At the Arab Free Press Forum, a conference hosted by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) at the Ramada Hotel in Gammarth, Bahraini pro-democracy activists Nabeel Rajab and Khalid Ibrahim spoke with Tunisia Live extensively about the situation in Bahrain.
Nabeel Rajab is the President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights – a human rights organization banned by Bahrain’s government since 2004 and a member of International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX). Rajab is also a member of the Advisory Committee of the Middle East Division of Human Rights Watch.
Khalid Ibrahim is a human rights activist and the Deputy Director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights. Most recently, Nabeel Rajab and Khalid Ibrahim participated in an international fact finding mission, which was carried out between November 20-30, 2011, to better understand the state of free expression and the status of human rights defenders in Bahrain. The mission drafted a report titled, “Justice Denied in Bahrain: Freedom of Expression and Assembly Curtailed,” officially released today, January 24, 2011, in Tunis and London. The report calls for 11 primary recommendations to address human rights abuses occurring in Bahrain.
The activists discussed with Tunisia Live the role Tunisia played in jump-starting protests in Bahrain, the role of sectarian differences in Bahrain, and the future of the opposition movement.
Tunisia Live (TL): The six member fact finding mission calls upon the Bahraini government and its allies to push for political reforms. How does Tunisia play into the Bahraini effort for reform?
Nabeel Rajab (NR): We are looking at Tunisia as a model of democracy so that we can succeed. We want to adopt the same model. Our hands are on our hearts as we watch the Tunisians develop a sustainable process towards democracy. We’re looking to see greater involvement from Tunisian activists and civil society in the Bahraini struggle. All Bahraini activists saw the Tunisian revolution as their own – it was the first real revolution in the Arab world and we supported it wholeheartedly. It is a moral obligation toward Bahrainis to support the fight and struggle of Bahrain for justice.
TL: How do you expect the Tunisian government to respond to the Bahraini opposition movement?
NR: Well, we expect Ennahda [the Tunisian Islamist party who recently won a plurality of seats in the Constituent Assembly] to do something. We do not see the Tunisian government as we see the Algerian or Saudi government. We Bahrainis are sharing a lot with the people in power in Tunisia today. We share the morality, values, and the principles for which we have fought for many years. Because Tunisians succeeded so far, they are obliged to help us.
TL: Around late November, a statement was released saying that the Mabadi Human Rights Society met with the Ennahda political bureau and that Ennahda called the protests occurring in Bahrain in February and March 2011 “riotous acts of sabotage by sectarian elements.” Have you heard about this?
NR: That statement was made by the Bahraini government. It was the first time I had even heard about a human rights group named “Mabadi.” In fact, it was the first and last time I heard of the group. Further, we don’t think Ennahda would ever make such a statement, given that we shared the same struggle – fighting for justice and greater freedoms in our respective countries.
TL: How is the fate of Bahrain linked to Syria, Yemen, and Tunisia? Are they linked at all?
Khalid Ibrahim (KI): They are very related. Human rights have no borders and no barriers. The people of Bahrain are looking to Tunisia in particular and slowly moving to create a democracy following their model. We are witnessing an emerging democracy in Tunisia – the first of its kind in the Arab world. That will give people a lot of hope, and will allow us to learn a lot from them – from following a peaceful revolution to creating a democracy.
NR: We have a similar history of a ruling elite – a mafia – controlling all wealth and power in the country. While Tunisia has gotten rid of its Trabelsis, the Bahrainis are still in the process of doing so.
TL: Some claim that the sectarian differences in Bahrain complicate the context the Bahraini opposition is viewed in. How legitimate are these claims?
NR: Human rights values are guaranteed by international conventions – now, the only card the Bahraini government has is sectarianism. Other governments played the tribalism card, such as Gaddafi, others played the religion card. In Bahrain they used the polemic of Iranian and American politics – playing it up with the help of international PR firms by presenting the issue as inherently Sunni vs Shi’a. Shi’a are more marginalized in Bahraini society, so you see more of them in the Pearl Roundabout. The protesters are fighting for democracy and justice for everyone. There is not one single demand that exclusively benefits one sect.
KI: If you defend the rights of people, you cannot promote sectarianism. This is a contradiction with all of the opposition’s principles. The protesters, no matter where they come from, are fighting for the rights of all Bahrainis.
TL: In Tunisia, young and old alike depended on the internet to upload videos and photos to document the uprisings and attract international media attention. How do the Bahraini uprisings compare in internet accessibility and usage?
NR: We learned from the Tunisians how to use social media in our struggle. The government did not block Facebook and Twitter, and did not shut down the internet. However, they arrested all the activists using these channels – which was more dangerous. Hundreds of people were targeted and fired from jobs because of statements made online or even clicking the “Like” button on Facebook.
KI: A great question that arose from the Arab Spring was, ‘Could we use technology to have a peaceful revolution?’ As we can see now, we really could use all these tools to promote the basic principles of human rights and democracy. This is producing many positive outcomes in Egypt, for example, and other countries. In Bahrain, if you want to organize a meeting of any sort, you use Facebook and Twitter.
TL: The international mainstream media is accused of ignoring Bahrain – just as Tunisia was at the onset of its uprisings. What do you think it will take to bring the media spotlight back to Bahrain?
NR: We have a very different situation in Bahrain, and lots of complications arose that we were not expecting. We have seen very clearly the double standard of the media. We understand when the US and UK based media doesn’t speak about Bahrain, since their respective governments don’t. But why the Arab media? This is because of political complications. The Arab League is more or less controlled by the Saudis, and many of the Arab media outlets are owned by the royal family. This spells disaster for freedom of media and journalism in the region. Bahrainis are are victims of this double standard. All the talk about Bahrain comes from the noise created by activists, who are tirelessly working to raise awareness.
KI: This February 14th may force international and Arab media to report. I believe we will see a lot of reporting about Bahrain in the coming days.
TL: Do you think there will be a complete and total overthrow of the regime or will it be a slower implementation of reforms?
NR: On February 14th, 2011, the demonstrators were demanding more freedoms, but they didn’t want to overthrow the government. However, when the king invited troops from Saudi Arabia and brought mercenaries from Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan and started killing more people – part of the opposition said we cannot live with the ruling family anymore because of the intolerable situation. Still, some of the opposition, especially those outside of jail, say they want reforms.
TL: What is the next step for Bahrain after February 14th, 2012?
NR: No matter what happens, we will continue the struggle. We will never go back – no matter what we lose. We believe in our goal – justice -and have already paid a high price for this principle. We cannot ever go back home without achieving our goal.
KI: We are not fortune tellers, but we know for sure that people will continue defending their rights for prosperity and respect for their human rights. I am sure that Bahrainis will accept nothing less than that.