Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Winning the Battle, Losing the (Media) War: Al-Watan English Edition

If you're like me, and you woke up this morning after having finally finished your 355-page dissertation that you'd been working on since around 2008 and wanted to revel in a bit of Al-Watan goodness, you were greeted with the following front page:

Which is to say, the rumor we reported back on June 24 about Al-Watan opening an English-language version of its website has finally come to fruition, a veritable Ramadan gift to Anglo-Saxons everywhere. Even better than the surprise launching of the website per se is the obvious decision to spare no effort in publishing the most sensationalist articles possible, evidently aimed to persuade feeble-minded English-speakers with no access to other news sources of the truth of the Royal Court's positions. Today's offerings include a story (seen above) about Iran "trying to impose its guardianship on the whole world," and some others not pictured here:
Even more excited was I when I reached the bottom right-hand corner of the website, when what should appear but the daily "Views" column of our friend Yusif Al Bin Khalil, conveniently translated into English.

Of course, this would have been nicer a month or so ago when he was still writing regular anti-U.S. propaganda. After the series about the new U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain, he seems to have cooled off more recently to focus mainly on domestic politics, no doubt helped by a King Hamad said to be increasingly annoyed at such activities by pro-government Sunnis and their royal backers. All the same, this should save a bit of time for those who follow such things.

Yet, there is a downside of this English-language edition, which is that the site automagically redirects readers in the U.S. and U.K. (and perhaps outside of Bahrain more generally?) to the more selective English version. So far, I can only manage to find the Arabic articles from either direct links or sub-section pages, and the main Arabic site is inaccessible. How ironic would it be if I were forced to use a proxy in order to access content only available to Bahrainis? That is a paradox.

The launching of the Al-Watan site coincides conveniently with the passing away of another notable pro-government outlet, the Bahrain Independent, which seems to have disappeared overnight along with the personal blog of one of its most prolific contributors, Saqir Al Khalifa, whose efforts have reportedly earned him the new position of media attaché at Bahrain's embassy in Washington. At the same time, another faux journalist and (former) Bahrain Independent contributor, "Liliane Khalil," seems not to exist at all. (Sort of like this guy "James Wilfred Clancy" who was supposedly "running a private investigation report on the current situation in Bahrain" back in March and April, for which we are all still waiting anxiously.)

Whatever the reason for pulling the plug on this operation--perhaps Saqir Al Khalifa's official promotion, perhaps the BICI investigation, perhaps the fact that the views of the Royal Court may now be promulgated directly to Western audiences through the new Al-Watan website--the world has doubtless lost an entertaining source of news and opinion written by people who may or may not have ever existed.

Beyond its connection in timing to the now-defunct Bahrain Independent, the new Al-Watan site is also useful for present purposes in that its aforementioned article denying that (former al-Wifaq MP) Matar Matar is/was being tortured in prison--a convenient thing to say given the newly-arrived BICI committee supposed to be investigating that sort of thing--leads directly to a discussion of one person about which you could not say the same: Wa'ad founder Ebrahim Sharif, who yesterday published (via visiting family members) a first-person account of his arrest, torture, and trial.

As part of my dissertation research in Bahrain, I interviewed political and religious figures from all segments of Bahraini society, ranging from Sh. 'Abd al-Wahhab Hussain to Sh. Jasim al-Sa'idi. Among these also was Ebrahim Sharif, whose son, at the time we met, was about to leave for study at my very own University of Michigan. While his family had always insisted that he was being ill-treated and even tortured, reading the actual narrative in his own hand is still eerie. It tells in part,
The arrest took place around 1:45 AM on the morning of Thursday, March 17th, 2011 when the doorbell rang. I went outside with my wife and found a group of masked investigators in addition to armed and masked policemen. They were accompanied by a National Security officer who was unarmed and dressed in civilian clothing. The officer asked me to open the front gate of the garden, and I asked him if he had an arrest warrant. He answered by saying no arrest warrant is required in the case of “National Security”. ...

