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London-based newsletter “Middle East Mirror”, issue dated 14 October 1997

Title: Bahraini dissidents say they want reforms, not the Al Khalifas’ head

[In interviews with al-Mushahid Assiyasi, leaders of Bahrain’s Shiite lslamist opposition deny being Iran ‘s stooges and join representatives of the nationalist opposition in dissociating themselves from violence]

Exiled Bahraini dissidents have denied that they seek to topple; the island state’s Al Khalifa ruling family, insisting that they are merely demanding political and economic reforms chiefly the reinstatement of parliament disbanded in 1975, the release of political prisoners and the repatriation of deportees.

Two of them who belong to Bahrain’s majority Shiite Moslern community, also dismissed suggestions that they aimed at setting up an Iranian-style Shiite state in Bahrain or at returning the island state to “the motherland,” namely Iran.

The dissidents were interviewed at length by the BBC Arabic Service’s magazine al-Mushahid Asseyasi, which publishes their remarks in this week’s edition. They include Mansour al-Jamri and Shcikh Ali Salman of the London-based Bahrain Freedom Movement (BFM), the main Shiite Islamist opposition group, who are along eight exiled opposition activists Manama says it plans to try next month on charges of violating state security.

• TRIAL: Bahrain’s Sunnite Moslem-dominated government announced the upcoming trial earlier this month saying three of the eight dissidents have been charged with establishing an organization aimed at overthrowing the government by force, collaborating with another unnamed country, and accepting funds to carry out acts against Bahrain’s national interests.

The others were charged with spreading “rumors” to “disturb security,” Bahrain’s Gulf News Agency (GNA ) said, quoting the official gazette

GNA said the authorities had asked the exiled Bahrainis to appear for the trial, set in Bahrain for November 7. It said authorities plan to take “the necessary steps to summon the accused” and that the trial would be held in absentia if they did not return to Bahrain on time.

Salman, a Shiite cleric who flew to Britain in January 1995 after he was banished from Bahrain, told al-Mushahid Assiyasi interviewer Hamdan al-Assi he would be prepared to return to Bahrain if there were “legal and International guarantees” for a fair trial. Salman’s arrest in December 1994 sparked street protests in Bahrain which marked the beginning of the anti-government unrest that has erupted sporadically since and involved bombings and arson attacks.

The Bahraini government has cracked down severely on the protesters and portrayed them as foreign-manipulated saboteurs. In June last year, it openly accused Iran of backing a plot to topple the island state’s government by force and replace it with a pro-Iranian regime.

* NO PLOT: Mansour al-Jamri whose father Shcikh Abdel.Amir al-Jamri is the most prominent opposition leader jailed in Bahrain on charges of inciting unrest, told al-Mushahid Asseyasi the Bahraini government had failed to prove that there had been such an Iranian-backed plot.

The published confessions of those arrested in connection with the purported plot were so contradictory and implausible that they exposed the government, he said. In any event, “we denounce any Iranian or non-Iranian attempt to meddle in our affairs,” Jamri said.

Salman noted that the story of an Iranian plot died down after a few months and the government began to talk about a third country backing the Bahraini opposition. it’s all too easy to blame a foreign country for one’s failures, he remarked.

Jamri brushed off the suggestion that Bahrain’s Shiites aspired to return their country to the fold of “the rnotherland,” i.e. Shiite-dominated Iran. “There isn’t one politician prepared to commit suicide and claim that he is demanding to return to the motherland” he said.

By speaking of an Iranian connections Jamri said, the government was trying to win Western support, virtually telling thc West that “we the local dictatorship in Bahrain, are better than people who might establish a regime similar to that in Iran.”

Moreover, Jamri said, the A1 Khalifas resort to attack as a means of defense because they suffer from an “inferiority complex” resulting from the fact that they do not originally hail from Bahrain. This explains why they encourage foreigners to reside in Bahrain while banishing the country’s natives.

[The Al Khalifas migrated from the Arabian Peninsula and have governed Bahrain since 1783].

“They shouldn’t be frightened,” Jamri said of Bahrain’s rulers. No one is thinking of driving them out of Bahrain, but nor should they expel natives from the country.

Salman disputed the contention that Bahrain’s lslamist movement did not emerge until after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeiny staged the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979.

As a matter of fact, he said, the Islamists entered the political arena via the short-lived parliament elected in 1973 and even a year earlier, when they set up a Shiite association that came to dominate Islamic social activities in Bahrain. As to the Sunnite Islamists, they have a total of four associations, one of which groups Moslem Brotherhood activists.

“We are proposing gradual change… which we hope will eventually lead to the development of the political system… I am not calling for a Shiite state in Bahrain; I am calling for an Arab 1slamic state” Salman said.

* SUNNlTE vs SHITTTE: Jamri said it was not true that Bahrain’s Shiite opposition activists had lost the support of their Sunnite counterpart because of the “Iranian link.”

Prominent Sunnite figures associated with demands for political reforms had not withdrawn their support, “but the government complicates matters by striking at the Shiites. Thus it tells America and the West that Bahrain’s government is against the Shiites, meaning against Iran,” he said.

One of al-Mushahid Assiyasi’s other interviewees, Damascus-based Abdorrahman al-Nu’aimi, who serves as secretary-general of the leftist-nationalist Popular Front in Bahrain went further in accusing

Bahrain’ s rulers of playing the Sunnite-Shiite card, saying they were exporting the sectarian crisis” to other Gu1f Arab states.

The region’ s rulers were annoyed by the Bahraini government’s conduct, Nu’aimi claimed. When Saudi Arabians Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin-Abdelaziz proposed that the Bahraini government talk to its opponents, Crown Prime Sheikh Hamad bin-lssa Al Khalifa rushed to the kingdom to inquire about his remarks

“What the Bahrain government is doing endangers security and stability in the Gulf… They are exporting the sectarian crisis to everyone, Nu’aimi said.

“The Gulf region is now divided along Shiile-Sunnite lines as a result of the Bahraini government’s policy. In Abu Dhabi, they arrest citizens because they are Shiites from Bahrain… Who drove us to this point except the rule of Al Khalifa and the great general called Ian Henderson [the British security chief], the mercenary who came from Kenya to rule Bahrain since 1966?” ha said.

Nu’aimi charged that the Bahraini government treated its citizens “exactly like Israel treats the Palestinians.” There are more than 400 Bahraini deportees, he said, and he and his children had been stripped of their Bahraini passports.

“Bahrain’s ruling family does not deem citizenship to be a right. It deems it to be a gift from the emir,” Nu’aimi said.

• DEMANDS: Nu’aimi said a meeting was held in Britain between representatives of the Islamist, leftist and nationalist opposition and they had agreed on common demands, which boil down to what the people in Bahrain had demanded in a petition signed by 25,000 of them three years ago and calling on the Emir, Sheikh Issa bin-Salman Al Khalifa, to restore the constitution, reinstate parliament, allow the repatriation of deportees, release political prisoners, and solve the worsening problem of unemployment

These are very modest demands, Nu’aimi said. The claim that thc opposition is seeking to overthrow the regime is ludicrous. So long as Bahrain is part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) the Al Khalifas would continue to rule but there is a pressing need for political reforms, he argued.

Saif Ben-Ali, secretary-general of Bahrain’s National Liberation Front who is also based in Damascus and was interviewed by telephone from London, similarly denied any intention or seeking the overthrow of the ruling regime.

Ben-Ali said Islamist and nationalist opposition factions were demanding the reactivation of the constitution, the restoration of parliamentary life, the release of detainees and dialogue between the authorities and the peoples including the opposition.

Stressing that his group had never sought the overthrow of the regime he said: “We are demanding that thc government responds to the spirit of the age and the changes occurring in the world. Elections are taking place in Cambodia, Congo anal everywhere. We are demanding political reform to extricate the country from the political and economic crisis. Our movement is a peaceful one, our demands are public and we are against violence.”

• VIOLENCE: old treat thc government had accused some Shiite sides of being involved in arson attacks and other acts of violence, Ben-Ali conceded that violence had occurred, but he charged that it hall been started by the authorities

When People took to the streets in 1994, they were met by live ammunitions and the authorities started besieging villages and attacking property, he said.

“If the authorities cease their violence, the others would no longer have a justification [to commit vioIence]. When a citizens brother is killed or three or four of his relatives are imprisoned and his house is destroyed what do they expect of him? He is capable of doing anything, Bcn-Ali added.

Salman said the government had blown up arson attacks perpetrated by protesters, which were no more than “isolated” incidents which “we do not endorse,”

“Ours is a political movement, and we have specific demands. We don’t have weapons. 1 tell the state stop the torture… and let’s play politics”.

Jamri similarly dissociated the BFM from violence, claiming that arson attacks were committed by “foreign riot forces, made up of Pakistanis, Baluchis, Indians and Bangladeshis under British command. There are some from Arab countries, such as Yemen. And people’s reaction is to throw stones and other simple means of defense”.

 • INFLUENCE: Salman Said it was not exactly clear who among Bahrain’s rulers represented the “American line” and who represented the “British line,” but it was generally believed that Crown Prince Hamad bin-lssa was pro-American while Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin-Salman Al Khalifa, “who has been the effective ruler of the country for more than 20 years,” was pro-British.

 Jamri said the ruling family had forged external alliances designed to help it retain power and Washington and London were agreed on “dividing spheres of influence “.

 “We in the opposition only want to achieve the people’s demands. Hence we don’t deal with these matters,” he said.

 But Jamri said he did not think the government’s refusal to address the opposition’s demands was a result of foreign pressure

 “America, Britain or Saudi Arabia do not put pressure on Bahrain’s government not to respond to the people’s demands. On the contrary, there is pressure on the ruling family to respond to some of the opposition’s demands,” he said.

 Noting that Kuwait’s crown prince had urged Manama to deal with the opposition, Jamri said foreign governments wanted the ruling regime to retain powers. But if the Bahraini government stuck to its position, a more hard-line opposition would eventually emerge that would adopt an extremist attitude toward the ruling family, he warned.

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