Q&A: Newly released Bahraini activist Ali Abdulemam on Bahrain’s past and future

Ali Abdulemam is a prominent digital activist in Bahrain, recently released from prison in a move the government hopes will tame growing protests. The 30-year-old computer engineer established in 1998, which has flourished despite being blocked in the island nation since 2002.

He was released on 22 February after five months in custody, along with 25 other detained political prisonersfor the influential role his site played in galvanizing Bahraini opposition. He was previously imprisoned in 2005 for 17 days.

This time however, along with the joy of seeing his wife, his 14-month-old twin daughters and 5-year-old son, he saw Bahrainis gathering at capital city Manama's Pearl roundabout to freely voice opinions and complaints.

Al-Masry Al-Youm: What were the conditions of your arrest?

Ali Abdulemam: Friday 4 September 2010. I got an anonymous phone call from someone saying he’s with the security apparatus. He told me you are required to appear at 9PM at the National Security Apparatus. Of course, from that point that was a near blackout of information for the next five months. The interrogation that happened revolved around my online activity. I have a blog. I am an e-activist and I have a website for citizen media. It is so people can post news items, articles or videos themselves, without any censorship. The site has been blocked since 2002, but it is still largely active and functional. Then they took all my information but my friends were able to return the website again.

Al-Masry: Were you tortured?

Abdulemam: Yes, there were constant restraints and torture. There were beatings, insults, solitary confinement. For the first two months I was in solitary confinement. I didn’t talk or see anyone. Even when I went to the bathroom they covered my eyes so that I couldn’t even see any of the security. It was complete isolation. My entire time of interrogation I got a sense that the security personnel hate us. The hate speech that came out of their mouths wasn’t normal. One officer told me, I’ve been wanting to drink from your blood since the 90s. They very clearly hated us. When I was arrested some low-ranking officers at least treated me like a human being–this is a great thing about Bahrain, you’ll always find kind people who don’t care what sect you belong to or what you political views are. Others treated me like they wanted revenge.

Al-Masry: Did they hate you as a Shia or as a political prisoner?

Abdulemam: As a political activist. I am a liberal, I have nothing to do with Sunni and Shia matters. They hate anyone who is opposition, it doesn’t have as much to do with sectarianism. It is known that the majority of Shia are opposition, but there are Shia loyalists, and there are Sunni opposition. They hate whoever opposes the system.

Al-Masry: Were you ever formerly charged?

Abdulemam: They charged me a week after I was arrested. They accused me of being a member of a banned group that wants to overthrow the government, that wants to harm national unity and the ruling government. They accused me of being involved with a group I have never even heard of. I am not involved with any of the groups they accused me of belonging to.

Al-Masry: Are you involved with any political parties or groups?

Abdulemam: No, I am not a member of any political entity. I just have my electronic activism, and human rights activism.

Al-Masry: How long have you been active?

Abdulemam: In 1998, I opened a website in Bahrain for political news in Bahrain. Bahrain is very politically active, and it was the most frequented opposition website in Bahrain. It was shut down more than once.

Al-Masry: How many readers does it have?

Abdulemam: When I was arrested I had 50,000 members. Now I don’t know about the membership, but the site has between 300,000 and 400,000 visitors a day. 70 percent of these are from Bahrain, 12 percent from the Gulf region, and the rest mainly from the US and Europe.

Al-Masry: What was your reaction when seeing Pearl roundabout for the first time?

Abdulemam: I was shocked to be honest. Not by how it all looked–I went to Lebanon so I knew how it would look. The shock was … when I got out of prison I came straight here [to Pearl roundabout]. I didn’t go see my family first, I came here … I am proud to be a part of this population. This revolution, we wanted it to happen since we were kids. To the point where in the end we lost hope and thought it wouldn’t happen. When it happened though, it renewed our faith in people again.

Al-Masry: Why did Bahrain need this?

Abdulemam: The situation here is the same as in other places in the Arab world. There is similar anger and disillusionment. The ruling strata enjoy the same unjust advantages in distribution of wealth in the country. We have no freedom of expression or belief. If you are a liberal under this government, they manipulate religion against you, for example. The revolution that is going on is the result of the compound effect of all of these, and added to it improper economic development.

In Bahrain we also have specific problems. One sect is give unfair advantages over another. Naturalization is another problem–why is a country with such limited resources enticing all of this naturalization? Our local politics are also being consumed by the politics of other regional countries. We have the same anger as Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. We also all share a desire to live in freedom and dignity. All of these are causes for the revolution.

Al-Masry: What do you think will or should happen here?

Abdulemam: What should happen is that the regime should take serious steps to induce change and should respond well to the people’s demands. What I fear is likely to happen is that another round of violence will occur before the government is convinced that they need to make necessary changes and dialogue.

Al-Masry: Do you intend on getting into politics or continuing blogging?

Abdulemam: Politics is not my role. My role is social activism and electronic online work. I will get along with the blogging as well.

Al-Masry: What is the role of blogging and internet activism going to be like?

Abdulemam: After administering BahrainOnline for 12 years I feel how important it was for the country. I realize how harmful it was to the regime and what props it up. As evidence of that, they had a strong desire to arrest me and were very happy when they did arrest Ali Abdulemam. It was important for them that this website is shut up. So I really felt how important the website is and how important blogging is.

Al-Masry: Let’s say if the level of confidence you had in the government was two out of 10 before you were arrested, what do you say it is now?

Abdulemam: Negative! Incarceration changed me in certain ways, and made me revisit some of my ideas and thoughts. It did however make me more determined to continue fighting for the people and it made me more convinced that we deserve the rights that we are fighting for.

Al-Masry: Did Bahrain reach a point where a revolution is necessary, or do you think other channels could have been used to make the demands?

Abdulemam: If the ruling family was sane, they would’ve responded to the call for dialogue and change that has been on the table for more than 20 years. During this whole period that passed, almost all the religious, social and political groups has been calling for needed dialogue. There are problems in the country, people want to have a say in decision making.  They want a more equitable distribution of wealth. The government didn’t listen to anything.

This manifestation was needed so that the voice of the streets could reach the ruling party loud and clear. The desire to solve the country's problems was obviously not enough, so they needed to scream it out.

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