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Monday, December 4

Google Earth as a tool for democratic reform

The following article is crammed with instruction on several levels. The jaw dropper is the use that Bahrain’s democracy activists have made of Google Earth’s maps and satellite imagery. (I've bolded the relevant passages.)

It is mind-boggling to someone living in an advanced nation that the majority of another country's citizens don't even have an idea of how much land their country encompasses. That is another reason why we need to muster more patience when we look at our position in Iraq.

The article is also a warning on the need for the US to hack things out in Iraq and stick by the Bush Democracy Doctrine. While headlines in the US blare daily about the losing proposition for the US in Iraq, and self-proclaimed foreign policy ‘realists’ bail from a defense of democracy, Iraq’s democracy is seen as a singular achievement by the Middle Easterners who are struggling for more freedoms.

Also click on the Saudi Arabia link provided by The Washington Post and scroll to the heading Development of the Modern State for a crash course (or a refresher) on the shifting sands of Saudi alliances. The implications need to be kept in mind while analyzing the current situation in Iraq -- and Bahrain. The Saudis really don't like the idea of a Shiite Crescent.

As to how the election in Bahrain turned out, well -- worse than hoped for by the democracy activists but better than nothing. Naturally the Shiite opposition lost a bid to gain control of the parliament but they gained two seats during Saturday's runoff election.
In Bahrain, Democracy Activists Regret Easing of U.S. Pressure
By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 27, 2006; Page A16
MANAMA, Bahrain, Nov. 26 -- Bahrain's government has touted parliamentary elections here as a model for regional reform and a milestone for democracy. But critics say the polls are similar to those in many Arab countries: designed to give the appearance of democracy while maintaining the government's tight grip on power.

Although many countries in the region have introduced various degrees of political participation, from limited municipal councils in Saudi Arabia to spirited parliaments in Kuwait and Yemen, the reforms have consistently fallen short of the freedoms democracy activists have sought.

The Bush administration, which said several years ago that greater democracy in the Middle East was a cornerstone of its foreign policy, has recently tempered its demands.

Democracy activists say that with the absence of strong grass-roots movements, Western pressure is the only remaining option that could force totalitarian governments to give up some of their power.

"The dictatorships in the region are the real winners of the shift in U.S. policy," said Sulaiman al-Hattlan, editor of Forbes Arabia. "They are not serious about reform and only respond to international pressure. They can easily repress their populations because they have total control of all state apparatuses."

Voters went to the polls Saturday in Bahrain, a tiny Gulf country ruled by the Sunni Muslim al-Khalifa family. Bahrain is the poorest oil-producing country in the region and the only one with a Shiite majority. Shiites make up 60 percent of the country's population of 700,000.

The government did not allow international observers to monitor the elections and appointed local government-affiliated groups for the job. Officials said 72 percent of the 300,000 eligible voters cast ballots.

Bahrain's main opposition groups boycotted the 2002 elections, the first in three decades, because political parties were banned and the power of the assembly had been diluted by the creation of a more powerful upper house appointed by the king.
When elections were announced again last year, activists said they had to choose between being left out of the political system or working within it.

"There are no democracies in the Arab world, apart from Iraq," said Sheik Ali Salman, a cleric and head of the largest opposition group, al-Wefaq National Islamic Society. But the runaway violence in Iraq has given Arab governments an excuse to scale back on political reform, he added.

"Authoritarian leaders will use any excuse not to give up power if they don't have to," said Salman, the country's most influential political leader and one of 16 al-Wefaq candidates to have won seats in the next assembly.

At a recent rally, Salman told the thousands of people who had come to hear him speak that his participation in the elections did not mean that he had disengaged from political activism. He promised that al-Wefaq would work to revoke laws, passed by the previous pro-government assembly, that curtail press freedoms and civil liberties.

"How can you arrest people distributing leaflets in the year 2006?" he asked, referring to the recent detention of two activists from Haq, an opposition group that boycotted the elections. "We call for their release."

Abduljalil al-Singace, a university professor and head of Haq, said he had felt the sting of the U.S. "change of heart" in actively supporting democracy in the region. Singace has visited Washington five times in the past two years to lobby members of Congress to press the Bahraini government for more democracy. The reception on the Hill, he said, has grown colder and colder.

Singace said he believed that the country's rulers have used the enmity between the United States and Iran to their advantage. Because of Bahraini Shiites' historical religious and social ties with neighboring Iran, the United States "was convinced by the regime that empowering Shiites here means empowering Iran," he said.
Haq boycotted the elections, he said, because the parliament is ineffectual. "Even if you win a majority of seats in parliament, you can't make any changes," Singace said, leaning on crutches because of a disability caused by polio when he was a child. "Whether you're a rabbit or a lion, entering that parliament is like entering a cage."

Bills initiated by the elected assembly must be approved by the appointed upper house and by the king himself.

At a polling station set up at the Jid Hafs Girls' Middle School, Sayed Mahmood, a 24-year-old telecommunications student, waited more than an hour to vote, in lines that snaked over a hundred yards. In a refrain echoed by many young men here, Mahmood said one of the biggest problems in Bahrain was the unequal distribution of land and wealth.

Mahmood, who lives in a house with his parents, four siblings and their children, said he became even more frustrated when he looked up Bahrain on Google Earth and saw vast tracts of empty land, while tens of thousands of mainly poor Shiites were squashed together in small, dense areas.

"We are 17 people crowded in one small house, like many people in the southern district," he said. "And you see on Google how many palaces there are and how the al-Khalifas have the rest of the country to themselves."

Bahraini activists have encouraged people to take a look at the country on Google Earth, and they have set up a special user group whose members have access to more than 40 images of royal palaces.
[emphasis added]

At a demonstration last week, human rights activist Nabeel Rajab stood on a sidewalk as thousands of people, including clerics, women and students, streamed by carrying large banners.

The protesters marched near the Rass Ruman mosque here in the capital, demanding that Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, in office since the early 1970s, leave his post. "Enough, Khalifa. Step down, step down, step down Khalifa," the crowd chanted.

"If the international media weren't here, the riot police would have been beating the demonstrators," said Rajab, who has documented police assaults on activists, including himself.

Rajab heads the banned Bahrain Center for Human Rights, which was shut down and its Web site was blocked after the group issued reports documenting widespread poverty and discrimination in government jobs.

But the government has accused the opposition of exaggerating and has said it is openly criticizing the government with impunity. "In a dictatorship you can't speak. In a democracy you can speak," said Information Minister Mohammed Abdul Ghaffar Abdulla. "We are in the process of democratization, and we are strengthening this process day by day."

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