Bahrain

Was the Arab Spring a success?

One year on, the time is right to ask whether the Arab Spring as a movement has been successful…

 

© Mayanais

 

It is of course much too early to affirm or deny this conclusively, but one year on shouldn’t we at least be able to grope our way towards a definition of what would constitute success? Let’s try with the three following categories, which – even if they don’t allow us to measure success absolutely – will at least help to gauge progress.

 

‘Democracy’ and legitimacy

Elections are underway in Egypt and have already been held in Tunisia and Morocco. Moderate and slightly less moderate Islamist parties have triumphed, in some cases due largely to their oppression under former regimes. While it is not yet clear how tolerant the winners will be towards those of other religions (or of no religion), or how successfully they will engage with the outside world in coming to terms with some of the big issues faced by the region, we cannot pick the winners in free elections (as we learned with Hamas in Gaza).

Meanwhile it is open to doubt in some cases whether there is an effective opposition waiting in the wings at all, particularly in Syria. One of the things keeping Assad in power is surely the region’s lack of confidence in the rebels’ political wing (though this impression is improving).

It is unclear how legitimate the new governments will be in practice. Iram Ramzan has written about the ongoing ubiquity of armed rebels in Tripoli and the possibility that this will not only undermine the National Transitional Council as it tries to bring order to this vast country, but also discourage local business as well as foreign investment.

In Egypt the influence of the military (which, according to the Economist, controls about 10% of the country’s economy) on the emerging Islamist government remains to be seen. It is reasonable to assume that unelected generals will continue to artibrate in political affairs, whatever the protesters on Tahrir Square might be demanding.

 

The religious question(s)

The role played by religion in public affairs will go some way towards determining the success or otherwise of the Arab Spring. We should not fear parties which describe themselves as Islamists on that basis alone, but their policies must be subjected to forensic scrutiny, especially when it comes to status of non-believers or members of different faiths. Each of the world’s three significant monotheisms lends itself readily to political exploitation, and each of them claims exclusive access to the truth for its own followers; hardly a recipe for successful political bargaining.

Besides the question of whether the Arab Spring countries can start to make their way towards secular government which draws not on religious texts or customs but on a non-sectarian social contract, there remains the prickly issue of interreligious strife, which has not abated since the beginning of the Arab Spring. Indeed, old wounds have been re-opened in countries like Bahrain, but also regionally between Shi’a and Sunni groups, and between moderate mainstream interpretations of Islam, and the more puritanical, anti-Western views of the Salafists, for example.

It goes without saying (yet it always has to be said) that liberal social policies and especially measures favourable to women flow from a reduced role for religion in the public sphere. In this regard constitutional secularism is certainly among the greatest means of assuring and maintaining civil liberties and human rights in the region. In the absence of secular values it is difficult to see how far the rights of women, minorities and dissenters will be protected.

 

Quality and quantity

Ultimately the success of the Arab Spring as a movement will be measured in both quality and quantity; one or the other is not enough. If, say, Libya’s revolution proves successful and the country develops into a representative democracy with a healthy regional and international influence and a strong economy, but Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco end up embroiled in conflicts over secularism and/or the encroachment of religious politicians into the private sphere (and economic growth is stunted as a result of navel-gazing), then the Arab Spring could not be considered a successful historical movement.

Inversely if revolutions continue to sweep the region, and further afield, but do not lead to any real qualitative change in the political or economic landscape within the affected countries, then the movement would still be a failure. While it is desirable for every country whose people are kept in stultifying, closed societies led by corrupt megalomaniacs to rise up and make their legitimate claim to be heard, we should not encourage or welcome revolution for its own sake, if it is not backed by serious people with serious ideas about how to improve the lot of their compatriots.

This realization will need time to dawn, and may mean that we have to postpone the headlines for some countries’ popular movements, but it will be worth the wait. This will not be a one-year movement, but an epochal one, and it is only through the combination of the quantity of revolutions with the quality of change that we can call the Arab Spring a success, and that the success will endure.

 

Chris McCourt studied French and German at St Anne’s College, Oxford and now works for a translation company. He has written on the Middle East, Africa and Northern Ireland among other topics. Chris is Sub-Editor at The Pryer blog.

