What’s Really Going on in Bahrain: An Interview with Activist Ala’a Shehabi

Ala’a Shehabi is not a woman to be trifled with. Born in the U.K., she earned a Ph.D. from Imperial College London and has worked for prestigious institutions like Rand Europe and the Bahrain Institute for Banking and Finance.

At the same time, Shehabi has been active in Bahrain’s ongoing uprising. She was at Pearl Roundabout when protesters occupied it in February 2011, and she has continued to be active since the crackdown lead by Saudi and Bahraini troops in March 2011. Her husband, Ghazi Farhan, was disappeared in April 2011. He was later tried for participating in demonstrations—a crime for which he spent a total of nine months in prison. Shehabi herself was briefly arrested just three months after her husband’s release.

Shehabi is a founding member of Bahrain Watch, as well as a research fellow with the Arab Council for the Social Sciences (ACCS). She sat down with SPARE CHANGE NEWS recently to discuss the current situation in Bahrain.

How many activists and leaders of the protests are still in Bahrain?

We have the people that are very public about their views. And we have the unknown soldiers . . . who don’t have a public profile or haven’t sought to use a big name in any way. They’re just your ordinary people like teachers, nurses, doctors and civil servants. They have their day jobs, but they also have their subversive roles to play. And they’ve all found their little role in the movement.

Initially, the government targeted people not just by restricting freedom but also by restricting fortune. So, as a punishment for taking part in the protests, they wouldn’t only arrest and torture people, they’d also immediately sack them from their jobs. This is completely unprecedented anywhere in the Middle East. There would be an investigation committee setting up in every company, especially public companies, and a few private ones. In the investigation committee, anyone would be able to submit evidence that the employee had taken part in protests. The employee would be subjected to a very humiliating interrogation, and then they’d either be suspended or sacked from their jobs for months or years.

Some of them have been reinstated. But I think the majority haven’t been reinstated back to their original positions. They’ve had to suffer in some way, like lost income. I was forced to resign from my job, as well. If you go back to your job, you’re very aware that they cannot be public about taking part in protests. So, they become anonymous. They have anonymous accounts, wear masks when they’re in the protests. There’s a reason why people wear masks. They won’t just be punished by the state; they’ll be punished by their employers.

It’s just a way of trying to quell the uprising.

How worried are you and other activists about Nabeel Rajab—the founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, who disappeared from his prison cell several weeks ago—right now?

Extremely worried. He became a revolutionary leader. He’s a human rights activist. He really wants to be a model for human rights activism—not just for a person who writes human rights reports and makes a public statement, but for a person who would lead by example. He said, “I want to exercise my right to free assembly. I think people have a right to protest wherever they want, including the capital.” And he realized that you can’t just issue reports and make statements, you have to go there and lead. He spoke out when a lot of people were silenced. He was extremely powerful and symbolic in the protest movement. On a weekly basis, he would gather and mobilize. Just through one tweet, people follower that. In one of the protests that I was with him, there were at least 4,000 people in the capital. And I have videos that the police released, actually shooting tear gas and stun grenades. He was severely beaten up on that day. When the police dispersed the crowd, we ended up in different places. I found him half an hour afterwards, and we had to take him to the hospital.

So, they were giving the green light . . . he became too provocative for the regime. There are unspoken red lines. For example, as an activist, I can tweet about government abuses; I can tweet photos of people being tortured or beaten up. But if I want to say “down with the king,” that’s an unspoken red line. It doesn’t matter who you are. They’re trying to really clamp down on that kind of direct criticism of authority. You have to be contained within the rules of the game that the government has been setting. So, tweet whatever you want. You can even tweet photos of people who have been shot with bird shoot or beaten up. They don’t mind. But if you want to question their authority, or the king’s authority, you’re going to be in prison like anybody else.

As an activist, you understand that line. I can go to Bahrain and I’m allowed in and out. But I haven’t openly made political statements, although I believe in the right of people to do so. Don’t forget that in Bahrain, there’s been a birth of a republican movement in the Gulf. It started off in Bahrain, but I think that in the foreseeable future it could spread. People are questioning the royal family’s authority in a way they never did before because they couldn’t conceive it. Before the Arab revolutions, people couldn’t conceive the Gulf without these sheikhs. Now, they do.

