Gulf Kingdom Reverses Course As Calls for Change Swell Lessons for the Middle East --- A Web Site Rallies Opposition

The Wall Street Journal - 11 May 2005 By Andrew Higgins

MANAMA, Bahrain -- Ali Abdulemam, a young Islamic activist and founder of a popular Arabic-language Web site, made a bold decision three years ago. He started using his real name online.

He shed his pseudonym after a spurt of political change in this Gulf kingdom touted by President Bush as a model for the Arab world. The government emptied prisons of political prisoners, held elections and let hundreds return from exile abroad. "I believed you could speak and not go to jail," says the 27-year-old computer engineer, who combines his Web work with a day job at an American technology-consulting company.

In late February, amid boisterous debate about democracy following elections in Iraq, Mr. Abdulemam was thrown in prison, accused of fomenting hatred of the government and other charges.

Bahrain remains more open than its neighbors -- and freer than it was in the 1990s -- but it's more notable today as a showcase of how democratization can falter amid escalating expectations and a conservative backlash. Its experience could be repeated by other countries trying to open their governments, especially those unable to channel pent-up demands into the political process.

Spooked and divided by popular pressures they helped uncork, Bahrain's rulers are now wrestling with opponents who want real power, not just an easing of repression. "Those in power worry that they will lose everything," says Sheik Mohammed Bin Ateyatalla Al-Khalifa, president of the Royal Court and a powerful member of the kingdom's royal family. "Those out of power think they will get everything overnight."

The royals' response has been to hit the brakes. "To say `I want complete democracy now' is not good for anyone," says Sheik Mohammed. Throwing open the political process too abruptly will only leave "Islamists running the show."

Across the Arab world, political power has rested largely with minorities that view democracy as a threat. In Syria, power is concentrated in the hands of Alawites, a small esoteric sect that many Muslims consider heretical. In Bahrain and Iraq, Sunni Muslims have traditionally dominated Shiite majorities. In other nations, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, rulers share the Sunni faith of the majority but are minorities by blood or politics.

The demise of Saddam Hussein's minority Sunni regime in Iraq, after which voters chose their own leadership, has rattled the region. Concern is particularly acute in Bahrain, where the Sunni ruling family is struggling to rein in the consequences of its own reforms. In addition, technologies the government knows it must encourage to modernize the economy -- particularly the Internet and satellite television -- have demolished its ability to control public debate.

Now out of prison awaiting trial, Mr. Abdulemam, the dissident blogger, has rejoined a campaign orchestrated by Bahrain's largest opposition movement, al-Wifaq Islamic Society, to dump a constitution that leaves most power in the hands of the royal family. "This constitution does not meet our dreams," says Mr. Abdulemam, sitting in front of his computer in his father's living room. On the wall is a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran's 1979 revolution and a revered figure among many of Bahrain's Shiites. "It only meets the king's dreams: He still sits on top of all the power."

For the U.S., Bahrain presents a quandary. Construction crews are building new facilities at the headquarters of the Fifth Fleet near the capital Manama. The Pentagon is pressing for port dredging that would allow U.S. aircraft carriers to dock, not just anchor off the coast.

But even as the Bush administration cheers the idea of democratization here, some U.S. officials privately share the royal family's concern that Islamists might hijack the political process. They also worry that Iran might expand its influence over a key strategic stronghold.

The Sunni royal family, which has dominated Bahrain since the late 18th century, has around 3,500 members. Its power was cemented during Bahrain's time as a British protectorate, which continued until 1971. Colonial officers -- as they did in Iraq -- used the Sunni minority to control the Shiite majority. Sunni Muslims make up only around 30% of Bahrain's native population.

Today, the Al-Khalifa family controls a big chunk of the land, holds 10 of 21 cabinet posts and heads the military, the country's main university and its embassy in Washington. The king names the cabinet, which alone has the power to initiate legislation. He can also rule by decree.

Mr. Abdulemam's Web site, Bahrainonline.org, has helped mobilize the Shiite majority for the opposition. An open forum, the site is a mix of irreverent politics and reverent Islam. Its most popular feature, a discussion group called "national forum," contains thousands of postings on local politics. Mr. Abdulemam says he monitors the site, which has received more than 42 million hits since 1998, and tries to delete slanderous material. Before his arrest, he sold ad space to a religious school and a store that specializes in CD versions of the Quran.

When al-Wifaq wanted to stage a big demonstration in March in defiance of an official ban, it used the site to transmit tips on avoiding police roadblocks. As the demonstration progressed, the site hosted photographs of peaceful, flag-waving protesters, mocking official warnings of chaos.

The government instructed newspapers to estimate the crowd at 7,000, local journalists say. Contributors to Mr. Abdulemam's site put the number at over 70,000. The actual attendance was closer to 30,000, according to neutral observers.

Mr. Abdulemam first set up his Web site in 1998 during a period of violent political strife, much of it driven by Shiite anger over discrimination in the armed forces, police and civil service. A student active in dissident politics, he feared arrest by a security force then notorious for its use of torture. He used fake names to administer the site and started a blog under a false identity, too.

In 1999, when Bahrain's longtime ruler died, his son and successor, Sheik Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, announced an abrupt change of direction. Instead of trying to tame opponents by force, he gambled that greater freedom would be more effective. He freed political detainees, fired a Briton who directed internal security and called on critics to join in drafting a program to change the political system. He changed his title from Emir to King and pronounced Bahrain a constitutional monarchy, suggesting that royal power would be constrained.