Next, I was taken out of the building, where my blindfolds were suddenly removed and I found myself surrounded by many masked men that pushed me around and cursed at me with swears such as “Your mother’s pussy”, “bastard”, and other degrading swear words. I was then blindfolded again and put into a van with other people, including Mr. Hassan Mushaima, who I recognized when I heard the security men call his name as they placed him into the van.

We later arrived to “Grein” prison at around 5 AM and were escorted out of the van. We stood in an area blindfolded as authorities and wardens directed threats and profanity at us. I heard them also curse at Mr. Hassan Mushaima, saying phrases such as “To hell with you and your 12 imams”. ...

That same evening of the arrest the torture sessions began… at first, cold water was poured on my bed, mattress, pillows, blanket, and myself while the air conditioning was running. The room was cold and sleep was impossible especially with all the water the mattress, pillows, and blankets had absorbed. Afterwards, a group of around 5-6 masked men barged into the room and asked me to stand in a corner where they took shifts slapping, boxing, and kicking me, in addition to cursing me. They asked me to repeat after them praises for the King and especially the Prime Minister. The same torture cycle continued for a week where they’d torture and hit me twice or three times daily as well as pour water on my mattress, blanket and myself. And since the cells were all close to one another, I was able to hear the screams of other detainees and the orders and profanity of the wardens.

And so on. (If you're interested in this sort of thing, another Bahraini political dissident--'Ali al-Jallawi--has written a similar account of his time in prison during the late 1990s. A portion of his memoirs, God After Ten O'Clock, has recently been translated into English and published online here.)

Between the description of Ebrahim Sharif; the accusations surrounding the treatment of Matar Matar and Jawad Fayruz (who even if they have not been tortured have in any case not been heard from since their arrest on May 1); and God knows how many other ordinary citizens, the BICI certainly has its work cut out for it. Oddly, moreover, even as the latter is to begin its work investigating past excesses, no shortage of additional abuses continue. These include most blatantly a recent raid of the Doctors Without Borders office in retaliation for its treatment of "a man who had come to [its] premises with a serious head injury" as a result of a confrontation with riot police. (Update: the Bahrain Medical Society President is now defending the raid as having been "very good." Alright..)

At the same time, Bahrain's political situation has entered a Ramadan-induced lull that has given rise to a series of rumors and narratives, the most prominent of which is that al-Wifaq is now in disarray as a result of internal dissension between moderates (who are said to want to participate in the September by-elections) and the ever-dangerous "hard-liners" (who do not) that has led to a number of resignations. Thus, the story goes, did al-Wifaq decide to revoke the membership of individuals abroad, which it explained disingenuously as a legal measure to bring the group in line with its bylaws.

A recent article in the Gulf Daily News expands on these rumors, which include new reports of a London-based satellite TV channel (supposedly named "Lulu" or Pearl--as in, presumably, the Pearl Roundabout) run by al-Wifaq, which it has long denied. The article tells:
Certain hardline groups in Al Wefaq National Islamic Society are calling for its boycott of supplementary elections.

They are opposing any kind of political participation even as some members of the society’s Shura council called for taking part in the polls and adopting a more realistic vision of the situation in the country.

Society secretary-general Shaikh Ali Salman recently froze memberships of those living abroad, to enable reformists within the Shura council to reach a decision on the elections, sources said.

Shaikh Salman has to now face tough opposition from the “conservative group”, especially after Al Wefaq pulled out of the National Dialogue, which reflects the great pressure hardliners are exerting on the society, the sources added.

Other rumors include that:
  • 'Ali Salman, who has not been seen in Bahrain since an al-Wifaq rally several weeks ago, is variously: in Lebanon to consult with his Hizballah masters, or in London to meet secretly with the Crown Prince;

  • Interior Minister Sh. Rashid bin Abdallah may enter into talks with the opposition;

  • Authorities are planning to "step up repression" during Ramadan; and

  • The February 14 folks are thinking of launching a "civil disobedience" campaign, whatever that means.
If you notice, however, all of these include words like "may," "are planning to," "are thinking of," and so on, and seem to reflect mainly the current uncertainty of Bahrain's political path forward. Indeed, the conditionality of such rumors remind one of Robert Gates' statement about Iran's involvement in the February uprising: We "have evidence that they are talking about what they can do to try and create problems." Which is to say that anything may or may not be happening at all.

One thing that we can thankfully still count on amid all this rumor and the death of the Bahrain Independent is the weekly Friday rally of al-Wifaq, which is to occur this weekend in Karzakan under the headline "Security for All." The electronic flier, which I am going to have to downgrade from last week's beauty, carries the slogan: "We seed hope. They seed fear."

Perhaps 'Ali Salman will show up to deliver the keynote address just to throw everyone for a loop.

Update: I always forget the February 14 demonstration fliers, which are incidentally better than al-Wifaq's lately. This week's "Right to Self-determination" rally is in Bani Jamra in solidarity with the late 'Abd al-Amir al-Jamri and (Islamic Action Society leader) Sh. Al-Mahfudh:

The corresponding message from the Feb. 14 folks condemns the American support for "this bloody regime" (as in actual blood, not British bloody), so perhaps they are planning to take out their pent-up frustration in Bani Jamra since their demonstration at the U.S. Embassy last weekend was blocked by riot police.

Update 2: Al-Jazeera English has an interesting interview with the wife of Matar Matar that includes some striking video footage from March and April, strong criticism of the National Dialogue and even the BICI, and other things likely to make the Al Khalifa give Sh. Hamad bin Khalifa a call. Video:

And an even stronger, longer version: (Update: I actually posted this before viewing the entire 50 minutes. It's a difficult thing to watch, but really should be at the top of this post.)


  1. It is undeniable that the government has been caught off guard on the media front and the current organizations operating in this sphere are nothing more than relics from another era. Bahrain TV, hahaha??

    In addition, the quality of our journalists, their academic background and experience is all rather questionable across publications. As for Al-Watan it is too much of an extreme view of the world that has opened the door to jobless Baathists and the like (e.g. Samaaraie) who will sing to the same tune for money. Even I dont believe half the nonsense they propagate about the Iranian agenda in Bahrain, and you know where I stand on that topic. The Iranians are involved but not so blatantly and openly, they are evil and evil is smart beyond belief.

    On your point around the slight discomfort that some of the security prisoners experienced, well its all a matter of necessity. National security trumps everything, and the methods deployed in Bahrain are hardly the same as Iraq, Syria or even Iran (power drills, meat hooks, acid, missing limbs, pure savagery). Interrogation techniques here remind me of a similar theme that emerged from the US around waterboarding and the like. We use water too, just in a different way as Ebrahim Sharif can testify.

    In terms of the path forward, well I genuinely think its done. There is no more discussion and the village groupies can rally all they want, the only thing that will change is what the government wants to change. Al Wefaq is an irrelevance, they and their minions can be crushed like bugs at the whim of any Saudi Prince who decides that the theatrics in Bahrain have been tolerated long enough. Lets not forget the regional context and that we are khaleejis, part of the GCC.

    I truly believe that Al Wefaq will pay the political price for failing to deliver on its strategies and will fracture given the competing views and interests that are emerging, particularly between the Iranian sponsored hardline types and the types who have any remaining attachment to their Bahraini identity. So this is rally number 8? Keep on counting, they can have rally number 800 and the facts are what they are. REGIONAL CONTEXT people!! Bahraini politics cannot and should not be assessed in a vacuum, neither should people be making demands that are larger than themselves based on this regional reality. Everyone should know their place.

  2. Sal Rahim is such a class A troll. I think i read his first post and since then when i see his name i just ignore. What a waste.

  3. "Al Wefaq is an irrelevance, they and their minions can be crushed like bugs at the whim of any Saudi Prince who decides that the theatrics in Bahrain have been tolerated long enough."

    Hahaha... ok :D

    Don't forget this event:

    Congrats on finishing your dissertation... Can't wait to read it.

    And by the way, if you click on الوطن العربية once you go on the English website, it will take you back to the original Arabic. And if you thought what al-Watan is thinking in regards to Mubarak's trial: سياسيون ومراقبون‮: ‬محاكـمـة مبارك تثير‮ ‬غضـب العـرب والمسلمــين

    No surprise!

    And the "Monarchs Club" moves ahead with its plans...

  4. Ah, I knew there was something going on in Bani Jamra from all the Embassy demonstration notices. Thanks.

    We'll see about Jordan and Morocco. Jane Kinninmont had a good article on this a while back:

    Finally, al-Wifaq needs to get its act together with these fliers. The Feb. 14 "Right to Self-Determination" ones are blowing them out of the water.

  5. Hahaha... I agree about al-Wefaq's flier. Maybe this flier is meant to be dull, boring & scary: who wants a flashy lovey-dovey flier about state security?!

    Their media team needs to up it up!

  6. More from the friendly island:!/manamavoice1/status/99114107004915713

    منصور الجمري يعود رئيسا لتحرير الوسط

    Note: The Twitter account belongs to Manama Voice, run by Hani al-Fardan, whom is also a journalist at al-Wasat.

  7. Facebook 'used to hunt down Bahrain dissidents':
    A new documentary claims the Bahraini government used Facebook to track down protestors.

  8. @ Sal

    I'm not sure the "mild discomfort" suffered by Zakariya Al Ashiri, Ali Saqer, Karim Fakhrawi and Hassan Maki could be described as anything other than pure savagery. I don't believe it is necessary to kill people you already held in custody to ensure national security. I won't bother making any arguments to you on humanitarian grounds, since you seem to find these concepts alien but since evidence extracted under torture is known to be unreliable, I would say that relying on it to protect your national security is ineffective.

    I do agree with your view of the path forward though, with sadness on my part rather than glee. I don't think the regime or its GCC allies are willing to give anything more. We're in for years more of simmering civil unrest and political stalemate. Good for nobody.

    @ Justin Congratulations on finishing your dissertation, very much looking forward to reading it. Not that I'm impatient but when do you expect you'll share it with your blog readers?

  9. "Even I dont believe half the nonsense they propagate about the Iranian agenda in Bahrain, and you know where I stand on that topic. The Iranians are involved but not so blatantly and openly, they are evil and evil is smart beyond belief."

    Pot calling the kettle black. Thank you Mr.Rahim, you just made my day.

  10. Justin and Co. - if you haven't read this piece please check it out, brilliant article in today's telegraph:

    And to man referring to the kettle and crockery, I believe that imperialistic language carries racial undertones. On a personal note I do use the. Martha Stewart Electric Coffee Maker - mmmmmm - good coffee!

  11. "It is still not widely appreciated how close Bahrain came to falling into a sectarian abyss earlier this year. In February, after protesters were forcibly removed from the Pearl Roundabout, during which three protesters and one policeman died, the Bahraini government made an unconditional offer of political dialogue. Security forces were withdrawn from the streets and talks led by the impressive Crown Prince began. On the ground, radical elements, sensing the opportunity to overthrow the regime, exercised an effective veto, by erecting roadblocks manned by armed vigilantes across the capital’s main streets."

    "Sensing an opportunity to overthrow the regime?" Are you kidding? This retired army officer should know that such things require more than physical bodies in the streets, namely guns.

  12. Justin you are absolutely right we were very lucky this time! Only the guys on the angels side had the guns, primarily high quality American made M16s and M60s. I know for a fact that the government is now ratcheting up all efforts to ensure that the agents of Persia never get their hands on a spoon nevermind firearms!! The military man is mistaken, the GCC would have never stood idlly by and watch the government fall. But he is right about the danger Iran's minions having played a big role in the chaos that ensued.

  13. So are the Qatari's on an Iranian payroll too..?