Bahrain embarrasses its friends (again)

Less than two weeks after attracting international derision by arresting four young men for "insulting" the king on Twitter, the government of Bahrain is digging itself into another hole – this time by imposing a blanket ban on demonstrations.

A statement from the interior minister said:

"Many Bahrainis are fed up with the violence and lawbreaking that occurs under the heading of 'protest' or 'rally'. Therefore, the government will take legal action to stop all unauthorised rallies until general peace and order returns. This is aimed at restoring national unity, repairing the social fabric and fighting extremism ...

"[Whoever] calls for an illegal rally or gathering, be it an individual or an organisation, will be held accountable for the criminal acts of violence and lawbreaking that occur at the event."

This also follows a mini-lecture from Bahrain's Information Affairs Authority (IAA) at the weekend in which it described freedom of expression as a "catch-phrase" used by activists who don't understand what they are talking about. 

The IAA was responding to an article by Brian Dooley of Human Rights First which began: 

"The Bahraini government seems to understand freedom of expression a bit like Lance Armstrongunderstands clean cycling. Like Lance, it prefers to play by its own rules and attack critics rather than accept normal standards."

Whether the ban on demonstrations will actually change much on the streets of Bahrain remains to be seen, since most protests in the kingdom are already illegal. A report in IBTimes says:

Activists and academics on Bahrain stress that over the past year there has been a de facto ban on protests.

A permit must be obtained by societies to protest – which the government has made it very difficult to obtain. Strict rules were put on place on what can be done during protests and what can and cannot be said.

"Protests permits are rarely granted in places that would make civil disobedience effective," Marc Owen Jones, member of monitoring and advocacy group Bahrain Watch, told IBTimes UK. "For example, they are prohibited in the nation's capital, Manama."

The main effect of announcing a blanket ban will be further damage to Bahrain's international reputation (a reputation that it has been seeking to improve by employing British and American PR companies).

Western governments, most notably the US and Britain, view Bahrain as a useful ally in the Gulf. Though not totally uncritical of the regime, they try to be "understanding" and accentuate the positive – urging it to press ahead with reform rather than directly condemning its behaviour.

A statement from British foreign secretary William Hague on 11 October after a meeting with the crown prince in London was typical of the usual tone:

"We ... had an open and honest exchange about political reform in Bahrain, which confirmed to me the Crown Prince’s personal commitment to an inclusive political dialogue. I welcomed the recent commitments made by Government of Bahrain last month at the Human Rights Council, in particular to consider ratifying the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, and encourage them to take this forward as soon as possible.

"Ahead of the anniversary of the report by the Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry, I stressed the importance of implementing its remaining recommendations and urged more progress on political dialogue. It also remains crucial for all political societies in Bahrain to enter into a constructive dialogue, without pre-conditions.

"To ensure the right climate for this, all sides need to condemn violence unequivocally and take steps to reduce tensions. I fully endorse the Crown Prince’s call for an end to the violence and for Bahrainis to unite together to ensure long-term peace and security, and I welcome the steps taken by the King of Bahrain to initiate political dialogue.

"The UK is ready, as a friend and ally of Bahrain, to assist the Bahraini authorities in this process, building on the support we are already giving on judicial reform."

In the light of the ban on demonstrations, and the earlier "Twitter arrests", though, it's becoming ever more difficult to keep up the official pretence that the regime is sincere about reform. Junior Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt seemed to be struggling not to sound ridiculous yesterday when he said:

"I am concerned that the government of Bahrain has decided to ban all rallies and public gatherings until further notice.

"We understand the government's concerns about maintaining law and order, especially when faced with increasingly violent protests, but a blanket ban of this nature is excessive. 

"Peaceful protest is a democratic right. I hope the Bahraini government will rescind this measure as quickly as possible. I also call on protesters to desist from violent protest. Violent acts should be condemned publicly by prominent members in society."

It's hard to imagine the British government using similar language about repressive measures in less UK-friendly countries.

Interestingly, news of the ban on demonstrations coincided with 
the Guardian's revelation that Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's former chief of staff, is working with Bahraini government and opposition figures to train them in "negotiation and conflict resolution techniques".

The Guardian says Powell, who now runs an NGO called InterMediate, "was asked to undertake the work when Bahrain approached the UK Foreign Office for help with implementing the recommendations of an independent report on the Gulf state's unrest last year".

The recruitment of Mr Powell looks like – and most probably is – a charade. The cause of Bahrain's problems is not a lack of "conflict resolution techniques" but a lack of will to sort them out. That goes to the very top. Progress will come either when the king decides to let it happen or is removed from his throne. In the meantime, there is no real prospect of reform apart from some tinkering around the edges.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 31 October 2012.