New York Times: In Tiny Arab State, Web Takes on Ruling Elite

New York Time – 15 January 2006

MANAMA, Bahrain – Ali Abdulemam, this country’s most notorious blogger, sat in the boxlike reception room of his father’s house in a cramped Shiite village dotted with raw cinder-block houses, trying to log onto the widely popular Web site that he founded.

The government on this flyspeck of an island nation, home to an American Navy base, recently renewed its effort to block dozens of opposition Web sites. So Mr. Abdulemam, 28, a computer engineer, had to spend about 10 minutes whipping through various computer servers around the world before finally pulling up his Web site,

New York Time – 15 January 2006

MANAMA, Bahrain – Ali Abdulemam, this country’s most notorious blogger, sat in the boxlike reception room of his father’s house in a cramped Shiite village dotted with raw cinder-block houses, trying to log onto the widely popular Web site that he founded.

The government on this flyspeck of an island nation, home to an American Navy base, recently renewed its effort to block dozens of opposition Web sites. So Mr. Abdulemam, 28, a computer engineer, had to spend about 10 minutes whipping through various computer servers around the world before finally pulling up his Web site,

It was National Day, Dec. 16, and some five miles away, the beautifully landscaped boulevards of Manama, the capital, were packed with revelers enjoying bands and fireworks. Pictures of the ruling princes blanketed the city, which was also awash in the national colors, red and white. Red and white lights were even wrapped around the palm trees lining the main thoroughfares.

But most of the couple of hundred people posting messages in the “National Forum” section of BahrainOnline mocked the idea of celebrating the day in 1971 when a Sunni Muslim king ascended the throne to rule over a Shiite Muslim majority.

“In Bahrain, glorifying the king means glorifying the nation, and opposing the king means betraying the homeland and working for foreign countries,” wrote one online participant, noting that the formula is the mark of a dictatorship. “Should we be loyal to the king or to Bahrain?”

Bahrain, long a regional financial hub and a prime example of the power of the Internet to foment discontent, bills itself as a leader of political change in the Arab world. It is a claim echoed in praise from the United States, which considers Bahrain crucial for its many regional military ventures because the American Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based here.

But in Bahrain, as across the Arab world, those pushing for democratic change want to end minority rule by a family, sect or a military clique.

The royal family here dominates, holding half the cabinet positions and the major posts in the security services and the University of Bahrain.

Sheik Muhammad al-Khalifa, the prince who runs the Economic Development Board, argues that Bahrain should not become a democracy in the Western sense. “As traditional Arabs, I don’t think democracy is part of our nature,” he said.

“I think all people want is accountability,” he added, noting that some form of democracy was needed to achieve that.

So political change in the Middle East rests partly on whether and how the many minority governments will yield power and allow others to participate. So far, the results are anemic.

The al-Saud tribe slapped its name on the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where local elections a year ago have not produced active municipal councils, and crucial issues like how much oil wealth the ruling family absorbs are not discussed.

In Syria, the ruling Assad family and its confederates from the Alawite minority sect are in crisis, accused of assassinating Rafik Hariri, a former Sunni prime minister of Lebanon and an important figure who might have been able to rally majority support against the Alawites’ monopoly on power.

Of course, Iraq remains the biggest experiment of all in changing the practice of minority rule. The American occupation has yet to answer whether it is possible to forge a democratic government in the Arab world, or if the attempt will drown in a cauldron of sectarian bloodshed. But the results are being closely watched, perhaps nowhere more than in Bahrain, where up to 70 percent of its native population of 450,000 are Shiites, similar to Iraq’s Shiite-Sunni split. Shiites here also increasingly look to moderate religious leaders in Iraq for guidance.

Some political change has occurred. Debate is growing through the Internet, satellite television and other forces, and elections this year will replace the Parliament and municipal councils first chosen in 2002 under a new Constitution. Members of the ruling Khalifa family describe this as a vibrant process that will ultimately establish a local strain of democracy. Yet some of its most senior members and their Sunni allies hint that the process is threatened because Bahrain’s Shiites disloyally serve outside interests like the Shiites in Iran and Iraq.

Members of the opposition call this nonsense and accuse the ruling dynasty of questioning their loyalty to avoid having to share power. They say King Hamad and his Khalifa clan, descendants of Bedouins from the Arabian mainland who conquered this island, taking it from its Persian masters in the 18th century, will only make cosmetic changes, noting that almost nothing has been done to alleviate the entrenched discrimination faced by the poorest segments of the Shiite population.

“The problem with the royal family is that when they give us any democracy they think that it is a gift and we have to thank them for it,” Mr. Abdulemam said. “The time when they were the lords and we were the slaves is gone. The new generation is well educated. They won’t live like our fathers did in the past, when they said O.K. to whatever the royal family did.”

A ‘Golden Time’ Cut Short

Bahrain’s first Parliament, elected in 1973, proved too boisterous for King Hamad’s father, who dissolved it after 18 months. Opposition demands to restore it increased through the 1990’s, marked by bombings and other sporadic violence. The authoritarian government subjected the mostly Shiite opposition political activists to arrest, torture and forced exile.

When King Hamad, now 55, inherited power in 1999, he promised a democracy that he described as “areeqa” or “well rooted.”

He announced changes that included amnesty for exiles and the disbanding of the dreaded State Security Courts. Bahrainis enthusiastically approved the new plan in a public referendum.

It was then that Mr. Abdulemam established his groundbreaking Web site, determined to give Bahrainis a place to share ideas and develop plans to deepen political change. “It seemed like a golden time, when the country was moving from one period in its history to another,” he said. “Everybody needed a place to talk so I provided it.”

But King Hamad soon hit the brakes. In 2002 he announced a new Constitution, formulated without public consultation.

The cabinet, led by his uncle, a hard-liner opposing democratic change, would report to him, not the Parliament. Instead of a single 40-member Parliament, he added an appointed upper house. Amending the Constitution now required a two-thirds majority of both houses, giving the monarch full control. Parliament now could only propose laws, not write them. An audit bureau that had previously reported to Parliament was replaced with one that would not subject the spending of the royal court or the 2,500 royal family members to any public scrutiny.

“I had been full of hope that a new era was coming to Bahrain,” Mr. Abdulemam said. “But what happened next threw us all in the dirt. When the king brought in the new Constitution, everyone was crushed.”

Politics in the Internet Age

In the old days, with its monopoly over television and radio and the ability to shut down newspapers, the Khalifa dynasty would have had less trouble controlling the debate. Now, with the Internet and satellite television outside its reach, the government resorts to tactics like tossing Mr. Abdulemam and two of his fellow Web masters into jail for a couple of weeks, as it did last year.

At the time, the opposition orchestrated repeated demonstrations and international intervention to help win his release, but legal charges of insulting the king, incitement and disseminating false news remain pending and can be dredged up at any time.

One reason the Internet is so popular – scores of villages have their own Web sites and chat rooms – is that far more can be said about the ruling family online than through any other means.

“Freedom of expression is something you have to take, not something that will be granted to you,” Mr. Abdulemam said, but he doubts that free speech alone will accomplish much. “Their policy basically comes down to, ‘Say what you want and we will do what we want.’ ”

BahrainOnline is the go-to political site, with princes, Parliament members, opposition leaders and others with an interest in politics saying they consult it daily to find out what the opposition is thinking.

The easiest way to ensure a large turnout for any demonstration, the leader of the main Shiite opposition group said, is to post the announcement for it on BahrainOnline.

“If something happens anywhere in Bahrain, usually within five minutes maximum something about it is happening on my site,” Mr. Abdulemam said.

Still, the site’s Web masters are often criticized for creating a “tabloid” that spreads rumors and demeans those considered enemies. Ghada Jamsheer, a women’s rights advocate who criticized the Shiite clergy for opposing a proposed law that would give more defined divorce rights to women, said her face was pasted onto a naked body.

Mr. Abdulemam said his site was blamed for trash posted on any site in Bahrain, and his Web masters, monitoring as many as 1,000 posts a day, remove anything that promotes violence. He laughs when he recalls his arrest and how little his interrogators knew about how the Internet works, blaming him for the content of every posting.

Mansour Jamri, editor of a daily newspaper, Wasat, and the son of a famous Shiite opposition cleric, notes that many of those writing on the Web sites are very young.

“If you don’t shout with them you are a corrupt person, you are basically a dog used by the government,” said Mr. Jamri, who has been portrayed as just that.

Part of the issue is that the press remains hobbled. When Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja, a prominent human rights advocate, was arrested in late 2004 after giving a speech attacking the prime minister over corruption, no newspaper printed what he had said. For that people had to turn to BahrainOnline.

“This pocket of anarchy is a byproduct of half-hearted democracy,” Mr. Jamri said.

Simmering Frustrations

In 2002, BahrainOnline led a fight to boycott the elections. As a result, Shiites mostly stayed away from the polls, and the vote exacerbated the sense among Shiites that the Khalifas and their Sunni allies were not interested in treating them as equals.

Election districts were gerrymandered so that sparsely populated Sunni districts in the south got almost as many members as the heavily Shiite villages in the north. Opposition groups amassed evidence that the government gave passports to various Sunni Muslim groups, including members of a tribe in Saudi Arabia that had once lived on Bahrain, to alter voting demographics.

Ultimately, Sunnis captured 27 of the 40 seats in the election. As in many parts of the Muslim world, fundamentalists were the best organized, and a group of Sunni fundamentalists became the largest bloc in Parliament. They muted any opposition to the government out of concern that it might help spread the influence of Shiite Islam.

The new Parliament spent half its time bickering over religious practice. It won a fight to allow fully veiled women to drive. It proposed a ban on scantily clad window mannequins. It tried to separate the sexes in all classrooms. Last year, alcohol sales were banned during a Muslim holiday – a time when tens of thousands of visitors arrive from Saudi Arabia to drink.

What Parliament did not do was really confront the government over a chronic housing shortage and unemployment, particularly among Shiites. The gap between the largely Sunni haves and the Shiite have-nots grows ever more apparent and feeds simmering frustration.

Mr. Abdulemam, for example, earns a decent salary as a computer engineer at an American-owned company. With a wife who is expecting their first child any day, he can not afford $130,000 for a plot of land and does not ever expect to be able to.

He is the youngest of 10 siblings, 4 of whom still live with their children in his father’s house. Some 15 people live there, with each nuclear family allotted a room. “I know we deserve better,” he said.

Exact numbers are hard to pin down in Bahrain, but about 27,000 applications are pending for subsidized government housing, senior officials concede. Unemployment stands officially at 15 percent but runs as high as 28 percent among Shiite young adults ages 20 to 24, diplomats and Bahraini economists said.

Opposition members accuse the royal family of monopolizing all available land, and say an expatriate community of 250,000 – from Asia and other Arab countries – blocks Shiites from most decent jobs. Shiites avoid some tough jobs like construction and are generally barred from joining the security services. Royal family members concede that more needs to be done to improve housing but deny hoarding land. A job training program is to begin this month.

Last spring, the committee in the United Nations Commission on Human Rights that monitors racial discrimination rebuked Bahrain. The report said that although Bahrain paid lip service in its laws to barring discrimination, actual practice lagged.

When Mr. Abdulemam was arrested in February 2005, he found that his interrogator was an Egyptian, one of hundreds of Sunni Muslims from the Arab world and Pakistan recruited into the security services, given houses and usually citizenship.

“He was asking me whether I was loyal to this country,” Mr. Abdulemam said sourly. “How can an Egyptian ask me about my loyalty? There are many ways to love your country, and what I do is one of them.”

The poverty suffered by many Shiites seems particularly galling to them given the real estate boom. The capital’s skyline is dominated by gargantuan luxury office blocs under construction, which Bahrainis contend are all owned by the royal family. The capital is also plastered with ads for housing developments like Riffa Heights, an upscale community with sea views and a golf course in a plush neighborhood already dominated by royal palaces where Shiites cannot buy land.

