Ali Abdulemam is a Bahraini blogger whoseBahrain Online Forum was blocked in his country. For his activism, Abdulemam was imprisoned in 2010 and tortured. In an attempt to calm the protesters of the February 14 movements, the Bahraini regime released Abdulemam. He immediately resumed his activism, calling for the end of the regime during the 2011 Pearl Roundabout protests. When the Saudi-led forces of the “Peninsula Shield” invaded Bahrain, he went into hiding to avoid living the nightmare of imprisonment and torture once again. When tried in absentia, he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for “attempting to overthrow the regime.” Last May, Abdulemam arrived in London after being smuggled across the Bahraini-Saudi border. What follows is an interview with the activist on how he sees political developments and online activism in Bahrain.
Since you escaped from Bahrain, we have been reading heroic scenarios about you “gaining freedom.” Do you feel free?
To me, freedom does not mean exiting through that brown door that I was trapped behind during my time in hiding. Freedom has a more complex definition: to be able to object; to oppose; to think and move freely; and to be myself and not someone else. I could have been free in Bahrain, with a comfortable job, but I would not have been myself. I would be the person that the regime wants me to be and the person that the economic, political, and media elites want me to be. I, however, do not feel free because Al Saud occupies my country, and the regime—with regional and global support—has conspired against its people. My real freedom would come when Bahrainis have the freedom and ability to make their own decisions.
Did you engage in anonymous political activities through the Internet when in hiding? How did you follow political developments?
I cannot give details on my time in hiding because I do not want to risk those who made every effort to protect me. It is not the right time for that. I can tell you that political developments came close to my expectations as my faith in the youth, and their ability to generate change, increased daily. The youth are different and the old forces will not realize this difference until they recognize what the young can do. They did not expect the youth to revolt, but the youth did. They did not expect the youth to return to the Pearl Roundabout, but they did. They did not expect the marches of al-Diwan and al-Safariyya, yet they did, and in huge numbers. For this and more, I am more convinced than ever that those young Bahrainis are the last hope to end our enslavement.
You have experienced torture and imprisonment as well as received a fifteen-year prison sentence that forced you into hiding for two years. Do you think the sacrifices of Bahrainis will lead to a victory against the Gulf-West alliance with the regime?
I do not doubt for a moment that victory will be the outcome. The question is not whether we will win, but rather when and how powerful this victory will be. We already won when we exposed the Gulf-West alliance. Western states do not have answers for their citizens and the press for their support for the authoritarian Bahraini regime or their silence regarding its various violations. They continue to avoid such questions when it comes to Bahrain. The media has also failed us; everyone has failed us. We exposed all those who have supported the Bahraini regime and that is a victory in itself. Some sided with humanity, some with their sects, and others with Saudi money. History always sides with the people in the end. This is the case in both east and west, so why not in the middle too!
Western states continue to support and arm Arab regimes against their peoples. What do you demand and expect of them?
Those regimes are hypocritical and have double standards. They see us as half humans who do not deserve the same rights they do, such as human dignity, elected parliaments and governments, a free press, an independent judiciary, security, and equality. Those are all essential things for a civilized society, yet we do not have them, and the Gulf-West alliance does not want us to have them. They think we are less human than they are. The only thing I demand is for them to end their support for authoritarian regimes, to stand with other human beings, and to stop dealing with us as less than human.
Sectarianism is a weapon in the regime’s hands. How can it be stripped of this weapon?
The regime has tried its best to employ sectarianism in the past, but it only succeeded when Saudi money entered the equation in Bahrain. I still have faith that the young generation will be aware enough not to fall for these regional schemes that attempt to distract them with trivial sectarian matters in order to cover up the poverty and corruption that are prevalent in the country. How does my neighbor’s religion or sect benefit me when I do not own a house or have access to healthcare, and theft occurs daily and in broad daylight?
Do you think that online political activism has reached a dead end, with the flood of information and voices and with political and humanitarian violations becoming a mundane and normalized part of daily life?
Can’t we see that as a sign of how determined the youth are? Of how much hope and perseverance they have to achieve their demands—something I do not see in most Arab countries in revolt. These things often referred to as “routine” are concomitant with great and effective knowledge that increases the determination of the youth and their urgency to achieve change. The youth do not bare responsibility for the dead end you mention. After all, they took exceptional and impressive steps in their struggle.
I do agree with you that online activism alone will not accomplish the change that the young are trying to achieve, but without it, change would be difficult. The bulk of the work and the struggle is on the ground. In hindsight, no one complains that the years of struggle during the French revolution or the various resistance movements in South America were too long. What matters in the end is to achieve victory and justice for the people.
We have known you as a blogger who challenged the state with your Internet activism and helped open a space for popular expression through the Bahrain Online Forum. Will you continue on this path, or are you forced to now become a human rights activist?
I think I have reached an age that might make it difficult for me to understand the new generation that expresses itself through online forums. They need people closer to their own age to understand them. Age played a central role in making the forum successful at the time it started. Times have changed and I have to recognize the emergence of a new generation. I think I will continue to support free speech and Internet freedom in the region and will work on several projects that support the people of Bahrain.
What do you think are the next steps that political activists in Bahrain should take?
I am not in a position to give advice to the Bahraini youth; they know better than me what they should be doing. What is certain and rather obvious is the fact that whoever achieves half a revolution and then stops is committing suicide. This is clear to the young. They are almost there and it is a matter of who will persevere longer. I know our youth will not be the first to be defeated in this clash. They have hope and dignity that has impressed everyone. They are undefeatable and if the regime had actually loved Bahrain, they would have invested in those young Bahrainis, instead of fighting them.
* Published in Jadaliyya