North Africa, West Asia

Bahrain’s uprising: resistance and repression in the Gulf

A review of an interdisciplinary book exploring both the contemporary uprising and Bahrain’s lengthy history of contentious politics, exploring postcolonialism, foreign actors, human rights, and social media.

Marc Owen Jones
30 September 2015
beyond squares


Arafat Alkhalaf/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Bahrain’s Uprising: Resistance and Repression in the Gulf is the culmination of four years of work by various authors from different backgrounds, including academia, the arts, politics, and education. The diverse selection of contributors was designed to capture how the uprising was interpreted by Bahrainis or those drawn to ‘Bahrain’ for whatever reason. Rather than solely adopting a postcolonial, political economy or sectarianism-centred approach, (all popular in studying the Gulf), we thought resistance and repression would work as a more appropriate lens to explore both the contemporary uprising and Bahrain’s lengthy history of contentious politics.

By having this concept driven approach, we could use different disciplinary angles and methods, ranging from historical analysis, to cultural studies and ethnographies. It was important to include authors who had experienced the uprising in different ways, yet who were ultimately driven by a concern for social justice. Here we want to touch on a few elements of the uprising which reflect this concern with social justice, resistance and repression, including postcolonialism, foreign actors, human rights, and social media.

Postcolonialism and foreign patrons

Inevitably, aspects of colonialism and postcolonialism play an important part in this. Allow me to digress somewhat. Back in 2011, I recall a very defensive member of the Foreign Office lambasting a young intern at the think tank Chatham House. The intern had said, in a rather offhand manner, that the British had long been propping up the Al Khalifa regime. The FCO employee took grave offence to this, and began to eviscerate the young intern (figuratively, of course). The room fell into awkward silence. When I think back to that moment, I feel that had I handed the intern this book, she would have had some solid ammunition with which to assail the FCO employee. Indeed, one of the book’s main strengths is the detail it provides not only on the extent of British political, economic, and security support to Bahrain, but also Britain’s role in shaping institutions, and particularly the security apparatus. Without a doubt, British support has frequently been a crucial factor in allowing the oppressive Al Khalifa regime to continue, and this book details that fairly forensically. It also documents formally for the first time, in book form, the personal role played by British agents in brutalising Bahraini detainees, or aiding and abetting a culture of impunity.

We did not, however, want to embark on a postcolonial polemic and I like to think we have remained critical without resorting to the facile or occidentalist. We note, for example, that despite the institutionalisation of Al Khalifa rule through British protection, it was British-led reforms that had, for a while, tempered the brutal excesses of the Al Khalifa regime, which had hitherto tyrannised the indigenous Baharna population. Post-independence, British control diminished. Bahrain’s independence and subsequent recolonisation by Saudi Arabia have had an enabling effect. That, coupled with the Iran-Iraq war seemed to result in a ‘culture of revenge’, whereby the Al Khalifa regime, untempered by restraint and galvanised by Saudi reactionism, reasserted their feudal dominance over the indigenous Baharna population. With the Saudis conducting the type of imperial intervention previously reserved for the British, the latter have undertaken a more surreptitious, neo-colonial form of influence. The British, for their part, are happy to supply weapons, police training, PR, and crucially, legitimacy in the eyes of the international community to the Bahraini regime. As Rosemary Hollis said, the British went out the door and came in through the window.

Ultimately though, this book really stresses how the ambitions and foreign policy objectives of foreign powers have often characterised internal repression and resistance in the country. Bahrain, trapped between the two hegemons of Saudi and Iran, and geopolitically important for the US and UK, cannot be an independent actor in the local or global stage. A British and American military presence equates to transatlantic support for the authoritarian status quo, while Saudi boots on the ground virtually guarantee that even armed insurrection would have little effect on the incumbent order. Coupled with this, foreign companies and states, from Korea to France, benefit from selling weapons, spyware, and other products to Bahrain. After all, repression is big business, but what is important here is looking at both repression and resistance as less a state-led affair, and more a phenomenon involving multiple regional and international actors and interests. Donatella della Porta once talked about the policing of transnational protest, yet in Bahrain, we can clearly see the development to transnational repression of local protest, and transnational protest over local issues.

Social media, propaganda, and surveillance

The British, the Saudis, and the Americans have, in their various ways, helped to control dissent, be it in the form of simply acting as a deterrent, to actually putting boots on the ground. Yet this volume expands concepts of repression and control beyond simply coercive violence. British and American PR companies have, for example, led the way in laundering the reputation of the Bahraini government, an aspect explored by myself and by John Horne in the book. These private enterprises, often run (particularly in the case of the UK), by British establishment figures or ex-military men, have attempted to absolve the Bahraini government, deflecting criticism using various lines of debate. In addition to this, European companies like Gamma International sell spyware that thrives in social media, infecting the computers of Bahraini dissidents or those who are critical of the regime.

The book is an attempt to make the ‘forgotten uprising’ less forgotten.

Unsurprisingly then, the book also problematises the technological utopian position that places social media as a tool of democratic emancipation. While social media has been an important outlet for the opposition, it was also manipulated by pro-status quo forces as an effective tool of surveillance, sectarianism, and intimidation. The book’s chapter on social media stresses that social constructivism and technological determinism are not mutually exclusive, and reveals how high internet penetration rates and large social media take-up, combined with Bahrain’s small size, facilitated witch hunts and peer-to-peer surveillance through Twitter and Facebook. So pervasive was the problem, that at least one Bahraini internet troll was found to have broken international law.

That is not to say it is all cynical. Amal Khalaf notes the importance of social media in recreating sites and spaces of memory, noting how it enabled protesters to affirm the symbolic power of Lulu long after it had been destroyed. In this sense, the symbiosis of physical and digital sites of contestation complemented each other to create and affirm the most potent symbol of the uprising—Lulu. In this case, social media provided forms of counter memory that challenged the homogenising and monolithic narratives of the government, whose destruction of Lulu was a flawed attempt at eliminating the collective memory of the uprising. On a similar note, John Horne talks of how creative resistance and symbolic representations of torture on social media elicit more sympathy than the often grisly and highly shared videos of state brutality that were so commonplace. The connectedness afforded by social media also allowed the international community to bear witness to the state-led repression. Perhaps this last point is a truism of any uprising, but in Bahrain's case, with its limited sovereignty, grabbing the attention of international actors was especially important.

Human rights and the human angle

The book also charts the history of contentious politics in Bahrain. In particular, it examines how the recent uprising, more so than any other in Bahrain’s history, has led to a proliferation of national and international human rights organisations focused on Bahrain. Yet paradoxically, this discourse of human rights, which can bind young and old local actors together and serve as a language that resonates with international players, can also be adopted, appropriated, and manipulated by the regime to legitimise their position. Despite its mass appeal, human rights discourse tends to focus on the outcomes of repressive state actions that derive from a political system that is inherently corrupt, discriminatory, and cronyist. In terms of a political solution and language, it does not necessarily challenge the systemic problem, and tends to draw attention to symptoms, rather than find a cure. Indeed, despite its merits, the human rights turn in Bahrain's contentious politics is problematic, and the regime, as part of their attempt to “upgrade authoritarianism”, as Steve Heydemann calls it, now position themselves as a bulwark against extremism, protecting the human rights of a population fearful of 'backward' Shi’a expansionism.

As well as exploring the human rights phenomenon in the Bahrain uprising, we did not want to forget the human experience of the uprising. Too much analysis can unhinge the acute emotional power of people's lived experience. In order to capture this more visceral sense of the uprising, we have included an eyewitness account, a story of a real event, and a high court testimony. This is in section one of the book, titled 'Voices of the condemned'. Ali al-Jallawi, one of Bahrain’s best writers, retells his experience of torture and imprisonment with wry humour and subtle wit, conveying the darkness of the experience with powerful understatement as only a writer could. Ebrahim Sharif’s testimony—undeterred by his brutal torture—in front of the high court of appeal is also included; an eloquent, dignified and damning indictment that sums up the grievances felt by a large swathe of Bahrain’s opposition. Tony Mitchell, an Australian expat, gives a moving account about how witnessing the uprising made him realise the extent of government propaganda. It also forced him to confront the ethical situation of certain classes of expats in the Gulf, who are usually expected to be politically acquiescent in exchange for a good job and a tax-free salary.

The forgotten uprising

Bahrain is a tragic case, yet its importance has been swallowed up by the tragedies elsewhere in the Middle East. This is particularly true of places like Syria, where the scale of the tragedy beggars belief. Yet what makes Bahrain so sad is not necessarily the fact that news channels were too busy, for example, to cover it, but the deliberate process of obfuscation and propaganda designed to legitimise the government’s violence, much of this coming from transatlantic PR companies or legal firms. European and US media have condemned the repression of the majority of the other Arab uprisings, but on Bahrain, many have been muted. For this reason, it is easy for people to be more despondent and cynical about a place where there appears to be an overwhelming coalition opposing political change. It's not so much that it was forgotten; the real tragedy lies in why it was forgotten.

Bahrain’s Uprising is an attempt to make the ‘forgotten uprising’ less forgotten. By combining analysis, storytelling, and narratives of the uprising, we think we have created a volume that offers an intellectual and emotional depth to understanding the context of Bahrain’s struggle. Academically, it certainly captures the benefits of doing case studies, and highlights how both repression and resistance are hugely influenced by multiple factors, including cultural milieu, historic learning and even a country’s sovereignty. It is, as we acknowledge in the introduction, far from complete, and we hope to do a second volume that deals too with gender and migrant workers, aspects still under-examined and overlooked in Bahrain. In the meantime, those interested in propaganda, social media, social movements, visual cultures, identity politics, history, and storytelling should all find something of interest in Bahrain's Uprising.

Bahrain’s Uprising: Resistance and Repression in the Gulf (Zed Books, 2015). Editors: Marc Owen Jones, Ala’a Shehabi. Contributors: Amal Khalaf, Ala’a Shehabi, John Horne, Zoe Holman, Tony Mitchell, Abdulhadi Khalaf, Ebrahim Sharif, Ali Al-Jallawi, Ayesha Saldanha.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData