Webinar Overview | Decade of Oppression: Authoritarianism in Bahrain; 2011-2021

Webinar Overview

Decade of Oppression: Authoritarianism in Bahrain; 2011-2021 


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On 9 February 2021 Salam for Democracy and Human Rights broadcast an online panel discussion to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Pearl Uprising in Bahrain and the launching of its most recent comprehensive report, Decade of Oppression: Authoritarianism in Bahrain; 2011-2021. The panellists in attendance were: Drewery Dyke, Salam DHR’s International Relations Director; Dr Andrew McIntosh, Researcher and Quality Control Officer at Salam DHR; Dr Staci Strobel, Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Wisconsin, Platteville; Julia Legner, Independent human rights consultant and co-founder of MENA Rights Group; Matar Matar, former Bahraini MP, Masana Ndinga-Kanga, MENA Advocacy Lead at CIVICUS; and Ali Abdulman, human rights defender and activist. 

Transcript of the Decade Report Launch

Drewery Dyke: Good afternoon everyone and welcome to a report launch by Salam for Democracy and Human Rights (SALAM DHR). We’re launching a report today called the Decade of Oppression and Authoritarianism in Bahrain. It looks at the last 10 years in terms of what has actually taken place since the unrest in Bahrain and provides a glance forwards as well.

To launch the report today we have a number of guests: Dr Andrew McIntosh (a researcher and quality control officer at SALAM DHR and one of the authors of this report); Ali Abduleman (a Bahraini activist and blogger); Matar Ebrahim Matar (a former Bahraini MP involved in the activities of February and March 2011); Julia Legner (human rights expert); Dr Staci Strobl (Professor of criminal justice at University of Wisconsin Platteville, USA), and Masana Ndinga-Kanga (the Middle East and North Africa advocacy leader at CIVICUS).

Video: Series of images of various SALAM DHR reports over the past 10 years followed by a series of images from the events of February and March in 2011 in Bahrain. 

On the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring in Bahrain, SALAM DHR will launch a comprehensive report titled Decade of Oppression and Authoritarianism in Bahrain. This report documents authoritarian practices and prolific human rights abuses in Bahrain over the past 10 years. 

The report finds that contrary to the Kingdom of Bahrain’s promises to reform following the violent crackdown during the Arab Spring, there has been little to no accountability for perpetrators of violence against civilians. In fact, several members of the security forces, who are notorious for engaging in excessive force, have been promoted while the use of torture and forced confession remain common practice. The report also shows that: freedom of speech is heavily controlled; freedom of assembly is virtually non-existent; all independent media has been shut down; all opposition parties not deemed pro-government have been banned, and peaceful dissidents and human rights activists are frequently jailed or have their citizenships revoked often leaving them stateless. Their mistreatment by the Bahraini state can be a consequence of something as small as single tweet critical of the government. Social media is thoroughly securitised with cyberware for identifying comments and retweets that could be interpreted as disloyal. Penetration by law enforcement and intelligence services into social media has meant that users are not only at risk of being arrested for speaking their minds online but also harassed, threatened, and hacked by pro-government trolls. 

Bahrain’s Shia population are frequently targeted by such methods. Sectarianism remains pervasive throughout the country, where wealth and power are concentrated within its Sunni minority, including the royal family. Despite sectarianism and economic inequality being key factors in the 2011 protests, the government has responded by vastly increasing its security forces who are tasked with policing segregated Shia villages outside of prosperous metropoles. This has caused numerous civilian deaths over the past decade as security forces have fatally used tear gas and fired shotguns into crowds. Rather than condemn such acts, governments such as the former Trump administration wilfully ignored them telling the government of Bahrain they would not be punished for human rights violations in 2017. 

With the report scheduled to be released on the 9th February 2021, Salam DHR hopes that by drawing attention to these violations it can hold the government of Bahrain to account, and encourage lasting change in the country. 

Andrew McIntosh a researcher and one of the authors of the report commented: “I hope this information will encourage the international community to take action, we have seen the human consequences of when it fails to act”.

Jawad Fairooz president of Salam commented on his hopes for a free country. “Bahrain has the means to engage in comprehensive human rights reform. It should adopt a concept of reform within the framework of a work project within a human rights methodology. This would be the first step to rooted and sustainable political reform in the Kingdom.”

Drewery Dyke: We are going to get today’s discussion underway by talking with the editor and main writer of the report Andrew McIntosh. Andrew conducts social and media research, as well as data analysis, and is responsible for quality control at Salam DHR. 

He obtained a MA in social-cultural history and PhD in media history from the University of Wessex in the UK. His MA and PhD dissertation focused on the use of propaganda nationalism and gender in mass media and its relation to different situations. He has a background in education journalism and human rights advocacy. If you wouldn’t mind recapping three or four of some of the most significant events that took place in Bahrain in the early 2011 and onward, and why did they strike you as memorable.

Andrew McIntosh: I would say the first and most important development at the very beginning of the protests was something that had been rather unique and emblematic of the development of the Arab Spring in that this began as a digital movement. It began online on Facebook and Twitter with the youth for the February 14th Revolution. What had begun as grievances over corrupt practices of land acquisition began to coalesce into a very broad social movement that became a very powerful protest movement for change. In 2011 this was very important in movements such as the one in Egypt. There was a tremendous amount of optimism about how the internet would become a democratising, liberalising force in Middle Eastern politics as a way to circumvent channels built with strong elements of government control. One of the things we see from the very beginning of the uprising in Bahrain was the tremendous amount of promise of the liberalising nature of technology and how that narrative was being used as a catalyst for political change in the Middle East at that time. 

I would say another major event was the reoccupation of the Pearl Roundabout early on. Protesters and tents had been cleared out by Bahraini forces but days later protestors returned as the police withdrew. About 15,000 people of major disparate ideological inclinations gathered to protest against the government’s actions; to pressure for republican reforms; to pressure for increased freedoms for the press; increased freedom for assembly, and anti-sectarianism. This was a moment that showed a tremendous amount of popular support, solidarity, and determination from the Bahraini people to continue these protests, despite the fact that numerous civilians had already been killed at that point.

