How Bahrain Lost the Propaganda War

While some commentators have recently been ringing the death knell of the Bahrain uprising, there is one place where the Bahraini government and their apologists have entirely failed to impose their authority: online.
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"[I] motored out to see a garden on Budeya road, it was cultivated by some Bahrainis for 30 years & now claimed by old Sheikh Isa's wife who produces a valid document gifting it to her by Isa 20 years ago. He used to give people land without ever seeing it & usually it belonged to somebody. Naturally he is unpopular among the Bahrainis who are the original owners of the island."

- Diaries of Sir Charles Belgrave, colonial officer and adviser to the Emir from 1926-1956.

While some commentators have recently been ringing the death knell of the Bahrain uprising, there is one place where the Bahraini government and their apologists have entirely failed to impose their authority: online. Given the recent complete banning of public protest in Bahrain, online dissent has become increasingly important to a revolution that refuses to go away.

Though the regime controls the real physical space of Bahrain's public places, surrounding the sites of dissent with checkpoints and controlling institutions like hospitals and universities, they have failed to control online debate and criticism. Protesters, physically kettled in Bahrain or forced abroad for fear of arrest, continue their fight in the abstract online space (where they are nevertheless pursued by the corrupt Bahraini legal system), or in international political fora, like the UN and parliaments of London and Washington.

Many commentators were keen to play down the role of online and digital technology in the so-called Arab Spring, feeling that it was a facile and Orientalising reduction to a series of complicated internal political discontents which had been building for decades. While this remains true, technology has provided dissidents with an outlet that didn't exist previously. Bahrain's political problems have a history of flaring up regularly every decade since about the 1920s. However, whereas before the Bahraini regime was able to use pure force and dangle the carrot of reform until protests subsided; this time technology has provided a 'counter-space' for protest to continue. Bahrainis have turned to online platforms, especially Twitter and Facebook, to share information and publicise the repression they experience. Every village has its own media agency which posts videos and updates on what is happening in that area. Marc Owen Jones, who has written academically on Bahrain and works with Bahrain Watch, believes that this is part of a global trend in which "neoliberalism's attack on public space creates corollary spaces on the internet."

As one of my contacts who lived in Bahrain for a long time told me, "In my opinion the biggest barrier to public space in Bahrain is the lack of public space in general. For example the coastline is almost entirely privatized [only 3 percent remains public]." It is incredibly difficult to make an accurate estimate because of the lack of government accountability, but the amount of land directly or indirectly owned by the ruling Al Khalifa family in Bahrain is thought to be at least 50 percent, if not significantly more (20 percent of Bahrain's land has been reclaimed from the sea, all of which is crown property). The only public spaces left for protesting are the highways, and these still require permits and can be easily policed to stop breakaway groups entering the capital Manama, especially the financial harbour. This financial harbor was sold to the Prime Minister, the King's uncle (who has been PM since independence from the UK in 1971, the longest serving PM in the world), for the sum of 1 Bahraini Dinar.

The continuing exertion of a tribal style of rule by coercion sits firmly at odds with the notion that Bahrain is a modern state based on the rule of law. In fact, according to Khuri's seminal history, Tribe and State in Bahrain (a book which remains banned in Bahrain along with Belgrave's diaries), the British colonial administration simply imposed its ideas of the rule of law and sovereignty on top of the tribal structure of the region, allowing the Al Khalifa to expand its family and alliance system into the institutional mechanisms of the state. Bahrain had no penal code until independence, pretty much allowing the Al Khalifa family to make up the law as they went along. An independent legal system which protects citizens rights without discrimination is what reformists have been agitating for since before independence, and is still the main demand. What has changed is that people have no faith in this happening while the Al Khalifa family remain in power. If they want to survive another decade, they will have to prove this assumption wrong.

Everywhere you turn in Bahrain, the one-sided and absolute control of the Al Khalifa marks the physical landscape, often literally with their faces adorning billboards and huge signs. Many places are called after the Al Khalifa conqueror of the islands, Ahmed Bin Mohammed Al Khalifa, "al-Fätih" ( الفاتح ; literally, "the opener, conqueror"). This carries a sectarian connotation that any Arabic speaker would understand suggesting the conquering of the island by the true, Sunni Islam. This historically and ideologically disenfranchises those who consider themselves the original inhabitants of the island before the Al Khalifa arrived in the 18th century. These original occupants even have a different word for themselves, the Baharna.

It has so far been a very mixed outcome for activists working on human rights and political freedoms in Bahrain. The symbol of the uprising, Pearl Roundabout, was physically erased from the map by the Bahrain government to prevent it being used as a protest location. Other roundabouts in Bahrain have since been modified to stop people protesting in the middle of them. The government is now talking about the possibility of having controlled 'protest zones,' though they seem to be avoiding a decision on this idea for the moment. Numerous places have been renamed, such as Pearl Roundabout, now AlFarooq Junction. Others such as the Baab al Bahrain square, which was put out to tender last year, are being physically designed to be difficult to protest in -- in this case by making the centre of the square essentially a swimming pool. Yet on the other hand, there has been more international attention and media scrutiny on Bahrain's government than ever before. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report commissioned by the King found evidence of systematic torture and the excessive use of force, offenses which in the past were completely denied by the regime.

Bahrain's rulers have never before gone to this extent to control physical protest, which is perhaps why their protestations that they allow freedom of expression and assembly within limits necessary for public security have become less and less convincing. Yet they continue to paint themselves as reformers, playing to a relativist cultural paradigm by saying that the Gulf is an exceptional place where democracy will take a long time to realise. What other Gulf monarch would have commissioned a human rights investigation into its handling of the uprising, they ask? And in this sense, they've learned well from their imperial patrons, the U.S. and UK, to pay lip service to human rights as a legitimizing force while ignoring it wherever economic and political concerns are more serious for the integrity of the status quo.

Bahrain has hired numerous PR firms such as Bell Pottinger with their 'dark arts' of reputation management and shadier firms like Olton, who monitor dissidents online on behalf of the Bahraini Ministry of the Interior. Nokia Siemens has been shown to have intercepted activists text messages, which were then read back to them during police interrogations, and the surveillance tool FinnSpy, sold by UK firm Gamma Group, has been used to spy on political opponents of the regime. Yet for all their money, and their attempts to intimidate those giving evidence to human rights bodies, they seem to be losing the PR argument. Government apologists continue to repeat the mantra that the recommendations of the BICI report have mostly been implemented, while all other independent observers believe there has been only superficial institutional reform. As with the recent Gaza conflict, access to new media has allowed the politically disenfranchised to compete in the online marketplace of ideas, making it harder for traditional news sources to ignore them.

After considerable pressure from Parliamentarians concerned about the perception of hypocrisy in the UK's relations with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the UK Foreign Affairs Committee has agreed to a review of the UK's relations with these two countries. This has sent the Saudis reeling in horror that one of their allies should be having second thoughts about the way they use the arms we sell them (BAE has a U.S. subsidiary which sells Bahrain teargas, and UK company Gamebore sells lead birdshot used against protesters), and like a jilted lover they have duly huffed and puffed about how they also need to reconsider their relationship with the UK. It must be galling to know that oil wealth can't buy them the complete silence of foreign parliamentary committees, just that of foreign leaders.

The fact is that while power and money can buy you coercive control over physical space, it is much harder to impose that hegemony over online discussion, which is inherently more democratic. You can try to populate the #Bahrain hashtag with irrelevant material, you can try to get pro-government propaganda to the top of the Google search, but the wisdom of the crowd will inevitably produce a reasonably accurate picture of what is happening on the ground. You can even try to use software to spy on activists, but activists themselves are getting smarter in this online arms race. The regime's latest tactic seems to consist of whitewashing Bahrain's image with a veneer of celebrity materialism, inviting Kim Kardashian to open a new milkshake concession in the hope that this will somehow distract the media from the continuing human rights abuses. It smacks of desperation, with every other PR trick in the book exhausted, they are rather hoping that Kardashian's 16 million Twitter followers will get the impression that Bahrain is an oasis of calm modernity in a chaotic region. I think it's just as likely they might come across news reports contrasting her visit to the background of violence and repression.

Bahrainis are showing resilience in the face of brutal oppression, and we hope this will continue, because a political system that is founded on violence can never be a truly legitimate one. Bahrain's revolution may not have successfully produced any reform, but it is certainly not over yet. As my friend and boss Nabeel Rajab said when he was interviewed for Julian Assange's series earlier this year,

Imagine, the Bahrain government stopped journalists to get into the country, stopped the human rights organisations to get into the country, but most of the young people became journalists, became human rights activists, became bloggers, so thank God the Bahrain government have made such a young movement that the whole Arab world will benefit from.

Nabeel is in prison on charges of calling for protests, but the ideas that inspire the revolutions still going on cannot be so easily caged. Seneca's warning to Nero could not be more relevant: "No matter how many you slay, you cannot kill your successor."

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