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Chan'ad Bahraini

(Scomberomorous maculatus Bahrainius)

Bahrain in the press

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Washington Post article on the use of text messages by activists in the Gulf:

"My bill is going sky high," said Abduljalil Singace, foreign affairs director of Bahrain's Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, the island emirate's largest opposition grouping, a Shiite Muslim movement that is noisily boycotting the country's three-year-old, limited parliament.

Singace was fired as an associate professor and department chair at Bahrain University in mid-March after he traveled twice to Washington to lobby against his country's royal government, a close U.S. ally. He said Bahrain's security services also told him to stop sending dissident text messages. The Bahrain government says Singace was discharged for neglecting his duties at the university.

"They warned me against text messaging on demonstrations," Singace said. Before the warning, he said, "I was not sure they were reading my text messages. Now I'm telling everyone."

Still, he remains proud of some of his compositions. When American management consultants issued a report recently about how Bahrain's government could accelerate reform of its free-trading economy, Singace whipped off a reply and paid a commercial service to distribute his message throughout the island.

"Economic reform without political reform is like a bird with only one wing," he wrote. "How can it fly?" (Continued)

And a very brief mention in the Christian Science Monitor about the demand for democracy in the Middle East:

In Bahrain last week, the largest protests in memory saw the country's politically disenfranchised Shiite majority saying enough to pro-American King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa's policies. (Continued)

I also stumbled across a full article about Bahrain from the World Socialist Web Site: American media silent over mass protest in Bahrain. It's quite sensationalized (typical of contemporary Leftist literature), but worth a read:

The hypocrisy of Washington’s self-proclaimed crusade for democracy in the Middle East found damning expression this week in the nearly total silence of the US government and the American media over a demonstration that brought tens of thousands of protesters into the streets of Bahrain last Friday demanding democratic reforms.

The contrast between the reaction to this popular upsurge against a dictatorial monarch in the Persian Gulf and the attention lavished on the so-called “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon could not have been starker. (Continued)

Updates: Sitra rally and Factory rampage

Monday, March 28, 2005

Some updates to stories I've posted about recently:

Today's GDN reports that the Cabinet condemned the illegal Consitutional Reform Rally that was held in Sitra on Friday. And once again the GDN decides to not include any statements from Al Wefaq. According to a post on BahrainOnline last night, the Cabinet has asked the Interior Ministry to take action against Al Wefaq, which may involve a closure of the group for 45 days. (I'm not sure what the government hopes to achieve by shutting down or suspending a group's license. Recall that the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights was shut down, yet last month representatives travelled all the way to Geneva to deliver a shadow report to the UN condemning the goverment!) Meanwhile, the Committee for the Unemployed will be holding the second in its series of demonstrations in the Seef district this Saturday (April 2) at 3.30pm, coinciding with Formula 1 weekend. It will be interesting to see how government responds to this. (The police did not interfere with the first protest, held last month).

And more details of the factory rampage on Saturday are emerging. The Gulf News reports:

The workers — mainly from India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh — claimed two other workers had committed suicide in the past, another died of a heart attack and five others became insane as a result of harsh working conditions that require them to work for more than 12 hours daily. They blamed the manager of the factory for their ordeal.

The workers also alleged physical abuse by floor managers and said they were not getting proper food and medical care.

Harinder Lamba, general manager of the company, dismissed the claims of mistreatment and low-wages [Hah!] as untrue. (Continued)

The GDN provides further details, reporting that the workers have submitted petitions to the Indian and Bangladeshi embassies:

Over 400 workers are calling for an investigation into the suicide of an Indian tailor, which prompted a riot at the garment factory where he worked.

They submitted a petition to the Indian and Bangladesh Embassies, as well as the police, yesterday demanding action against the management of MRS Fashions, in East Riffa.

The workers claim Madhu Babu, 25, was driven into taking his own life because of the ill-treatment that was dished out to him.

A tailor who spoke on behalf of his colleagues said it is the third such incident at the company in two years.

He claimed that Mr Babu was the second employee to commit suicide, while a third man allegedly suffered a heart attack because he was overworked. "We want the company to treat us as human beings," said the spokesman, who asked to remain anonymous.

"We all witnessed what happened to Mr Babu and we no longer feel safe working there." (Continued)

Labour rage

Sunday, March 27, 2005

From today's GDN:

Workers go on rampage after suicide

MANAMA: Workers of a top garment factory went on a rampage last night following the death of a colleague. More than 500 Asians working for the MRS Fashions, which makes trousers for J C Penny, started damaging the factory's East Riffa premises after their colleague, who was kept in isolation for 15 days due to chicken pox, committed suicide. (Continued)

There aren't enough details to be able to comment on this specific case. But here is a general message to the government and the business community: Wake up! Migrant workers make up 35% of the resident population. If safeguards to protect the rights of these workers are not introduced soon, this could blow up into something far far worse. Homer wrote a post a while back postulating what the consequences might be in extreme circumstances. I wrote a post in reponse to his which you can read here.

