Shiites Step Up Protests As Bahrain Teeters Between Reform And Repression

Authorities in Bahrain have lifted the state of emergency first put in place in April, when police began cracking down hard on the country’s Arab Spring-inspired protest movement. Tensions, however, remain palpable as talks that were supposed to ease the

A March 4 protest in Bahrain
A March 4 protest in Bahrain
Nathalie Gillet

MANAMA -- Bahrain's Shiite villages and neighborhoods have been playing a dangerous game since the country's state of emergency was lifted on June 1.

In Bilad al-Qadeem, a modest suburb on the western edge of Bahrain's capital, Manama, the clock has just struck 4 p.m. An hour from now an "unauthorized" demonstration, organized via Twitter, is scheduled to begin. Though the weather is very hot, some small groups of three or four people are nevertheless waiting near the entrance of a house or between two cars. They know that nearby riot police are already patrolling the neighbourhood. All the approach roads have been closed off. Nearby the open space where the demonstration is supposed to start, about 20 young women have already gathered. "Clear out Hamad!" they shout to the king.

Nabeel Rajab, a member of a respected human rights organization, gets out of his car and approaches the slowly growing crowd. Faces brighten. People cheer him. Some want to pose with Rajab for a photograph. Others offer to buy him drinks. Today Rajab is the most popular figure in the country, a kind of national hero for the Shiite community. Despite having been beaten up by several hooded men last March, he remains one of the last people who continue drawing open attention to human rights abuses in Bahrain.

In small groups men arrive to join the women who are already there, but it's too late. Dozens of police officers emerge out of nowhere. Without warning, they shoot rubber bullets and tear gas barely 100 feet away from the crowd. Everyone scatters and the policemen fire off again. A young woman screams out in pain. She looks down to see her hand covered in blood. Her index finger has been mutilated. The policemen catch up to the latecomers and begin to beat them.

At the foot of the building, doors open briefly to offer refuge to fleeing demonstrators. In the streets, cars create intentional traffic jams to block the police. People are honking their horns in a sort of rhythmic provocation, always in the same way: two long honks, two short honks –as if to echo the now well-known "Go away Hamad" refrain. People again assemble, at other points throughout the neighborhood. This cat and mouse game will last for nearly two hours.

Every evening in the Shiite villages, gun shots are heard. In the center of Manama, however, there is now a semblance of normalcy following the violent police crackdowns on March and April. Still, things aren't quite as quiet as the authorities want people to believe.

High level discussions were set up to steer the country back to normal. But, just two weeks after the talks began, the main Shiite opposition party, al-Wifaq, withdrew its participation. "These discussions are a joke," explains Saeed Hadi, a high ranking Wifaq party member. "We only count for 1.6% in the government while we won 64% of votes in the last legislative elections. Since the beginning of the negotiations, no one has been listening to us. There's no use in going on."

Most of Bahrain's population belongs to the Shiite community, but the country is led by the Al-Khalifa Sunnite dynasty, which arrived less than three centuries ago. The Shiites complain about being treated as second-class citizens. They demand less discrimination, particularly in civil service, and more political reforms. Above all, they are calling on all legislative powers to be transferred to the Parliament. In this respect, the Shiites and their fellow Sunni citizens are more or less in agreement. Where they differ is in their open hostility toward the powers that be. Inspired by the revolts in Tunisia and in Egypt, Shiite opposition has stiffened and now openly encourages people to overthrow the monarchy. Their hard line has frightened off many Sunnis.

A civil war in the waiting?

"We were about to lose the country," says an independent Sunni deputy. "When I saw some Sunni youngsters getting armed in their districts, I told myself that we were heading towards a civil war. It's better to have 30 dead people than 3,000."

The director of an automobile company adds: "Our women are the only ones in the Persian Gulf who can walk around wearing shorts skirts. Do you want our country to come back to Stone Age?"

In his office, the Sunni Cheikh Abdellatif al-Mahmud, a quiet and agreeable man, is preparing for the next session of the national talks. In February, he organized big pro-government counter-protests that led to the creation of a new movement. "The Shiite community actually wants a religious government like they have in Iran," he says. "They hide their true intentions behind some speeches about political opening. It's a purely parochial movement."

Since the crisis began, the government has been trying to frighten the public by saying Iran is actively encouraging the protest movement. Critics say the authorities use this focus on Iran as a way to avoid talking about political reforms, or about the very real problem of social discrimination in Bahrain.

Ibrahim Sharif, head of the secular left-wing al-Waad party and the only Sunni leader to have taken an active part in the protest movement, paid a heavy price for his political involvement: he was sentenced to five years in jail. Like other leaders of the opposition, he was tortured. Troops from Saudi Arabia and from the United Arab Emirates came to support the repression, which observers described as merciless. State forces killed 30 people and injured hundreds. Hooded police officers in plain clothes made arrests in the middle of the night, and people were consistently tortured. More than 2,000 Shiite people, furthermore, lost their jobs.

Fatima, a 50-year-old teacher, is still suffering the consequences of the repression. "I was betrayed by a colleague because I had taken part in a strike," she says. "They came for me at the school in early April." Fatima lifts her abaya (a Middle-East material that Muslim women usually wear as some kind of dress) to show fading bruises on her shinbones.

Since then, the government has showed some willingness to compromise. Indeed, it lifted the state of emergency and released some 200 prisoners. Trials are ongoing. Bahrain's king, Hamad II, appointed an independent commission with well-known international attorneys to investigate human rights violations carried out during the repression.

The biggest concession was the ongoing national talks, which were supposed to rebuild trust among Bahrain's different factions. But that's proving much more difficult than expected. Analysts worry that other political groups could follow al-Wifaq's lead and withdraw from the working group. Even at the outset, of the 300 people handpicked by the monarchy to take part in the negotiations, only about 30 were from the opposition.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Al Jazeera English

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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