 

Bahrain: Release innocent detainees

Human Rights Watch calls on government to implement reforms following abuses inquiry…

 

Protests in Bahrain © Al Jazeera English

 

Bahraini authorities should quickly address the systematic and egregious rights violations documented by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, Human Rights Watch said today. As a first step, the government should immediately release hundreds of people wrongfully detained or convicted following unfair trials. And it should investigate high-level officials responsible for serious human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said.

Authorities should void all verdicts issued by the special military courts and drop all charges brought solely because people exercised their right to freely express political opinions and assemble peacefully. Authorities should only try civilians for legitimate criminal offenses, before a civilian court meeting international fair trial standards. These standards include the right of defendants to examine the evidence and witnesses against them, and the exclusion of all evidence obtained by torture or ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said.

“The independent commission’s report gives Bahraini authorities an opportunity to remedy some of their gross abuses by releasing all persons convicted or held for exercising their rights to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It is crucial for Bahrain to send a strong message that there will be no impunity for the human rights crimes documented by the Bassiouni commission.”

The commission, headed by the Egyptian-American jurist Cherif Bassiouni, found a pattern of serious human rights violations that included the use of excessive force against peaceful protesters, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and ill-treatment of detainees, denial of fair trial guarantees, and a severe lack of accountability for serious rights abuses, creating a “culture of impunity,” particularly within the ranks of the security forces.

Prisoners who should be freed because they were convicted solely of speech-related offenses include Ibrahim Sharif, leader of the leftist National Democratic Action Society (Wa’ad); the human rights and political opposition activist Abdul Hadi al-Khawaja; Abdul Wahhab Hussein, a leader of the opposition group al-Wafa; Abdul Jalil al-Singace, from the opposition Haq movement; and several other leading activists whom the special military courts sentenced to prison terms ranging from five years to life, including Sheikh Mohammad Ali al-Mahfoodh, leader of the Islamic Action Society (Amal).

Several of those convicted by the special military courts, including the blogger Ali Abdulemam and the rights activist Abdul-Ghani al-Khanjar, were tried in absentia and remain in hiding.

Human Rights Watch called on authorities to investigate officials in the Interior Ministry, the National Security Agency, and the Bahrain Defense Forces who ordered or condoned arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions, and torture, regardless of their position or rank. Officials responsible for such serious violations should be dismissed and, where warranted, prosecuted before a court meeting international fair trial standards.

The commission concluded that arbitrary arrests and detentions – in many cases pre-dawn raids conducted by armed and masked security and military forces – showed the “existence of an operational plan” that was “designed to inspire terror” among those targeted for arrest. The arrests and detentions “could not have happened without the knowledge of higher echelons of the command structure” of the security forces, and that failure to investigate rights abuses could implicate not only low-level personnel but also higher level officials, the report said.

Of particular concern were the findings regarding torture and ill-treatment of detainees either to extract confessions or to mete out punishment. The report noted a “culture of impunity” and systematic violations of human rights by officials working for Bahrain’s security and military branches.

Human Rights Watch called on the government of Bahrain to carry out immediately the following critical confidence-building measures focusing on the status of detainees:

  • Quash all verdicts issued by special military courts against civilians and free all detainees convicted in these courts for the exercise of human rights (i.e. freedom of expression and peaceful assembly);
  • Exclude all evidence against detainees not made available to the defendant and his lawyer and that the defendant could not challenge, or was obtained under duress following torture or ill-treatment, and terminate any cases where remaining evidence is not sufficient for prosecution;
  • Release provisionally all defendants charged with recognizable crimes pending retrial by courts meeting international fair trial standards unless authorities can justify their pretrial detention before an independent court;
  • Remove high-level officials in government agencies involved in systematic abuses and rights violations, including the Bahrain Defense Force, the National Security Agency, the Interior Ministry, and the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs; and
  • Open independent, speedy, and thorough criminal investigations into those responsible for torture, ill-treatment, arbitrary detention, and other human rights crimes.

Human Rights Watch urged Bahraini authorities to invite the independent rapporteurs of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit Bahrain and conduct inquiries, allow the International Committee of the Red Cross unrestricted access to detention facilities, and allow international human rights organizations access to the country.

The United States and other countries should continue to withhold the sale or provision of military and security items and services to Bahrain until authorities take meaningful steps toward accountability for serious human rights violations and free everyone imprisoned for their peaceful exercise of basic human rights, Human Rights Watch said.

