Witness to an Uprising: Expelled from Bahrain for Posting to Facebook

By Tony Mitchell

How an English instructor's struggle to stay neutral at his state-run university got him fired, evicted, and forced to flee

bahrain jan3 p.jpg

Bahraini protesters gather in Manama / AP

This is part four of a four-part series. Read the whole series here.

I returned to Bahrain, where I taught English at the small island nation's Polytechnic University, on the 2nd of April, eight weeks into the popular protests and increasingly severe police crackdown. My wife and I had taken a break from Bahrain, where society was increasingly divided, for a vacation in Thailand. But I'd found it difficult to relax, my thoughts focused on what would happen to the demonstrators at Pearl Roundabout, the center of protest, after King Hamad Khalifa had asked for outside help from the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arabian Peninsula's Saudi-dominated political collective) to send troops to control the situation with force. The GCC, originally established to defend against external threats, deployed soldiers against Bahrain's unarmed civilians, and the roundabout was cleared again while I was away.

The wonderful Pearl Monument, at the center of the roundabout, had been demolished while I was away. I found this very difficult to understand, but it only confirmed the Khalifa regime's determination to remove all traces of the peaceful protests that had occurred there. State television said the area needed to be "cleansed" and the Bahraini Foreign Minister, Khalid Bin Ahmad Al Khalifa, said the demolition was "a removal of a bad memory."

I felt a huge sense of loss when I drove my car towards Abraj Al Lulu roundabout and found there was no Lulu anymore. I had been told that when the monument was constructed in 1982 (for the third summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council, held in Bahrain) it was the tallest structure in the country. It had since been dwarfed by several nearby apartment buildings -- including my own, just neighboring the roundabout -- but it was no less significant or impressive. Now it was gone.

The Polytechnic started up again following a break due to the "social unrest" and there was another full meeting of staff. We learned that the Polytechnic, formerly under the guidance of the Economic Development Board was now to be a part of the Ministry of Education. A "deputy CEO" had been appointed from the Ministry, Dr. Mohammed Ebrahim Al Aseeri (who was not present at the meeting), whose role was to liaise with the Minister so that the Minister could answer questions about the Polytechnic in parliament. In stark contrast to his statement of neutrality in February, university CEO John Scott announced that the Polytechnic was now part of the state and that we should be seen to support the government. "Like hell I will," I said to myself. John informed us that all staff and students would be "investigated" for participation in any of the recent demonstrations as soon as similar investigations were completed at the University of Bahrain.

I resumed my teaching, squeezing my English course into the time that remained in the semester. My students had been given the option of morning or afternoon classes and had used this opportunity to form themselves mainly into a morning pro-government group and an afternoon pro-democracy group. Now my morning class was upbeat and smiling, whereas my afternoon class was quiet but determined.

I still tried (as always) to teach without any favoritism or discrimination but the overwhelming arrogance of my morning class made it quite difficult for me. The students did not seem interested, some arriving very late, some not even bringing paper or pen, some simply playing on their mobile phones for the duration of the lesson. I never mentioned what had happened outside the Polytechnic to them but I feel that many of the students were aware of my feelings and had simply dismissed me. I now feel that some of them were struggling as much as I was with their own inner conflict of appearing to support the government but secretly questioning what had taken place.

In May the investigations started as promised and the mood of the Polytechnic was difficult. We learned that Bahraini staff had been identified from photographs as having attended protests and were singled out for investigation. One of the non-teaching staff was arrested and severely beaten but was able to resume work. Facebook pages were set up displaying photographs taken at demonstrations and asking pro-government supporters to identify the circled faces so that they could be traced and arrested.

One of my former students told me his terrifying story: he was called to the administration building at the Polytechnic and, with five other students, was taken to the nearby military building where they were all put in a room. They stayed in there all night and were interrogated the next morning. My student was very fortunate as he had been confused with another young man with a similar name and was allowed to leave. Three of the youths (students from the University of Bahrain) were handcuffed, hoods were placed over their heads, and they were taken away on a bus, never to be seen again.

I was finding it more and more difficult coping at this time but I tried not to think too much about what might happen to me. I reassured myself that I had not taken part in any protests and therefore was safe. My videos from February had been dealt with by the "security staff" at my apartment and so I felt safe about them. I know I had made comments to my "friends" on Facebook but they were not critical of the ruling family or the government, simply trying to correct false or misleading information. I did not know what the future held at the Polytechnic for me and I did not know if I could continue working for a government that resorted to unlawful arrests, torture, and now identification from social networking.

The state had begun expelling students, including one from my afternoon class. The students were very upset and worried; I tried to give them as much leeway as I could to cope. Some of my afternoon students came from villages that were now being raided by police, arresting suspects and damaging property. They still bravely came to class, passing through checkpoints, and continued to work hard. I found their courage very inspiring.

With every passing day that I was at the Polytechnic I waited to be interviewed by the investigating committee that had been set up by the deputy CEO. With every day that I wasn't asked I felt that maybe I had flown under their radar and escaped detection. It was a stressful time. After some time, I finally received a text message on my mobile phone while I was in class asking me to visit the Director of Human Resources in the CEO's office.

The meeting was direct and to the point. The Ministry of Education knew all about me, knew all about my videos and my comments on Facebook. It turns out that my "friends" had kept copies of my comments, which were presented to me, although none of them could seriously be used to show that I had been critical of the government in any way. I knew that my number was up and there was nothing I could do. To his credit, John Scott had insisted that I not front the other investigative committee as I was the only non-Bahraini under investigation. I told him that I did not hold him responsible for what was taking place in any way. Still, it was obvious that the Ministry wanted me out immediately, but John said he would try to see if he could arrange for me to finish up later. Classes finished in four weeks.

We later agreed that I could teach until June 30, which would also give me time to sell my car and arrange to pack and send all our belongings to Thailand. I was asked to please stop making any comments at all on Facebook, to which I agreed. I did not want the Polytechnic or anyone from management to get into trouble for my actions.

I walked back to my office with mixed thoughts. I had been sacked from my job, not because of my teaching ability or for any normal disciplinary reason, but because I had taken videos and made comments on Facebook. I now had to think of my future after June 30, look for a new job somewhere and tell my wife that we had to leave our beautiful apartment and the life we enjoyed together in Bahrain. On the other hand, I felt a huge sense of relief that I had been freed from having to work for the Bahraini government and that I would no longer have any association with them whatsoever.

In the weeks following my dismissal I still monitored Facebook, mainly to try to keep track of the students that had been expelled as I was appalled to learn that many outstanding young Bahrainis and student leaders of the Polytechnic had been ordered to leave. Several comments appeared criticizing John Scott for the expulsions and for going back on his word that the Polytechnic would remain neutral. I felt I could not allow this to happen as I knew John's authority had been diminished by the intervention of the Ministry and that he truly had the students' best interests at heart at all times. So I posted what I thought was an innocent comment: "I will tell you more about this after June 30th." It turned out to be a bad move.

The next morning, June 14, I was called to the human resources director's office (John Scott was on leave) and told that my Facebook post had been brought to the Minister of Education's attention (no doubt by one of my Facebook "friends"), who was "up in arms about it." He demanded that I leave immediately. I packed up my belongings, copied all my files from my Polytechnic laptop to my external hard drive, and gave the laptop back. The Polytechnic had earlier booked flights to Thailand for my wife and I for July 1; I was asked if I wanted them to change the tickets.

I asked to stay through the end of June as planned. I didn't want to cause a fuss and the extra two weeks would give us more time to pack, sell the car, say our goodbyes, and leave. When I explained this in a meeting with the university's human resources staff, they looked at one other nervously and told me to think seriously about leaving the country as soon as possible.

How had I become, by a few YouTube videos and Facebook comments, perceived as such a threat to the government? It was unnerving but showed me just how paranoid the government had become and how determined it was to eradicate all opposition.

After frantically packing up our life in Bahrain and shipping it all to Thailand, my wife and I flew out from Bahrain for good on June 23. On the flight, I had time to reflect on my three years in Bahrain, what I had experienced and what I had achieved. I also wondered what would happen to the amazing country and the brave people I was leaving behind. The answers are still not clear: protests have continued for almost a year now, with the monarchy refusing to budge from its autocratic minority rule. My tiny chapter was over, but the story of the Bahraini uprising was far from it.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/01/witness-to-an-uprising-expelled-from-bahrain-for-posting-to-facebook/250752/