Another really important event that occurred on the 22nd of February was the Martyrs’ March which was to mourn the deaths of those who had been killed in the unrest. We saw the apex of the protests reach about 150,000 people, again of a broad ideological spectrum that had joined the movement at this time. This was a moment where police and public servants began joining the crowds. It looked like it could have been a tipping point where people were no longer demanding reform but wanted the regime to make a radical transformation. For a brief moment, it looked like this might have been a realistic possibility.

That being said, one of the conclusions of the Pearl Uprising is also one of its most memorable. That is the level of coordination that occurred with the Gulf Cooperation Council, particularly in the use and rapid deployment of Saudi and Emirati forces within Bahrain. This does a great deal to suggest that whilst the government had been promising reform and dialogue, it had been working with the GCC to ultimately suppress what they viewed as a dangerous rebellion.

Drewery Dyke: That’s quite a lot, so much to unpack in those very big points. The report goes on to analyse the role and function of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report and what could have happened with the promise for rapport, reform, and justice it contained. However, it was never fulfilled, and the report forensically goes through the ways it was never fulfilled. What is your assessment of why the BICI failed?

Andrew McIntosh: I would argue that it was never meant to succeed. Part of that had to do with the fact that this was a great deal about creating narratives. One of the main narratives that the government wanted to create after the violent crackdown was that Bahrain was open to international investigation and reform and would take suggestions from the international community and, from the United States and the United Kingdom. It did invite experts from the UN to come. It did allow them to make conclusions that openly contradicted their own findings that they had circulated domestically. However, it has not made an effort to enact the recommendations of the BICI. One of the things that we have seen is it had very little intention of doing so. This has to do with the history of the island itself, where democratic movements have always been treated heavy-handedly. This goes all the way back to when Great Britain was its Suzerain, it goes all the way back to 18th century, when the Al Khalifa family initially conquered the island. There is very little appetite within the corridors of power to truly engage in democratic reform because it jeopardises their hegemony over the island. What it does want to do however, is to create an image that it is reforming, and it is liberalising to the international community. Particularly, so it can attract investment and so it can maintain its important strategic position in the Gulf.

Drewery Dyke: If indeed it is the case that the BICI reports its findings and recommendations were never intended by the authorities to take effect what then does the report say about the prospects of reform now. Are we talking about tinkering on the edges at best? What would reform look like in that context?

Andrew McIntosh: I think from a human rights perspective it is important to acknowledge that there is always the possibility of reform. Sometimes it comes quickly, sometimes it comes very slowly. We can see that with the ICC and how it has managed to try war criminals from the former Yugoslavia. Justice can be done over time, even if it is greatly delayed. One thing that is very important at this point in time is to continue encouraging international pressure for accountability for Bahrain. One of the main goals for state media in Bahrain is to make it appealing to international markets and to create this idea that it is far more tolerant than it actually is. One of the main ways that change can be enacted is from the international community, by saying to people involved in this you should not trade with Bahrain when it is engaging in torture. You should not do business with Bahrain when it is breaking international law by revoking people’s citizenship and making them stateless. You should not do business with a country that does not allow freedom of speech, press, or assembly. These are values that almost all of the international community can truly get behind.

Drewery Dyke: You mentioned accountability and my last question is about that. You’re looking to the long run; you’re saying that things take time. The EU’s has a human rights sanction system in place now, so what is your sense of the prospect of accountability for violations that took place in 2011?

Andrew McIntosh: One thing that history teaches us is that sometimes unexpected things happen. At the moment there doesn’t seem to be a major appetite for accountability for deaths of civilians, torture, and gross violations of international law. That being said, the situation is always changing. Just as we saw the human rights situation change drastically under the Trump Administration, we can see it change again under Biden. Although people may not want to give a tremendous amount of attention to human rights violations in Bahrain today, they are well known. Their crimes are documented, not just by SALAM, but other Bahraini NGOs. Today, they may be safe but, that may not be true tomorrow.

Drewery Dyke: That’s a somewhat happier assessment from a human rights perspective, but it doesn’t let us off the hook. It does seem to be a clarion call for human rights groups to maintain the pressure they can maintain. Before we go to Ali Abduleman and the other speakers, I would like to ask Abbas to show a series of clips including Professor Simon Mabon from Lancaster University, the journalist Bill Law, and the human rights activists Tara O’Grady. Afterwards, we will come back to Ali.

Simon Mabon: Ten years ago, Bahrainis took to the streets demanding change. Bahrainis from a range of different backgrounds including sect, religion, class, political affinity, ideology, and tribal groups demanded reform to a political system that had kept some in power at the expense of others. This political system had long repressed groups that challenged it. As part of the Arab Spring uprisings which swept across the Middle East in the early months of 2011, these groups took to the streets demanding change. 

These demands, ultimately, were unheard and in response, the regime sought to clampdown on anyone demanding change resulting in deaths, detentions, torture, and exile of many. This also included the stripping from many people including some of my very good friends. This was a devasting set of moments that took place not just in 2011 but over the course of the past 10 years. This report from Salam DHR details some of the events of the immediate aftermath of the 2011 uprisings, but also the processes that have been deployed by the Al Khalifa regime is seeking to quash demands for freedom and political reform by many operating in Bahrain and also outside. 

On the 10th anniversary of the uprisings we remember those who have lost their lives, those who have lost their freedoms, but we also must remember those who continue to demand reform and demand political change.