On November 29, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa issued a decree establishing a National Commission to advise on implementation of the Bassiouni commission’s recommendations. Another decree limits the arrest and detention powers of the National Security Agency.

“The release of the independent commission’s report was an important step,” Stork said. “What’s needed now are clear initiatives from the government showing that it is committed to lasting human rights reform.”

Read more at Human Right Watch

 

Bahrain torture condemned in rights report

Independent commission finds evidence of torture, beatings, threats of rape…

 

Pearl Roundabout re-taken before protests were crushed © Al Jazeera English

 

The commission set up by Bahrain’s King Hamad al-Khalifa, charged with investigating rights abuses following protests earlier this year, has found that security forces committed a litany of abuses in the country.

Bahrain dictator al-Khalifa, head of the minority Sunni-ruled kingdom, set up the commission in response to widespread condemnation from rights organisations and the international community.

Commission chairman Prof. Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni said that during the crackdown aimed at clearing protesters, security forces used physical and psychological  torture. This included beatings with iron bars and batons, and threats of rape and electrocution.

Bassiouni said that those responsible for the abuses should be held accountable, no matter how high their position in the government.

In response the King said the country accepted the report and would try to meet international standards of human rights:

We are determined, God willing, to ensure that the painful events our beloved nation has just experienced are not repeated, but that we learn from them, and use our new insights as a catalyst for positive change,

The commission also found that there was no evidence of the idea -pushed by Bahraini authorities and the US administration- that Iran was involved in the protests:

Evidence presented to the commission did not prove a clear link between the events in Bahrain and Iran,

However it also found that there had been violence against Sunnis and foreign workers during the protests, and that a more peaceful outcome may have been achieved if the oppostion had accepted a Bahraini government initiative in March.

Read more at Al Jazeera

 

What now for the Arab Spring?

Tunisia has held democratic elections this weekend, while Libya has celebrated its liberation and the fall of Gaddafi, but what is next for the Arab awakening?

 

The Arab Spring on The Rise © Khalid Albaih

 

When fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated in a Tunisian fruit market last December, no one could have predicted how one act would send shock-waves throughout the Arab world.

Less than a year later, Tunisia has held democratic elections, Egypt has seen the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, and Libya has declared its freedom following the death of Col Gaddafi.

Syria and Yemen meanwhile have been in a permanent state of uprising for many months, while Bahrain’s democracy movement was crushed but still simmers.

Other countries in the region have also been hit by protests, with reforms for more representative government being implemented in Morocco and Jordan, and unease prompting gestures even in regional powerhouse and Western ally Saudi Arabia.

But what now for the Arab Spring?

Read a country by country analysis at the Independent on Sunday

 

 

Twitter trolls hit the Arab Spring

So-called e-thugs aggressively defending oppressive regimes online…

 

© Al Jazeera English

 

The Arab Spring has been notable in one respect for the harassment and intimidation of commentators on forums such as Twitter, with discussion on Bahrain being perhaps the most extreme example of the activity of the ‘trolls’.

While the country has attempted to counter negative attention by employing public relations firms, at the same time many people including journalists report receiving vitriolic abuse when writing about the regime.

The same pattern has been seen with other countries, though perhaps with less suggestion of state involvement. Even today countless people on Twitter are spreading misinformation about the final battles with Gaddafi loyalists in Libya, apparently sure that Nato and the ‘rats’ are imminently about to be defeated.

Academic Mark Owen Jones studied Bahrain and social media at the height of the uprising, and said:

Twitter itself has seen a huge surge in the number of ‘Trolls’. These trolls are usually engaged in spreading information that is either controversial, offensive or just plain wrong. While one may easily dismiss this as an irrelevant detail, the presence of such disinformation is very harmful in times of conflict, for it is also a time when people are feeling vulnerable, defensive and afraid. I have even seen Trolls termed ‘e-thugs’ in recent days, perhaps not surprising since the term ‘thug’ has now become an important part of the Middle Eastern protest lexicon. The trolls are exploiting both our need for information, which surely increases in times of crisis, and also the dearth of credible information on the issues. This lack of credible official information compounds the issue, and as the government continues to remain absent, the scramble for answers is both desperate and blind.

