March/ April 2012 The Crackdown

How the United States looked the other way while Bahrain crushed the Arab Spring’s most ill-fated uprising.

By Kelly McEvers

They sought political asylum in Denmark and settled in Copenhagen, where they opened the restaurant, and later an Internet cafe, to pay the bills. Like other Bahraini exiles in cities like London and Damascus, they helped found a Western-style human rights organization to document the privations endured by Shiite political prisoners in Bahraini jails: torn-out fingernails, sleep deprivation, dog attacks, severe beatings.

In the 1990s, as the U.S. naval presence in Bahrain expanded in support of the first Gulf War, Bahrain’s underclass rose up again. This time it was a full-blown intifada that saw regular clashes between protesters and security forces—and more detentions. The ruling family branded exiles like Sayed and Jaafar as terrorists, agents of “external forces trying to bring down the regime.” The implication was that Iran was sponsoring another coup attempt, a claim for which no evidence was ever produced.

Then, in 1999, the ruler of Bahrain died. His Western-educated son, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, took over the day-to-day workings of the country and quickly started talking about reform. He granted amnesty for hundreds of political prisoners, allowed the exiles to return, and announced plans to transition Bahrain toward a real constitutional monarchy. As the story goes, when Hamad first visited the Shiite village of Sitra, situated in one of the most neglected corners of Bahrain, the multitudes were so elated that they hoisted his car in the air and carried him through the streets. A staggering 90 percent of the country’s voting-age population later ratified Hamad’s vision for reform, called the National Action Charter. The plan called for parliamentary elections; subsequent reform allowed for the formation of “political societies”—one step short of political parties. Sayed and Jaafar and scores of other Shiite exiles made their way back home.

“Denmark is Denmark—a high standard of living—but we came back to our country, because this is our land,” Sayed told me. “Everybody had big hope.”

But those hopes were systematically dashed over the next decade. First it became clear that Bahrain’s new parliament would in fact include only one elected house, and the other would be appointed. Then the voting districts were drawn in favor of Sunnis. At the same time, economic inequities were rising. When the island boomed in the mid-2000s—its banking district flush with offshore cash from oil-rich neighbors and its importance as a United States ally continuing to grow—Shiites remained unemployed and disenfranchised. And when the shock waves of the global economic crisis reached Bahrain, the government cut food and fuel subsidies.

By the time I arrived, in April 2009, jails were again filling up with political activists who criticized the Al Khalifa for abandoning reform. Sayed and Jaafar spoke in code when they talked on the phone. “If they spent 20 percent of what they are spending on public security and military on the people, things will be much better,” Sayed said. “If somebody has a house, has good work, believes his government is representing him, of course he won’t do anything bad.” As it was, however, the pressure and frustration inside Bahrain’s Shiite enclaves was building, just waiting to blow up.

One day in early February of last year, Sayed was sitting at his home computer, reading an online forum. A debate was brewing over whether Bahrain was ready for its own “day of rage.” Weeks earlier, Tunisia’s dictator had fled to Saudi Arabia. Hosni Mubarak had just abdicated power to the military in Egypt. Tens of thousands of protesters had taken to the streets in Yemen. Users on the forum Sayed was reading—all of them anonymous—said the time had come for Bahrainis to gather in great numbers and call for sweeping reforms. The place to do it, some said, was the Pearl Roundabout, a traffic circle centered around a monument that looked like elongated fingers stretching a white sphere to the sky. And the time to do it was February 14, 2011—ten years to the day after Bahrain had ratified King Hamad’s National Action Charter.

Sayed honestly didn’t think any kind of mass protest would materialize. He expected a few people to protest here and there, but certainly nothing like what happened in Egypt.

When February 14th came, the first protest erupted during the early-morning hours in a small, poor, Shiite village about an hour’s drive south of Manama. Other villages followed. Sayed went from one protest to the next, shooting video and warning people about the movements of the riot police. That night a young man was killed in a poor Shiite district of the capital after riot police shot him in the back with birdshot at close range. Masses turned out for his funeral the next day. Then they thronged the Pearl Roundabout.

Sayed hovered at the perimeter, his skepticism giving way to amazement as he watched the circle fill with people. (Beyond these few details, Sayed is cagey about his part in the uprising; if he played some instrumental role in the protests, he says he is not able to tell me.)

In just a few weeks the protests grew to the hundreds of thousands—nearly a quarter of Bahrain’s population. In the beginning, protesters’ demands were fairly straightforward: better representation in parliament; better access to jobs, housing, and education; more checks and balances on the ruling monarchy. As in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, a sprawling tent city emerged at the Pearl Roundabout. Most of the demonstrators were Shiites, but Sunnis were among them too. One observer described the scene as a county fair: “Everyone—everyone—was out in the square. Old women, babies, grandpas. Even if they didn’t have a specific grievance, there was just this sense that someone might finally be listening to what they had to say.”

In those first weeks, the U.S. government joined the calls for reform. Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, made several trips to Bahrain, meeting with members of the opposition and the royal family and encouraging all sides to reach a compromise. Later, Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited to meet with the king, assuring him of U.S. support but saying that “baby steps” toward reform would not be enough. President Obama himself called King Hamad.

Within a month, though, the euphoria and the moment of possibility were gone. In mid-March, tanks from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates rolled in, and the Pearl Roundabout was violently “cleansed.” Bahrain’s king declared a state of emergency that allowed authorities to take “all necessary measures to protect the safety of the country and its citizens.” Traffic on the main roads of the capital was forbidden from four p.m. to four a.m. All public gatherings were banned. Anyone who’d dared to protest became subject to investigation and reprisal. On March 18, in broad daylight and in front of TV cameras, the 300-foot monument at the now-desolate Pearl Roundabout was demolished, killing a foreign worker as it crumbled to the ground. One official referred to the demolition as a way to erase a “bad memory.”

Kelly McEvers is a former Middle East correspondent for National Public Radio. She is now a national correspondent based at NPR West.


  • Gulf guy on February 16, 2012 3:12 AM:

    I for one live in Bahrain and have been here since 2005. I first came to work in 1997 but I left to go to graduate school. Here is what nobody is saying. Let's examine the demand for a "government which reflects the will of the people", or a call for democracy in Bahrain. The same was made in Palestine when they grew tired of the PLO's antics. What happened? We supported their "democratic transition" and Hamas won which completely undermined our position.

    Bahrain is a country where the majority of the citizenry, particularly those in opposition, could be classified as minimally educated. The result is a people who are more beholden to Shia clerics than to the nation-state.

    In an environment such as this if people were given the vote, who would they vote for? It doesn't take a genius to see that Bahrain would quickly go into the Iranian fold much in the same way Iraq has.

    Look at Al Wefaq's record. They called for national strikes when women's rights were enhanced here in the kingdom. They fought for modesty laws (girls wearing abayas) at the university. They essentially tried to ban windows. This is a ISLAMIST party who would very much like to make the most progressive GCC country a whole hell of a lot less progressive.

    Ask yourself, if we knew the Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood would fill the political vacuum in Egypt created by Mubarak's demise, who we have supported his fall? If we knew Iraq would fall straight into Iran's hand would be have conducted our operation differently?

    In Bahrain we know EXACTLY who is waiting in the wing and where they take their orders from.

    I mean I am a US citizen and I believe firmly in democracy. But I also believe in protecting our country's interests. Allowing an opposition who is controlled from the outside to overthrow one of the most forward thinking regimes in the GCC would be a fool's move.

  • Anonymous on February 29, 2012 3:03 AM:

    On behalf of all free people of Bahrain, I'd like to thank you for your fair article on Bahrain. "Shukran Lakum" is the Bahraini way of saying "thank you".

  • Anonymous on February 29, 2012 3:04 AM:

    On behalf of all free people of Bahrain, I'd like to thank you for your fair article on Bahrain. "Shukran Lakum" is the Bahraini way of saying "thank you".

  • Lilly on February 29, 2012 5:58 AM:

    I was working in Bahrain last year and remember events just as you wrote about them.

    I am rather surprised by Gulf Guy's comments about this article . The support of Iran has been dismissed by both the US government and the Bahrain governments own commission due to the complete lack of evidence of any involvement.

    I taught at Bahrain Polytechnic on one of the University campuses and girls certainly didn't have to wear abayas and often didn't. Their choice. Having worked with, taught and socialised with many of the protestors, I can assure you they are not mindless or uneducated as "the guy" would have you believe. Go to #Bahrain on Twitter and have a look at the consistent unverified rubbish presented by a small section of the pro-regime camp and then compare. And I stress "a small section". In my experience, the majority of Bahrainis in both camps want some kind of reconciliation that the ruling family is just not prepareed to work towards, for whatever reason.

    I suspect that "the Guy" is more concerned about his own interests rather than the interests of any country. I suspect the Al Khalifas feel the same way.

  • linda on February 29, 2012 6:55 AM:

    BICI paragraph 1584. "The evidence presented to the Commission by the GoB on the involvement by the Islamic Republic of Iran in the internal affairs of Bahrain does not establish a discernable link between specific incidents that occurred in Bahrain during February and March 2011 and the Islamic Republic of Iran."

    I've been talking on Twitter for 13 months to all kinds of people in Bahrain. The people I chat with want the UN Declaration of Human Rights to be the basis of law in Bahrain. They want self determination. They want freedom to vote for their own government. They do not want to be abused by a non elected repressive monarchy.
    The Human Rights Declaration is seen worldwide as a common standard of achievement for all peoples & all nations. Not "all nations except Bahrain."

    "Guy," you need to learn the history of Bahrain; learn what the Khalifa's did 200 years ago!

    Bahrain protestors want fair­ electoral districts guaranteeing political equality­ amongst ppl & meeting universal principle of one­ person one vote. These protestors are human beings,­ men, woman and 'children' of teenage years. The­ have varied beliefs; some are Sunni Muslim, some are­ Christian, some are Jews, some are Shia Muslim.
    Now,­ their beliefs are their own personal concerns and of no­ interest to me, but the Bahrain Gvt are intent on­ making this a sectarian issue. I have Bahrain­ friends of several faiths and of none, all who want­ self determination and democracy, something you have, "Guy"­ and don't seem to want others to enjoy. 
You should stop listening to the Bahrain Gvt who lie continually and talk to those living in the villages of Bahrain.
    Today as I write this comment the village BaniJamrah is suffering raids ongoing in 26 houses, 7 farms, kindergarten & 3 mosques; raided by mercenaries. They were looking for a man who, it turned out was already in Dry Dock prison. House Raids started at 9am in BaniJamrah & were still ongoing now 11:24am.

    "Guy", you need to realise that Bahrain pays many PR 'machines' to effectively lie for them to protect the Kingdom. The information war in Bahrain is insidious, inexorable and unpleasant. Qovis is one PR firm used, Bell Pottinger another.
    I find this outrageous: Large U.S. public relations firm hired to smear #Bahrain opposition http://bit.ly/xzlbdj
    The Government do not use truth. They use lies, threats, force and cruelty. They also pander to the greed and materialism of a favored few.  The King's recent speech shows this clearly; he indicates nothing can be wrong because Bahraini do not pay taxes & only 4% are without jobs. That is manipulative; the King is manipulated by the PM, who was the one to countermand the CP's reassurances about Lulu last year.