A catch-up. I was in India as this all came to a head. The five Emirati bloggers, known as the #UAE5 in the Twitter-sphere, were pardoned a day after receiving earlier this week three-year prison sentences for threatening state security and insulting the U.A.E.’s rulers. The men were arrested last April and their mainly monthly court hearings – which they didn’t always attend, protesting the conditions they were held under – turned into the U.A.E.’s moment in the Arab Spring spotlight.
The reaction among Emiratis was starkly different from what you saw in other countries. As word spread of their arrest, the tenor of the dialog among Emiratis was so severe that it prompted Sultan Al Qassemi, a prominent Emirati writer and Twitterer, to write a column last April for a local Dubai daily:
But some online conversations have clearly been progressing towards a worrying direction, labelling those that social networkers disagree with politically as ‘traitors.’
A Facebook group I was added to recently reflected this trend; it included pictures of individuals, some of whom I recognised, others unknown to me, all with the word ‘traitors’ under it in Arabic. The administrator of the page goes as far as to ask members to attack those ‘traitors’ on their personal Facebook pages ‘under every comment.’ “
In fact, as the trial took place in the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi, protesters against the accused rallied outside, shouting slogans supporting the U.A.E.’s ruler. There was no obvious public support for the five men on trial, though I did speak to one woman who was quietly hanging out at the courthouse who said she agreed with the men, that they, and she, should be able to express themselves as they saw fit.
For the story, I spent much of a hot summer day with Emiratis who had gathered to express their dismay – or condemnation – of the men who had, in their view, breached a very hard line. In a tribal, patriarchal culture like the Gulf, they said, such public criticism simply isn’t tolerated. It’s disrespectful and those who thumb their nose at the cradle-to-grave largesse provided by the rulers simply wouldn’t be tolerated. If you have concerns, they said, it should be taken directly to the Sheikh at his majlis, in the tribal way.
The individuals to whom I spoke were friendly and eager to share their viewpoints. While their viewpoint is the exact opposite of my experience as an American journalist who firmly believes in the right to speak truth to power, I enjoyed speaking with them and getting a window into their lives and their values. As an expat living in the U.A.E., it is sometimes difficult to interact with Emiratis, many of whom keep to themselves as a minority in their own country.
Pardon or no, I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this. Ahmed Mansour, one of the detainees, said he would continue to fight for political change. Part of what got him arrested it is the organization of a petition calling for democratically elected parliament with legislative powers. He told the Financial Times that he has no regrets about the advocacy that led to his jailing, during which time he said he was physically mistreated and denied medical care.
In a related and bit more inside-baseball issue, Matt J. Duffy, an American professor of journalism at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, has been tracking media coverage of the U.A.E.’s Arab Spring moment. To his mind, the coverage in the international press played a role in the men getting pardoned.
He is critical of the coverage in the local media. “There has been very little coverage of the arrest, the reasons for arrest and the controversy surrounding their arrest,” he said in an interview with the Doha Centre for Media Freedom Tuesday.
The Gulf News and The National has covered the trial and offered the barest of facts about the case. They haven’t covered any of the outside condemnations of the trial from human rights organizations. They haven’t covered the allegations the activists’ family made about how they have been treated in prison.
No context, no explanation, just a rote listing of information given out by the government. No voices “on the other side.”
The U.A.E. does not have a free press in the generally accepted meaning of one. I had no illusions about joining a Western-style media organization when I first came out here and I witnessed first-hand both overt censorship and its soft-sided sibling in the guise of what is culturally acceptable. Still, I think Duffy’s efforts to hold the local media to high standards, as well as his work training young Emirati journalists, are commendable and I look forward to reading his book on his experiences when it’s published next year.
I’m sure that during this long holiday weekend, Mansour and the four other men are cherishing being home with their families. There was an assault, it was reported, between ralliers and a family member of one of the detained following the verdict. I’m not sure where the investigation into this is but it reminded me of the distinctly more angry vibe I got from the crowd on the second day I hung out with those outside the Abu Dhabi courthouse. A couple of people – off the record; I didn’t even write down the names, much less the comments – told me they were concerned about the men’s safety should a pardon come down. I certainly hope cool heads prevail.
The whole episode underscores to me the balancing act I refer to in the intro to this blog. “East” versus “West.” The way things have been done versus making a change. The U.A.E. has experienced an amazing transformation in the last 40 years, good, bad and everything in between. There are growing pains, to say he least. How to deal with it all? I’ll leave the last word to Al Qassemi who wrote in his April column:
“The renowned Islamic jurist Imam Al Shafei said more than a thousand years ago: ‘My opinion is right but it could possibly be wrong. Your opinion is wrong but it could possibly be right.’ No one has exclusivity over what’s right and what isn’t, and certainly no one has a monopoly on wisdom. The petty accusations are distracting us from meeting the real common challenges that Gulf citizens need to be concentrating on today, both external and internal.”