Tara O’Grady: It has been 10 years since the start of the Bahraini Revolution at Pearl Roundabout; since thousands of people were forced out onto the streets to call for their human rights to be observed. For their rights to self-determination and for democratic reform. 10 years since countless medics, politicians, medics, even policemen, and academics were arrested, tortured, and detained for daring to speak against the abuse of the Al Khalifa regime. 10 years since Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja has tasted freedom. 10 years and the people are still struggling for the same rights to be observed. 10 years and the United Nations, the European Parliament, and countless NGOs and human rights defenders have condemned the Al-Khalifa regime for their brutality against their own people. 10 years and we still stand in solidarity with the people of Bahrain.

Bill Law: 10 years on I remember a call from a Bahraini friend who had gone to Pearl Roundabout. My friend was happy and excited telling me about the scene. Thousands had flocked to the roundabout; families had come bringing tents and barbeques. Musicians and poets were performing. There were signs saying neither Sunni nor Shia: we are all Bahrainis. The mood was peaceful. There was hope in the air and people were calling for reform. It changed so suddenly when the police came in and attacked the crowds with batons, tear gas, and birdshot. Friends and colleagues were arrested, martial law was put in place, and a brutal campaign was carried out by the authorities. Military courts were used to quickly sentence peaceful activists to long jail terms. There was widespread torture to secure confessions then used to convict people were beaten to death in police cells. Thousands were sacked from their jobs. This is all documented in the BICI which King Hamad accepted in full in November 2011. The reforms he promised have not been carried out. The repression has not eased if anything it has gotten worse. I have written about my friends in prison in Bahrain and the UAE and called them the real patriots, the true patriots who love their country and want to see a better place, where freedom is enabled and not denied. 10 years on, I continue to believe that true patriots will prevail freedom cannot be forever denied freedom will prevail.

Drewery Dyke: Thank you Abbas for showing those clips, it is great that you finished with Bill Law. It is Bill Law’s work that I looked at in those days and read about this guy Ali Abduleman and Mata Ebrahim Matar.

Next, we are going to speak with Ali Abduleman, he is a democracy advocate, a blogger, and a commentator. He created Bahrain Online, on which he promoted democracy. It was the first free online forum for social and political debate. He was repeatedly detained as early as 2005 for running a website and then later imprisoned in 2010 for connections with opposition figures and the often-used expression of spreading false information.

He was sacked from his job and the authorities subsequently released him in 2011, following quite a big campaign. However, he almost immediately had to go into hiding and carried out a pretty astonishing escape to the UK. He was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment in absentia in June 2011. In the years after Human Rights Watch awarded him the Hell Muhammed award. In 2012 a Danish think tank, the Centre for Political Studies, awarded him their Freedom award. Reporters Without Borders have also recognised him as a kind of information hero. Ali again just a couple of questions about your experience. Could you tell us about your experience leading up to 2011 in Bahrain and then in 2011 itself?

Ali Abduleman: I was in prison when the uprising in 2011 happened, I was arrested in September 2010. I was arrested among 500 other political activists, human rights clerics, and others. The country was in a silent mood nobody was able to talk. Everybody, even the elite and the human rights activists, were shocked by the security storm that happened in August/September 2010. We were subjected to severe torture. This was what led to the uprising in 2011, there are some things that originally pushed for this uprising, but internally, there was a valid reason for people to rise up and demand that their voices be heard. You were talking about the history and this is 10 years since the uprising and let us not forget two points. 

First, 10 years is 15 to 20% of a human life, so those who were arrested in 2011 spent around 15% of their life in prison for no valid reason except they are human rights advocates or defenders or political leaders. Second, we are marking as with the hundred years of the civil rights movements in Bahrain.  Since the 1920s, the civil movements in Bahrain began to demand more rights, freedoms, and representation in the country. It is sad to say that after 100 years the situation in Bahrain now, in all spaces, is worse than before. So instead of moving towards a better future, we are moving towards a worse situation that will make it very hard to reverse it.

Drewery Dyke: You talked about your experience prior to 2011 what was the kind of issues that were coming up in your blog in the years leading up to your arrest. What are some of the memorable stories that you remember from that?. It sounds there was already a groundswell of demands that led up to the 2011 eruption. What were some of the things that your blog discussed?

Ali Abduleman: I believe the issue is not what I’ve written, the issue is that I prepared and provided a platform for the normal people to talk and express themselves instead of the regime, that controlled all the media. This is the main issue was that I was allowing even the normal guy or person in the street to have their own views be reported and read by thousands.

My website became number one since it was launched until it was closed. For many people, it was the source of information. I can mention to you that one of the ministers, when they asked him, don’t you read the newspapers? He said, “I am only reading Bahrain Online,” and this was in his meeting.

Another story is that the Chief Editor of a local newspaper leaked to me some circulations from the Minister of Information, ordering them to say this and not to say that, because he cannot publish it in his newspaper.

We exposed many corruption cases, especially within the Ministry of Education, and with other institutions. We also happen to be the first media to talk about ‘Al Bandargate’. We were the only ones who published the actual report at the time because everyone was afraid, and it was a very sensitive case at that time.

Drewery Dyke: Sorry to interrupt but could you just remind people what the ‘Al Bandargate’ was, what did that particular individual put together? In case people do not know what could you just give a summary of the Al Bandar report?

Ali Abduleman: Salah Al Bandar was a British citizen of Sudanese origin who used to work for the government as a consultant, and he had access to very sensitive and secret information. For some reason, he started to write and gather evidence about the plan from the government. He claimed that part of the royal family was planning to destroy the country by naturalisation, by prohibiting the Shia from certain positions and jobs. It was shocking because we knew all about this. However, it was the first time some evidence was produced, and it came from a source that belonged to the government. Because this report was so sensitive and so important, the government arrested and deported him on the same day. Al Bandar is still one of the main pinpoints for the civil movement in Bahrain. Every time we are talking about the situation in Bahrain, we have to refer them to Al Bandar and what was going on. 

