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