Stamping out any hints of political activism

Stamping out any hints of political activism

Arab monarchies have long used petrodollars to placate calls for political change

The white mosque, soccer field and wedding hall are still there.

But Islah, the Islamist group that once ran the social complex at the entrance to this city, is all but gone. Its entire board has been replaced by government decree, scores of its members have been put on trial and even its name has been changed.

The government of the United Arab Emirates has moved aggressively to shut it down, charging 94 of its members with conspiring with another Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, to overthrow the government. The defendants, facing up to 15 years in prison, include prominent jurists, academics, even relatives of one of this country’s royal families, who say they were not looking to overthrow the leadership, but asking for democratic reform and a more Islamic government.

“It’s a social organisation, not political or economic, and it worked with the people for the goal of preserving the Emirates as a Muslim country with an Arab character,” said Khalid Alroken, whose brother is a prominent lawyer and among those on trial. “The authorities saw our activities as the first link in a chain towards toppling the government and weakening the state.”

For the Emirates, the case is unprecedented in the gravity of the charges and the prominence of the defendants. But it is also part of a broader trend in the region, where kingdoms that dodged the calls for democracy that inspired the Arab Spring have moved aggressively to stamp out hints of political activism.

The Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf have long used petrodollars to placate calls for political change, and are once again relying on the threat of prison to silence dissent. In Qatar, a poet was sentenced in February to 15 years for a subversive poem. Saudi Arabia has suppressed protests by its Shiite minority and prosecuted rights activists.

The case in the Emirates - a federation of seven dynasties that has rocketed to prosperity thanks to vast oil wealth and business-friendly policies - is perhaps the most sweeping, where the government is trying to quash calls for change among Islamists and others. All three countries are American allies, important as oil suppliers and as regional counterweights to Iran.

Even while calling for reforms elsewhere, the United States has largely remained silent on the gulf monarchies’ profoundly undemocratic governments, and few observers believe their leaders will voluntarily share control. “I see no reason these governments are going to willingly take significant steps by themselves to open their systems and hand power to someone else, be it a parliament or whomever,” said David Roberts, director of the Qatar office of the Royal United Services Institute, a research group based in London.

The crackdown began in 2011 after the start of the Arab uprisings. There were no protests in the Emirates, and in March 2011 the government announced $1.6 billion in infrastructure projects for less developed areas, widely seen as part of an effort to avert discontent.

That month, more than 130 activists, including academics and a few dozen Islah members, submitted a petition to the ruling sheiks calling for Parliament, controlled by the sheiks, to be freely elected and given full legislative powers. A month later, five prominent activists and government critics, most of whom had not signed the petition, were arrested and tried on charges of insulting the rulers. All got prison terms but were pardoned the next day.

Uphold stability

The most prominent, Ahmed Mansoor, says that since then he has been beaten up twice, his car has been stolen and about $140,000 has disappeared from his personal bank account. He accuses the government of trying to intimidate him and says it refuses to return his passport. The government has not commented on his case, but says it uses legal means to uphold stability.

In mid-2011, the crackdown turned to Islah, which had operated legally in the country since 1974. In 1994, its headquarters in Dubai was shut down, so the group’s leaders moved here to Ras al Khaymah. But starting in 2011, seven of its members were stripped of citizenship and scores were arrested, many held incommunicado for months without charge, according to Human Rights Watch and family members.

The government dismantled the group, changing its name and appointing a new board. The arrests mounted, including, in April 2012, that of Sultan bin Kayed al-Qassimi, Islah’s chairman and a cousin of the ruler of Ras al Khaymah. Finally, in January, the attorney general said why.

The detained, he said in a statement, “launched, established and ran an organisation seeking to oppose the basic principles of the UAE system of governance and to seize power.”

At first glance, the Emirates appear an unlikely home for an Islamist revival. Its leaders have used wealth, economic openness and foreign labor to become a regional hub. The nation is a top importer of American goods, and its ports host many American Navy ships.
But political openness has not followed. Political parties are banned, and most citizens cannot vote. Half of Parliament is appointed by the ruling sheiks; the other half is elected by a body chosen by those sheiks.

“We are not a democratic country, but we are progressive on various issues, on women and on what I would call tolerance,” said Anwar Gargash, minister of state for foreign affairs. It emphasizes prosperity over political development, he said, adding, “We think 20 per cent politics/80 per cent development, and I think that is healthy.”

Many Emiratis agree, and fear that groups like Islah threaten a stability that has made their country of 5.5 million wealthy, safe and peaceful. “It is apolitical, and that is why this country works,” said Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi, a writer. “It is a political Islamist-free zone. We don’t want your political Islam here. Go mess up another country.”

But the rush toward modernization has set off a debate about identity, with many asking what it means to be Emirati in a country just 42 years old, where foreigners outnumber locals four to one. One vision is Dubai, the nation’s largest city, where locals are rare, alcohol is widespread and women in miniskirts flirt with men in public. The competing view, advocated by Islah, is prevalent in the less affluent northern emirates where traditional social codes prevail.

Many from the latter group believe the Emirates have changed for the worse. “There used to be alcohol, but not like now,” said Alroken, whose brother is on trial. “There used to be prostitution, but not like now. And we didn’t have beaches where the women are almost naked. Islah says we need to protect the society by preserving its Islamic, religious principles.”

But this is the kind of talk that the leadership will not tolerate. It is perhaps paradoxical that the uncertainty, and in some cases chaos and war, that followed the Arab Spring has increased support for the government’s view.

“I worry that a democratic transition in this period for a state like the UAE would put us in the throes of reactionary conservatism, probably for the next 30 or 40 years,” said Mishaal Al Gergawi, a political analyst. “I look at what is happening in Egypt and other places, and I wonder, do I need that kind of transition?” The verdict is expected July 2.