Bush Disappoints Bahrain

Bush Disappoints Bahrain

While President Bush was in Bahrain praising King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa as a democratic Arab leader and fellow freedom defender, I was receiving an e-mail from Ghada Jamsheer, a Bahraini woman who is one of the most courageous human rights activists in the Arab world. Her message contained a statement from her Women’s Petition Committee condemning alleged physical and verbal assaults by police on women demonstrators on Dec. 25. The mistreatment allegedly occurred outside the General Prosecutor’s Office as they sought to visit male relatives detained during recent political unrest.

Bush is going against some powerful local currents in lauding Bahrain as a democracy as well as in campaigning there to isolate Iran, the main reason he became the first American president ever to visit the small island nation. Bahrain has long been home to the U.S. 5th Fleet, which patrols the Gulf waters separating Arab states from Iran. A majority of Bahrainis are Shi’ite Muslims, who accuse the Sunni rulers of discrimination and maintain religious affinity with Iranians. The general feeling in Bahrain is that Hamad has failed to fulfill the hopes people initially put in him when he succeeded his father in 1999 and proceeded to reinstate Bahrain’s elected parliament and allow a new constitution to be adopted. His government has systematically clamped down on civil society groups and failed to address the huge imbalances and discrimination affecting Shi’ites. Human rights groups are now condemning a police sweep against activists in the wake of last month’s political unrest, which ignited after a protester was killed during a confrontation with police during a Martyr’s Day commemoration.

With so much happening around Bush’s visit, I called up Ghada to see how it was going:

SM: How do Bahrainis see President Bush’s visit?

Jamsheer: There are a lot of demonstrations. I didn’t participate, because I feel that until Bush started his democracy project, we could not talk in Bahrain. You know what I mean? After he started this, at least we could talk. There are still criminal courts [for dissidents], there is a lot of pressure and dirty games from the royal court against human rights activists, including me. But still, we now have a petite space, we can work in it, we can talk. So I am not against the visit of Bush to Bahrain. I am silent.

SM: What were the demonstrations about?

Jamsheer: They think now that Bush stopped supporting democracy and human rights in these countries, so they are angry. Also, people who are against Iran are happy about Bush’s visit, but some people who are with Iran are not happy. And some people, who are not this or that concerning Iran, are not happy because of what’s going on in Iraq, in Lebanon and in the Gulf.

SM: Why do people think Bush stopped supporting democracy?

Jamsheer: They think the democracy project is not serious. I am a woman activist, human rights defender. I hope I can see him and talk to him, but I am sure that this will never happen. He will come for one day and see the king and the prime minister and will not see us. But he should see us. He should talk to us, especially the human rights defenders, and see what we need and what we are facing. This is why the people are angry, they feel this project is not serious. Why is he supporting the government and why did he stop supporting human rights? He is saying he supports the presidents and the governments in the Arab countries. This is why people are angry. Why is he supporting these governments and leaving the human rights groups aside, when he knows these governments are corrupt? Why is he not putting pressure on these governments to push for human rights? One call from Bush to our king, “Do this, and don’t do that,” and they will do it. There is no pressure.

SM: Why do people think Bush is supporting Arab governments?

Jamsheer: Maybe because of the problem between the United States and Iran.

SM: Why haven’t things improved in Bahrain, like many people hoped?

Jamsheer: The people elected to parliament are the strictly religious Sunni people. The royal court cheated in the elections and brought them in. The royal court wants the strictly religious people because they want to run democracy out of this country. They want us to be slaves until the end of the world. People, whether they are Sunni or Shi’ite, don’t believe there is democracy in this country. I am not angry about Bush’s visit to Bahrain. He can visit us all the time. I am angry about the way the regime here in Bahrain treats us. They don’t want real human rights. They don’t want real women’s activists fighting for women’s rights. They want committees that the royal court appoints. GANGOs. Government-appointed Non-government organizations! In Bahrain, we are suffering. There are no rights for women.

SM: But hasn’t Bahrain made a lot of progress in women’s rights?

Jamsheer: They always compare our rights with Saudi women. They say, “Oh, but the Bahraini woman is driving her car, the Bahraini woman is working, the Bahraini woman doesn’t have to wear the hijab. So the Bahraini woman she is very, very happy!” What did the King give us? We have been driving cars since the 1960s. He said he gave us the right to vote. Who do we elect, if they are cheating in the elections? They are using us. What kind of democracy do we have? Ten women are sitting in the Shura Council [branch of parliament]. But they are sitting like statues there. What are they doing?