Anyways, if all of these migrant workers were to organize themselves and hold a general strike or something, it would have a substantial impact on the economy. (I certainly hope that the violence that occurred yesterday is never repeated). This isn't an immediate threat, but steps to prevent it need to be taken now before it's too late. Most important I think is to make sure that workers are paid on time, and that defaulting employers are punished.

See also: Power to the people and The expat files.

Plugs

Let me plug a few blogs I've come across in the past few weeks:

  • ODD A has been commenting on various Bahrain blogs for a while now, but has finally set up his own site: The Odd Blog
  • GDN reporter Eunice del Rosario's blog: Flipping the Coin
  • And GDN columnist Amira Al Hussaini has set up a blog to archive her columns: In My Opinion. The great thing about this is that it allows readers to reply to her column instantly, rather than sending a letter to be published in GDN letters page.

And on the international front:

  • Syria Exposed is a blog written by someone called Karfan (and a friend), "where all external myths about Syria and all internal taboos are broken". Very interesting and enjoyable stuff.
  • From Cairo, With Love is a recently started blog from Cairo (duh). Mohamed has posted this great photo illustrating the (somewhat exaggerated) difference between how Westerners and Egyptians express themselves:
  • And finally there's Aref-Adib, by Mehrdad, an Iranian living in London. It's an art/design blog with a bit of humour. Most of the posts are about finding images that are similar to each other. My favourite one is a comparison between former Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and rock legend Frank Zappa:

    Uncanny!

Constitutional reforms... First

Saturday, March 26, 2005

In a massive show of force yesterday, Al Wefaq held a huge rally in Sitra demanding constitutional reform, despite orders from the Interior Ministry to cancel it. Thankfully though the government didn't try to shut down the protest with force (as it did a couple weeks back). Instead, the police blocked the Sitra bridge at about 3pm I think (the protest was scheduled to start at 3.30pm), forcing latecomers to walk across. At the site of the protest itself there were no cops in sight anywhere... actually there was no one around except for the protesters and journalists because of the roadblock.

One of protest organizers that I spoke to said that 120,000 was the number they were telling the press, but from my past experience a more accurate number is half or three quarters of the numbers touted by the organizers. Actually the report from Reuters (via AlJazeera) says that the organizers were only claiming 80,000. And some of the journalists I spoke to at the protests were saying it was around 50,000. Pick what you want. In any case though, this was a HUGE one... certainly the largest political protest I have seen in Bahrain I think. Even if we use the conservative estimate of 50,000 it's still big considering that the total population of Bahraini nationals is only about 400,000, and that the police had blocked off the roads.

I've made a couple of panorama images with several photos, to help you get some sense of the scale. Click either of the thumbnails below to see them:



It was interesting to see how everyone in the region is looking to Lebanon for inspiration. For one thing, the protest organizers made sure to use only nationalist icons and symbols instead of sectarian or party ones. So they insisted that the only flag to be waved is the Bahraini one; a "red and white revolution", similar to the "cedar revolution". And one of the slogans that was chanted during the rally was "Bil rooh, bil damm, nafdeech ya Bahrain" ("With our souls and our blood, we shall sacrifice ourselves for you Bahrain"). The protest also had an official corporate style branding. In Lebanon the official slogan was "Independence '05", and in Bahrain it was "Constitutional Reform ... First"... not as snazzy, but nice try. The organizers distributed thousands of small flyers with the official slogan printed on them in both English and Arabic. (For some background, read Ahmad Humeid's great post Branding the Cedar Revolution).

It was also interesting to see that Salafist group Al Asala (of all people) had a full page announcement printed on page 2 of the GDN urging people not to attend the protest, parroting the governments concerns about the threat it poses to national security and economic interests. They came up with the counter-slogan "Bahrain First". As you can tell there is this wrangling going on between the opposition and government supporters about who gets to define what is in the "national interest of Bahrain".

And I'm afraid I have to once again talk about the poor quality of the GDN's coverage of the event. The front page of yesterday's GDN carried had a short article headlined "Rally refused to ensure citizens' safety". How nice of the GDN to use the government line without even bothering to put quotation marks around "to ensure citizens' safety". The article contained a statement from the government, but did not contain any statements from Al Wefaq. Similarly the front page of today's GDN has a huge headline: "Court Action". This article also has a statement from the government talking about Al Wefaq being taken to court for yesterday's protest. No need to talk about the tens of thousands who showed up to protest despite the ban (there were two photos on page 2 though), no need to talk about the police roadblock on the bridge, no need to discuss what they were protesting about, and there isn't even any need to report Al Wefaq's side of the story. Sounds like journalism to me. The question is whether this is editorial self-censorship, or if orders have come from the government.

I think the protest yesterday was a good sign because it shows that Al Wefaq is really desperate to participate in the political arena. Unfortunately, the Shia Islamist group seems to be the only opposition group that has the desire to make a difference. Yesterday's protest was a one party, one sect demonstration. Again I ask, where is everyone else?