I remember in 2008, I was in the United States and I was meeting with State Security Secretary and I was telling him about the situation in Bahrain. I just asked if he had read the Al Bandar report and he said yes. It was strange because they were interested to read it and know what was in it.

Drewery Dyke: Thank you for that, so much to take on board. The main thing that strikes me about what you say about Bahrain Online is that it functioned with normal media and the normal media holds governments to account. If as you say ministers had noted, had seen it was on Bahrain Online, they might have changed their policies, they might have altered what they do to avoid that form of conflict? So, I guess a question I have is had that played out normally, could 2011 been different? Could it have resulted in some sort of fair and equitable change and reform? Or did it have to end up that way?

Ali Abduleman: Of course, it has to be in a different way in terms of using violence and crackdown. If they just listened to the people, the demands of the people who took to the streets. They were asking for their right to rule themselves, to present themselves to the ruling power, to have justice, and to have freedom of acceptation all of these are basic human rights. It is not something that we need to fight for 100 years until we succeed. I just mentioned that we have been in this fight for 100 years.

Yes, it is every few years we have some uprising and revolution, but we can avoid the cost of this if we just listen to the people with some rationality. If we are just using what we’ve inherited from our parents and grandparents, we are not going to solve anything. The thing that surprised everyone in 2011 was that nobody was expecting the generation who took to the streets to be educated about their rights and they were well educated about the tactics they can use. That is why the Government of Bahrain took a long time just to fight against this movement, but again, they still couldn’t silence everyone in Bahrain.

Drewery Dyke: We were having a discussion yesterday about the use of Twitter, and you were talking about its potential to educate. I just wonder if you can comment on where you think Twitter can go in the Bahraini context. Can it be used as a tool of education or hope? How do you want to use Twitter in Bahrain today?

Ali Abduleman: If we go back just a bit for Bahrain Online, it was an educating tool for the people and the generation who took to the streets in 2011. We were talking about the constitution; we were talking about the human rights your actual right or basic rights, and what’s wrong with this government. We were exposing so many mistakes by the government, we used this online tool which at the time was Bahrain Online.

But now, because we are in the internet age and every few years, we have a shift. Yesterday we had the forum or the portal, later we will had our personal blogs, now we have Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.

I don’t know about the future or what kind of platform we will have but in any situation, we will need people to make the change. We can educate, provide information, and where we should build our campaigns or tactics. We are using Twitter for this specifically. I mean, if I have an idea and I want to share it with people there is no place better than the internet to do this be it Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. It seems that for the time being, expressing yourself and your ideas through Twitter is widely accepted, especially in Bahrain. We hope we can build this up for the change we are hoping for. 

Drewery Dyke: Thank you for that Ali. We will have questions at the end. The next speaker is Matar Ebrahim Matar, he is joining us from the West Coast of the United States. Many of you know that he was a Parliamentarian in the now-banned Al-Wefaq grouping between October 2010 and his resignation in early 2011 – when all of the members of Al-Wefaq resigned. 

He undertook his studies in Kuwait in Artificial Intelligence and returned to Bahrain when a series of reforms were instituted in 2002. I remember reading about his role as a quasi-spokesperson in the course of the unrest and on the 1st of May with the BBC, one of many interviews he undertook, he referred to the establishment of a secular democracy in Bahrain. The following day, after a car chase, plain-clothed policemen and masked security forces arrested him, forced him into a car and held him in an unknown location until the 12th of June. There was a very large campaign to secure his freedom and know about his whereabouts. He was tried and by a military court but then was acquitted of all charges in 2012. After his release, he left Bahrain and he is now in the United States and associated with the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED).

Matar, thank you for joining us, you did your studies abroad and returned following a change in government policy in 2002/2003. Lots of people were optimistic, what went wrong?

Matar Ebrahim Matar: I think the first step was having a constitution without a vote, without a referendum. This was a step back and far away from the expectations and I think one of the problems was that we were judging the government based on their statements. They said they wanted to change the government to a constitutional democracy and monarchy. We were judging and questioning that this is not a constitutional monarchy and we were criticising the government based on that. What I think was more pragmatic was not to look at their statements but to focus on their actions. To focus on the balance of power, what makes the government decline and not to fulfil their promises. I think we were having little discussion about this and more discussion about the slogans raised by the government.

Drewery Dyke: If you were to go back and do it all again, are there things you would suggest that the opposition and people who wanted to hold the government to account could do differently to achieve a different outcome?

Matar Ebrahim Matar: First of all, as I mentioned holding the government to the standard of a constitutional monarchy was not realistic. We know, everybody knows, the government will not move towards a constitutional monarchy.

Also, we know as Bahrainis that we are ready for democracy, but we do not have the means to encourage or push the government for these type of changes. When it comes to looking at what can be done better, let me refer to our friends. We got a lot of criticism from our opponents and sometimes those criticisms were either not really valid or not coming from good faith.

But let me talk about the criticism we got from our friends. One of the criticisms we received was the failure to approach Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries. Most of the advocacy was focusing on the human rights community, to the western governments, and we were using any available platforms to talk about our grievances. In contrast, little had been done to approach the GCC. One can say that it’s very hard to pass your message to the Saudis and I agree with that. 

But at the same time, I can say that passing a message to the Americans is not easy either. It is very hard for America to take a situation like the situation in Bahrain and look at the grievances and demands for democracy and human rights. The US has its grand strategies in the region, which have been ongoing for decades, and shaking those grand strategies was not an option for the Americans. It is very hard to even encourage them to revive their policies in the Middle East for a small country like Bahrain. 

So, while approaching the Saudis is hard, approaching any regional power is hard. Approaching Iran is hard, Iran has its own agenda and interests and they decided to speak out about the grievances of Bahrainis. This was not because the Bahrainis convinced them to do so but because it was in Iranian interests to do so. If someone wants to go and convince the Iranians to adopt other policies, it would be very hard.

