Bahrain politics: Crackdown

FROM THE ECONOMIST INTELLIGENCE UNIT

The Bahraini authorities have launched the most extensive crackdown in years against the restive Shia opposition. The wholesale arrest of activists, some of whom have been charged with plotting to overthrow the government, seems to mark an attempt to clear the decks before the general election, which is scheduled for October 23rd. However, there is a risk that this resort to repression will cause a lasting setback to the ruling family’s efforts to foster political and social reforms.

The Bahraini authorities arrested a number of prominent opposition activists in August, and have now charged 23 with plotting to overthrow the government, as tensions rise ahead of the parliamentary election. Those arrested include leading figures in the Haq and Al-Wafa movements, two unregistered opposition groups. They have been charged with several offences including forming an illegal organisation, aiming to overthrow the government and dissolve the constitution, inciting people to change Bahrain’s political system, disseminating propaganda with the aim of undermining the state, and planning and fundraising for “terrorist acts”.

Lawyer says 230 now detained

The crackdown prompted angry protests and demonstrations, and, by the end of August, 230 people had been arrested in a wide-ranging crackdown, according to Muhammed Al-Tajer, the lawyer for one of the detainees, Abduljalil Singace, a prominent Haq activist and engineering professor. The events have contributed to an increasing polarisation of attitudes towards the limited political reforms that the government has instituted since 2002. Since virtually all those arrested are Shia, the events have also contributed to sectarian tensions.

Both Haq and al-Wafa refuse to register themselves with the government (which would place limits on their activities) or to participate in parliamentary elections (as they call for the tight restrictions on the elected chamber’s powers to be eased). Both movements have publicly campaigned for the restoration of the 1973 constitution, a longstanding opposition demand, because this provided for a fully elected parliament (which was suspended in 1975 and never restored). They are also aligned with the London-based Bahrain Freedom Movement, whose secretary-general, Saeed Shehabi, has also been charged in absentia as part of the alleged network. Instead of participating in parliament, the Haq movement and its sympathisers focus their activities on street protests and international publicity campaigns.

Burning

Protests in Bahrain range from organised demonstrations with slogans and themes, where Haq will be openly involved, to more chaotic disturbances by young men. Typically teenagers and young men set fire to dustbins, block roads with burning tyres and scuffle with police. There have also been more serious arson attacks on power stations and in two controversial cases in the past two years, young Shia men have been convicted of killing a policeman and (separately) a Pakistani national who was believed to be a member of the security forces. In July the local daily Gulf Daily News quoted unnamed sources saying that on some days there were up to 20 fires set in different parts of the country.

Outside Bahrain, Haq has raised issues of human rights and sectarianism in Bahrain in forums in London and Washington; Mr Singace had just returned from London where he spoke at the House of Lords, the upper house of the British parliament, and met with Amnesty International. The account of the charges published by the state-owned Bahrain News Agency includes many mentions of “spreading false news”, “contacts with organisations and parties overseas”, “publication and dissemination of biased information” and so on. As the crackdown continued, on September 4th, a well-known blogger, Ali Abdulemam, who set up Bahrain’s first internet discussion forum, Bahrain Online, was arrested.

Revolving doors

Such developments are not new in Bahrain. Several Haq leaders, including Mr Singace and Hassan Mushaima, Haq’s secretary-general and another of the 23 charged, were detained in 2009 and charged with terrorist offences, but were released after a few months as part of a royal amnesty, without any evidence of terrorist activities having been presented in court. Sheikh Mohammed al-Mokdad, another of the arrested opposition figures, was detained briefly as recently as July, while Mr Abdulemam was detained for a few days in 2005 after users of his forum criticised members of the ruling family. Treatment of the opposition varies over time, which seems in part to reflect differing views within the government; the authorities are sometimes also sensitive to Shia community or clerical pressure and to international opinion. However, the latest crackdown appears to be the most severe for years and could take a different direction to that in 2009. In a speech on September 5th, the king, Hamad bin Issa Al Khalifa, said that those arrested had taken previous pardons to mean that they were above the law.

It is not yet clear whether any specific new information lay behind the arrests. The timing may be largely explained by the upcoming election. Haq, along with Al-Wafa, had not announced any strategy to disrupt the election or campaign for a boycott, but it was widely expected. With Mr Mushaima, currently undergoing treatment for cancer in London, the authorities may have judged that striking at other leading figures now would severely weaken the movement’s ability to carry out protests during the election, when the Bahraini government will be inviting numerous foreign journalists to the country to emphasise its credentials as a relatively liberal and democratic Gulf state. The authorities may also have grown frustrated with the rising numbers of fires and protests and may be hoping that they can weaken or finish the group in the longer term.

News blackout

Haq’s criticisms of the government make it respected in some quarters, and for some of its supporters, its credibility will only increase as a result of the arrests (it will be easy to contrast the experience of activists who are reported to be undergoing torture with the lifestyle of high-paid MPs). But others have criticised it for failing to offer a positive alternative, in terms of a manifesto that would go beyond the long-standing rallying cry of an elected parliament. The group’s supporters appear to be particularly concentrated in a number of Shia villages (such as Sanabis, Sitra, Bani Jamra and Karzakan) that were also heartlands of opposition to the government in the 1990s, under the previous ruler, when lengthy detentions without trial were commonplace. In more central areas, companies who want to make a good impression on the government are taking out billboards denouncing the arrested people as “terrorists”. The newspapers in Bahrain have been banned from further reporting on the arrests.
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