When Washington’s right-wing wants to take military action to foster Middle Eastern “democracy and freedom,” as Sen. John McCain said attacking Syria would do Monday night on CNN, they often cite the willingness of the U.S.’s Gulf Arab allies to go along with their plans. But if increasing crackdowns against merely dissenting Twitter users is any indication, many of the Gulf Sheikhdoms need to get their own houses in order first.
In recent weeks, rights groups criticized arrests of activists in Kuwait and Bahrain for doing little more than tweeting criticisms of their governments or religion. The crackdown follows the rise of Twitter in these Gulf countries as a central means of political discourse, utilized by a spectrum of dissenters and government supporters, according to the Financial Times. Only dissenters, obviously, face the wrath of their governments. The FT reported:
The arrests –- together with other detentions in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates –- show how social websites are expanding Gulf public life in contrasting and sometimes conflicting directions, as nationals traditionally served only by heavily censored media grapple with rapid social change at home and the political turmoil gripping the Middle East.
On June 7, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said a Kuwaiti court’s ten-year prison sentence for Hamad al-Naqi for the charge of “insulting” the prophet Muhammad “violates human rights standards.” Moreover, al-Naqi’s lawyer told HRW that the conviction also came on national security grounds because of insults against neighboring rulers.
In Bahrain, human rights activist Nabeel Rajab was arrested on June 6 for the second time in as many months, this time for calling on the country’s prime minister to step down. “Nabeel Rajab’s comments concern political discussion and therefore are clearly protected under his right to free speech,” said HRW deputy Middle East director Joe Stork of the case. Last month, Amnesty International criticized Bahrain’s Sunni Muslim rulers for their crackdown on the Shia majority’s political rights, including Rajab’s arrest for “insulting” the government (he already faced charges of participating in “illegal” demonstrations). Authorities “continue to compound their violations of his basic right to free speech by adding to the charges against him as he continues to criticize the government,” Stork said of the latest arrest.
The growing crackdown rises in tandem with the inceased use of Twitter in Gulf Arab countries. The FT noted a recent infographic created by Khaled El Ahamad and Lama Zaitoon. Here’s a portion of their charts, outlining some 1.3 million Twitter users in the Arab world:
Kuwait and Bahrain have the deepest Twitter penetration of any of the other countries, measuring in at more than 4 and 8 percent of their populations, respectively. And Bahraini users issued the highest volume of tweets — almost 59 million in March 2012. The tiny nation of Bahrain, meanwhile, issued more than 8 million tweets that month.
As Twitter grows as a direct citizen-publication platform in these heavily restricted societies, the governments face a stark choice. Their decision to crackdown on Twitter users reinforces the pattern in place before the information revolution came to the Persian Gulf. For many, the lesson of the Arab Spring was that repressive dictatorships are not, as long-thought, stable. Blocking free use of Twitter for political expression does little to alleviate those strains, likely instead creating a situation waiting to boil over.