I’ve written before how and why the Arab Spring has largely passed by the U.A.E. In fact, what protests there have been were against the group who became known as the #UAE5, men who were calling for a more direct democracy in the Emirates. My latest story for The New York Times is about members of Al Islah, an Islamist group, who were stripped of their Emirati citizenship last December and the questions that action raises about due process, free speech and a government’s right to preserve its security.
Emirates keeping tight rein on activists
By ANGELA SHAH
SHARJAH, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — More than a year after the Arab Spring first convulsed the ruling order of the Arab world, its effects have come home to roost for Shaheen al-Hosani.
He and six other men were stripped of Emirati citizenship in December after being deemed threats to national security. “There has been no court, no trial, not even a single meeting” to explain the reason, he said.
Three months later, the men are now waiting for an answer to a court case they filed in January alleging that the government had illegally revoked their citizenship. “This has really damaged our life,” Mr. Hosani said.
Last March, as protests and violence began to spread from Tunisia to Libya, Egypt and elsewhere, including the neighboring Gulf emirate of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates remained largely quiet. The Emirates’ wealth has served as a shield against the economic pressures that have provoked unrest in the Arab world, and leaders here further expanded generous social welfare programs that provide housing, education and medical care for free for citizens.
Still, within that stability, cracks emerged.
Last November, after a six-month trial, five Emiratis were sentenced to three-year prison terms for insulting the U.A.E.’s rulers and threatening state security. The men were pardoned days later. Then, late last year, the government announced the revocation of the citizenship of Mr. Hosani and the six others, all members of Al Islah, or Reform, an Islamist group.
The conflict between these men and the government illustrates a debate about free speech in the Gulf as the Emirates tries to maintain a balance between the more conservative nature of their neighbors and a desire to preserve their status as a Western-facing business hub. In the Gulf, the overwhelming tendency has been toward preserving the collective societal fabric, one that does not tolerate unfettered dissent.
“Security can trump free speech in the U.A.E.,” said Matt J. Duffy, a journalism professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. “This is a huge debate everywhere: What is the appropriate balance between individualism and society?”
The political rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in post-revolution elections — especially in Egypt, where it has been a dominant force — has raised red flags about related Islamist groups in the U.A.E.
“The worry is these guys are extremist, and it’s the duty of the government to protect the citizens from extremists,” said Mr. Duffy, who is writing a book on media law in the Emirates.
That was the sense in the state news media when Saleh al-Dhufairi, general manager of the Holy Koran Foundation in the northern emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, was arrested this month at his home and accused of using Twitter to “stir sedition and abuse religion to instigate members of the public to perpetrate acts that pose threats to state security.”
Mr. Dhufairi had repeatedly criticized rulers’ decisions, including one to deport about 30 Syrian expatriates who had staged a protest outside the Syrian Consulate in Dubai without a permit.
An article in The National, a state-owned newspaper, juxtaposed a report about Mr. Dhufairi’s arrest with a quotation from the Dubai chief of police, Dahi Khalfan Tamim, that “some in the U.A.E.” — not identified — “are in direct contact with the Muslim Brotherhood and are being controlled by them.”
“Since Muslim Brotherhood has become a state, anyone advocating its cause is considered a foreign agent,” Mr. Tamim was quoted as saying. The article further said, without citing any evidence, that Mr. Dhufairi was “believed to be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Mr. Dhufairi has not been publicly heard from since his arrest. The newspaper 7Days quoted his brother-in-law, Dr. Mohammed al-Mansouri, as saying Mr. Dhufairi “does not believe he did any bad things.”
Ali al-Hammadi, who also lost his citizenship in December, denied that he or other members of Al Islah were taking orders from groups outside the country. “The Islamic movement here in the Emirates is different than the Brotherhood in Egypt or Tunis,” he said.
Mr. Hammadi, a lecturer and owner of training centers, said Al Islah’s activities were peaceful. “We don’t believe in anything that is terrorism,” he said. “We are a very peaceful people. We don’t believe we have to change our government.”
“We don’t want to change as what’s happened in Egypt and Tunis,” he said. “We want reforming, not changing.”
For example, he said, the men from Al Islah want to see Islam play a more prominent role in everyday life in the Emirates. Mr. Hammadi also said it was unfair that Islamists were shut out of the electoral process in the U.A.E. last year, in which only a small portion of Emiratis were approved to vote and run for office.
These sorts of sentiments have resulted in an outcry, including some physical threats, on social media Web sites. Many Emiratis see such dissent as an affront to the tribal system and the hereditary rulers who govern life in the Gulf. The relatively small number of citizens — about 10 percent of the population here — has resulted in a close-knit community that is very loyal to the ruling families.
“This is a monarchy — it doesn’t claim to be a democracy,” said Mishaal al-Gergawi, a prominent Emirati commentator who said he felt free to offer opinions in his columns in U.A.E. newspapers. “I don’t think we have an issue of criticism, but there are certain criticisms and certain positions that are outlawed.”
For now, the Islah members have the same status as the bidoon, residents of the U.A.E. who have not been granted citizenship and are thus stateless. “This means you cannot travel,” Mr. Hammadi said. “You cannot drive your car.”
Mr. Hosani said that he had been fired from his university job and that his children were being turned down for positions for which they were qualified. Without his documents, “I can’t even renew the health insurance card for my wife and children,” he said.
Ahmed Mansoor is one of those pardoned in November after being convicted of insulting the U.A.E.’s rulers, and he said the authorities had yet to return his passport. Fired from his engineering job after his arrest, he is focusing on law school classes he had been taking on the side while working, he said.
“The threats keep coming on Twitter,” he said. “Not just defamation, but threats of physical abuses.”
Mr. Mansoor said he did not agree with the Islamists’ philosophy but agreed that taking their citizenship in this way was a violation of their human rights. He said he had no regrets for pushing for more direct democracy. “It’s the price we pay for our legitimate demands for reforms,” he said.