Bahrain 101 A Small Country with a Big Struggle Needs Global Support and Attention
By Hanna Nikkanen
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
April 4, 2011
It’s been a long, complicated spring in the Arab world. Bahrain is a small country, unfamiliar to most of us. Right now it’s very important that we know who they are, so even though I’ve never been there, I’ll try to explain…
...Bahrain in a nutshell
On February 17, weeks of non-violent protests against King Hamad’s regime were followed by a ruthless crackdown. In hopes of avoiding the symbolism of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the government later completely tore down Manama’s Pearl Roundabout, where the largest demonstrations had been taking place.
Bahrain is a sandy archipelago in the Persian gulf, nestled between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It’s tiny: its total area is slightly smaller than that of a nearby Saudi airport.
Approximately 12 percent of the island nation’s population have participated in the recent protests. They started by demanding greater political rights and, when the regime didn’t budge, many started calling for an end to monarchy.
In mid-March, 1000 troops from Saudi Arabia and 500 from UAE were deployed at the regime’s invitation to “protect assets” and “uphold stability”. The king has declared a three-month martial law that authorises the chief of the armed forces to take all measures to “protect the safety of the country and its citizens”.
Bloggers have been arrested. Hospitals have been raided by the military, doctors and patients brutally beaten.
Al Jazeera English reports from a Manama hospital right after the February crackdown.
Footage from the state TV. The reporter, explaining how there’s no truth to the rumours about attacks on medical staff, is seen turning off her microphone when she hears screams from the hospital.
“We are in a civilized country,” a doctor yells at the camera in Al Jazeera’s report, shocked because his surroundings seem to suggest something else. “We are a civilized people!”
Bahrain is, indeed, a relatively modern country, a fast-growing financial center with a population of just over a million. It may be small, but it is by no means insignificant: Bahrain’s job in the Gulf is to host oil refineries and banks – and the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
Now the relevant foreign powers have rallied to support the king. Al Jazeera, too, is keeping a bit of a distance, even though occasionally they publish self-criticism on the matter – like in this piece from March 28: AJE: The West’s ‘double standards’ in Middle East.
A lonely newspaper
Late at night on April 2nd I was talking on Facebook with Bahraini journalist Nada Alwadi. We were subtitling a video (more about that later), me in Helsinki doing the editing, Nada in Manama in charge of the translation. Then Nada got an email from her boss: the Ministry of Information had ordered her newspaper, Alwasat, to shut down.
Alwasat is a thin newspaper, about 20 pages. The country’s other four Arabic dailies are controlled by members of the royal family. Alwasat was founded by Dr. Mansoor Aljamri in 2002 amid a flurry of political reforms. Aljamri, an opposition activist, had recently returned from exile in London.
“They have been attacking whoever is reporting what is really happening,” Nada typed. “Rumors have been spread about our editor-in-chief, our printing building has been attacked and the machines broken, and now here comes this order.”
Minutes later, the newspaper’s website was down.
On April 3rd Alwasat didn’t come out, missing a day for the first time in its history. By the evening, Mansoor Aljamri agreed to leave his position. That seemed to satisfy the ministry, and the paper is back in publication – for now.
“Alwasat will be published again tomorrow”, Nada Alwadi says. “Suspending Dr. Mansoor is a major turn down, as he is a well-known opposition figure. We are all wondering who is next.”
A sectarian uprising?
Bahrain’s state media is intent on portraying the protests as a violent sectarian conflict: the Shia majority against the Sunni ruling class. Many foreign journalists have followed suit, reducing a nation-wide pro-democracy struggle into a sectarian skirmish that threatens the stability in the region and invokes the ghost of Shia-majority Iran.
According to the opposition, the protests have always been non-violent and non-sectarian. “Neither Sunni nor Shia; Bahraini,” was the protesters’ slogan in the now-demolished Pearl Roundabout.
The video that I mentioned above – the one we were subtitling when Nada Alwadi heard about the order to close down her newspaper – repeats that slogan. It’s a song that challenges the media’s portrayal of the movement as a sectarian one.
I am Bahraini, an anti-sectarian song by Waad Alsammaa Band, with English subtitles.
The video shows Sunnis and Shias protesting side by side, often with signs pointing out their dismayal at the regime’s attempts to divide the country along sectarian lines. At 0:39, we see Sunni and Shia men praying together – they position their hands differently in prayer.
A tragic trade-off
On April 2nd, a leaked document seemed to show that Bahrain’s freedom has been sold in a cynical treaty between the United States and Saudi Arabia.
“Two diplomatic sources at the United Nations independently confirmed that Washington, via Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, gave the go-ahead for Saudi Arabia to invade Bahrain and crush the pro-democracy movement in their neighbor in exchange for a ‘yes’ vote by the Arab League for a no-fly zone over Libya,” Pepe Escobar writes in Asia Times.
Escobar continues: “One of the side effects of the dirty US-Saudi deal is that the White House is doing all it can to make sure the Bahrain drama is buried by US media.”
Read Escobar’s entire article here: Asia Times: Exposed: The US-Saudi Libya deal (2 April).
What’s next for Bahrain? The tiny country is teeming with Saudi soldiers, and they may want to stay. The mainstream media seems mostly happy with the simple explanation of a sectarian conflict. The protests continue, although smaller than before, and the religious leaders emphasize the importance of keeping things non-violent, no matter how frustrating it gets.
But it’s becoming obvious that this will be no Egypt.
I wonder if, in our new infatuation with Al Jazeera English, we so-called Westerners are too eager to believe that the Qatari-owned channel is the be-all and end-all of news from the Gulf, and anything that’s not reported on AJE is not worth our time. Or if our news fatigue has already killed our interest in the Arab struggles.
Honestly, I don’t want to believe that our attention span is that short or that our outlook on mass media is that naive.
The Bahrainis are facing a very dangerous time, and we can help by letting the world know that we’re not giving up, that we’re still paying attention. So please spread the word. Circulate the “I am Bahraini” video linked above, look for good articles and link to them, make noise whenever a blogger or a journalist is arrested or an independent newspaper is threatened. Be a Bahraini.
Hanna Nikkanen, of Finland, is in the class of 2011 of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism.