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Bahrain: A brawl begets a backlash The year 2003 did not start auspiciously for Bahrain or its king, Sheikh Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa. New Year’s Eve witnessed what local media described as “the most serious riots in the country” since the launch of political reforms by Sheikh Hamad after he assumed power in March 1999. Within a couple of hours, some 800 police were called out to deal with an estimated 1,000 youths who had congregated either as rioters or spectators. Eyewitnesses reported the whole thing started as a brawl among loitering small bands of youths, and could have been contained by the small police force that was present. The police managed to restore order and arrested a number of youngsters. When the authorities released the identities of the first batch of 40 alleged “saboteurs,” some of whom were from Saudi Arabia and Oman, it became clear that all were under 25 years old and some were as young as 15. It was also understood that more arrests would be made with the help of pictures taken of the unmasked agitated youth by TV cameras and media photographers. The entire affair could have ended there and then. But it did not. The Interior Ministry announced a “generous reward” for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those who took part in the riots. It also set up a special office to receive tip-offs from the public that might assist police inquiries. An op-ed in Manama’s Gulf Daily News told of rumors that “the riots were initiated by political groups unhappy with the reforms in Bahrain and which apparently see destruction as the quickest route to change.” This theme was echoed by a number of commentators in the government-controlled media. One voiced dismay that this is the gratitude the country’s leadership gets for “its willingness to listen” and for its promise “to walk the road of change in partnership with the people, but at a measured pace.” Another urged readers to learn from “the Brixton tragedy in London and the Rodney King rioting in Los Angeles,” proclaiming “law and order cannot and will not be held to ransom by a few trying to destroy the civilized fabric and economic structure” of Bahrain. Only a day after the riots, Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman branded those involved “saboteurs” and warned they would face the full force of the law, as there is “no place for such people in Bahraini society.” Interior Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa bin Hamad, who has held his portfolio since 1973, raised the stakes further by declaring the youngsters’ behavior “a crime against the nation and its people.” The riots, he said, were organized and deliberate acts by people intent on causing “chaos and harm to the security and stability which the country enjoys.” Such attitudes were echoed by several senior members of the ruling family known for their conservative and anti-reform views, and by a number of local media commentators who decried lawlessness among the population, the laxity of the authorities, and the absence of pre-emptive measures. Some even blamed the riots on the abrogation of the state security law by Sheikh Hamad before he declared himself king in February last year. Human rights groups were sufficiently alarmed to appeal to the authorities to “handle the issue with wisdom and transparency,” and not allow the riots to have a negative impact on democratic reforms or provoke “measures that would undermine human rights” and the gains made by the Bahraini people under the reform program. Opposition groups were also quick to dissociate themselves from the New Year’s Eve brawls, while calling for the root causes of the disturbances and the underlying social conditions to be investigated. Some demanded action to deal with the acute problems felt by young Bahrainis, including unemployment (which currently stands at 15 percent), discrimination, poverty, powerlessness and the lack of meaningful organized activities beyond football. Like the rest of the Arab region, Bahrain is a young country, with nearly half its native population under 21. Yet the government agency responsible for youth affairs is allocated less than 5 million Bahraini dinars ($ 18 .75 million) annually from a total budget of 675 million dinars (while combined defense and security expenditure exceeded 231 million dinars, or 34 percent of the state budget, in 2002). While his uncle and cousins were promising crackdowns and accusing opposition groups of instigating the “riots,” Sheikh Hamad was left with the task of mopping up the mess. First, he flew to Riyadh, where he publicly apologized to King Fahd, Crown Prince Abdullah and the Saudi people for the distress caused to those Saudis caught up in the New Year rioting in Bahrain. Second, he ordered the government to compensate victims for their losses, reversing an earlier decision. More significantly, he sought to put an end to speculation that the riots were organized by political opposition groups or had a sectarian character. He wisely commanded “all concerned” not to inflate the New Year’s Eve disturbances into more than what they were. For all the prudence shown by Sheikh Hamad, the aftermath of that noisy Dec. 31 has shown Bahrainis how fragile the political reform process is, and how fractious the relationship between his camp within the ruling family and that of his uncle, the prime minister. Their two-year-old co-habitation is becoming counterproductive, even dangerous. The king may have saved the day for now, but Sheikh Khalifa, with over 30 years’ experience at the helm, can show him and his supporters that introducing political reforms is not just a matter of will. Abdulhadi Khalaf is a Bahraini academic who teaches Sociology of Development at the University of Lund, Sweden. He wrote

this commentary for The Daily Star

Government incompetence exposed by Exhibition Road events The Exhibition Avenue New Year events have many dimensions that indicate the true animosity with which the regime approaches the people of Bahrain . The events developed to an alarming degree despite the presence of the security forces in the vicinity of the area. Eye witnesses insist that there was an unprecedented number of security forces in the area soon after the sunset. These forces did not take proper action to control the situation before it developed further to inflict harm on individuals and private properties along the avenue. A number of people also made several telephone calls to the nearby police station. The callers were either told that a police force would come to the site or that the police had no instructions to interfere into the situation. The official media attempted to implicate the opposition groups and figures in the incident. Many of the leading articles and editorials directly or indirectly accused the opposition of undermining the relative stability of the country and instigating the events. It was not a surprise to observers that a government-controlled media makes such accusations even before any inquiry is made to explore the dimensions of the events and their real causes. The interrogation of those arrested also raises suspicion. A number of the detainees confirmed that they were questioned about issues that are not relevant to the events of the Exhibition Avenue. Theu were interrogated about their relationships with previous political detainees, their views of the return of the notorious torturer Adel Falifel and their sectarian affiliation. The subsequent attempts by the government to organise a demonstration in Muharraq to denounce the events and accuse some opposition figures was foiled by the awareness of the people. Some pro-government politicians and old guard officials have called for a stronger grip to be imposed, thus paving the way for the return of the notorious state security law. There are numerous indications of the role the ministry of interior played in creating a suitable environment for these incidents by relaxing the security situation and allowing the events to get worse. The ministry of interior bears the full responsibility what happened during the New Year’s Eve. The media should have realized that their premature judgment, sectarian approach and unfounded accusations of the political groups are totally rejected by all figures and groups in Bahrain. The government failed to shoulder the blame for its incompetence on others. It has failed to get down to the roots of the problems and address the real issues behind such events rather than view them form a security perspective only. The old guards are playing with fire as they see their fortunes waning. They have failed this time as they have done before. God is with the people of this troubled country. Bahrain Freedom Movement

17th January 2003

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