Ahram Online talks exclusively with Hussein Youssef, a Bahraini human and political rights activist and chairman of the country's press syndicate, about the ongoing uprising and its chance of success.
Bahrain's long history of struggle
“It is more a revolution than an uprising. It is a revolution on the domestic level and a revolution in terms of consciousness and action, and the type and scale of activism. We are talking about demonstrations and events where 40-50 per cent of the people of Bahrain are participating. Some estimates put 400,000 out of 750,000 citizens at protests on 14 February 2011."
The current revolution is not the first in Bahrain’s political history. The revolution of 14 February was preceded by harbingers of revolutions and uprisings since the 1920s, “which began with demands for a binding constitution in 1924 known as the Revolution of Divers. It demanded a civil state but Bahrainis were not allowed to pen a constitution until 1973. As soon as the state proposed the State Security Plan, parliament was dissolved six months after it was elected and we were without a parliament until the next uprising in 1994.
“The slogan during that uprising [which began in 1994] was ‘parliament is the solution’ and it continued until 2001, when there was a shift in the centres of power within the royal family. The king said he would propose reform and a charter for national action, and promised national forces that he would carry out their demands.
"More importantly, he signed an important document at a meeting with leading Shia scholar Abdullah Al-Ghorefi, who represented the majority of the opposition that had emigrated after much persecution, especially since 1994.
"The opposition on the Left was in India and Syria; the Islamists went to London and Tehran; large numbers were in prison, including Abdel-Wahhab Hussein, who is now the leader of the Wafaa Movement; Abdel-Amir Al-Jamra, who led the uprising in the 1990s; Hassan Al-Mashima who is now the leader of the Al-Haq Movement; Sheikh Ali Salman. Free Bahrainis was based in London, Eissa Al-Qassem was in Iran, and Abdel-Rahman Al-Naaimi and Abdel-Nabi Al-Ekra were in Syria.
“At the meeting, Al-Ghorefi read the demands to the king, who took the document from him and signed it. Accordingly, the people voted by 98.4 per cent for the National Action Charter. But on 14 February 2002, the king surprised everyone by issuing a constitution unilaterally without an elected constituent assembly. Although this resulted in a parliament, it was without powers, and he also appointed a shura council with similar powers to parliament.
"Even worse, the prime minister, who has been in power since 1971 and is the paternal uncle of the current king, was reappointed as prime minister. This made everyone feel that the reforms we were promised did not intend to defuse the crisis but to transfer powers to the new king who ascended to the throne in 1999.
“Later, between 2002 and 2011, all the laws that were suspended were reactivated, including the state security law, and several bloggers and journalists were arrested. In August 2010, an extensive security crackdown resulted in the arrest of the majority of political activists and the licences of newspapers and opposition mouthpieces were revoked. But on 26 January 2011, a social network was created on the Bahrain Forum website to discuss the need to choose a date for action in Bahrain, similar to what was happening in Egypt. People started publicly expressing their opinions although the website was blocked.
“I was arrested in 2005 and accused of owning this website."
The 2011 uprising begins
“It was decided in plain view that 14 February, the date commemorating Bahrain’s National Action Charter and the unilateral issuing of the constitution, would be the day for popular action to highlight the constitutional crisis.
“The first protest was on 12 February after Mubarak stepped down and the youth came out in a massive demonstration under the slogan ‘No 1,000, no 2,000; our date is on Monday’. The explanation of the slogan is that as publicity for 14 February spread, the regime became genuinely worried and the king decided to give each Bahraini family 1,000 dinars. The slogan rejected the bribe.
The marches began and Pearl Square was their epicentre, and after a few days the Ministry of Interior decided to vacate the square in cooperation with the Ministry of Defence. But suddenly, the crown prince appeared on television and asked army and security forces to withdraw from the square. The king and minister of defence publicly apologised for the victims killed in the square followed this incident. Later it was known that the crown prince made his surprise appearance on his own initiative to vow to protect protestors in his role as deputy to the supreme ruler, his father.
“Accordingly, demonstrators remained on the ground for 17 days until the king ordered the crown prince to lead a dialogue with the opposition. Five or six secret meetings took place and were expected to be enough to achieve our demands, but parties resisting reform within the regime sought to complicate the situation and were assisted by the official media.”
The Peninsula Shield Forces intervene to prevent divisions within the royal family and keep it in power
Here came the reference to the prime minister who, at the time, had been in power for nearly 40 years. New events revealed even more about the behind the scenes machinations of the revolution in Bahrain, such as the announcement that the Chief of the Royal Court had left the country.
“We hoped that change was on the way when we thought that he had left power, but unfortunately we discovered that he went to coordinate the arrival of Peninsula Shield Forces (PSF). He left on 16 March, which is the same day that agreement was reached between the opposition and the regime on seven points that would end the crisis."
The next day, however, the PSF arrived. "They did not come to confront the people, but to buoy one faction inside the regime against another." This is what Al-Sayed Bassiouny, who was in charge of preparing a fact-finding report, told Youssef in an interview. Bassiouny said that these forces came based on a meeting of top officials in the Bahraini Royal House and Saudi officials.
“Accordingly, the emergency law was cancelled, most political activists were arrested, McCarthy-type measures were taken against doctors and journalists who covered the news and events, as well as activists who formed revolutionary committees. Those Bahrainis who could flee actually did leave. Protest took another shape and became demonstrations of masked men who protested at night until some international pressure was exerted, primarily by the US and Europe, mostly because of a report on abuses. This resulted in permitting limited opposition protests, while divisions began to spread because some in the opposition were receiving support from Saudi Arabia which resulted in visible fractures.”
The regime views any Sunni uprising as having Al-Qaeda or Brotherhood undertones and Shia unrest as Iranian expansionism
“The PSF, according to statements by Kuwait’s emir, were called in to prevent foreign intervention, but we know that there was no foreign intervention. The regime wanted an excuse and claimed that there were Iranian threats, but how is that even possible when the US Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain?
"It was a successful ruse by the regime that describes any Sunni activism as either rooted in Al-Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood, and any Shia activism as influenced by Iran.”
Youssef does not deny a common belief among Gulf states that Iran is keen in meddling in the affairs of the region and directly targeting Saudi Arabia's backyard, but he added that “Oppressive dictatorships attempt to create divisions along sectarian lines within popular activism, but the truth is that it is a matter of people cooperating with other peoples; remember that the revolutionary slogans in Tunisia and Egypt were the same.”
The Arab League ignores Bahrain's revolution
To mark the first anniversary of the uprising, a number of Bahraini activists in Egypt screened a documentary about the first year of the revolution by projecting the film on the outside of the Arab League building in Tahrir Square, Cairo. Youssef recalled with sorrow and tearful eyes how security forces brutally cracked down on a large demonstration by women.
“Showing these images is the most eloquent response to the position taken by the Arab League that has abandoned the people of Bahrain. There has only been one special meeting on Bahrain that took 15 minutes, where it was decided to stand by the regime. We picketed the Arab League headquarters for two months. We met with Secretary-General Nabil El-Arabi and the officials of the Permanent Committee for Human Rights to explain the violations against the media and human rights in Bahrain, but it is clear that Saudi and Qatar are interfering to prevent any possible assistance to us.
“If the Arab League decided to apply a fraction of what it is doing in Syria, it would be entirely different. There is consensus among Arabs and it’s an Arab decision, and the US administration is cooperating on the issue. The people of Bahrain do not carry arms and we deal on the levels of popular activism, politics and human rights. The image of the state of Bahrain abroad is in tatters as a state that oppresses its people, and therefore the image of the regime is deformed.”
“Nonetheless, there are several international human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International who support us and the Al-Karama Institute. An international report was also issued titled ‘Freedom Under Fire’. Therefore, there is movement but unfortunately money is being used to serve strategic interests, and there is fear of publicising the crisis in Bahrain. The Americans are trying to give the wrong impression whenever the Bahrainis make progress and promote it as success for the Iranians.”
The US is working against the revolution
For Youssef the US's approval to whatever action is undertaken by the Bahrain regime is evident but “we still try to make a distinction between US human rights efforts and the US government whom we hold responsible, and view as fraudulent because of its action on the ground. I come from the village of Al-Jafiriya where the Fifth Fleet is located. The commanders of this base tell their soldiers to stay away from the smoke and gas fumes that are being used against protestors, and they do not deny this. Worse still, two US female activists came to Bahrain and were immediately and rudely deported in the past two days.
“We issued a report in cooperation with the US journalists' society titled ‘The Price of Freedom is Death’ about these positions. Meanwhile, we discover that there is an arms deal being finalised these days between Bahrain and the US, which is a signal to the regime to continue its crackdown on the first anniversary of the revolution. Even The Washington Post criticised the move, at least for its bad timing.
“Our duty is to support our people’s resistance and gain more allies, and to be the mouthpiece of the revolution everywhere in the world in order to gain more moral support and understanding until there is democracy in Bahrain. Victory is on our side. Right now, we are not planning to go to the Security Council and are using the channels of civil groups such as UNHRC and have had contacts with the UN.”
The Muslim Brotherhood – Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan
Youssef believes that Sunni groups inside Bahrain will be genuine partners in any action or constituent assembly or referendum. “Our demands are for everyone, and we tell these groups that our gains will be for everyone,” he said.
"Sunni activism is either activism by individuals or independent figures, while the Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood do not support these positions.
“But anyone who describes the revolution as a Shia uprising is speaking falsehoods and is delusional. Ibrahim Sharif was the first one to die in Pearl Square, and he is Sunni; Mohamed Albuflasa was the first prisoner and is Sunni; the first political gathering on 14 February was by the group ‘We have Demands’ which has a majority of Sunnis, and their demands were similar regarding future forms of government and institutions. The differences were political, not religious.”
“The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan and Egypt support revolution, and we met with Ahmed Mokhtar, the political adviser to Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie in Egypt, and showed him the political documents about the situation and what the people of Bahrain could accept in terms of an elected government, an independent judiciary, security forces formed by the people instead of security forces from countries in East Asia. We are still waiting for the supreme guide’s office to take a decision.
“We were told by Brotherhood members in Egypt that the Brotherhood in Bahrain is different from them, as evidenced by the statement of support for us by Essam El-Erian and Mohamed Morsi – the leader of Egypt's Freedom and Justice Party – as well as the statement by the Tunisian Al-Nahda Party. But these did not resound in Bahrain.”
Youssef concluded the interview by saying: “We call it the blessing of 14 February. Over the past years we were never been able to achieve what we started on this date. We have opened an opposition television channel called Pearl, and issued the first opposition newspapers online. We are seeking to build on these institutions to prepare for the future, when the revolution is victorious despite the challenges.”