One of the other major criticisms we received from friends was that we did not do enough to condemn violence from protestors. We may do better in the future, but at the same time, the situation is complicated because many of those accused of violence went through very harsh measures in terms of torture and a lack of fair trials. There were some groups who were involved in violence, but it was very hard for the pro-democracy movement to criticise people who are facing unfair trials. I do not want to argue that the way that we condemned the violence was perfect, because it was not, but there were significant constraints.

Drewery Dyke: A lot of people, including in Iran, are talking about people to people connections as a way of bypassing government and governance. Are you talking about approaching the government of Saudi Arabia?

Matar Ebrahim Matar: Yes of course, but I also believe that we should approach the Saudi people. We need to approach all sectors and all groups with different backgrounds and different orientations. Those who are supportive of the Saudi government, those who are pro-reform, and the Saudi government itself.

Drewery Dyke: I am going to end with the million-dollar question regarding reform for the whole region. Is that kind of connection, the idea of connecting with people from Manama to Jeddah, from Muscat to Kuwait City, are those kinds of connections even possible?

Matar Ebrahim Matar: There is no easy solution for transformation. Approaching GCC countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is important, as they are player number 1.

Drewery Dyke: Government or people, Matar?

Matar Ebrahim Matar: What do you mean?

Drewery Dyke: Well, when you say approach the UAE and Saudi Arabia, do you mean the government?

Matar Ebrahim Matar: Yes, I mean the government.

Drewery Dyke: Ok

Matar Ebrahim Matar: I am talking about the government in a centralised state. You have a central government, and everything is centralised. What’s more important is having more messages to the inside, to the King specifically. I see some light from the initiatives and efforts by Abdullah Ghurefi to approach the Bahraini government, and I consider this the right approach and the right priority. 

Drewery Dyke: Ok, we’ll we have to end it there, but Matar those are some of the most interesting ideas that we have talked about. I think maybe we’ll touch on some of those with Julia Legner.

Julia Legner is an independent human rights consultant; she is the head of advocacy at the London based Saudi-focused NGO Alqst for human rights. She has over seven years of experience in providing legal advice and advocating on behalf of victims of human rights and labour violations in the MENA region. She is also very familiar with the Gulf and is the co-founder of a Geneva-based legal advocacy outfit, MENA Rights Group, who those who are active in the civil society sphere know very well. She has a BA in Arabic and International Relations from Westminster University in London. And an MA from the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS). 

Julia, thanks for joining us, you’ve worked in the Gulf region for a number of years. When you look at it as an outsider but someone who has been involved in these matters, how do you think that the unrest in Bahrain at that time impacted on the region as a whole? Do you think at the time that there was any other Gulf state that had quite the same kind of experience? What was your sense of the GCC looking back at 2011?

Julia Legner: Well, I think the Bahraini experience in the GCC context was quite different from what we saw happen in the other Gulf country when this wind of revolution swept the region, and we saw mass protests in Bahrain. We didn’t really see that in the other countries. Though we did see some unrest in some countries here and there, there wasn’t anything really of the same extent. I think this is partly to do with the makeup of Bahrain, as we’ve heard before, the history of Bahrain. The fact that a majority is ruled by a minority and there have been several incidences of this dynamic playing out. This is different to the situation in the other Gulf countries, though there has been discrimination in the other Gulf countries against the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia and discrimination against the Bidun population in Bahrain. 

Nonetheless, the way the uprisings played out in Bahrain were unique and I think they sent a chill to the other leaders of the region. What we can see then is the reaction of governments in the MENA region. What we can see is that there were more and more demands throughout the MENA for more fundamental liberties and rights be that political participation or freedom of expression or assembly. 

The governments of the region then decided together to crackdown on that. In Bahrain that was on demonstrations but in other countries it was also done in a crackdown on any dissenting voices. Instead of seeing shared good practices what we saw in the years to come was shared malpractices. That was really like the acquisition of surveillance technology to spy on their own population. To spy on communication and to track the peaceful dissenting voices in and then to crackdown. To develop cyber armies and occupy these spaces like Facebook and Twitter that were initially used by people across the MENA to communicate and show solidarity. We then saw similar actions in terms of revocations of nationality and travel bans and even practices such as blackmailing individuals to recant their torture allegations. 

Drewery Dyke: There are two things that struck me about what you said that haven’t really come up before. I particularly liked the phrase ‘shared malpractice’ and also the notion of cyber armies. It wasn’t just the case that the physical environment of the people of the Gulf was closed down, but that online spaces were too. In light of that, did UN intervention or NGO intervention cut any ice at that time, or even today, do we civil society and NGOs have any impact?

Julia Legner: I think the work that everyone is putting in is not in vain, but it is true. As Tara put it in her video, we have seen a lot of action by UN special procedures, UN treaty bodies, and the EU Parliament, again and again, calling out the Bahraini authorities on their brutal practices, repression of fundamental freedoms. But at the end of the day, it is really not just one layer of pressure somewhere that is going to make a change. 

What I see now, as a trend in the Gulf region, is that all these governments also use the reform narrative to weaken social movements in their own governments, but also to appease their allies abroad. I think this has now become a tool by civil society to hold them to their commitments and it is sometimes working. If we look at Saudi Arabia, for example, we saw a bit of a paradigm change with the accession of King Salman and then his son, Mohammed Bin Salman to Crown Prince. 

Having worked in the human rights field before and after, I would say that the Saudi authorities didn’t care so much about their reputation in front of international multilateral organisations before, mostly because they had so much economic-political capital.

This has changed with that new leadership and I think they are now really trying to portray a modern, reformist image. I think this is something where you can quite easily show a discrepancy between reality and narrative. This has become quite clear with the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, it could not have been a clearer display of this reformist narrative being much more than hot air or window dressing. This has also been a catalyst for the West to become more outspoken and critical of Saudi Arabia. This in turn has a rippling effect in a way with the other countries in the Gulf. I think civil society, mobilisation especially in the diaspora that has appealed to politicians, has resulted in progress in some instances with joint statements by UN member states calling out Saudi Arabia. 