President Bush declared Bahrain "an important example of a nation making the transition to democracy." In 2002, the U.S. gave it the official status of a "major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally" and started negotiating a bilateral free-trade agreement. Mr. Abdulemam decided to blog under his real name.

The mood quickly soured. In early 2002, the king announced a new constitution to pave the way for the first elections since an aborted stab at democracy in 1973. It gave an upper chamber, appointed by the king, power to overrule the elected lower house. It also made the cabinet, headed by the king's hard-line uncle, accountable only to the monarch.

Al-Wifaq and other opposition groups denounced the charter and demanded changes to reduce the power of royal appointees and boost the clout of the elected assembly.

Alarmed by the din of critical voices, the state imposed a new media law that outlawed anything that "creates divisions or religious differences." The government banned reporters from al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite network that had replaced state television as a news source, contending it had been "penetrated by Zionists." Al-Jazeera had given airtime to the opposition.

Starting in late 2002, authorities also tried to clamp down on Bahrainonline. They ordered Bahrain Telecommunications Co., known as Batelco, then headed by a member of the royal family, to restrict the site's Internet access. Hosted on a server in the U.S., the site was still easily accessible using devices that fooled the filters. The attempted ban only served to burnish the site's appeal.

Instead of defusing tensions, as the king had hoped, the October 2002 parliamentary elections crystallized demands for more sweeping changes. Al-Wifaq and a secular democratic alliance boycotted the poll, enabling Sunni politicians to win more than half the seats in the elected assembly. The boycott pushed the king's strongest critics out of the political system and onto the street -- and also online. Even in poor villages, locals have high-speed Internet access courtesy of "thief nets," whose operators illegally resell Batelco's service.

After a campaign by al-Wifaq to press for a more powerful parliament, Bahrain's information minister early last year laid the groundwork for a legal assault on Bahrainonline. In a letter to prosecutors, the ministry provided a list of allegedly offensive articles posted on the site.

One posting challenged the legitimacy of the ruling family, deriding the clan as invaders from the Arabian peninsula. Another mocked the Crown Prince and one of his pet projects, the Bahrain Grand Prix. In deference to Islam's ban on alcohol, organizers of the event spray winners with sparkling rose water instead of champagne and bar alcohol from public areas. The Web posting included a picture of the Crown Prince giving a thumbs-up sign. It was juxtaposed next to a photograph -- which the posters said was taken at the track -- showing a garbage bag full of empty beer cans.

Mr. Abdulemam says he saw nothing wrong with the items. Instead of bowing to pressure, he allowed contributors to continue posting controversial material.

One example: government documents including a letter from the Information Minister ordering local media "not to directly or indirectly contest or defame the king," or stoke sectarian issues. State-controlled television and docile local newspapers have toed the line.

Bahrainonline, says Mr. Abdulemam, has won followers by ignoring it. The site helped organize rallies to protest arrests of two opposition figures: a human-rights campaigner who had alleged corruption by the king's uncle; and an anti-torture activist accused of having illicit sex with a cleaning lady.

In recent months, the site has buzzed with commentary about Iraq. One contributor opined that "Death to America" should remain a rallying cry but lauded the rise of Shiite power in Iraq. Another wrote: "Our rulers will seek to contain the implications and consequences of this event through their devious means for fear the Iraqi experience is repeated here." A furious debate erupted after a pro-government newspaper in Bahrain derided Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiites, as an "American general."

Iraq, says Ali Salman, the leader of al-Wifaq, marks "the first real election in the Arab world . . . We live what happens in Iraq every day." Mr. Salman got to know Iraq's new prime minister, Ibrahim al Jaafari, in London where both spent time as exiles in the 1990s. When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Mr. Salman organized protests. Now he lauds Iraq for holding elections that actually determine who governs.

In late February, a United Nations committee that monitors ethnic and other forms of discrimination met in Geneva and rebuked Bahrain for its blanket denial of such problems. Local pro-government media didn't report the news. Instead, the report was posted on Bahrainonline by Nabeel Rajab, a secular Shiite who heads a human-rights center that had its office shut down by authorities last fall.

About the same time, police arrived at Mr. Abdulemam's house in Jidhafs village west of the capital. He was at work. When told about the raid, Mr. Abdulemam turned himself in. The same day, police picked up two friends who helped with the site.

Before the government announced the arrests, news spread online. A crowd of protesters gathered outside a detention center where the three were held. In early March, al-Jazeera broadcast footage of Mr. Abdulemam in handcuffs. Fellow bloggers set up a FreeAli Web site. The Committee to Protect Journalists in New York and other groups protested. The U.S. ambassador to Bahrain privately queried the Information Minister about the arrests but didn't comment in public.

Mansur al-Jamri, a former radical who returned from exile to run Bahrain's most independent newspaper, al Wasat, says he doesn't like Mr. Abdulemam's site because he says it spreads insults and unchecked rumor. But he nonetheless ordered his paper to denounce the arrests. "I'm in a liberal trap. I have to defend them even if I don't like them," says Mr. Jamri. "I don't care if they insult, but the government does. It is afraid."

Charged with inciting hatred of the government and four other offenses, the Web team was released after 15 days. Mr. Abdulemam is now back running the site. Speaking to the board of the Bahrain Journalists Association a few days after the arrests, King Hamad said: "There are no limits to freedom, but this freedom should be rooted in patriotism and love of the nation."