Back in 2011, I wrote an article called ‘Social Media, Surveillance and Social Control in the Bahrain Uprising’ for Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture. It was finally published last month. Naturally it is a bit dated, and although my research interests have shifted somewhat to studying more general processes of controlling dissent, I still maintain an interest in social media.
A question that has always preoccupied me is this: what is the impact of videos of violence, and in particular videos of state violence, on the longevity of conflict. How do these videos effect the dynamics of the conflict? It occurred to me that these depictions of violence serve a useful social control function. As I wrote in a blog post for Bahrain Watch a few months ago;
… it is interesting to consider what effects the existence of such videos have, especially when the perpetrators are not being held accountable? Do they simply serve to increase public anger towards the police and the government, or do they have the effect of generating fear of authority – or both? Either way, the social control function is useful. If they generate fear of authority, the benefits to the regime are self explanatory. If they further public anger, and potentially increase radicalization leading to further violence, then the opposition movement will remain fragmented – making it easier for the regime to operate a divide and rule policy.
The depiction of state violence in videos or images circulated on social media serve a similar function to legal corporal punishment that existed before its abolishment. In Bahrain, this took the form of lashes in the market place. The location was as important as the punishment itself, and market places were chosen in order to maximise the number of people witnessing the event. The only difference now is that physical location need not constrain the number of those who witness state violence. Videos of violence transcend temporal and spatial boundaries, serving as a permanent reminder of state brutality.
While videos of state violence on social media may also provoke anger, they still serve to remind people of the costs of engaging in protest or dissent. Indeed, in times of political upheaval, authorities benefit from reminding the public of their vulnerability by showing what happens to those who break the rules. As Turk (1982) states, ‘ a scarcely less barbarous tactic is the public display of mutilated bodies, or of persons maimed by their ordeals in the hands of police’. By hiding such abuses, the regime are less able to use violence to deter potential troublemakers from engaging in such acts. A truly totalitarian regime like that of Pol Pot, would simply eliminate every possible rival, yet authoritarian regimes, less extreme on the scale of tyranny, will target opponents more specifically, and utilise these cases in order to deter and terrorize the rest of the population.
Although the authorities will attempt to limit or prevent people from circulating images or videos of police brutality or state violence, periodic reminders of the brutal consequences of engaging in dissent are useful. After all, if people did not believe that the costs of engaging in dissent could result in torture or death, they would be more emboldened in challenging the state.
Some of my previous research on Bahrain, which analysed YouTube comments on videos of political violence, is also relevant. Videos of such violence generally provoked polarized responses in which many articulated their political and religious position. Indeed, such videos of political violence could arguably contribute to increased polarisation of fragmentation between Sunni and Shia, or those who ‘support’ and ‘oppose’ the current government. This sowing of divisions, though bad for society, assists the regime in their policy of divide and rule. In the recent uprising, supporters of the government use videos of protesters throwing Molotovs to defend the actions of the state, wile those who want reform use videos of police brutality to draw attention to their cause. In this sense, it is often people’s political position that determines how they interpret or select these videos. In both cases, consumption appears to be a form of validation rather than a challenge to one’s own belief system.
Having said all this, videos of state violence are damaging in the sense that they are a PR disaster. Continued used of coercive methods may be useful in the short run, yet coercion ‘maximizes alienation’, and makes it more difficult for any regime to achieve any legitimacy (Dallin and Breslauer, 1970, 3) This inherent paradox can partially be resolved by distancing the action of state agents from elites who benefit from such violence. I.e. State violence depicted on social media can be said by the government to be the action of a few bad apples, a few policeman whom the regime did not have control over. Consequently, there will be some show trials where few policeman will be convicted, or in the case of Bahrain, convicted but probably let off after a laborious process of repeated trials and appeals. As Turk (1982) states, Court and administrative decisions exonerating legal control agents are to be expected in any polity.’
