Interview: Listen to Bahrain's 'silent majority'
Manama, February 23, 2012
Bahrain's 'silent majority' must be heard as the country moves forward with reforms following a year of unrest, according to a former British military commander.
Retired Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb made the comment yesterday, just a day after tens of thousands of Bahrainis gathered in Manama to call for national unity and condemn foreign interference.
The former British Special Forces Commander and Multinational Force Deputy Commander in Iraq said it was important for foreign media to allow such people to express their opinion, rather than reporting only one side of the story.
He also called on foreign powers to recognise Bahrain's 'history of reform, tolerance and moderation', saying it was vital for the country's sovereignty, individuality and uniqueness to remain intact.
Speaking to Alicia de Haldevang of the Gulf Daily News, our sister newspaper, in an exclusive interview yesterday, after taking part in a high-level British-Bahraini roundtable at the Sofitel Bahrain Zallaq Thalassa Sea and Spa, he said while the term 'Arab Spring' might be a convenient sound bite for foreign journalists, it exposes a lack of understanding of what is happening on the ground, especially in Bahrain.
It didn't take long for Bahrain to be lumped in with the likes of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya when anti-government protests first started last February.
However, that is more an indictment of foreign correspondents covering Bahrain than a true reflection of what was unfolding, according to retired Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb.
He said that putting Bahrain in the same category as Syria, Libya or Tunisia was unfair. 'There it is just systematic, state-sponsored abuse of its own people; power and authority struggles,' the former British Special Forces commander and Multinational Force deputy commander in Iraq told the Gulf Daily news, our sister newspaper yesterday.
'And nothing can be further from the truth here (in Bahrain).'
Speaking during an exclusive interview, he said the foreign media coverage had improved since last year - but it was still falling short in its attempts to portray the situation in Bahrain.
'I think media reporting has got marginally better, but my honest opinion is it still has some way yet to go,' he said. 'And that's not because people are dishonest or misleading or malevolent, I think it's a case of situational awareness and understanding.
'The media has situational awareness in the Middle East, what they haven't got yet is situational understanding. This requires cross-cultural understanding and spending time, not just listening to the loud voices of the minorities on both sides, but to go out into the silent majority and understand them.
'International reports are beginning to change their tune slightly because they're looking into the space and beginning to understand it.'
The term 'Arab Spring' has been adopted across the board to describe anti-government protests throughout the region since a mass uprising in Tunisia in December 2010, which led to the eventual overthrow of former president Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali in January last year.
Demonstrations started in Yemen soon afterwards, while protests in Egypt broke out on January 25 against former president Hosni Mubarak, who stepped down on February 11 last year and was later put on trial.
Protests followed in Bahrain on February 14, 2011, while anti-government militias started to take control of Libyan cities later the same month - a move that would eventually lead to the assassination of former leader Muammar Gadaffi.
Unrest broke out in Syria last March and the death toll continues to mount as President Bashar Al Assad's government continues a violent crackdown almost one year on.
However, Lt Gen Lamb said that labelling them as 'Arab Spring' uprisings was misleading and actually detracted from the real issues in each country.
'The name 'Arab Spring' consists of a whole range of problems regarding social contract, rather than new-age youth trying to embrace democracy,' he said. 'But by calling it the Arab Spring we have nailed it to 22 countries and 280 million people.'
However, despite contesting the coverage of events in Bahrain, he did say that mistakes were made here.
'In many cases, some of the acts were thoroughly unworthy of that which is responsible of the safety of the realm and its people, their prosperity and way of life,' he said.
'But on Tuesday I heard the chief of police admit that mistakes were made and if you want the last word in anything, apologise.
'I listened to British Ambassador Iain Lindsay and he is beginning to understand the people and gave a very balanced view on the positives (in Bahrain), but more needs to be done.
'People like (former Miami police chief) John Timoney are also helping the police force - a serious policeman who is not only contributing, but being listened to by the Bahraini authorities and that has to be recognised.'
In fact, Lt Gen Lamb said Bahrain had been pioneering change in the region for almost 100 years. 'The people of Bahrain, due to what has happened, have been presented into the international, region and domestic space as 'all is not well',' he said.
'In many ways much is very well in this country, but there are things the people need to do and must now demonstrate.
'It's important within the region that this sense of self-respect is returned to a country that had every right to be highly respected.
'Bahrain has been the leading point of change, reforms and progress since the 1920s and all that has been forgotten.'
He also warned against dismissing the threat from Iran and its attempts to influence popular movements, but added that Tehran should be focusing more on solving its own problems than creating them for others.
'What Iran should be doing is not looking outward, but inward to its own political authority and not waste money to fuel invested enterprises like the Assad regime in Syria, the militant end of Hizbollah and Hamas, or cause trouble in Yemen,' said Lt Gen Lamb.
'There is no question that there were elements of Iranian malevolent influence in Syria, Iraq and Bahrain in the earlier periods.
'That's not to say that everyone out there protesting was an extension of Iran, but there were influences during the cause and point of orchestration. Yet issues about education, unemployment and healthcare cause the underlying tensions.
'I wouldn't dismiss Iran interfering because it gains from unrest and uncertainty in its boundary line, but parts of this so-called Arab Spring are about tensions in the failure of the social contract. It's very stark in places like Libya and Syria, and more subtle in Bahrain.
'It is thus entirely appropriate for the authorities to look at those dynamics of the social contract. Those who say 'all is well, we are doing just fine' should ask the person who may have a different view and be open to it. Those who complain the loudest should look at what they do have, rather than what they want.
'It is a two-way street with rights, responsibilities and freedoms.
'The mirror has to be turned around on the people to look at their rights, their responsibilities, the nation and society at large and make that solid and committed contribution,' he added.
Lt Gen Lamb was in Bahrain to take part in the External Factors Influencing British-Bahraini Relations: Prospects for Transregional Co-operation roundtable on Tuesday at the Sofitel Bahrain Zallaq Thalassa Sea and Spa. The event was organised by Bahrain Centre for Strategic, International and Energy Studies in co-operation with the UK's Royal United Services Institute. - TradeArabia News Service