PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
We don’t hear very much reporting about Bahrain in mainstream media news, but that’s not because political repression has gotten any less. Now joining us to talk about his findings in Bahrain is journalist Reese Ehrlich. He’s the author of the book Conversation with Terrorists: Middle East Leaders on Politics, Violence, and Empire. He’s a longtime foreign correspondent who’s covered the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Iran for more than 40 years. And he recently received a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for his reporting from Bahrain. And he just got back from Bahrain a couple of weeks ago.
Thanks for joining us, Reese.
REESE EHRLICH, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: My pleasure, Paul.
JAY: So what did you find there? You know, we don’tâ€”there’s sort of a sense, I think, in the Western media, with some exceptions, that sort of things have calmed down there, the repression’s not so intense.
EHRLICH: Well, one sign of how intense the repression is is that the government outlawed all demonstrations at the end of October. And well over 100 demonstrations have taken place since then anyway. And usually people gather in the smaller villages or on the roads leading into the capital of Manama, and then they’ll gather for, like, less than ten minutes, and the police will attack with tear gas, live ammunition, and other projectiles. The movement is alive and well, although not as strong as it was nearly two years ago.
JAY: It’s very difficult to be a journalist there, particularly if you’re Bahraini. What was your experience?
EHRLICH: The government considers journalists who report accurately on events there, or human rights advocates, to be agents of the enemy, and that’s Iran and terrorism and so on. So it’s extremely difficult for anybody trying to accurately report what’s going on. There are restrictions on foreign reporters. They’re not allowed to have visas. If they come in with tourist visas, sometimes they’re thrown out or otherwise not allowed to report. So part of the repressive apparatus is to limit press coverage.
JAY: Now, my understanding is there was a United Nations report on human rights violations in Bahrain. There were supposed to be some changes made. And I understand really it’s been more or less ignored. First of all, am I right about that? And if I am, what’s the posture of the United States towards all of this?
EHRLICH: It wasn’t a UN report, but it was a prestigious external report by Egyptian and other experts from the region. It was called the BICI, or Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. And it validated virtually all of the complaints of the opposition and was very strongly critical of the government.
The government was kind of reeling from this report. I don’t think they expected it to be as critical as it was. But they tried to co-opt it by saying they’re taking steps to make changes, they’re rehiring workers who were fired during the general strike, they’re making changes in the parliament, etc. But as far as the opposition is concerned, they’ve either done nothing or it’s too little.
JAY: And what did you either witness there or find out through your own investigations in terms of the current state of things?
EHRLICH: Well, I went out to Muhazza villageâ€”and I documented this in a video that I didâ€”where there’s checkpoints during the day and raids late into the night. The crime of the villagers is that they’re continuing to hold regular demonstrations, which are banned, as I said, by the government.
So rather than try to go after the demonstration leaders as such, they’re, according to the villagers, engaging in collective punishment. And that means that people who are sleeping at night who had nothing to do with demonstrations, they’re rousted, their doors are broken in, their windows are broken. And it’s an attempt to intimidate everyone in the village so it’ll put pressure on the people who are holding the demonstrations to stop. But so far it hasn’t worked.
JAY: Now, a lot of the Western media portrays this as a fight between Shia and Sunni, and the Shia are really just extensions of Iranian policy. And that’s certainly the way Bahraini king and regime play it, and to a large extent the American government. What did you find?
EHRLICH: The opposition isâ€”very strongly expresses itself that it is not Shia versus Sunni. The country is about 70 percent Shia, 30 percent Sunni. The poorest people in the country tend to be the Shia. And the government is definitely a Sunni royal monarchy going back hundreds of years. So there’s no question that that’s an element in it. But the opposition stresses that they welcome alliances and feel that there are Shia who are part of the opposition.
The government basically tries to use Iran as the Bogeyman, much like, say, communism was used in the old days, that the opposition movement is not legitimate, it’s really controlled by outside forces, they want to impose a Islamic dictatorship like they have in Iran, and therefore you have to side with the king, because the opposition is much much worse. And even if the king is repressing people and not very democratic, he’s the only hope you’ve got. That’s their argument. And a lot of Bahrainis are not buying it. Some do. Some side with the monarchy and fearâ€”believe the arguments by the government that it’sâ€”Iranians are going to be coming in to rule their country, and they back the monarchy as a result.
JAY: Now, what signs, if any, did you see of the Saudis? We know the Saudis intervened at one of the high points of the protest movement to support the Bahraini king. Also we know the U.S. has a massive naval base there. Is there any sign of either the Saudis or the Americans in all of this?
EHRLICH: Well, you can’t miss the Americans. There’s the headquarters of the Fifth Fleet there.
The Saudi troops came in March of last year when the uprising was reaching a crescendo and there was a real fear by the monarchy that they would be overthrown and a parliamentary system brought in to replace them. So the 1,500 or so Saudi troops came in, and they claimed they were not involved in the fighting, although there’s credible reports that they were in places doing guard duty and otherwise not simply sitting around. They have reduced the numbers. The government doesn’t reveal by how many. But there is now a base of Gulf Cooperation Council, which is Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. But it’s mostly Saudi troops who are now permanently stationed with some unknown number of soldiers in Bahrain.
JAY: In a recent interview we did with a Bahraini journalist, she was saying she thought the situation was actually far more explosive than it’s been even in the past, where the protests were very big, that people have really had enough. Did you get a sense of that?
EHRLICH: Yeah. I think it’sâ€”you know, it’s very hard to know with the mass movements and very fierce repression. But just in the last couple of weeks, there have been much bigger demonstrations. The anger is always there, just as, by the way, the anger is in Iran and Syria and all over the region. People don’t like repressive governments. But the fact that they were able to turn out, oh, easily tens of thousands of people just in the last week or two, and on the road leading into Manama, is a sign that the movement is picking up steam again. And the government’s doing everything it can. It’s, like, took away citizenship of 31 leaders, it jails people, it tortures people. None of it seems to be working, and if anything the movement seems to be picking up again.
JAY: Is there any sense that the Bahraini army, that it might split on these issues? I mean, is that one of the reasons they brought the Saudis inâ€”they didn’t trust their own army?
EHRLICH: It’s difficult. One of the ways that their government plays divide and rule is by keeping the army and the police, certainly at the upper ranks, almost entirely Sunni. And they’ve also recruited Sunnis from Pakistan, from Syria, from other countries, from other Muslim countries, as a way to maintain that divide-and-rule tactic. So the army feels beholden to the king, particularly the foreign recruitsâ€”who, by the way, are then given preferential treatment to become citizens to try to change the balance of Sunni and Shia in the country. So, so far we haven’t seen significant defections or splits within the military. But as is the case with Libya and Egypt and Tunisia, when the pressure builds up, who knows what might happen?
JAY: Right. Alright. We’re going to, obviously, continue to follow the story from Bahrain. Thanks very much for joining us today, Reese.
EHRLICH: Thank you for having me.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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