Of course, the more videos that emerge of state violence and police brutality, the more difficult it is for authorities to convince people that such acts are the work of a few bad apples. Therfore regulating the amount of images or videos of police brutality is perhaps more about controlling the flow of information, and determining when people should be reminded of the state’s brutality, rather than any real objection to people witnessing those deeds.
Despite the utility of reminding people of the violent consequences of engaging in dissent, the reliance on short term methods of coercive force at the expense of political processes that appease the population can be explained by the fact that such processes would require more wealth and power sharing . As Turk (1982) again states,
Alternatives to intimidation may simply be unacceptable because they are perceived to involve intolerable changes in the allocation of resources among competing groups, even to the point of dismantling the existing strutures of power and status.
So just as violence is seen as a necessary political risk, one that weighs up the benefits of continued protection of resources with those of sharing those resources, the impact of mediated violence poses another conundrum. Do the benefits of intimidating the population through depictions of state violence outweigh the negatives? After all, how do you pacify a population without doing the following a) sacrificing significant power and wealth b) terrorizing them and c) convincing them (brainwashing) that the current social order is infallible and true.
Even by Bahrain standards, today was pretty eventful. In addition to widespread protests, police repression, and terrible GDN articles, there were the curious incidents of fallen fruit, foreign plots and road rage. This post details those incidents – not because they are linked, but because they all tell their own, interesting story.
Today a woman from Muharraq who alleged she was attacked by protesters stepped out of her vehicle and confronted the perpetrators. On her Twitter feed she states that her car was attacked with planks and stones. Full of rage, she got out of the car (whose radio was playing ahlan ya buu Salman – an homage to the Al Khalifas) and filmed herself berating the youths (Video clips here and here). Among the terms of insult were ‘sons of dogs’, ‘terrorists’, and ‘faggots’. She also yelled ‘ Down, down Isa Qassim’ (prominent Shia cleric deemed by many to be responsible for a rise in anti-police violence). The objects of her anger responded by dancing and showing the victory sign. Although some people found her actions to be deeply unpleasant, she also received a lot of support – as this excerpt from her Twitter feed demonstrates.
Such praise is perhaps not surprising when there are many people who believe that those who burn tyres and block roads are committing acts of terror. Indeed, the governments discourse of the uprising, which suggests protesters are either terrorists, rioters, foreign stooges, or religious nuts, has helped legitimize people’s recourse to vigililantiism – or at least harden hearts against state violence. It is not surprising that little is done about police brutality, as there are people out there who believe that victims of police violence fully deserve it. Furthermore, the disruption to many people’s daily lives caused by road blocks and tyre burning are helping to ground the government’s hyperbolic rhetoric in reality – even if the connection is tenuous.
Unfortunately, the government’s framing of the protests as acts of domestic terror or hooliganism limit the empathy felt by those who are seduced by such propaganda, for the rhetoric of terror provokes instinctive desires for protection and defence. This creates support for zero tolerance policing, and even zero tolerance citizenship, where citizens who support the status quo are protected by the state when they themselves police dissent by engaging in acts of vigilantiism. I do, for example, wonder whether a protester would so brazenly chant Down down with Hamad without at least protecting his/her identity. Remember that four Bahrainis were sentenced to prison for insulting King Hamad on Twitter. Also, two boys were imprisoned recently for mocking a Sunni cleric and filming it. Is shouting Down Down Isa Qassim and filming it also worthy of a prison sentence? I doubt it. I mean no one should be imprisoned for insulting a cleric, but that’s not the point. The point is, will the law deal with the two cases equally?
