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Chan'ad Bahraini

(Scomberomorous maculatus Bahrainius)

Al Khawaja revisited

Thursday, April 28, 2005

More from my backlog of unfinished posts. So way back in December 2004, a week or so after he was released from prison, I interviewed Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, the vice-president of the now outlawed (but still active) Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. Somehow I never got around to posting about the interview until now, so sorry for the delay. Even though the Al Khawaja Affair is old news now, many of the issues discussed in this interview are still very relevant today (so that's my lame excuse for this being so late).

A bit of background for those of you who are new. On Sept 24, 2004, Abdulhadi Al Khawaja delivered a speech as part of a symposium about poverty and economic rights in Bahrain, in which he criticized the Prime Minister. The next day he was arrested and the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) was shut down on orders from the government. During the two months that he was in prison as the trial went on, his supporters held protests on a regular basis. On the morning of Nov 21, the court sentenced Al Khawaja to one year in prison, but it was announced later in the day that he had been given a Royal Pardon from the King and was released. The BCHR remains outlawed by the government, but it has been very active nonetheless. You can read all of my posts about the Al Khawaja Affair here.

My interview with him took place on Dec 2, twelve days after his release from prison -- so bear in mind that some of the stuff discussed may be outdated. I got his phone number and gave him a call telling him about my blog, and he was was kind enough to invite me to his home and make the time to speak with me.

Click here to read/listen to the interview

The interview was recorded on video, but to save download times for you I'm only sharing the audio, reduced down to 16kbps quality. I've also edited out most of my own voice in the audio to save space (and because I can't stand listening to my own voice... and sorry for the sound of me saying "uh huh" throughout the interview... I didn't realize that the microphone was picking it up). I've written below my question (paraphrased, not the exact question), followed by a link to Abdulhadi's response. The sound files have been placed in a little Flash player, so what you need to do is click on the Flash icon below each question, which will open up a new browser window and load the player. (If you have just arrived from Venus and you don't have Flash already installed for your browser, then get it from here). The files are anywhere between 100KB and 300KB each, so it may take a while to load depending on your connection speed. Please email me or leave a comment if it's not working for some reason.

Also bear in mind that what is presented here is not the entire interview, just clips. And that not all of the clips are in their original order. On with the show:


Q: Why did you choose to publicly criticize the Prime Minister?



Q: What would be achieved if the Prime Minister was replaced?



On Old Guard vs Reformists:



Q: Didn't your statements of criticism sideline the progress made by the Crown Prince's reforms project (McKinsey) to some extent?



Q: What indications are there that make you so convinced that real economic reforms will not take place under the current government?



Q: In what way do you think your statements "weakened" the Prime Minister and the Old Guard?



On the urgent needs of the people, and the campaign to satisfy them:



Q: What kind of activities will this future campaign consist of?



Q: What will be the specific objectives of this campaign?



I asked him to respond to criticism that the effect of the planned demonstrations and strikes would hurt the economy rather than help it.



I then put forward the idea that public criticism of the Prime Minister or the government might make it harder for the Reformists within the regime to implement change. I reminded Abdulhadi that "saving face" and reputation is a big factor in regional politics, and suggested that public criticism might only provoke the Old Guard to seek means to strengthen its own position.



Since Abdulhadi didn't buy my argument that criticism might cause the Old Guard to strengthen itself, I asked him to explain specifically how the activities of the campaign would necessarily translate into political change.



I wasn't fully satisfied with his explanations of how the campaign would necessarily activate change, so I kept questioning him on the subject for a while. But then he admitted that he doesn't have all the answers regarding the specific dynamics of political change, and further explained that as a human rights activist it is not his responsibility to have them.



Abdulhadi's statements against the Prime Minister were very political in nature, and some people thought that this did not fall under the domain of human rights. So I asked him for his opinion on where the border (if any) between human rights and politics lies. I also asked him to respond to criticism that the BCHR's relationship with Al Wefaq is too close.



A bit more about the BCHR's relations with Al Wefaq and other groups.



That's it for now. I will try to write a follow up post with my own feedback and an analysis of what was discussed in light of recent events. But for right now, that's all.

RSF denounces web registration

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Regarding the government's plan to require all Bahraini webmasters to register with the information ministry, Reporters Without Borders has issued this statement:

Reporters Without Borders voiced alarm at Bahrain's decision announced on 24 April 2005 to oblige all websites dealing with the country to register with the ministry of Information. "This does not happen in any democratic country and is a threat to press freedom," the organisation said. (Continued)

It also contains the details pertaining to us bloggers:

[Jamal Dawood, head of press and publications at the information ministry] admitted that he did not know what a weblog was, but said that even personal websites would have to comply with the new procedure. He added that it would not be possible to register online and registration would have to be done directly at the information ministry. After each registration was validated, the person in charge would receive an ID number that would have to be posted on the site. [wtf???]

Do the government officials who are inventing these laws even know what the internet is?? It sounds as though a government employee from the "Vehicle Registration" department at the Directorate of Traffic got moved to the Information Ministry. Surely this is a joke of some sort. I can't wait to find out what else they have in store for us.

I'm just wondering... does this mean I have to register my Flickr account with the ministry also?

Do read the full RSF statement.


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Update (27-Apr-05): I've been reading over the RSF article and wanted to bring to your attention this quote from Mr Jamal Dawood:

"Registration will be automatic and no-one will be turned down whatever the content."

Does he really expect people to believe this when just two months ago three website admins were arrested due to the contents of their site? And after the GDN reported that the government will continue to block websites "inciting hatred against prominent figures, ministers and leading officials". This reminds me of when Labour Minister Al Alawi stated before a UN Committee in Geneva that racial discrimination does not exist whatsoever in Bahrain.

Oh and guess what? The government has now blocked Proxify.com also. They really seem to believe that it's possible to control the internet.


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Update (28-Apr-05): The story has been picked up by AP News: Bahrain site registration sparks protests (via Business Week). Also, our local paper, the GDN also has two articles about the story: This one featured as the frontpage headline story and this one inside contains a quote from our very own Mahmood!

Mawlid al Rasool

Monday, April 25, 2005

Here are some photos I took this afternoon in the Manama suq, which has been all decorated for the celebrations tonight of the Prophet's birthday and that of Imam Ja'far al Sadiq. I was there later in the evening also for the actual celebrations, but my camera died on me so I don't have pictures of the beautiful lights. (And I ate one too many platefuls of biryani).

It's really quite cool how just last month the town was draped in black, and now it's bursting with colour. It's beautiful. You can't help but feel the joy.

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

Of course, what would a photoset be without kids:

As you can tell, I quite like all the brocade material draped everywhere. Here are a couple details if anyone cares:

Register or face legal action

So this is what SillyBahrainiGirl warned us about. From the GDN:

Webmasters must register or face legal action

MANAMA: Webmasters face prosecution if they defy new rules announced by Bahraini authorities. All Bahraini websites set up here or abroad must register with the Information Ministry or face legal action, it was declared yesterday.

A six-month campaign is being launched next Monday to register all Bahraini websites, under orders from Information Minister and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Mohammed Abdul Ghaffar.

"The ministry will announce soon the details of how each website owner or supervisor can register," Information Under-Secretary Mahmood Al Mahmood told the GDN.

"If they fail to register then legal action will be taken against them based on the country's printing and publishing laws."

He said websites would face similar laws to newspapers, related to libel, public decency and ethics.

Just as a newspaper editor-in-chief is held responsible for what he publishes, so will the webmasters be, he said.

Ministry printing and publishing director Jamal Dawood said registration procedures would be in line with those for all types of publications, including newspapers, leaflets, audio and visual media.

So the government actually expects me to register this blog with them? Not a chance mate! It's odd... just a few days ago I wrote that the current environment of relatively free speech (in large part due to websites) was the only real change brought about by King Hamad's reforms... but now it seems the government is hellbent on undoing that also. Does the government seriously think it can control the flow of information in the current day and age? I think it's time for the Information Ministry to be shut down... no jokes this time please.

Bahrain bloggers, what do you make of this?


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Update (25-Apr-05): Head over to Mahmood's Den to discuss what course of action we as bloggers want to take in response to this.

More labour rage

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Photo source: AP/Gustavo Ferrari (via Yahoo News)

From the BBC:

More than 700 Bangladeshi workers have stormed their country's embassy in Kuwait, causing damage inside. [...] Mr Islam [the ambassador] told the BBC Bengali service that the motive for the attack was linked to wages not being paid. (Continued)

More details with Reuters

This is very worrying, but not at all surprising. There have been several similar events all over the Gulf in recent months, of migrant workers expressing anger at their situation. Usually peaceful, but occasionally violent.

Usually this anger has been expressed towards their employers or at their host government. But this time it is against their own government. Although there is no way to condone today's violence, this should serve as a much-needed wake up call to embassies all around the Gulf. Up until now they have silently watched their citizens being abused, without demanding that the basic rule of law be applied to them. As long as the foreign remittances are flowing in there's no probs.

See also: the Expat Files

More of the same

Friday, April 22, 2005

As the turn of the month approaches, opposition activists have reloaded and have announced some more protests to keep the pressure on the government.

On April 30 (the eve of Labour Day), the Committee for the Unemployed will hold the third in its series of demonstrations. This time the protest will take the form of a march that will commence at 7.30pm from Ras Ruman mosque and will pass by the Prime Minister's office. (Read about the first and second protests.)

On the following Friday (May 6), the second protest demanding constitutional reforms will be held. The venue this time will be next to Dana Mall at 4pm. Interestingly, the announcement says that the protest is being sponsored by all four of the boycotting opposition parties, rather than just Al Wefaq as was the case for the first protest. Is it possible that the others have finally woken up?

Well, let's see.


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Update (24-Apr-05): Today's GDN has the following:

Rally ‘illegal’

MANAMA: Social Affairs Minister Dr Fatima Al Balooshi yesterday dismissed the constitutional conference general secretariat as “unlicensed and illegal”. She was commenting on news that a rally would be held on May 6 to press for constitutional reforms.

Things seem to keep repeating themselves in Bahrain. But Dr Balooshi's statement sounds more like a dismissal of legitimacy, rather than the ban that was imposed on the last protest. But there's still time left, so let's see how the government responds this time.


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Update (25-Apr-05): More in today's GDN:

A planned rally to call for constitutional changes would be an illegal act orchestrated by an illegal organisation, authorities said yesterday. The government does not recognise the group organising the rally, which is backed by four political societies that boycotted the parliamentary elections, said a senior Social Affairs Ministry official. (Continued)

Word on the street II: Graffiti

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Continuing on from my recent post "Word on the Street", I thought I'd write a bit more about public expression, this time focusing on graffiti in Bahrain. From my observations, the graffiti can be grouped in to three general categories: (i) domestic politics, (ii) international politics, and (iii) religious.

Domestic politics

From my observations and memory, there wasn't any significant graffiti activity until the civil unrest starting in 1994 (older readers, please correct me if I'm wrong). This constituted the first of the three categories stated above: domestic politics. Typical phrases that were spray painted (usually in Arabic, but sometimes in English) were "We want a parliament", "we want the 1973 constitution" and "down with Al-Khalifa". Below is an example. It's hard to read because someone has already made an attempt to cover it up, but it says "We want freedom" in both Arabic and English:

It was also quite common to see spray-painted stencil portraits of (the then) opposition leader Shaikh al-Jamri, or of some of the people killed by the state security forces during the uprising. At the height of the unrest, graffiti was popping up everywhere daily. And if it was in a very public place, near a main highway for example, the government usually had it painted over immediately, leaving these huge white rectangles all over the place. New graffiti of this sort stopped emerging when the unrest ended, after Hamad became Amir (later renamed to "King") in 1999. Most of this graffiti has by now been painted over.

International politics

Graffiti reflecting international politics did not emerge until the second Palestinian intifada in 2000. Aside from Pro-Palestinian phrases such as "Jersualem is ours", the intifada unleashed a wave of anti-American and anti-Israeli feelings. The two photos show graffiti saying "Death to Israel":

The two photos below show graffiti written on public rubbish bins. The first one has "Israel" written on it, and the second one has "The White House" on it.

These feelings further intensified after Mohammed Juma, a Bahraini protestor, was killed during a protest outside the US Embassy that turned violent back in April 2002. Thereafter, Juma was depicted as "Bahrain's martyr for Palestine", and spray-paint stencil portraits of him popped up everywhere. The portraits are still around, especially at bus stops for some reason.

George Bush's war on terror also generated a significant amount of anger, but I never saw it translated in to support for Osama bin Laden... except for this one exception I found in Muharraq (the two photos show the same wall):

In the first photo it says "Osama bin Laden, the leader of Islam". In the second photo (which was right next to the first) it says "Conqueror of the Americans". This is the only such graffiti I've seen in Bahrain. Has anyone else seen anything similar elsewhere on the island?

Religious

Religious graffiti in Bahrain is usually in the form of "O Allah", or "O Hussain", or something similar:

I'm not really too sure what might drive someone to get a can of spray paint and write something like this on a wall. It seems to lack the urgency that might motivate one to write something about a precise political issue. But what is interesting is the use of religious phrases to convey a political issue. Phrases such as "Enough of humiliation" and "Death with honor is better than life in subservience" are usually associated with the events of Karbala and Ashura. But spray-painted on walls, these phrases take on a very political meaning, especially during the civil unrest of 90s.

So what?

I think it is very significant that there has been very little graffiti activity over the past two or three years. It says alot. One would expect people to resort to graffiti only when there is no other outlet for public expression, as was the case in Bahrain a few years ago. Today, the local Press has a bit more freedom than it did before. Political protests and conferences take place very frequently, whereas they were not tolerated whatsoever before. And the arrival of the Internet has made a huge difference with the emergence of online forums and blogs, allowing cheap, fast, and (almost) unregulated communication with people in Bahrain and around the world.

Yes, the government has in several recent cases attempted to intimidate people in to keeping quiet (the Al-Khawaja affair, the BahrainOnline arrests, the Sitra protest), so there is yet a ways to go. But the situation today is drastically different from just a few years ago when the regime had a complete stranglehold on the flow of information in Bahrain. Just a few years ago I would not have dared to set up a blog like this, out of concern for the safety of myself and loved ones. Just a few years ago, a peaceful protest demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister would have been met with tear gas and rubber bullets.

This relative freedom of speech is, in my opinion, the only change brought about by King Hamad's reforms that is real and significant. The parliament has so far been fruitless, the government is still run by a single family, and the courts are still not independent. But as long as this current environment of (relatively) free speech is maintained the rest of the reforms will inevitably come, sooner or later. So be worried if you see lots of new graffiti on the walls.

Mannequin

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

With all this talk of boys getting aroused by lingerie-clad mannequins I was reminded of a movie that explores the logical possibilities of such a situation. If you were around in 1987 then you will surely recall a movie by the name of Mannequin. In this 80s cult classic a young man by the name of Jonathan Switcher actually falls in love with a beautiful shop display mannequin. I won't spoil the rest of the story for you, but I will tell you that the tagline for the movie was:

Just because Jonathan's fallen in love with a piece of wood, it doesn't make him a dummy.

Very appropriate. (This film is second only to maybe Ferris Bueller in the genre of retarded 80s movies).

Movies aside, I think that Muharraq councillor Majeed Karimi (Al Wefaq), who wants a ban on the mannequins, raises some important points. He says, according to the GDN:

These mannequins look like real women with exactly the same features.

Mr. Karimi is not the only person who has been pondering over this. Just a few weeks ago Tunisian blogger MMM (of Subzero Blue) raised some related though-provoking questions:

The other day while walking by some store windows, the question hit me:
"When the hell did they start putting nipples on mannequins?!"
Is it that the stores are really cold?
Are the mannequins excited by the fact that people are staring at them?
Are they implying that the clothes are made for chilly days only?
Or maybe they're saying that whatever the weather, nipples will show through these clothes? (Continued)

Okay seriously... seriously... I don't think that Mr Karimi's argument is a complete non-issue. Here in Bahrain where most females dress conservatively, it doesn't surprise me that mannequins in lingerie might "offend" some people. It's all relative. Just think back to the scandal created when Janet Jackson revealed her breast during the Super Bowl halftime show in the much more liberal United States. So maybe Karimi has a debatable point... I just don't think that the municipal council should be wasting its time or resources dicussing this now when there are far more pressing issues to be dealt with.

Now go watch the movie and remind yourself of how cool it was to wear white trousers.

News roundup

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Some random news and updates from the past week or so that I haven't had a chance to discuss.

Protest news:

  • The government has scrapped its plans to prosecute Al Wefaq for the huge illegal rally held in Sitra at the end of last month. Well done to Social Affairs Minister Dr Fatima Al Balooshi for having the sense to end this issue amicably, rather than further escalating it.
  • However, the charges against the BahrainOnline Trio still are still being pursued. So, on April 5, supporters held a protest in the Seef area demanding that the government drop its charges. Photos are here (scroll down a bit.)

  • On April 2, the Committee for the Unemployed held its second protest in the Seef Area. Photos are here, and the press release from the Committee is here (scroll down to the bottom for the English version). The next protest will take place on Labour Day (May 1). Read my account of the first protest here.

From the Parliament:

  • The Council of Representatives has approved the formation of an Islamic vice and virtue committee that will "offer advice in order to safeguard virtue in society and combat harmful behaviour". However, the bill needs to be approved by the government appointed Shura Council before it can be put into effect. Since the government has expressed its opposition to the idea, the bill will hopefully (fingers crossed, knock on wood) never see the light of day. (If I'm not mistaken, this isn't the first that our Parliament has taken up this issue.)
  • Al Menbar (Muslim Brotherhood) and Al Asala (Salafi), the very same parties that supported the above-mentioned bill for a vice committee, have blocked a bill that would decrease the power of the Shura Council. This is interesting because it shows that these guys are aware that they are nothing without the support of the government, so they have passed up the opportunity to increase their own legislative powers. I suspect that they are banking on the help of the government during the 2006 elections (in which the hugely popular Shia Islamist group Al Wefaq may eventually choose to participate).
  • I haven't had a chance to find out the details yet, but apparently the government has proposed a bill to Parliament for an anti-terror law. Opposition groups have condemned the proposed law as a violation of personal freedoms and freedom of expression.
  • While announcing to Parliament the preparation of a new nationality law, the Minister of State for Shura Council and Parliament Affairs denied any evidence of illegal naturalizations. Some MPs objected to this claim and provided their side of the story... which offended the Right Honourable MP Mohammed Khalid so much that he walked out in protest!

The expat files:

  • The Philippines is considering a ban on sending its citizens to work as maids in Bahrain and the Gulf, after a rise in complaints of abuse. This follows similar bans by the Indonesian and Bangladeshi government last month. This is unfortunate for those maids who end up with humane employers, but I don't blame the governments for their concern (especially after this case from across the causeway). On a better note though, it is being said that housemaids will be granted some rights under the Labour Law as part of changes being implemented by the Crown Prince's labour reforms project. I hope they're serious. Read more about migrant workers in Bahrain.

Word on the street

Thursday, April 07, 2005

A couple weeks back I wrote about the huge Opposition protest in Sitra, and how it was branded with the official slogan "Consitutional Reform First":

In that post I also mentioned that the pro-government groups, lead by the Salafist group Al Asala, published statements in support of the government in the local papers, and presented its counter-slogan "Bahrain First". Well while driving around today I noticed some roadside signs displaying this same counter-slogan:

I took the above photo in Budaiya near the Northern governorate office (at the same site where I found this sign and this one). However similar signs seem to have been placed all around the island... I saw them in several places along Budaiya Highway, and also in the Manama/Juffair area.

Notice that the signs of both the Opposition and the pro-Government groups feature the national flag prominently. It seems almost like the way in Lebanon how the pro-government protesters responded to the anti-government protests by also utilizing the Lebanese national flag and nationalist symbols, rather than any other communal or party symbols. So here in Bahrain too, the pro-government groups have decided respond to the Opposition's nationalism with more nationalism, but has gone a step further by using the counter-slogan "Bahrain First"; as though that makes any real difference. In any case, I'm relieved that the pro-govt folks have chosen to use the national flag to express their support for the regime rather than plaster mugs of the Royal Three all over the place... thank you Lebanon!

But this is not the only example of competition in the public space taking place currently. There is a (seemingly) religious one going on also. If you're currently in Bahrain then you have probably noticed the religious signs that popped up on lamp posts all over the island about six months ago (I think). They usually have blue type on white background and look like this:

The above sign says "Glorified is God, the Great". Other varieties of the same sign have different phrases written on them, such as: "God is great", "Remember God", "Don't forget God", "Ask forgiveness from God", etc etc... you get the picture.

Recently though (over the past month), a different sign, coloured in green, has arrived on the scene. The sign is often placed near, or adjacent to the white signs shown above. For example:

On top is a variety of the old white sign, and underneath has recently been attached the new green sign. And there is only one phrase written on all of the new signs: "O Allah, send Thy blessings upon Mohammed and the Household of Mohammed". Now, this phrase and the previous ones are commonly used by both Sunnis and Shias. However this one ("blessing upon Mohammed...") seems to have a special significance to the Shia, and is invoked by them far more frequently than Sunnis. So, I'm lead to believe that the white signs were probably put up by one of the Sunni organizations, and the green signs were a tit-for-tat response by one of the Shia groups.

It's all very interesting to study, but I'm not sure if I need street signs to tell me which road leads to God.