The Arab Spring Wasn't Successful for Everyone in the Region

A Q&A with one Bahraini journalist targeted by her government's stronghold.

Nazeeha Saeed, a journalist from Bahrain, was detained by her government and acused of working for pro-Iranian organizations.  (National Journal)

Although remnants of the Arab Spring are still seen across the region (note the current volatility in Egypt), the protesters in some nations weren't as effective.

One of those nations is Bahrain, a small island country in the Persian Gulf off the coast of Saudi Arabia. Inspired by the popular uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East, thousands of people in 2011 took to the streets to demonstrate against the monarchy. And the government's response was swift and violent.

Clashes resulted in thousands of arrests and several deaths. Many of the journalists covering the events either lost their jobs, were fined, or were arrested. Nazeeha Saeed, a 32-year-old reporter for France 24, was one of those targeted by government officials.

A Bahraini national, Saeed was summoned to a police station and repeatedly tortured and beaten by police officers; she was eventually forced to sign a confession she had not read. The graphic details of that experience are outlined by Reporters Without Borders.

Bahrain is home to arguably one of the most important U.S. military bases in the region. It's called the Fifth Fleet, where 6,000 U.S. personnel operate. Like many of this country's allies in the region, Bahrain doesn't come without its issues. But with Iran 120 miles away, U.S. officials don't see the relationship as much of a choice.

Saeed sat down with National Journal to discuss her experience in Bahrain and what she feels the U.S. can do about it. Below is the edited interview.

NJ: Since the protests in 2011, has the state of journalism in Bahrain improved?

SAEED: It's not good. The situation has gotten more difficult for us as journalists to work on the ground. The freedom of speech is very much not free. And we are struggling to do our jobs as independent journalists. There is pro-government and state TV and radio, which tell the government's side of the story and nothing of the other side. For us as independents, we have to do both. We have a lot of challenges to face, and we don't get the space that we can really work.

Media personnel were sacked from their jobs in 2011, and they haven't been back yet to their jobs. Half of them have been arrested and questioned. And half of those who have been arrested have been mistreated and tortured, and I was one of them.

NJ: Who was targeted after the 2011 protests?

SAEED: A lot of opposition, doctors, teachers, professional athletes have been targeted and put in jail, and accused of being part of a movement to overthrow the regime, as being terrorists, as being aligned with Iran. The journalists were attacked because they were, according to the government, not neutral and lying in their reports.

In my case, I was accused of being on the media side of a terrorist cell, lying in my reports, and working for Iranian and Lebanese channels, which I have never worked with. I have been working with TV and radio in France.

NJ: I see that 20 American lawmakers have sent a letter to the king of Bahrain, calling on him to allow a U.N. special rapporteur on torture. But what can the U.S. do about this? Is there anything this country can do or should do?

SAEED: While I was in custody, I was exposed to torture, and there's an investigation open by the Ministry of the Interior to look into this incident. But I never heard results. So, I had to file a case against six torturers. Only one was transferred to the courts, and she was acquitted last October. I appealed the verdict. She was acquitted three weeks ago again. I am now appealing again, but I haven't heard from the prosecution if they can accept my appeal or not.

What I need from the U.S. is to put pressure on my government so I can have a fair trial and an impartial investigation. Not only in my case, but there is a lot of cases where the victims don't feel justice. They don't feel there was a fair trial. America is an ally to my government. I don't think they want to be an ally to this kind of system that doesn't at least provide justice for its citizens.

Talking about it out loud is not going to harm U.S. policy. I don't want to bring arms into the country to force them to implement recommendations or even to change the system or change the regime. If this is going to happen, it should happen democratically with the people. To put the pressure and talk about it out loud is not going to harm anybody.

NJ: What about the concerns that these Shia Muslim protesters are pro-Iranian? Is there any truth to that?

SAEED: The government and even some other countries have been accusing the protesters of being Iranian or [Iranian] influenced or allies to Iran. I have not witnessed that. They are holding a Bahraini flag. They are raising their own demands of freedom, democracy, stopping corruption, accountability. I think everybody has the right to raise these demands and this is what the Arab Spring is all about. It's about dignity and freedom and more democracy. They don't want a dictatorship to rule them anymore.

I'm not defending the protesters, but I haven't seen any Iranian influence on the ground. I can't say that some of them do not really love the Iranian regime and the way they run the country because this is their own opinion. I didn't hear anyone say we should implement the Iranian way of democracy in Bahrain. "We want our rights. We want our voices to be heard." This is what I hear people saying all the time.

NJ: So, if the opposition does eventually take power, does this harm U.S. standing in the region then? Does the U.S. get to keep the Fifth Fleet there?

SAEED: We ask the protesters a direct question, "Are you going to ask them to leave if you are in power?" And they said, "No, they are most welcome. There is an agreement with the U.S. government and we are going to respect the agreement."