Internet a powerful tool in Bahrain's push for democracy; The tiny nation is a microcosm for technological and political change in the Middle East,
writes Jane Kinninmont
13 June 2005
South China Morning Post
(c) 2005 South China Morning Post Publishers Limited, Hong Kong. All rights reserved.
The tiny Gulf kingdom of Bahrain hits the headlines only once a year - when the Formula One motor race comes to town - yet it's witnessing some of the most passionate calls for democracy in the Middle East.
Washington, which bases part of its naval fleet in Bahraini waters, has said the country is one of the most democratic states in the region. But as popular protests become more frequent, the government is clamping down on critics.
After this year's Formula One celebrations finished, and the media spotlight moved on, the government announced it would press charges against three young bloggers. The men face up to 10 years in jail for running a website whose users criticised the king.
Bahrain is a tiny island of 700,000 people just off the coast of Saudi Arabia. Compared with its giant neighbour, it's taken brave steps towards democracy. Since 2002, there has been a constitution and an elected chamber of parliament. Women vote. But the elected body has little real power, and civil liberties are fragile. And while most of the population are Shi'ite Muslims, the political and business elite are almost exclusively Sunni.
As in most of the Gulf, oil underpins the economy but manyShi'ites think they haven't shared in this wealth. Unemployment is unofficially estimated at 15-20 per cent - and is much higher among Shi'ites. Poverty is far more evident than in nearby Qatar or Dubai. Even the cats are thinner.
While the business districts gleam with new skyscrapers, there are houses in serious disrepair in the capital. Religious opposition groups are growing in popularity, and one reason is their economic services: they help repair houses and even pay for mass weddings.
Inspired by this year's elections in Iraq, the pro-democracy protests in Egypt and the "cedar revolution" in Lebanon, Bahrainis are calling for a greater say in politics. Demonstrations - rare a year ago - are now regular occurrences.
Tens of thousands marched through the capital, Manama, this year, demanding more power for the parliament. A blogger and photographer, Chan'ad, said: "When the reforms started, people were scared to speak out. Now there's a demonstration every week."
There was violent unrest in Bahrain during the 1990s, but theShi'ite Islamists, who lead today's opposition, avoid violence and distance themselves from terrorism. "There are angry youths who want to fight back when the riot police come in at demonstrations," said Chan'ad. "But organisers know they have international attention and are clear they need peaceful means to gain the moral upper hand."
Bahrain's activists have a sophisticated grasp of modern communications technology, using Bluetooth phones to organise demonstrations and spreading photos of protests around the world through emails and blogs.
"Anyone who wants to organise a demo now sends a message out through Bluetooth on their mobile phones," said "Stravinsky", a student blogger.
"They can reach 30,000 users in Bahrain without being traced. Then they text people video clips of the demo."
Earlier this month, the government proposed a law to regulate Bluetooth usage, under which "misuse" would be punishable by up to five years in jail. Authorities say the law is to stop pornography.
According to Mahmood al-Yousif, Bahrain's first blogger: "There are no borders for the media any more. Al-Jazeera reporters are banned from Bahrain, but they hire locals to film reports which they upload on to the internet."
Bahrain's bloggers come from a wide range of backgrounds and political perspectives, united only by the excitement of self-expression in a country where most of the media is controlled by the state.
Still, the authorities are attempting to clamp down on the free use of the media. In May, the government said bloggers must register their real names with the ministry of information. And the three bloggers facing criminal charges are a warning to others.
One of the bloggers facing trial, Ali Abdulemam, founded Bahrain's first website in 1999. BahrainOnline.org is an open-source web forum where any one of the 26,000 registered users can publish their views. In a country where, as another blogger puts it, 'they need to know the political opinions of your mother's mother before you can become an accredited journalist', this was a radical move.
Although the state telecoms monopoly has been trying to block it since 2002, Bahrain Online is the country's most popular website. Bahrain's technologically literate youth have become adept at accessing the site - which is hosted in the US - through proxy addresses.
Having failed to censor the site, the Bahraini authorities took more drastic action. Mr Abdulemam and the site's two other moderators were arrested this year, and detained on five charges including "inciting hatred against the government" and "defaming the king".
Their lawyer said the charges relate to postings which they themselves did not write, and a government source confirmed this.
"This site came before even the government had a website. They still don't understand what the internet means, especially the idea of live chat. I hadn't even seen the postings they showed me - but I could face up to 10 years in prison just for publishing a website," Mr Abdulemam said.
Particularly colourful personal insults have been directed against the prime minister, a powerful businessman who is also the king's uncle. Criticising the prime minister is a dangerous business; Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, then director of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) was jailed last September after he called for the prime minister's resignation. Mr Khawaja was freed in November when the king intervened to pardon him, but the BCHR remains closed.
Many Bahrainis say that, as in Saudi Arabia, the ruling family is divided over the issue of reform. Most associate the prime minister with the conservative faction, while the crown prince is the leading liberal. Intriguingly, Mr Khawaja's arrest took place the day after the crown prince publicly called for economic reforms and for greater rights for immigrant workers. The prince made a similar speech earlier this year - and the Bahrain Online three were detained shortly after.
However, if the arrests were intended to silence reformists, they have backfired. "Since the Bahrain Online arrests, new blogs keep popping up," said Stravinsky.
Given its close ties to Washington, Bahrain will be a key test of the US' stated commitment to democracy and freedom in the Middle East. The US embassy in Bahrain has spoken to Mr Abdulemam about his case, but has not yet commented publicly.
Although strongly opposed to the Iraq war, Mr Abdulemam said: "Condoleezza Rice is putting real pressure on Bahrain for democracy. I don't want them to invade my country, but if the US will help us, we will shake their hand."