Senior officials call it all essential development to attract investment to Bahrain, long the Persian Gulf’s financial hub but one competing increasingly with far richer emirates like Dubai and Qatar.

The young, American-educated crown prince even used a huge tract to build a $150 million Formula 1 racing circuit. Talal al-Zain, the investment banker who is the raceway’s chairman, lauded it as a means of putting Bahrain on the international map. The track seems to baffle Bahrainis. For special races on National Day only about 500 people, most of them foreigners, sat in stands built for 30,000. One Web site mocks the crown prince, Sheik Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, as “Salman Schumacher,” a reference to Michael Schumacher, a top racer.

Formally, the Bush administration has declared that it supports democratic change across the region, that the United States will no longer laud despots just because they back American policy. “Hopeful reform is already taking hold in an arc from Morocco to Jordan to Bahrain,” President Bush said in his 2005 State of the Union address.

Practically, though, the United States has not pushed for sweeping change out of concern for what might happen if states fell into the hands of Islamists.

The Khalifas court the Bush administration particularly well. The foreign minister, Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, noted that a proposed port might provide the deep-water docking space needed for the aircraft carriers that now have to anchor offshore. Such cooperation has earned Bahrain a free-trade deal and praise from Mr. Bush.

A Shiite-Sunni Divide

During a protest march on National Day, some of the participants chanted “Death to Khalifa!” referring to Sheik Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, 69, who has remained prime minister since independence in 1971. They yelled it in Arabic and Persian, the language of Shiite Iran.

With Iraq holding so much of the people’s attention here, much the way Iran did after its revolution, the question is whether developments in Iraq will lead Bahrain to more sectarianism or more democracy. Signs of both exist. Some postings on BahrainOnline include portraits of prominent Iranian ayatollahs past and present, particularly Khomeini and Ali Khamenei. Members of the ruling family generally use such displays to buttress the accusation that the basic goal of the Shiites is to establish an Iranian-style theocracy in Bahrain.

But Shiites here respond that the ayatollahs are strictly spiritual guides and that native Shiites have lived in Bahrain longer than the ruling family and have no intention of living under the thrall of yet another foreign power. To counter the accusation that their loyalties lie outside Bahrain, the Shiite activists stopped hoisting such pictures at rallies.

“The new Iraq is the model,” said Sheik Ali Salman, the 40-year-old Shiite cleric elected to lead Al Wifaq Islamic Society, the main Shiite opposition group, and a man who once organized rallies denouncing the American invasion of Iraq. The expectation that Shiites will dominate the Iraqi government has given Shiites across the region new confidence.

Speaking fluent English learned during five years of exile in Britain, the cleric ticks off all the steps Iraqis have taken toward choosing their own leaders in the same period that King Hamad has been busy consolidating power while warning against moving too quickly to carry out change.

Most Shiites follow one senior cleric on matters of religious practice in their daily lives. Mr. Abdulemam said he used to look to Khomeini in Iran, but recently switched to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the moderate and powerful Shiite cleric in Iraq.

Sunnis in Bahrain are at times incensed when Shiites fax Ayatollah Sistani questions, like asking him whether they must obey traffic laws, because King Hamad is not, in their view, a legitimate Islamic ruler. (He faxed back to say yes, they do.)

Where many Shiites here used to watch Al Manar, the satellite channel broadcast from Beirut by the militant Shiite group Hezbollah, they have switched to the Iraqi-run Euphrates channel. When a bombing kills Shiites in Iraq, some in Bahrain wear black.

Shiites and Sunnis silently assess all events in Iraq, which are both feeding democratic yearnings and deepening the divisions between them.

“If a Sunni area is bombed, the Sunnis wish it was a Shiite area; they don’t say it, but they feel it,” said Sheik Khalid al-Khalifa, a prince and an academic who serves on the Shura Council, the appointed upper house of Parliament. “It’s the same for the Shiites. It’s all reflected here.”

Abeer Allam contributed reporting for this article.