The Bahraini activist Ala'a Shehabi

David versus goliath

The Bahraini economist Ala'a Shehabi has taken up the fight for democracy in her native country. In light of the fact that the repression of activists has increased here over the past three years and that the regime is spending millions on PR, hers is set to be a long, uphill struggle. By Iris Mostegel

It all started when Bahraini security forces arrested her husband three years ago. "Why are you married to that woman?" they asked him. Then they threw him in jail, where he remained for ten months. He still bears the scars of torture on his back, says 33-year-old Ala'a Shehabi.

When her husband was arrested, Shehabi was working as a lecturer in economics at a private university in Bahrain. A short time later, the rector's office informed her that she was no longer welcome there. When she asked the rector, who was from New Zealand, why this was the case, she was told: "Because you are a risk for us." And with that, she was dismissed.

It was then that her political activism began in earnest. Although she had already taken part in the uprising in Bahrain in February 2011, when a citizens' movement called on the ruling Al Khalifa dynasty to give people a greater say and grant everyone in Bahrain equal rights, it was her husband's arrest and her dismissal from her job that transformed Shehabi's political awareness into political activism.

She founded Bahrain Watch, an activist platform that today has a staff of ten: legal experts, computer scientists, and journalists ... they are all volunteers, giving generously of their time in order to document minutely what is otherwise not documented anywhere: how the state uses spyware to keep watch over Bahraini bloggers, which international companies supply Bahrain with tear gas, and how regime-critical journalists are prevented from entering the country.

Another of the organisation's projects is called PR Watch: here, the ten staffers research and record which Western PR firms the Bahraini government has commissioned since the 2011 uprising and what services they provide.

They have discovered, for example, pro-regime articles in international media such as the British "Guardian" and the "Huffington Post", the authors of which were not, as stated, independent but under contract to PR firms working for Bahrain. Shehabi claims that the same applies to ostensibly neutral information portals like bahrainfacts.org, which is in reality a Washington-based PR agency.

According to Shehabi, the British and American agencies hired by the government simply play back the narrative supplied by the Bahraini regime: "Bahrain is a reformist country, and the Shia opposition is prepared to use violence and has links to Iran." Bahrain Watch estimates that since 2011, the Bahraini government has concluded PR contracts worth US$50 million.

Demonstrators hold up placards that read "Democracy is the solution" during a demonstation that was blocked off by security forces in Manama (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
"Democracy is the solution": demonstrations against the authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa and King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. There has been repeated unrest in Bahrain since the start of the Arab Spring in early 2011. According to the International League for Human Rights, some 89 people have already lost their lives

Escalating violence

The Bahraini PR machine shifts into top gear each year when the Formula 1 circus comes to town, giving the regime a chance to shine the international spotlight on the democratic progress it alleges has been made in the country. In reality, however, the regime has its hands full just keeping the situation in the country under control: not a day goes by without street protests and arbitrary arrests. Moreover, for the past few months, violence has repeatedly broken out as angry protesters attack the security forces, which in turn respond in kind. 

More than three years have passed since the uprising in 2011, which the ruling Al Khalifa family was only able to put down with the help of Saudi troops. However, no political settlement has yet been reached with the opposition. One of the opposition's demands is that they should have a real say in government instead of just the empty pretence of democracy that has been upheld thus far.

This situation as well as the exceptionally repressive response to members of the opposition in the wake of new "terrorism laws" has led to even greater civil rage since last year, which more and more frequently turns into violence. The opposition speaks of some 3,000 political prisoners. The Bahraini authorities, on the other hand, are saying little. They did, however, make it known several months ago that the country's main prison was overcrowded by 33% and that more space is needed.

Ingredients for a conflict

Even without the violence, the basic ingredients of the conflict in the tiny island nation of Bahrain, which is half the size of London, are explosive enough, having already sparked an escalation of the situation in 2011. These ingredients include the lack of democratic prospects and a ruling Sunni dynasty under which the majority Shia population feels discriminated against, like second-class citizens. The Shias – estimated at about two-thirds of the population – complain that they face higher unemployment, fewer opportunities for advancement and a poorer residential infrastructure than Sunni Bahrainis.

The state's official naturalisation policy is adding further fuel to the fire by gradually changing the demographic make-up of the country to the detriment of the Shia majority: Bahrain likes to expedite the process for Sunnis from other Arab states and South Asia.

The other basic ingredient of the conflict is democracy, or the lack of it. Although there is a parliament, it has virtually no power at all because when it comes to major decisions, the ruling dynasty is in charge, whether it be King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa himself or his uncle, the powerful prime minister, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who has been in office for 43 years. 

"I want to see real change"

On many occasions in recent decades, says Shehabi, the reigning Al Khalifa dynasty has solemnly promised the citizens to introduce democratic reforms. It has even taken a few steps in that direction on a number of occasions, only to make a U-turn shortly thereafter. "I want to see real change. Results," says Shehabi. She repeats this statement again and again.

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
Ruling with an iron fist: for centuries now, Bahrain has been ruled by the Sunni Al Khalifa dynasty, even though the majority of the population are Shia Muslims. The protests that began in this small island kingdom in 2011 were inspired by those in Tunisia and Egypt, but were brutally put down a few weeks later with the help of Saudi troops

The latest project to be undertaken by Shehabi's organisation is called "Stop the Shipment". The shipments in question contain tear gas. The international outcry after the Bahraini regime, with the support of its neighbours in Saudi Arabia, used armoured vehicles and live ammunition against the 2011 uprising taught the government that there are better ways of keeping protesters in check: tear gas, for example, which is considered a non-lethal weapon.

Shehabi and others say, however, that this purportedly non-lethal weapon is being used in a lethal fashion, with some members of the security forces shooting tear gas projectiles at the heads of protesters at close range. The regime denies that this is so, claiming that tear gas is being used only to break up illegal assemblies: "in full compliance with internationally accepted standards".

Last October, a document was leaked to Bahrain Watch. This document indicated that the Bahraini government had tendered a new contract for the delivery of 1.6 million tear gas projectiles. Bahrain has 1.3 million inhabitants. The organisation responded by launching a large-scale campaign directed at two South Korean companies and others. "Stop the Shipment" was successful: in January of this year, South Korea put a stop to the scheduled delivery.

Wind of change?

Meanwhile, Shehabi and her allies are trying to publicise the information they have collected. They call this "information activism". However, in the face of so many other conflicts worldwide, many of which are much more brutal than the one in Bahrain, this is a virtually impossible task.

Just once a year, when the Formula 1 Grand Prix rolls into town, as it did in April, does Bahrain make the pages and news bulletins of the international media – always on the sports pages, but sometimes in the politics section as well. After all, the opposition does everything in its power on the days before and after the race to draw attention to its concerns.

This year, they had little success. The state-sponsored PR machine managed to drown out their voices. They were also drowned out by the hard rock band Scorpions, who performed at this year's race. They probably sang their famous ballad "Wind of change", the very wind Shehabi is fighting for.

Iris Mostegel

© Qantara.de 2014                          

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

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