And finally: does anyone know if there are any flag-making companies listed on any of the stock exhanges in the Middle East?

To watch Al Jazeera's coverage of the protest click here (wmv 2.5MB) , and I've also got lots more pictures, so click here to see them.

Here are some more photos from the protest:

Sitra protest update

Thursday, March 24, 2005

At the end of my previous post I mentioned that Al Wefaq will hold a protest rally in Sitra tomorrow (Friday), demanding constitutional reforms. So here's an update on the situation. Apparently, the Ministry of Interior today asked Al Wefaq to cancel the rally. When word of this got around, Wefaq supporters urged the party leadership to stick their plans and hold the protest tomorrow. The Al Wefaq leadership announced this evening that the rally will go ahead tomorrow as planned. And the latest bit of news is that the Minister of Islamic Affairs has called Al Wefaq head Ali Salman, Abdullah Al Ghuraifi and Shaikh Isa Qasim to talk about the dispute over the protest.

Well let's see what happens tomorrow. I really hope there's no trouble. And I really really hope that no one gets arrested... it's all getting a bit monotonous.

Where is everyone else?

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Not only is Al Wefaq the most popular political society on the island, but these days it is also the most active one. If you have been following recent activities you may have noted that Wefaq has provided support (logistic or moral) to the causes of the BahrainOnline detainees, State Security torture victims, the BCHR discrimination report, constitutional reform, and even for the protection of the Tubli Bay mangroves.

I commend Al Wefaq for supporting these important causes, and I also credit the Wefaq high order for recognizing the political value that this gives them. However I can't give my full support to the party because Al Wefaq is an Islamist group, and I disagree with them in principle. But it leads to the question... where is everyone else??!! Are there no other political players to compete with Al Wefaq? In particular, I'm thinking about the National Democratic Action Society (NDA), since it is the largest political society without a religion driven agenda. Their presence in supporting all the grassroots human rights and social causes is miniscule compared to that of Wefaq.

Yes, they usually issue a statement in support of something... and sometimes they even hold a seminar... but their physical presence is rarely seen on the street. Whenever there is a protest for something you can be sure to see Wefaq leaders Ali Salman or Dr Abduljalil Sengase (of recent controversy) on the scene. But the only time I have ever seen another group make their presence known at one of these events was during the Victims of Torture demonstration last June, in which a small troupe of NDA supporters wore yellow headbands and held a banner with the party name at the bottom. But since then, nothing.

I'd like to see more political societies take an interest in these events, sponsor/co-sponsor them or encourage their supporters to show up, and to make their presence known when they get there. Not only is it morally right to support some of these causes, but it is also in the interests of the party. And come 2006, this will provide more choice for a voter concerned about human rights and social issues... I know, I don't like the idea of groups supporting these causes for purely politically selfish motives... but unfortunately that's the nature of the game.

Anyways, Al Wefaq is spearheading the movement for revising the current Constitution, and is organizing a demonstration this Friday afternoon in Sitra. There will probably be a decent turnout... but will any of the other political societies show up?

(P.S. Any updates on the million dinar war chest of the BCCI lobbying group? And any news about the Al-Montada society of businessmen? 2006 is not that far away... get crackin'!)

Maid tied up for a month

Sickening. More maid abuse from across the causeway (via Arab News):

JEDDAH, 23 March 2005 — A 25-year-old Indonesian woman who came to Saudi Arabia as a guest worker will have several of her fingers, toes and part of her right foot amputated because of gangrene after being tied up for a month in a bathroom by her Saudi sponsor, who also apparently beat her severely, injuring her eye and knocking several of her teeth out.

The reason given was that the woman, who worked as a maid, had not finished cleaning the house. (Continued)

Obviously nothing has changed since Human Rights Watch issued its report on migrant worker abuse in Saudi last year. Well at least some of these cases are being reported in the news.

Backlog: Ashura day in Diraz

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

And here are my last set of photos from Ashura this year (at last). These were taken on the day of Ashura. I wasn't able to go to Manama for the processions in the morning so I took some photos of the events in Diraz later in the afternoon.

Even though Ashura is supposed to be a sombre affair, there seems to be an almost festive atmosphere around some of the events (especially for the kids), as you can tell from the photos. Poetry, music, painting, sculpture, drama, lots of free food, horse and camel rides for the kids,... and, dare I say it, a small amount of blood. And you're also bound to bump in to every single Shia friend or acquaintance you've ever met in your life.

Anyways, here are the photos.

Look at how many kids there are everwhere waiting for their turn for a ride on the horses:

It's just amazing how much effort and imagination is put into the Ashura events. Below you see the entrance to the Marsam al-Hussaini made with two larger-than-life lances:

Click here to see the rest of the pics (there are lots more)

Look at the kid on the right hand side of the photo below. Hands in his pockets, he was just standing there enjoying the beauty of the horses passing by.

Shaikh Isa Qasim delivering his speech:

Note the ladies on the left side of the picture with a balcony view of the proceesings: