Fourteen months ago, Ali was one of Bahrain’s young, educated up-and-comers. The twenty-seven-year-old, with matted black hair and eyes that look too big for his skinny frame, worked as a chemist at the state oil company. Fluent in English and tech-savvy, he was happily married and his wife was pregnant. He was starting a promising life.
Just one year later, Ali had become an unemployed ex-detainee in hiding. These days, he’s part of a very different generation marking Bahrain’s future: young men and women who can’t forget what they have witnessed since Arab Spring–inspired protests broke out in this small island nation in February 2011. “That boy—he was in jail with me,” Ali said, pointing to a peer across the room of one of the country’s opposition groups on a hazy Friday evening in April. “That one—his brother was killed.”
On February 14, 2011, thousands of demonstrators inspired by the revolutions sweeping the region, many of them from the country’s Shia majority, gathered in Bahrain’s Pearl Roundabout to ask for reforms from the country’s ruling Sunni monarchy. For the first few weeks, real change seemed possible. In the Pearl Roundabout, a field-leveling culture of democratic expression took hold. Ali was part of it, helping organize a discussion where anyone who wanted to could speak his mind.
Then there was a security crackdown. And unlike in Tunisia or Egypt or even Libya, no one—not the army, not outside powers, not local militias—fought back. Ali was detained for two months for participating in pro-democracy protests. He was sacked from his position at work, along with more than a thousand others, for his political views. Ali has since been reinstated, but his coworkers asked him not to come back to work; he collects his salary from home. He has continued protesting and has been injured in clashes with police, first when a tear-gas canister hit him straight-on, then when the police chased him and beat his legs so that, next time, he wouldn’t be able to run away. Twice, security forces raided his home looking for his older brother.
It’s not just Ali’s life that has changed. Since the protests began, Bahrain’s uprising has dramatically reorganized. What began as a euphoric movement for freedom is today a grinding cross-societal conflict that has taken some six dozen lives, sent hundreds more to prison, and left entire communities traumatized. These days, many of the Shia youth like Ali feel they have little left to lose.
If the human cost is daunting, so too is the increasing sense that this conflict is on an inevitable path toward escalation. The window for a political solution at home is fast closing. Protesters are expanding their repertoire of resistance to include Molotov cocktails and more direct attacks on police. A counterrevolution against the protesters is also growing stronger and more radicalized. In early April, the first reports surfaced that civilian assailants of one sect were targeting another.
It didn’t have to come to this. More than perhaps any other of the countries touched by the Arab Spring, Bahrain had several critical chances to resolve the crisis without the bloodshed and turmoil that has marred recent events. Yet at every juncture, the opportunity for an exit from conflict was ignored. Part of that story is about a radical polarization of Bahraini society. But equally important are the changing geopolitics of the Arab Spring.
When Ali and his fellow protesters descended on Pearl Roundabout last year, their demands were—by the standards of revolutionary Egypt, for instance—rather meager. They didn’t want the fall of the regime. They merely wanted to have a public airing of issues such as corruption, inadequate public services, and electoral gerrymandering.
It wasn’t the first time that the majority Shia community had mobilized. Over the last century, there have been sporadic uprisings by the majority population, who have felt politically and economically discriminated against by the country’s Sunni ruling family, al-Khalifa. This time was different, however, not least because the demands cut across sectarian lines, and so did the demographics of the participants in those initial gatherings. The news had spread like wildfire on Facebook and Twitter. Far from dividing the country, the gathering at Pearl Roundabout seemed—for the first time in decades—to bring people together with basic bread-and-butter demands. That coalescence and commonality would prove just the first of many missed opportunities in the coming months.
On February 14th and 15th, the security forces first responded to protests and two people were killed. Several days later, the government “cleared” the roundabout of protesters. Now there were six dead. Each casualty added to the protesters’ demands—and their corrosive doubts that the government was interested in taking them seriously. Suddenly, the opposition wanted a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution; they wanted a real—not a rubber-stamp—parliament. By the time the country’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa called the opposition to a political negotiation in late February, their demands were already outgrowing any concession he felt he could make.
Then, on the morning of March 14, 2011, a line of desert-colored tanks streamed into the country from Saudi Arabia. At the king’s request, Saudi troops had entered Bahrain to quell the unrest and clear Pearl Roundabout. About thirty protesters died in the coming weeks, including more than a dozen shot with live rounds. The true crackdown extended much further than the body count—to the hundreds of men and women who were arrested, those who were tortured, the thousands sacked from their jobs, and the majority of Bahrain’s population, who suddenly felt certain that the regime was against them.
On March 18, 2011, Bahrain tore down the large white monument that had marked the Pearl Roundabout. It was a “bad memory,” the foreign minister, Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, said at a news conference after the structure fell. The Central Bank stopped minting coins that bore the structure’s image. It was a sign the government wanted to make the protests, the protesters, and the demands disappear.
But they haven’t—and, having seen so clearly the regime’s disdain for their demands, the protesters gained ever greater resolve. As if it were a martyr to the conflict, the Pearl Roundabout has acquired a symbolism that permeates the protest movement, from its graffiti to its Twitter handles to its chants. Even demonstrations themselves almost magnetically seem to end up heading toward the old monument as if it were true north on a political compass.
Perhaps Pearl Roundabout is so richly symbolic because it is so distant from the reality of life in the Shia villages today. As the revolution has been suppressed, it has also been pushed into the dozens of villages where Shia attempt to lead their lives. In those neighborhoods’ crowded streets, a daily ritual of conflict pits protesters against the police. In zones where clashes are particularly intense, the landscape has taken on the look and feel of a war zone.
The abuses of recent months have now been branded onto the memory of an entire generation. Ali’s troubles are mild by comparison to the suffering of the many who have been abducted, beaten, tortured, or assaulted. More than twenty people, according to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, had died by early 2012 from the excessive inhalation of tear gas, which police often lob into homes and closed compounds where it can suffocate children and elderly.
“For us, it’s all a routine,” said one activist who helps to organize the local resistance. “Over and over again, nothing is going to change.”
Before the revolution began, if you drove down Bahrain’s central Budaiya Road, a long avenue just outside the capital city of Manama, you never would have known whether you were passing through a Shia or Sunni neighborhood. The buildings don’t describe the faith of the inhabitants, and there were no real markers of religious affiliation.
Today, however, it’s obvious: a Shia neighborhood is marked by the relics of graffiti scribbled by protesters with red and black spray paint, still visible after police whitewashing. Many walls have been tagged so many times that the multiple layers of writing and attempted obliteration are like a visual history of events. This combat of paint and ideas goes on for miles, until you reach the end of the road and a village that has clean walls—a Sunni neighborhood.
Over the last twelve months, many things in Bahrain have come to resemble the walls on that long drive: obviously polarized into one camp or another. Workplaces, doctors’ offices, even the geography of towns are all silently divided. As the winds of democracy swept the region last spring, it wasn’t just the protesters who became more politically engaged. An equal and opposite response occurred, and everyone began picking sides.
On February 21, 2011, a week after demonstrations began in Pearl Roundabout, a Sunni religious scholar named Dr. Sheikh Abdullatif al-Mahmood called a counter-march across town, at the al-Fatih mosque. “We called the meeting thirty-two hours in advance only and we were surprised by the number of people who came,” he recalled a year later.
This new grouping took its identity from opposition to what was happening at the Pearl Roundabout. “[People] came [to our march] because of the sense of danger,” said Mahmood, who described the Shia protesters as trying to “drag the people of Bahrain into a war zone.” That message was echoed on state television in the early days of the uprising, where inflammatory programs were broadcast containing unsubstantiated reports of Shia attacks on Sunnis, and allegations of sectarianism and treason. Looking back on those days, Mahmood even accuses the protesters of “want[ing] someone from their group to die so they could use the death to have an excuse to increase the violence.”
A year later, as ongoing protests have ebbed and flowed, Sunni grievances have also grown. Many in the Sunni community worry that their country has become lawless—a place they hardly recognize. Business interests have been compromised by insecurity, they complain. Shia demands for democratic change are seen as coded calls for chaos.
While blaming the protesters for the country’s violent division, these newly organized Sunnis also hold the regime accountable for what has happened. “The government is not working hard to solve [the country’s] problems,” argues Nassar al-Fadhala, a former MP for Bahrain’s wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is Sunni. “The situation of Bahrain is really critical.”
From her home in the upscale neighborhood of Isa Town, Sawsan al-Shaer, a Sunni newspaper columnist renowned long before the Arab Spring for asking questions of the government, sees a transformation of the political scene. Women, youth, everyone around her are suddenly “hungry to be active” in politics. The Sunnis have formed an opposition that parallels that of the Shia. “[There] was a loud scream that, ‘we are here . . . we have our own demands,’” says Shaer.
Ironically, the new Sunni opposition is now asking many of the same questions that the Pearl Roundabout demonstrators had initially put forward: about government corruption and the inefficacy of certain government services, such as public housing for those whose salaries fall under a certain line. Why is the average waiting time for a government-provided home now between twenty and twenty-five years, for instance, which means that newly married couples who place a request can expect to move in when their children get married?
But in addition to pressing their own demands, the Sunni Awakening—a characterization that the newly mobilized groups now proudly adopt—is more forcefully calling for the protests to end before any political concessions are made to accommodate them. In early 2012, when rumors of renewed political negotiations between the government and opposition groups began to surface, Sunni groups quickly shot them down, arguing that there was nothing to discuss until the “violence”—a word now interchangeably used with “protests”—stopped. “I’m ready to participate in dialogue,” said Nassar al-Fadhala, the former MP, “but first I want law to be settled into this country.”
That position has tied government hands—though this may have been intentional. Mahmood’s and other Sunni movements have received government support along the way as they have organized. Now, even if the ruling family wanted to compromise with Shia protesters, they simply can’t because the loyal opposition, the Sunni Awakening, won’t have it.
This polarization of Bahraini society is all the more menacing for taking place against the backdrop of subtle and overt intervention by foreign interests.
One of those interests is Washington. The US Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain on a patch of land donated by the government. In 2010, Bahrain’s rulers offered to give the United States enough land to double the size of the base; construction is under way. If not for the dusty Gulf sky, the neighborhood nearby would look like typical suburban America, lined with Starbucks, Caribou Coffee, and countless other American chains, and littered with military expats.
In the early days of the uprising, Washington placed its bets on Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, who called for a political dialogue in hopes of easing the crisis. Aware of the contradiction of supporting democracy elsewhere and ignoring clamors for it here, the Americans saw that their best hope lay in building exactly what is now missing in Bahrain: a middle ground.
When the talks between the government and protesters backfired, and Saudi troops rolled in, Washington was left in a bind. It had backed a member of the ruling family whose initiative for talks had failed. Meanwhile, others in the regime were now violently cracking down. So if Washington wanted to maintain a strategic relationship with Bahrain without appearing to condone what was happening, the embassy would have to do some intricate bird walking.
In the months that have followed, the United States has chosen to support no one explicitly and everyone tacitly. They didn’t condemn the government—too much. They didn’t condone the protesters—too much. Instead, American diplomacy seems to have focused solely on making sure that the crackdown has been more humane. Washington has pressured the government to release certain prisoners and raised concerns about harsh tactics. But it hasn’t withdrawn cooperation.
A case in point has been the US handling of the second, perhaps even more promising, missed opportunity for Bahrain to make a turnaround. Last fall, the country commissioned renowned Egyptian human rights lawyer M. Cherif Bassiouni to conduct an independent investigation into human rights abuses of February and March 2011. His report, released in November, was shockingly blunt in its condemnation of the regime. And if more of his recommendations had been adopted immediately—the release of political prisoners, for example—demonstrators may well have been convinced to leave the streets. But the United States has gone no further than praising the commissioning of the report itself and calling gently for the implementation of its recommendations, without suggesting a clear timeline for reform.
This ambivalent approach has not been popular. As Bahrain’s political landscape has ruptured, all sides agree that the United States has played a poor hand. To the Shia protesters, the Americans have been guilty of hypocrisy and double standards. Yet to the Sunni opposition, the US has failed because it has refused to call for order. “Our people feel that the United States and the United Kingdom have hands in what happened in Bahrain because they did support the protesters to bring down the regime last year,” says Sheikh Mahmood, the Sunni scholar.
These days, the American position seems to be one of wishful thinking—that Bahrain is getting back to normal, and it’s time to move on. In mid-May, for example, Washington resumed arms sales to the island kingdom after a several-month hiatus during the crackdown. It’s a position that doesn’t hide the conflict between values and interests. Early in April 2012, a delegation of US congressmen visited Bahrain during their Easter recess. Representative Jim Himes, a Democrat from Connecticut, put the predicament bluntly: “If the situation here deteriorates, we’ll be in a real bind: At our core we believe in freedom in democracy but like every nation state we have our interests.”
Yet crucial though the US role in Bahrain may be, even the Americans are beholden to another player in the region who has, more than anything else, contributed to freezing this conflict in an anguished détente: Saudi Arabia.
When the Arab Spring erupted in Tunisia, it should have been Riyadh’s worst nightmare. Throngs of protestors gathered to overturn the status quo, replacing autocrats and monarchies with new, elected governments. Saudi Arabia, arguably the most anachronistic and totalitarian of all, had all the symptoms of a country ripe for revolution, too: high unemployment, disaffected minorities, and limited political freedom. Even more, many of the country’s allies and friends were the very regimes that came under assault from the street.
In this context, Bahrain posed two significant challenges. First, the uprising had the power to awaken the grievances of the country’s own Shia population, many of whom live in Saudi’s most important strategic provinces in the east—where a large amount of the country’s oil is pumped. Equally alarming to the regime was the prospect that a revolution-inspired government in Bahrain would elevate Shias to power—and those Shias could switch the country’s alliance from Riyadh to Tehran.
Because of the fears these potential developments aroused, Saudi Arabia acted quickly and decisively, sending troops to Bahrain to quell the unrest and moving rapidly to stem any threat of unrest in its own eastern provinces. “The Eastern Province has basically been under siege since the Tunisia protests,” says Toby Matthiesen, a research fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Cambridge.
With the immediate threat out of the way, Saudi Arabia has focused on its larger geopolitical goal of isolating Iran, a goal that has American support. “Raising the specter of Iran is what they do,” said Toby C. Jones, a Rutgers University historian and author of Desert Kingdom, a study of the modern Saudi state. “It’s in perfect alignment with American anxieties [about the need to] do more to roll back Iran’s influence.”
From day one, the Iranian boogeyman has been a pronounced element of the way that Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and all the Gulf countries speak about the uprising in the island kingdom. All have accused Iran of meddling in Bahrain and supporting the protesters. Although, for example, Bassiouni’s investigation found no evidence of such involvement, the Iranian specter continues to stalk the conflict. Lately, it has taken particular hold among the Sunni Awakening groups of Bahrain, who have led calls for Bahrain to join in a closer “union” with Saudi Arabia to blunt Iran’s alleged infiltration of the Shia protest movement.
Saudi Arabia may not be all-powerful in Bahrain, but apprehension about what it might do has become the perfect excuse to avoid solving the crisis: The Saudis, who are thought to be funding a huge shortfall in Manama’s budget, wouldn’t stand for concessions to “the street.”
For the first nine months of Bahrain’s uprising—from February until December—it was hard to find examples of protesters reacting to the crackdown with calculated violence of their own. The demonstrators found creative ways to get around the security lockdown. When they couldn’t march on the streets, they sent texts, Facebook messages, and Twitter calls for activists to take their cars to a main thoroughfare and create gigantic traffic jams. When police SUVs started entering the Shia villages, the protesters shot paintballs at their starch-white cars, coloring them yellow.
But people like Ali are growing tired; and now, he and many of his peers on the streets of Bahrain are thinking about escalating their tactics.
Sometime late last year, a few protesters started throwing stones. By early 2012, they began to throw Molotov cocktails. Ali knows that the homemade weapons bring bad press for a movement that has earned credibility for its peaceful ways. Yet he has also reached the point where he sees offense as the only defense left if he ever hopes to return to his other life.
During an April 6th protest in the neighborhood of Jidhafs, the new tactics were on display. After marching the length of a main road, the organizers gathered everyone in a large open area and called for a sit-in. Just moments into the sitting, however, a young man, his back draped with a Bahraini flag, called out simply: “Yalla Shabaab”—“Let’s go, youth.” Young protesters, men first, then women, began power-walking farther down the road toward the old Pearl Roundabout where police were waiting to intercept them. The moment the two sides met, a barrage of Molotovs flew into the air. Police shot back water cannons and tear gas. Days later, on Monday, April 9th, demonstrators booby-trapped a roadblock to a village with a petrol bomb that exploded, injuring seven policemen. By mid-May, the government publicly vowed to further escalate security measures against protesters.
It’s easy to imagine further escalation—on all sides. In fact, it’s hard to see it moving in any other direction. One of the most promising facts about Bahrain’s uprising was that there had been almost no incidents of direct Shia-Sunni violence. In early April, however, rumors began circulating that local Sunni mobs had organized to attack Shia communities.
The old truism very well fits the current situation in this island kingdom. What we see now is not the beginning of the end, but only the end of the beginning.
Elizabeth Dickinson is a contributing editor and blogger for World Affairs.
Photo Credit: Lewa'a Alnasr