Another example would be Saudi Arabia not winning its seat on the Human Rights Council. Bahrain also stood for the presidency of the Human Rights Council and failed. We are seeing a shift in dynamic and the international community is more willing to speak out. Increasingly, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are beginning to care about their reputations, partly because of the need to diversify their economies and to attract foreign investment and western investors. This is where we have leverage and I think this is where we can change some of the dynamics.

Drewery Dyke: A lot of things to unpack there, but we are running out of time. I want to just ask about you something similar but slightly different. We enter 2021 with the Trump administration having overseen the so-called Abraham Accords, the GCC states appear to be in a process of reconciliation. Combining this with a new administration and the fact civil society is deconstructing this reform narrative, how do you see this unfolding? 

Julia Legner: I think we have some good cards to play with. I would say it is probably quite naïve to think that a new US administration will bring peace and democracy in the Middle East. However, clearly the Biden administration will be more of an ally to achieve some of those goals jointly, compared to the Trump administration, which just handed out carte blanche to Mohammed Bin Salman and others in the region to commit violations in the region as they saw fit. So we have seen the reconciliation with Qatar which some might say was a move by Mohammed Bin Salman to reduce tension and to appease the incoming administration. I think we have also, for example, seen in Saudi Arabia a reduced sentence for some of the women human rights defenders. We read these as signs that the Saudis are willing to make concessions to secure good economic relationships with the US. 

We have also seen at EU level recent resolutions and the annual report for the EU common foreign and security policy that just speak about opportunities for the region and the future. Everyone is quite clear about wanting to have an end to the war in Yemen as soon as possible. I think if the US and the EU managed to work together and develop a joint foreign policy, especially if it clearly shows countries they no longer have unconditional support, but this will come as a deal for progress on human rights and democracy.

The people who are most important are the people in the countries themselves and we can try and do what is available to us to do what we can to try and support them. We can try and hold our own governments to account and we can demand they change their political course. We can also pressure business far more to get them to pay more attention to human rights concerns when engaging with these countries.

I also think something Matar Ebrahim Matar touched on is the organisation of the people in the Gulf countries amongst themselves and the Bahrainis have always been very well organised, and you have a lot of activists in the Bahraini diaspora. Judging from the Saudi perspective, but also from the Emirati, Kuwaiti, and Omani perspectives, you see a lot of people from these diasporas coming together. The more this happens the stronger movements of activists from these countries, that have managed to come together, on what change they want to see. This in turn will increasingly force international leaders to increasingly take their voice into consideration.

Drewery Dyke: I agree with you so much on that and it is something I would love to build on at another time. 

We are going to go to Stacy Strobl in the United States now. Stacey is a Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Wisconsin Platteville. She is the author of articles on policing, gender, sexual identity. She has also researched the community policing in the Roma minority in Eastern Europe. In 2013 she co-authored ‘Comic Book Crime Truth Justice and the American Way’. She is the co-founder of a criminology blog, and prior to joining the University of Wisconsin Platteville, she was an associate professor in Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. She has joined us in the past on initiatives with Professor Simon Mabon and the SEPAD project and has, of course, been a special guest with us at SALAM DHR meetings.

Stacey thank you so much for joining us. The events in 2011 obviously did not occur in a void and we have heard a lot about the history. Just turning to your speciality with criminal justice and the context criminal justice sets up what are some of the key criminal justice factors that you think shaped how 2011 and beyond unfolded? How did criminal justice systems shape what happened then and what happens now?

Stacey Strobl: I will say before I get to the question at hand that I do think that unfortunately things are getting worse in terms of authoritarian trends and the pressure the government is putting on anyone opposing the regime. What this shows is that reports such as this are critical in countering the efforts made by the regime to portray itself as a modernising force.

A question that needs to be asked is whether 2011 was a different moment in some way or was it a part of a long legacy of events. I do think 2011 has some different characteristics in that it cut across more sectors of Bahraini society than previous attempts at reform had. There are some things that are enduring that I would like to point out, and one of these is the idea there is an enduring enemy. That the regime has decided that some of its own residents and citizens are acting against it and as such you have these states of emergency. As a result, there becomes a tendency to withhold constitutional reforms, so you get these cycles. In fact, it might be argued that every generation there is this new sense of unrest and then this new clampdown that has to do with this enduring conflict between the regime and its people. So, we see if we go back the 1920s, 1950s, 1970s, 1990s and then 2011 as having their own flashpoints. 

Now, I would just like to talk about the two historical disruptions that have been played out over and over again. We have the conquest in the 18th century by the Al Khalifa family and the British colonial project which really ramps up by the 1920s. These two historical disruptions never get resolved and are, in some ways, a double layer of colonialism. The British do come in and recognise that there is oppression and some of the leadership in the colonial regime attempted to do something about that, but nothing happens. Due to the nature of the Al Khalifa regime, it was never a stable state, it never had popular support it always had to use some form of force to keep control. Once British colonialism comes, and a modern police form is established, many of the old strategies are absorbed. Consequently, we see things like the lack of representation of the Shia and other minorities in policing and the use of foreign mercenaries. As a result, this fragility is really underlying the entire experience, so a historical approach is necessary so we can see that this is going to keep playing out.

As a final note, I would just like to point out that is that we have to understand two pieces that haven’t come out enough in terms of people looking at a historical viewpoint. The first is that the indigenous people of Bahrain after the original conquest of Bahrain were enslaved by the Al Khalifa. This is something that hasn’t been really dealt with and we know that in societies where slavery is not acknowledgement or reparations given, we don’t overcome those traumas easily. The second thing is that there were genocidal massacres by the state against Shia Baharna villages, in particular, in the 1920s. This is generational trauma because it all means the population has all experienced state violence, they’ve all experienced a security force that would forcibly disappear them or torture them. So, I want to highlight that this is a trauma that is longstanding.

Drewery Dyke: Thank you Stacey and you have raised some very interesting points on the whole question of slavery and the trauma. I think one thing that we forget quite a lot is that this is a historical inheritance of structures that are actually being replicated to this day.

Our last speaker is Masana Ndinga-Kanga. Masana Ndinga-Kanga works with CIVICUS, which is a global umbrella organisation for civil society. She is the MENA advocacy lead there and she is a long term participant in Bahrain matters and she has worked with the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and other groups. She works to ensure that civic liberties are respected for groups advancing civil rights in the MENA region and of course women and human rights defenders as well. 

Masana is also the lead country researcher for a United Nations Development Program (UNDP). She is involved in reports and possibly an article on forging resilient social contracts in South Africa. CIVICUS is based in South Africa. She is a graduate of the London School of Economics and she has an MSc in the political economy of late development. Masana, we have about 10 minutes and I would just take advantage of your experience in the region. 2011 was unprecedented, did it impact on the global discourse of civic society and if so how?

Masana Ndinga-Kanga: We know that the Spring Uprisings will go down in history books for mass mobilising, but I think what was unique, particularly around the narrative that emerged for civil society, was the call for more than just development. There was a language around justice, preparation, and meaningful participation beyond electoral systems. The other thing that was critical was that the Arab Spring highlighted new ways of organising that opened the possibilities around social media. This also heightened the visibility around the work that women and youth organisers do that is often unseen and there have been some wonderful policy and practice implications. 

When CIVICUS was reflecting on the Arab Spring in 2011, what became clear was there were extensive gaps in conversations that had, up until that point, been neglected. This included civil society in conversations with one another and between trade unions, faith groups. The Arab Spring was one of those mass mobilisations that removed for civil society organisers who took part, the mantle of the umbrella of being a resourced financed institution able to deliver change. It became clear change was in the masses. I also want to say there was a critical difference between those working on advocacy and service delivery up until that point. Suddenly this broke open and we cannot talk about service delivery, justice, advocacy, legal reform in isolation with one another. Instead, we needed an intersectional approach not just in terms of identities of our focus areas to affect change. 

I think for the MENA region, what was critical to see was that in the absence of traditional civil society, able to operate freely, that this ultimately led to the impetus behind online activism and organising because of the ongoing repression. The suggestion is that we need to invest in processes that allow the development of loose broad-based coalitions. I want to add that, particularly for the MENA region and Bahrain, that it is critical in these moments to resource the diaspora and exiled communities to effect change which we have seen are critical.

Drewery Dyke: You’ve opened many cans of worms, some of which we have already touched on. Coming back to the last point you raised, which resonates with me, the creation of a loose and broad-based coalition and the use of non-traditional forms of organisation. What would be your three or four key recommendations not just to those concerned with Bahrain but slightly more regional concerns? Is there a downside to this kind of approach, there are divisions within the Bahraini community, and within the gulf community itself? What would be your recommendations to civil society activists now going forwards?

Masana Ndinga-Kanga: One of the things that is clear is that we know that governments learn from one another and that they are well-resourced. We have seen in protests that were inspired by the Arab Spring, such as the movement for black lives, gender justice, and mass mobilisations for regime change, have learnt from each other too. As well as this, their languages around community care and what happens if we are in a crisis. Whom do we call and how do we create channels of emergency connections?

Similarly, the states have been one step ahead of us in the use of anti-terrorism legislation to crackdown on civil society. Similarly, they engaged in increased regulation of online activity; I know the independent media is all but banned in Bahrain. The use of blunt force and live ammunition and the infiltration of the United Nations system and, as has been mentioned, the running for the Human Rights Council by Saudi Arabia. I think we have also seen the rollout of quite sophisticated spyware, we do extensive digital and security training, but we always seem to be one step behind.

There is also a new wave of foreign funding restrictions, frighteningly 12.7% of people live in open in narrowed spaces and the rest live in restricted or closed civil society spaces around the world. I think, given this crisis, what is really needed is to ensure civil society stays alive. The threat is very real, the fear and the intimidation is pronounced. You cannot (particularly in the  MENA) act effectively without focusing on those in the diaspora who are continuously able to maintain connections and links. CIVICUS alongside many other partners is considering working on the right to foreign funding. 

We know that the GCC states have responded to this push for human rights by creating their own mechanisms. Ironically, the Arab Charter of Human Rights guarantees the right to freedom of assembly and association. With a crisis of legitimacy in the UN multilateral system, I really do believe there is an impetus on global civil society to stand in solidarity for those countries that are unable to exercise their rights. I’ve said this a number of times particularly when you look at Bahraini activists in exile, in the countries where they have been in exile they are often democratic. These democratic regimes have been notable for their failure to account for their own contribution to the crisis.

Drewery Dyke: Thank you. That’s so much and, certainly from our perspective, we value the vibe, the energy, and the context that CIVICUS creates. There is a lot that comes out of CIVICUS on a daily basis on a global level and the narratives or the attempt to create these narratives is something that is inspiring but challenging. Going forward you’re picking up on some things that Matar and others have talked about. I would love to see us perhaps under a CIVICUS banner, maybe to try and work out some of these things that maybe we haven’t talked about. When Stacey talked about the role of slavery I had never thought about that and the fact that that loop had never been closed.

This is a discussion to be continued. For all of the people still online we’re not able to take questions now we’ve kind of run out of space. Julia, Stacey, Matar, Ali, and Andrew are there any things that you want to ask each other or that you’d like to pick up on?

Andrew McIntosh: I would be happy to answer Jasim’s question. He wants to know if the mainstream opposition is willing to distance itself from Iran, Qatar, and radical parties like Al Wafa.

I myself cannot speak on behalf of the opposition, and it is a fragmented entity. It does not have a single piece of leadership and, ideologically, they are not in any way aligned with one another. 

