not one of the biggest protests by any means: only some fifty people braved the cold and threat of rain. But it was certainly the quietest. The crowd, mainly university-aged boys and girls, almost all of them dressed in Western style, but with the occasional abaya or thobe flapping darkly in the wind, held their placards in a line in front of the United Nations building. There was no chanting or slogans; it was eerily quiet, and the most common sound was dozens of cell phones ringing in the wind. The demo was organised by the Al-Shabeeba Society - a Bahraini youth movement with about 400 "that deals with all aspects of youth in Bahrain, of which politics is just an important part," explained Shabeeba spokesperson, Amal Fareed. The group, which strongly but quietly opposed Bush's visit, has responded to the visit with this action. Originally scheduled for Saturday, Bush's arrival, this Friday gathering is a compromise between Bahrain society and its authorities. Peaceful protests are allowed in Bahrain, but they are controlled, and the conditions of their permits almost entirely non-negotiable. Shabeeba chosen location, the UN, was approved says Amal. It is a "symbol of multilateral democracy" that starkly contrasts America's unilateral approach, especially in this region, he adds. For their part, the authorities are only minimally visible, with a newly created police unit of community officers on duty: they are unarmed and reportedly the only unit with Shi'ite members. In December last year, there were riots on and around Bahrain's National Day: serious riots, when police cars were burnt, large numbers of people arrested, in which a protester died in the chaos. That these were serious incidents became obvious simply because they were reported in English. As Reporters Sans Frontiers noted in their 2007 index of press freedom around the world, the self-censorship amongst patrons of the English press in the region, such is that many of the smaller skirmishes go unreported. No mention was made for example of the altercation in which shots were fired at Morton. Amal was asked about the message that the Bahraini government's apparently open-armed welcome of Bush is sending the Bahraini people. "It fosters resentment." she says. "No one wants Bush here. Why is he coming at all and why now? The government should not welcome him; we don't need him here." The visit, however, is a blip; people are angry now, but once Bush is gone, the vast majority will return to their regular lives. He is a symbol and little else, people say. Another voice frequently heard around Bahrain proclaims that Bahrain is a free country, and the locals go to great lengths to assure expats that Bahrain is safe and that everyone is welcome, even President Bush. As one taxi driver said on the eve of the demo, "he is here to visit the [US Naval] base [the largest in the region], and to visit the government. Let him be." The news release issued by the Al-Sheebaba Society and the other protest groups - there were five in total - ran to five pages and was filled with anti-American and Israeli-rhetoric; it accused Bush of killing countless brothers and sisters in Iraq and Afghanistan and said his only interest in the region was oil and arms sales. Arms, they said, will never be used by the benevolent governments of the region. Iran they said poses no threat to the region and they had no doubt Bush is cynically manipulating the region's governments to pressure Tehran. They are not pro-Iranian Amal says, but they do object to being told who their enemies should be. "We are not stupid people, if Iran is a threat, we will decide that for ourselves." Away from the demonstration, Saleh, a school principal asks that his full name not be used. He talks about the dilemma facing the leaders of the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, and Oman. "They are damned if they do [side with America] and damned if they don't. On the one hand, everything that happens here is directly or indirectly influenced by what the US does." He describes how building work in Dubai stopped at the time of the first Gulf War. "US policy affects everything here and not siding with America means siding with Iran and Syria by default. They can't win," he shrugs. Half Jordanian and half American, Saleh believes Bush's regional visit has, "come too late to have any really affect on the [Israeli-Palestinian] peace process and is too little too late to help change local perceptions of the disaster in Iraq." Similarly, a former senior pathologist at Baghdad's Kindi teaching hospital, now living in Bahrain, says the visit is, "just propaganda. He is near the end of his term and seeking a lasting legacy. Whatever he says in Bahrain, Jerusalem or in Riyadh will not help with reconciliation in Baghdad, nor with my country's reconstruction or temper the corruption there that is rife." Bahrain, he says, has no option but to adopt the Saudi stance. This is a view shared by Saleh. "Saudi is the powerhouse of the GCC; where the Saudis lead the other GCC countries must follow or risk isolation." If this is true, it leaves the young Bahraini protestors feeling their plight will continue to be unheard and that the young people of Bahrain will remain quietly vocal in terminal opposition.


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