In Bahrain, a Vital Moment for Liberal Arab Grassroots

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Human rights groups across the Arab world are rallying to the defense of Ali Abdulemam, an influential online journalist who has been imprisoned by the government of his native Bahrain, a tiny oil-rich nation on the Arabian peninsula. His arrest for spreading "false information" is widely seen as retaliation for his criticism of the government and part of a broader move in Bahrain to crack down on dissent. Middle Eastern journalists and advocacy groups, the informal leaders of the Arab liberal grassroots movement that has struggled to make itself heard in a region known for autocratic rulers and religious conservatism, now face the latest in a series of tests of their influence.

The conflict is escalating quickly, with the government responding to the pressure from activist groups by clamping down even harder. The Bahrain Human Rights Society reports that the government has seized the group and replaced its chief with a friendly "administrator." Arab human rights groups will probably not win this one on their own; they are simply unable to force the government, which is too authoritarian for civil society organizations to persuade or pressure, to release Abdulemam. As liberal Arab groups reach out to ideological counterparts in the West, such as Human Rights Watch, the U.S. faces an opportunity to make good on President Barack Obama's otherwise mixed Muslim outreach efforts.

As Middle Eastern journalists and advocacy groups (such as the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information) protest Bahrain's behavior and call for Abdulemam's release, the U.S.-based American Islamic Congress is working to get the U.S. involved. Civil Rights Outreach Director Nasser Weddady says the group, which has offices in Washington and Boston as well as Cairo and Basra, is working with U.S. State Department officials in the hopes that they will "issue clear statements demanding Bahrain frees Ali Abdulemam" and will "actively pressure Bahraini authorities" on civil liberties issues. "We are also talking to several Congressional leaders and asking them to issue statements in support of the US stated policy of supporting reformers and demand that Bahrain release Ali as a token of their friendship with the United States."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is unlikely to call for Abdulemam's release anytime soon for a number of reasons: because it would enrage the Bahraini government, which allows the U.S. to dock its strategically crucial Fifth Fleet in Bahrain's ports; because it would antagonize a number of important regional allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who are facing their own left-wing dissent, at a time when the U.S. needs their help in isolating Iran and encouraging Israel-Palestine peace; and because it risks undermining liberal Arab groups by making them overly reliant on U.S. help and marring them as American pawns.

However, a small nudge to Bahrain from a mid-level U.S. official, even after weeks or more of letting Middle East groups build pressure, could strengthen the liberal Arab movement while minimizing backlash. Clinton's State Department followed this model in Mauritania, where journalist Hanevy Ould Dahah was imprisoned for nine months, then released the day after the U.S. embassy issued a two-paragraph statement asking Mauritania to "respect due process." In the meantime, the best thing the U.S. can do is quietly direct international attention to the work of liberal Arab journalists and human rights advocates. Recognition legitimizes their work and their role in Middle Eastern society. Cooperation between those groups and their American counterparts strengthens the cultural bond between Western and Middle Eastern people.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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