However, I would say we are often associated with the regime in Iran and that is the narrative that the regime in Bahrain very much likes to put forward, particularly to the US and the UK. I would say, definitively, the future of Bahrain as a democratic state is not going to be one in which it can rely upon Iran, particularly because it has a poor human rights record of its own. It definitely doesn’t have a good record when it comes to democracy either. It is my hope, and I know it is the hope of SALAM DHR as well, that Bahrain remains a sovereign country, which can have a united front of its people, which are of multiple backgrounds, that are definitely not under the control of any foreign influence.

Stacey Strobl: I think it’s part of the public relations machine that really work towards this mythology that Iran has a hand in the opposition, when in fact all the credible scholarship that’s been done on this issue shows there’s no allegiance to Iran by any of the major opposition groups. I think this is an unfortunate fiction which is driving a lot of the UK, EU, and US policy. I think therefore, this is one thing that really needs to be cleared up. Iran may make some overtures, but this is not a big part of their policy. 

More importantly even the more religious sort of Shia groups in the opposition has no interest in being part of Iran, their movement is clearly targeted and civil rights and democratic engagement. We really need to correct this mythology, so it is not getting in the way of meaningful change.

Matar Ebrahim Matar: I think the thing to remember is that Bahrainis are seeking a secular democracy and the Iranian model won’t work for us. We don’t want a religious-based regime in Bahrain, what we want is a secular regime. We are a small country; we are not in a place to be for or against what the Iranians are for. Iran needs to choose what they want to do there for their transformation toward a secular democracy. But as Bahrainis, we will not be part of any activism inside Iran, it’s their issue and it’s their path. 

I don’t consider the Qataris adversaries and I don’t consider the Iranians adversaries. The Saudis came with their troops in 2011 and I don’t consider the Saudis adversaries. As I mentioned, what I think we need to do is to approach the Saudis and by that, I also mean the Saudi government. It is important for us to have a good relationship with everyone, including with Iran and Qatar, but most importantly Saudi Arabia. I understand some people criticise the Bahraini government from Qatari media or Iranian media, but I believe it is better to do this through platforms such as YouTube.

Drewery Dyke: Thank you everybody, Ali did you want to say something.

Ali Abduleman: I’ll just jump in with a very short comment. We all agreed that what Bahrain wants is to move toward the reform. The issue is that Bahrain is a small country and its in the middle of a conflict zone. We also have two big neighbours: Iran and Saudi Arabia. I always get this question – when do you want to get back to Bahrain? I say there are some conditions, but one of the most important is when there is a problem between me and my government, I have to be able to resolve it inside Bahrain, that I don’t need to go to London, DC, Riyadh, or Tehran to solve it. Iran is a big country in the region, and it has its own interest and so does Saudi Arabia. 

There is no problem with the people of Bahrain being able to live with dignity and with their human rights base, there is a problem with our neighbours. I will refer you to the hate speech that has been broadcast with the GCC countries, including the Saudi Arabia, that it’s not just saying that we are Kafir and should be killed as a Shia. It’s not just that they extracted us from our roots, that we are Arab. It’s that there is no concept of a Shia Arab in the GCC. 

I’m just mentioning this to highlight the mentality of the Saudi regime, which will not accept the idea of me being allowed to exist. That is why they are attacking Yemen and exerting pressure on Kuwait and Iraq. So, we are dealing with a kind of mentality that they don’t see us as being human – if they can get their hands on us or kill us, they will not hesitate. 

It’s not my problem that my neighbour is refusing me or rejecting me. I want to have a good relationship with my neighbour, but the priority is that I have to have my own dignity and my own basic rights. I know the Saudis will not allow me to live unless I accept to live as a slave to them. They will not accept any reform in their neighbourhood. All the countries that have a level of democracy have been attacked by the Saudis. You can see this if you look at Kuwait, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt.

Drewery Dyke: Ok thanks for that. Look, if there is one thing I take away from some elements that all of you have said, it almost comes back to people themselves creating space, reoccupying and recreating our own space, the civic space, to create and construct the narratives. Coming back to something Julia said to deconstruct the reform narrative that is being foisted upon us. I hear and I understand what you’re saying Ali, but I also think, having worked with Alqst, is that there is a whole new generation of people that we see across the Gulf. That new generation is in Kuwait and other places and they are rejecting these old imposed values be it Sunni, Shia, women, child, or youth there is just something waiting to breakthrough. I just think they need to find a way. I think that’s what we have all be searching for.

Ali Abduleman: I just want to clarify that when I am speaking about Saudi I am speaking about the regime, not the people.

Drewery Dyke: No, no I agree with you, I understand what you’re saying, I agree with that point. And none of the governments are particularly friendly on these points, some can have more pushback than others. The fact that Hassan Johar was appointed to the Parliamentary human rights body in Kuwait is really encouraging. Hassan Johar, who is a Shia is such a breath of fresh air for discourse and human rights in Kuwait. That brings hope for situations like the Bidoon. 

We’ve really gone over time. This has been a really great conversation. Any final burning things that any of you would like to say.

Andrew McIntosh: If I might have just one more small thing to say. One of the things we have addressed in this report, essentially, is how the current situation in Bahrain is connected with its history in that it has very much been the victim of its geography – it has been sandwiched between great powers and has had to rely on a suzerain as a protector. It used to be the British, now it’s the Saudis. One of the things we want more than anything is for Bahrain to chart its own destiny. One of the ways we can do that that, to get to a ensure that it is a country without sectarianism, without gross human rights violations, and with freedom for all, is by getting it to a situation where it no longer has to play a part of these great global struggles so it can chart its own course.

Drewery Dyke: I think that is where we have to leave it. Everybody thank you so much for taking part. I am going to sign off. Hopefully, we can come back to this another day and I will speak to all of you very soon I hope.