Bahrain blogger Hussain Yousif says that the ‘trolls’ have a very defined set of characteristics on Twitter. They have very few followers, only push one line of argument, refuse to get into discussions, and clock on and off Twitter at the same time. As if it were a day job…

Read more at The Lede

 

Bahrain medics to be given new trial

Trial comes after international outrage over initial sentences…

 

© Al Jazeera English

 

Following intense international pressure Bahrain has decided to retry a group of medics sentenced to terms of up to 15 years in prison.

According to the Bahrain News Agency, the country’s attourney general announced that:

the Department of Public Prosecutions had studied the judgment rendered by the National Safety Court on September 28 against certain medical personnel, and determined that the cases should be retried before the ordinary courts.

the retrial will be conducted before the highest civil court in Bahrain … the Department of Public Prosecutions seeks to establish the truth and to enforce the law, while protecting the rights of the accused.

By virtue of the retrials, the accused will have the benefit of full reevaluation of evidence and full opportunity to present their defence.

Following the initial verdicts, after a trial in which the medics were accused of plotting against the state during democracy protests, Amnesty Internation denounced the outcome as “travesty of justice”, while the US State Department said it was “deeply disturbed”.

A number of those detained allege that they were tortured in custody, a practice thought to be widespread in the aftermath of the protests which were crushed earlier in the year.

Watch video response from Bahrain’s opposition al-Wefaq party here

 

UK downplaying human rights abuses

Human Rights Watch director says UK action doesn’t live up to Cameron’s rhetoric…

 

© UK Department for International Development

 

David Mepham, the head of HRW in the UK, has said that the British government is downplaying the human rights abuses committed by its allies:

David Cameron is right to say that too many governments look the other way or find reasons for inaction when people are being slaughtered and human rights violated. But does the UK’s own record match up to Cameron’s soaring rhetoric?

While the UK is more assertive about human rights than many other countries and more willing to exert diplomatic and other forms of pressure in defence of them, UK action is far from consistent

On Bahrain he says:

The authorities there have been responsible for large-scale repression of popular demonstrations for democracy and the rule of law…many of the several thousand detained have claimed that they were tortured. Yet the UK’s response to these abuses has been timid and ineffectual…meaningful dialogue has little chance in a climate of repression and intimidation, when those guilty of human rights abuses have not been brought to account, where opposition figures are fearful of speaking out and the media is unable to report freely.

And on Saudi Arabia Mepham says extensive links with the UK prevent ministers using the same language of condemnation that they used with Libya or Egypt:

A similar silence characterises UK policy towards Saudi Arabia…While the UK calls for democratic reform, human rights and the rule of law in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, and has taken some significant and high-risk action in defence of them, it seems unwilling to speak out about major and systematic human rights violations in Saudi. Saudi Arabia continues to treat women as second-class citizens, with male guardians determining whether a woman may work, study, marry, travel or undergo certain medical procedures. Shia Saudis, a religious minority of around 10 percent of the population, are also treated as second-class citizens and migrant workers remain beholden to their employers in law and practices, and are sometimes kept in conditions resembling servitude.

Read it at HRW

 

 

Bahrain medics sentenced to 15 years

Bahrain’s campaign against medical staff who helped injured protesters sees no signs of stopping. With many medics on trial for crimes against the state, 13 of them have just been sentenced to 15 years in prison. A number of others received lesser sentences.

Video via Al Jazeera

 

 

Saudi women to vote, but still can’t drive

Women to get the vote in 2015, other reforms not forthcoming…

 

© HerryLawford

 

Saudi Arabia dictator King Abdullah has announced voting reforms for the country’s women, allowing them to vote and run in local elections from 2015.

Though the move is a dramatic reform in the deeply conservative kingdom, women face still face serious restrictions on their personal liberty. They are unable to drive, to serve as cabinet ministers, or to travel abroad without the permission of a male relative.

Remarking on the fact they will have to wait another four years for the voting reforms to be implemented, Saudi feminist Wajeha al-Hawaidar said:

Why not tomorrow?

I think the king doesn’t want to shake the country, but we look around us and we think it is a shame …when we are still pondering how to meet simple women’s rights

The reforms come as the Kingdom’s ruler attempt to come to terms with the Arab Spring happening around them. Saudi troops have been involved in crushing dissent in neighbouring Bahrain, while at the same time condemning Bashar al-Assad’s repression in Syria.

Read it at The Washington Post