Today a video also emerged that shows two riot officers stealing fruit off a tree in the village of Duraz. Personally I find such footage quite interesting, as videos of the riot police usually show them engaged in their militaristic and repressive style of policing. You rarely see them doing something as human as eating. Such acts tend to undermine the cold, heartless facade created by the blue uniform, helmet and body armour. Anyway, what is interesting about them stealing the ‘Kanaar’ off a tree is that recently a migrant worker was fined 1BD and spent time in custody for doing the very same thing. Well, almost the same thing, the fruit he took had actually fallen from the tree. The court stated that under Islamic Law it was fine for someone to eat fallen fruit, so long as that person sought the permission from the owner. Although the court asked the farm owner if he would consider dropping the charges, he refused. The tragedy of the story was then compounded by Anwar Abdulrahman, editor-in-chief of the pro-gov paper Akhbar al-Khaleej, who suggested in an oped that the farm owner’s vindictiveness stemmed from a ‘ Molotov culture’ that bread hatred and inhumanity. Obviously blaming protesters for the universal suffering of all expats has become one of the regime’s favourite propaganda devices.
Whether or not anything will happen to those two riot policeman is uncertain, though if anyone in Duraz is missing two pieces of fruit, I suggest they get in touch with the MOI. You never know, the MOI might announce a ‘ probe’ or ‘ investigation’ into the case on their Twitter account.
Crisis in Bahrain tends to prompt a predictable response from the regime – the announcement of a foreign plot. Today was no exception, and only two days after the second anniversary of the 14th February uprising, the Ministry of the Interior announced that they had arrested 8 men who were part of a terror cell with links to Iran, Lebanon and Iraq. This comes almost a month after a Kuwaiti news portal claimed Qatari authorities had intercepted an Iranian boat smuggling weapons to Bahrain. (Qatar later denied the story.) Similarly, on 21st March 2011, about a month after widespread popular protest erupted in Bahrain, King Hamad announced that a foreign plot had been foiled with the aid of Saudi troops. A week later a Kuwaiti news site said that Qatari authorities had intercepted two Iranian ships carrying weapons to Bahrain.( Again, Qatar denied the story. ) On 12th November 2011, a few weeks before the release of the BICI report, the government reported that they had discovered another terror cell with links to Iran. The same happened the day before the National Assembly was dissolved in August 1975. About 30 people were arrested from the National Liberation Front and the People’s Front. Soon after, the weekly paper ‘ al-Mawaqif’ published an article claiming that a ship loaded with arms was intercepted as it headed towards Bahrain. Many of those arrested also had ‘ pamphlets ready for distribution’. The only difference about today’s ‘ plotters’ is that they are Shia rather than ‘left-wing’.
It is of course hard to know when the government are telling the truth, though given the lack of credible evidence about such plots it seems that a lot of it is just bullshit that serves to reinforce the government’s rhetoric about a foreign bogeyman intent on interfering in Bahrain’s sovereignty. Without constant scaremongering and reminders of this threat, it is hard to make Bahrainis turn against one another and call each other that overused and disgraceful term – ‘traitors’.
Yesterday I wrote a post about how the Ministry of the Interior treat Bahrainis differently depending on whether they are pro-government or anti-government. This was after their tame dispersal of a large group of regime supporters who, after gathering at the Alba roundabout, wrecked two cars and then vandalised a nearby Supermarket. The reason the market was attacked is it because it was owned by Jawad Group, which is maligned by many loyalists for apparently serving food to protesters at the Pearl Roundabout last year.
Of course there are numerous examples of the police turning a blind eye to violence perpetrated by pro-regime supporters. There’s also a lot of evidence to show plain clothes thugs operating alongside the police. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the thugs are civilians, or just security officers in mufty. Today however, this CCTV footage (and this, video also at end of this blog) from the attack on the 24 SuperMarket emerged. Not only does it show thugs breaking into and looting the shop, but it also shows police standing idly by as this happens. That’s not all, at 5.15 one of the security officers wearing a fluorescent bib smashes one of the windows. At 4.50 another officer helps himself to a bottle of water. Clearly ignoring crime is thirsty work.
Although some of the perpetrators run away when they realise the police are coming, many stay behind, casually looting as the law enforcement officials stand and watch. Check out the dude in white at 5.23, he just brazenly walks out with a box of something (cigarettes maybe?) What’s even more amusing is that there is a police officer filming proceedings – see 6.07 for example! At 6.11 the same officer informs one of the looters that there is a CCTV camera, the looter then proceeds to smash the CCTV camera. This is all while the officer is filming! The looter didn’t smash the officer’s camera, so clearly he thought that what the policeman was filming was not going to be used as evidence against him. Unless he was just a bit, you know, stupid. I guess you can’t be too bright to think smashing a CCTV camera will affect what’s already been recorded.
While the police are also telling people to leave, they really are doing absolutely nothing to stop the perpetrators. On the contrary, some of the policemen take part. One smashes a window, whilst another helps himself to water. Whether or not they would have acted differently had there been more policemen is hard to tell. After all, confronting a large mob when you’re outnumbered is probably not wise. Though having said that, many of the perpetrators left fairly early on, leaving the police in a position to enforce the law. We also know from experience that the police are not averse to throwing tear gas grenades into enclosed spaces when the targets are civilians in Shi’a villages, though they chose not to do that here.I think one of the most galling aspects of the whole thing is the sheer impunity with which many of the perpetrators feel they can operate. They obviously believe they have a good chance of getting away with it.
Finally, another amusing and well-timed aspect of all this is how John Yates, the ex-British copper sent into retrain Bahrain’s police, says he feels safer in Bahrain than London. This video is a perfect example of how safety in Bahrain is selective, depending on what side of the political, ethnic and religious fence you sit on. Indeed, if you’re pro-gov, then the police may well ensure that you can loot in complete safety.
Though having said that, a guy in a red t-shirt does trip up at the end (4. 36). Not as safe as I thought…
Today the Ministry of Interior tweeted that they would be investigating a policeman after videos were circulated on social media that showed him throwing a molotov cocktail at protesters. Although most people would ordinarly welcome such an investigation, there is little reason to believe that it is anything more than a poor attempt to convince people that the security forces in Bahrain are actually accountable. Indeed, there are a number of videos that have been circulated in the past that clearly show the police throwing molotov cocktails, yet this is the first time the MOI have launched an investigation into it. (All the the videos of police throwing molotov cocktails are listed at the end of this post, if I’ve missed one let me know)
What is important to bear in mind is that all these incidents occurred after the Bahrain government brought in ‘supercops’ John Yates and John Timoney to supposedly reform the police . It is also important to bear in mind that many of the incidents show the police throwing molotov cocktails in full view of their colleagues, with none of them appearing to intervene. This would suggest that such incidents are not just the work of rogue police officers.
When we see these forms of police deviance in conjunction with other tactics, such as the trowing of steel rods, the savage beatings of unarmed civilians, and the indiscriminate firing of tear gas, it becomes increasingly hard to believe that the Bahrain government are serious about police reform. Indeed it would be more logical to assume that police transgressions are actually a tactic endorsed by authorities to achieve certain organisational and political objectives.
It appears that police deviance in Bahrain stems number of factors, which include; an inability to police by consent on account of the current regime’s lack of legitimacy, the paradoxical necessity to enforce compliance whilst also appearing to demonstrate restraint, the need to provoke a violent response in order to support the incumbent regimes’ divide and conquer strategy
The extent to which police ‘deviance’ is actually sanctioned by the relevant institutions (Ministry of the Interior) seems to be corroborated by both the ongoing trangressions, and videos such as this, which appears to show plain clothes policemen involved in transporting molotov cocktails. Regardless of whether the tactic is officially sanctioned or not, the police should not be throwing molotov cocktails. I’m pretty sure it contravenes their latest of code of conduct, which ‘requires officers to abide by 10 main principles, including limited use of force and a zero-tolerance policy on torture and mistreatment.’ It certainly goes against the recommendations of the BICI report, which advocated a thorough program of retraining for Bahrain’s state security forces.
It is interesting to note that after all the documented evidence of police throwing molotov cocktails and metal rods, the Ministry of the Interior have decided to investigate only one case. Furthermore, the MOI’s investigations lack any sort of credibility. As @billmarczak says
Will this be ‘the kind of investigation where we never hear anything again, or the kind where an anonymous police officer gets reprimanded?
