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Thursday, January 19, 2006

In tiny Arab state, Web takes on ruling elite

MANAMA, Bahrain--Ali Abdulemam, this country's most notorious blogger, sat in the boxlike reception room of his father's house in a cramped Shiite village dotted with raw cinder-block houses, trying to log onto the widely popular Web site that he founded.

The government on this flyspeck of an island nation, home to an American Navy base, recently renewed its effort to block dozens of opposition Web sites. So Abdulemam, 28, a computer engineer, had to spend about 10 minutes whipping through various computer servers around the world before finally pulling up his Web site, BahrainOnline.org.

It was National Day, Dec. 16, and some five miles away, the beautifully landscaped boulevards of Manama, the capital, were packed with revelers enjoying bands and fireworks. Pictures of the ruling princes blanketed the city, which was also awash in the national colors, red and white. Red and white lights were even wrapped around the palm trees lining the main thoroughfares.

But most of the couple of hundred people posting messages in the "National Forum" section of BahrainOnline mocked the idea of celebrating the day in 1971 when a Sunni Muslim king ascended the throne to rule over a Shiite Muslim majority.

"In Bahrain, glorifying the king means glorifying the nation, and opposing the king means betraying the homeland and working for foreign countries," wrote one online participant, noting that the formula is the mark of a dictatorship. "Should we be loyal to the king or to Bahrain?"

Bahrain, long a regional financial hub and a prime example of the power of the Internet to foment discontent, bills itself as a leader of political change in the Arab world. It is a claim echoed in praise from the United States, which considers Bahrain crucial for its many regional military ventures because the American Navy's Fifth Fleet is based here.

But in Bahrain, as across the Arab world, those pushing for democratic change want to end minority rule by a family, sect or a military clique.

The royal family here dominates, holding half the cabinet positions and the major posts in the security services and the University of Bahrain.

Sheik Muhammad al-Khalifa, the prince who runs the Economic Development Board, argues that Bahrain should not become a democracy in the Western sense. "As traditional Arabs, I don't think democracy is part of our nature," he said.

"I think all people want is accountability," he added, noting that some form of democracy was needed to achieve that.

So political change in the Middle East rests partly on whether and how the many minority governments will yield power and allow others to participate. So far, the results are anemic.

The al-Saud tribe slapped its name on the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where local elections a year ago have not produced active municipal councils, and crucial issues like how much oil wealth the ruling family absorbs are not discussed.

In Syria, the ruling Assad family and its confederates from the Alawite minority sect are in crisis, accused of assassinating Rafik Hariri, a former Sunni prime minister of Lebanon and an important figure who might have been able to rally majority support against the Alawites' monopoly on power.

Of course, Iraq remains the biggest experiment of all in changing the practice of minority rule. The American occupation has yet to answer whether it is possible to forge a democratic government in the Arab world, or if the attempt will drown in a cauldron of sectarian bloodshed. But the results are being closely watched, perhaps nowhere more than in Bahrain, where up to 70 percent of its native population of 450,000 are Shiites, similar to Iraq's Shiite-Sunni split. Shiites here also increasingly look to moderate religious leaders in Iraq for guidance.

Some political change has occurred. Debate is growing through the Internet, satellite television and other forces, and elections this year will replace the Parliament and municipal councils first chosen in 2002 under a new Constitution. Members of the ruling Khalifa family describe this as a vibrant process that will ultimately establish a local strain of democracy. Yet some of its most senior members and their Sunni allies hint that the process is threatened because Bahrain's Shiites disloyally serve outside interests like the Shiites in Iran and Iraq.

Members of the opposition call this nonsense and accuse the ruling dynasty of questioning their loyalty to avoid having to share power. They say King Hamad and his Khalifa clan, descendants of Bedouins from the Arabian mainland who conquered this island, taking it from its Persian masters in the 18th century, will only make cosmetic changes, noting that almost nothing has been done to alleviate the entrenched discrimination faced by the poorest segments of the Shiite population.

"The problem with the royal family is that when they give us any democracy they think that it is a gift and we have to thank them for it," Abdulemam said. "The time when they were the lords and we were the slaves is gone. The new generation is well educated. They won't live like our fathers did in the past, when they said O.K. to whatever the royal family did."

A 'golden time' cut short
Bahrain's first Parliament, elected in 1973, proved too boisterous for King Hamad's father, who dissolved it after 18 months. Opposition demands to restore it increased through the 1990's, marked by bombings and other sporadic violence. The authoritarian government subjected the mostly Shiite opposition political activists to arrest, torture and forced exile.

When King Hamad, now 55, inherited power in 1999, he promised a democracy that he described as "areeqa" or "well rooted."

He announced changes that included amnesty for exiles and the disbanding of the dreaded State Security Courts. Bahrainis enthusiastically approved the new plan in a public referendum.

It was then that Abdulemam established his groundbreaking Web site, determined to give Bahrainis a place to share ideas and develop plans to deepen political change. "It seemed like a golden time, when the country was moving from one period in its history to another," he said. "Everybody needed a place to talk so I provided it."

But King Hamad soon hit the brakes. In 2002 he announced a new Constitution, formulated without public consultation.

The cabinet, led by his uncle, a hard-liner opposing democratic change, would report to him, not the Parliament. Instead of a single 40-member Parliament, he added an appointed upper house. Amending the Constitution now required a two-thirds majority of both houses, giving the monarch full control. Parliament now could only propose laws, not write them. An audit bureau that had previously reported to Parliament was replaced with one that would not subject the spending of the royal court or the 2,500 royal family members to any public scrutiny.

"I had been full of hope that a new era was coming to Bahrain," Abdulemam said. "But what happened next threw us all in the dirt. When the king brought in the new Constitution, everyone was crushed."

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