Nabeel was really the person who had no respect or didn’t feel . . . don’t forget, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights was not registered. They intentionally made the decision not to register their NGO. So they were already outside the system. They were people outside the system pushing in the political boundaries. They knew that once you get contained within it, it’s very difficult, what you can do . . . Nabeel Rajab was a revolutionary. It began with him, but there’s also been a renewed crackdown. A much more sophisticated and reconfigured crackdown has been waged over last year. Protests networks have been broken up because of targeted infiltration and surveillance.

People there who are well-known, like Nabeel, have been taken. But there are also people who are unknown, who were very strong organizers on the ground at their community level, who have also been arrested.

One of the biggest accusations that the government and its supporters make, as well as a lot of American politicians, is that the opposition in Bahrain is aligned with Iran. Is there any sense in which Iran tries to take advantage of the opposition for its own ends? Is there any way in which Western powers like the United States and Iran are both trying to assert influence?

At the spiritual and religious level, the connection between Bahrain and Iran is one where Bahrainis, because of their Shiism, make frequent visits to Iran for pilgrimage purposes. Culturally and linguistically, the connection is very little. They don’t speak the same language. Iranians hate Arabs and Arabs don’t really like Iranians, that kind of thing. But, within the Bahraini population, about ten percent of both Sunnis and Shias are of Persian decent. So a lot of the most virulent voices who are allied with the government, or are pro-government, or work for the government in Bahrain are of Persian decent. Someone like me, who doesn’t have a Persian decent – I think I’ve only visited Iran once when I was 13 – there’s very little I can say where I look up to Iran as a model for emulation or anything like that.

Now, the Shia, there are different references that you take, sources of religious guidance that you take, just like people look up to the Pope in the Vatican and so on. Khomeini is, for example, one such leader, but Muhammad Hussein Fadl-Allah in Lebanon is another. There’s al-Sistani in Iraq, who you know is very pluralistic and diverse; each one comes with his own particular frame of reference. One is more pluralistic and one is very much philosophical. Everyone’s different, and you have that plurality in Shiism. But there is difference in that religious emulation, religious guidance for those who follow Khomeini. But that’s very much at the personal level, not necessarily at the political level.

Then they’re those who, for example, Al Wefaq is an Islamist party . . . that’s the way it’s set up, that’s the way it is – unlike the Muslim Brotherhood. These Islamist parties and Islamist movements exist in every country, like in Egypt. These governments have a paranoia of these new Islamists. But I’ve always argued that the Islamist movement in Bahrain, the Al Wefaq party, has been so retrained and co-opted since the time they were formed in 2002, that they haven’t been a major threat. They’ve never made statements that were very threatening to the government. It’s actually the secular parties that have been more radical in their statements calling for a republic.

This relationship is much more complicated, at so many levels. But the government wants to play on the Iran phobia that the West has to de-legitimize the protest movement. For years, people have said, “If you accuse everyone of being an Iranian agent, give us evidence.” There was none. Even, to my shock, the government-appointed Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry said they found no evidence, and they were given none, that Iran was involved.

Now, Iran could be actively involved. And, I’ll be honest, if the opposition wanted, they’re a phone call away. Iran is probably willing to give as much support as it can. If I wanted money for a conference or this or that, I’m sure they would be links we can establish. But as the opposition, because of the nature of the struggle . . . it’s very different from Syria. No one’s up in arms, no one’s asking for arms and no one’s asking for money. And people know that everyone’s watching our every move. So we’ll only be playing into our opponents’ hands if we do go and seek that kind of Iranian support.

[Editor’s note: A brief off-the-record exchange followed.]

I know Saudi Arabia has been very involved in Bahrain, and they’re a big U.S. ally, as well. The Fifth Fleet of the U.S. Navy is stationed in Bahrain. In Manama, we saw a lot of construction of office buildings—high finance and luxury coming into Manama. What role has unequal economic development and courting Western corporations played in all of this?

The human rights abuses, as bad as they are, are focused on it really to distract from those kinds of political economy questions about land ownership. That really sparked off the uprising, the issues of social and economic injustices. We have been making a film about it since 2010 – a year before the uprising began. This was to film the illegal land appropriation that has been happening in Manama, Manama Bay, the Bahrain Financial Harbor; around five square kilometers of land have been sold off into private ownership. It had been sea, basically, and it was dredged. But there is only three percent of coastal areas that the public has access to. The rest have all been privatized, and this is an issue of corruption. Those are the core and the very heart of the issues of injustice in Bahrain.

In Pearl Roundabout, there was a point in which it was revealed that the prime minister had bought one of the most strategic pieces of land in Manama for one dinar (about three dollars). People in the protest were holding up one dinar notes. The island’s geographic landscape has been changed, and literally pillaged and looted, by the royal family. They’ve appropriated [inaudible] square kilometers to themselves. The land has run out in Bahrain. Whenever the issue of housing comes up, they just say, “We don’t have any land.” There isn’t any land because all of the public land has been turned to private ownership. There literally isn’t any land left, they’ve stolen it all. And then they’re forced to buy land back that they allowed to be stolen. Now there are 20-year waiting lists for housing.

Those were really the issues that were at the heart of the conflict. Pro-government and opposition now agree that the issues of housing, education and health are just so dire; those are the areas where there seems to be a little bit of unity. But it’s got to go beyond that, because the question, when it wasn’t addressed at the basic level, it has escalated to question the very nature, law, and legitimacy of the royal family. We say, “Look, if you do these things—you kill, you torture, you steal—we don’t recognize you.” But there are others who say, “Yes, we know they kill, they torture, they steal, but we don’t trust you either. But yeah, we know they’re bad.” So everyone’s agreed in Bahrain. The ones who are loyal to the royal family agree that the government is bad. No one is going to defend the government and claim it’s the best government in the world.

Those are points—when it was revealed—that the prime minister had expropriated strategic points of Manama, it’s not that there is not any land left, it’s that the government has stolen it. Those were the issues that were the core of the problem between the royal family and the people of Bahrain.

What can Westerners who are concerned about Bahrain and the situation there do?

I think solidarity is very important. I make a point that I don’t go to the government anywhere, because they will tell you about self-interest. I’m not a politician, I’m a researcher. People just need to take a stand and show solidarity to causes they find just. The Bahraini cause, although it wasn’t publicized as well as other countries, when you visit there and you see the people, it’s the biggest injustice. I don’t think there’s another ruler in any of the other Arab countries, whether it’s Mubarak or Tunisia, that really has colonized his own state in so many ways. As a Bahraini, your history has been whitewashed. The wealth has been stolen; your dignity has been trodden on. There is the feeling of ongoing injustice in your daily life, and that’s why it’s been the most sustained uprising. On a daily basis, there are ten to 20 demonstrations everywhere. It’s become part of the people’s culture. There’s this new resistance identity.

It’s like Burma or Palestine, this feeling that the land has been occupied. But it’s also very strange, because it looks like a very modern country when you land there. You can put faces on everyone. There are well-light highways, nice houses and fancy cars. It’s not a poor country. It’s a country that’s always been rich in its history, rich in its culture and rich in it’s knowledge. It’s not your typical Gulf state where people live in burqas and ride camels. It’s had a long, very rich history of active struggle of the most well-educated people in the Arab world . . .

It’s just a great shame, what’s happening. The point has to be made that the people of Bahrain deserve to move to a real democratic state. The face of neoliberalism that you see—shopping malls, cars, luxury hotels—that’s all been stained by the protests. And that’s where the West’s interests lie. They think they can propagate Bahrain as a modern free-market economy with shopping malls and luxury hotels, and these protests are an annoyance because they break that facade.

We’re saying that the real modern country is the one that lives by the principles of democracy and human rights. All the neoliberal economic policies, we can then discuss them as a secondary issue, they don’t need to be the primary issue here. The fair distribution of wealth and equal citizenship—that’s what the principles of equality stand for. But the West, unfortunately, wants to just think of Bahrain as an investment opportunity.

So, I think, for people in the West, people-to-people solidarity is important. I don’t need to be lobbying your government; you need to be lobbying your government on causes and issues you think are important.

—Joshua Eaton

(photo: Trust Women Conference)



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