Let us not also forget the time the MOI conducted an investigation into the policemen who were clearly filmed beating young men on a rooftop in Shakura. @Chanadbh documents the MOI’s response here, though it is still not known what became of the policemen who were supposedly being prosecuted. Given that there are no reports of state security officers being convicted of any crimes, it is likely that those involved in the Shakura incident are not behind bars. If we consider the fact that the courts recently charged 28 civilians with ‘attempted murder’ for throwing molotov cocktails at policemen, it will be interesting to see how the case against the policeman pans out – assuming of course, we hear anything more about it.
*For an analysis of protester violence, read this
Videos of police throwing molotovs
Policeman in Juffair throws molotov cocktails towards protesters (this is the video that the MOI seem to be referring to in their tweet)
Policeman throws molotov cocktails in Ma’ameer on 16th March 2012
Policeman in Sitra throws a molotov cocktail at protesters on 23th Dec 2011
Policemen in Al-Eker throw molotov cocktails at protesters on 24th Jan 2012
Policemen in Sitra throw molotov cocktails at protesters on 2nd Feb 2012
Policeman in Tubli throw molotov cocktails at protesters on 12th Feb 2012
Policeman throws a molotov cocktail at protesters
Policeman in Al-Daih carries a molotov cocktail on 14th Feb 2012
Policeman throws a molotov cocktail at a property in Sitra on 22nd Dec 2011
Policeman throws a molotov cocktail in Nabih Saleh
Policeman in Nabih Saleh throws a molotov cocktail at protesters on 29/03/2012
Riot officer throwing a molotov cocktail in Dar al-Kulaib on 08/04/2012
Riot officers throwing molotov cocktails at a house in Salmabad on 27/01/2012
(note: it appears the MOI launched an investigation into this last video on 10th June 2014, – over two years after it first happened)
Up to four civilians are reported to have been killed in Bahrain in the past two days, making January one of the most deadly months since March 2011. In addition to this, 41 policemen were injured. This comes after a considerable yet not unexpected escalation of violence, which mainly involved the targeting of riot officers with molotov cocktails, iron rods and stones. Many are blaming Isa Qassim’s controversial speech for the rising violence, and while his words certainly helped validate it, it was the BahrainFist operation that was chiefly responsible, and that was planned long before Isa Qassim gave his sermon. Somewhat ironically, NUA chairman Sheikh Abdulatif Al Mahmood said that the protesters were trying to incite a war, despite the fact he gave an address last year that wasn’t entirely dissimilar to Qassim’s. Even the BBC seemed to blame Isa Qassim, while simultaneously dumbing down any sense of what might have led to the violence. Anyway, as predicted, the attacks on the riot police have provided government supporters with an opportunity to paint the security apparatus as victims, demonise al-Wefaq, and throw in some timely information about an Iranian backed plot.
For their part, the national press have wasted no time in highlighting the hardships faced by the security forces. Akbar al-Khaleej led with a story of the Prime Minister visiting injured security officers, while the Gulf Daily News featured a story you’d expect to hear in relation to the Israeli-Palestine conflict, entitling it ‘Children and women are human shields‘. The police sources being interviewed stated that they are only allowed to use tear gas, which is ineffective against the protesters’ arsenal of molotovs, irons rods and swords. Indeed, the policeman goes on to state (in immaculate English I might add) that the protesters make their own tear gas, which is apparently stronger than the stuff used by the security services. If this claim is true, I imagine weapons manufacturers will be in Sitra faster than you can say ‘weaponised mahyawa’.
Despite the fact that Bahrain’s villages are now becoming a creative hotbed for pioneering crowd control technologies, the policeman’s ‘human shield’ claim is a little spurious. I mean, if the police are only allowed to use tear gas, how on earth do protesters use women and children as human shields? Do they tell them to suck up all the tear gas before it reaches them? Do they fling the chubbier kids onto the cannisters, vainly hoping that they will provide a better seal to stop the smoke from escaping into the villages? Do the women lure the officers into ‘mut3a’ tents before clonking them on the head with an oversized, cartoon club? All real possibilities.
As if this human shields argument wasn’t enough, the Gulf Daily News also reported today that some Pakistanis in the security forces were demanding that their embassy tell the Bahraini authorities to do more to protect them. The emerging theme is that the security forces want more weapons to defend themselves against the protesters, a sentiment mirrored by a group of citizens who gathered at the clocktower , Sahwa al Fatih, and Mohammed Khalid . Whether any of these people read the BICI report is unclear, though last time the security forces were given more deadly weapons things did not end well, and that was when the protests were predominantly peaceful. That both the security forces and the protesters are now invoking the ‘self-defence’ argument is absurd, not least because it implies that no single party is responsible for initiating the violence. There is also a great irony in the fact that these policemen have some recourse to protection through their embassies, whilst many Bahrainis feel that they have no recourse to protection, least of all from the police.
All this talk of lacking sufficient arms suggests that the police have stopped using other weapons. This photo posted on the 25th January shows a policeman holding a shotgun, while this video allegedly shows a protester having shotgun pellets picked out of him. In addition to shotguns, the security forces are still using their jeeps to disperse protesters, a tactic that reportedly led to the death of 17 year old Mohammed Ebrahim – who died this morning after being run over yesterday. And if jeeps aren’t enough of a weapon, there’s always the good ol’ combination of fists, boots and batons, as this human-shield-less man found out the other day. Last but not least, some policemen still appear to be throwing metal rods and molotov cocktails back protesters.
So it would seem that despite the considerable arsenal at the hands of the security services, they still need more weapons. As expected, increasingly violent resistance in Bahrain’s villages has riled the loyalists, and given the regime more reason to justify a crackdown. Whether or not the government plans to give more arms to its security forces is uncertain, though they are probably more than a little embarrassed by videos of protesters chasing policemen out of villages with stones and molotov cocktails. As predicted though, BahrainFist has resulted in an aggressive stance from the regime and its supporters, who no doubt think the idea of police reform should be scrapped in favour of equipping the security forces with bigger, scarier weapons. Incidentally, on the topic of reform, do videos like this suggest increased police restraint? If so it seems wildly inconsistent.
It is of course terrible that 41 riot officers got injured. Pre-meditated attacks are wrong and should not be condoned, yet to uncritically portray the security forces as mere victims of motiveless violence is just misleading and inaccurate. Without anyone to hold the police accountable, they will increasingly act with impunity. Indeed, placing all the emphasis on protester violence whilst suggesting police are merely victims ignores the fact they are still engaging in unacceptable behaviour. Obviously state violence works to aggravate activists, as does their continued intransigence on political reform, but much of this violence also results from a lack of space to protest. The fact that even applying for a permit to hold a rally shows a ‘determination to break the law‘ is palpably absurd. Not granting permission for political parties to hold peaceful rallies is obviously going to encourage more violent activism. As Della Porta and Tarrow propose
as mainstream challengers steadily lose their capacity to inspire and organize large-scale popular protest, radical organizations and entrepeneurs operating on the fringes of the political spectrum attempt to seize the initiative through the use of violent of tactics.
Anyway, despite the regimes continued willingness to deny space to the legal opposition, violence towards policeman will almost certainly not stop them from coming into the villages or working in Bahrain. Judging from the ‘Bahrain embassy in Pakistan page‘, there’s countless Pakistanis wishing to head over and get a job here. If anything, continued violence will only swell their numbers, further augmenting a whole community whose livelihood depends on continued unrest. Not that you can blame them though, the pay is pretty good.
Many people believe the MOI are covering up yet another death. They say the man pictured here died after getting drunk & high and then crashing into a group of police cars. People are reporting that he was tortured. With little efforts to restore its credibility, it’s very much hard to believe the MOI are telling the truth, especially after the debacle concerning Yousif Muwali.