How the United States looked the other way while Bahrain crushed the Arab Spring’s most ill-fated uprising.
In all, more than thirty-five people died, at least four of these while in government custody. (This was much higher, per capita, than the number of deaths during Egypt’s uprising.) More than 2,900 were arrested, detained, interrogated, and sometimes tortured. Dozens of Shiite houses of worship were bulldozed. Twenty-one opposition leaders were given long prison sentences, eight of them for life.
At offices around the country, pro-government Bahrainis were encouraged to produce photographs of colleagues who’d protested at the Pearl Roundabout. Those colleagues were summarily fired; in all, some 3,000 workers were fired from their jobs for supporting or taking part in protests. At checkpoints, Shiites were spat on, harassed, and sometimes taken out of their cars and beaten. Many began to disappear.
All the while, the drumbeat against Shiite protesters on state-owned or state-supported media was deafening—comparable, some analysts say, to the propaganda of 1930s Germany or 1990s Rwanda. Protesters were called “rejectionists” and “enemies of the state” and told outright to leave Bahrain or face “retribution.” State TV featured gatherings of bearded Sunni extremists who waved swords and axes and pledged to do away with the “traitors” by “whatever means necessary.”
Doctors and medics who treated protesters were charged with crimes amounting to treason. Hundreds of women were hauled in and subjected to humiliating treatment—this in an Arab society, where the mere capture of a woman by strange men is akin to rape. The country’s leading independent newspaper was attacked, and its editor was charged with publishing false news to incite Shiite unrest. Foreign journalists and human rights workers were mostly barred from entering the country.
And yet, once the crackdown began, the U.S. and its Arab allies went largely silent—a fact many attribute to the strategic importance of the Al Khalifa in guarding key oil-shipping lanes. In response to other Arab uprisings that saw escalating violence, the American government had openly called for dictators to step down, asked for timetables toward reform, or supported international intervention. In Bahrain, past a certain point, the U.S. essentially looked the other way. At the same time, the news organization Al-Jazeera, which played a crucial role as witness to many of the other Arab uprisings, gave scant coverage to the protests in Bahrain; the network is owned by neighboring Qatar, which is also a Sunni monarchy.
This left the ruling class with a comparatively free hand in putting down the uprising. As an activist from Sayed and Jaafar’s generation told me, the Al Khalifa were not just restoring order and securing their rule, they were finally taking their revenge on the baharna. “In a tribal society, the ruled should pledge allegiance to the ruler,” he said, explaining the mind-set. But ever since the country gained independence from the British, Bahrain’s Shiites have been too vocal, brought too much shame to the country, aired too many grievances, called for too many rights. This is most unacceptable to the old guard within the Al Khalifa, who are known in Bahrain as “falcons.”
“These tribal people, they don’t forget,” the man continued. “They believe that if you are eating and drinking the spoils of the tribe, then you must say ‘Thank you.’ If you don’t, you should be punished. In some sense, they’ve been waiting to take this revenge for a long, long time. And revenge for them is total revenge.”
By the time I managed to return to Bahrain in late May of 2011, the crackdown was in its late and most brutal stages, and I had lost contact with Sayed and Jaafar. My first stop was the office of Al Wefaq, the country’s largest legal Shiite opposition group. There I saw Khalil Ebrahim al Marzooq, the group’s deputy, whom I’d met in 2009. Back then, he was still talking about the National Action Charter and gerrymandered voting districts. Now scores of his friends were in jail. Some of them had been incommunicado for weeks. Many of them had been tortured.
I was worried that the same had happened to Sayed and Jaafar, so my first questions to Marzooq were about the brothers. Did he know them? Were they among those who had been jailed—or worse? The problem was that I didn’t know their last name. It was possible that even “Sayed” and “Jaafar” were pseudonyms.
“Bahrain is a very small place,” Marzooq joked. “Give me a few details, and we’ll find them.”
They look alike, I told him, both short and stout. Lived in Europe, ran a restaurant, came back for the reforms in 2001. “That sounds like all of my friends!” Marzooq said. He made some calls, pressed me for more details. Nothing.
Marzooq was eager to talk about what had really happened during the uprising—especially at the political level, away from the street. He said opposition groups for weeks had been quietly negotiating with the Al Khalifa to agree on a set of reforms that would satisfy both the young protesters in the street and the royal family. Specifically, they were negotiating with the clan’s most reform-minded member, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
Salman is the son of King Hamad. Educated in the U.S. and Britain, the goateed forty-two-year-old’s reputedly moderate outlook has earned him the distinction of being called a “pigeon,” as opposed to the falcons of the older generation. In the early days of the demonstrations, Salman went on national TV to assure citizens that it was legal to protest. But by then seven protesters already had been killed—four of them attacked in their sleep at the Pearl Roundabout. In hindsight, it’s clear that Salman was not the one in the government calling the shots.
In response to the killings, Al Wefaq, which is one of the seven sanctioned “political societies” in Bahrain, submitted its resignation from parliament, where it held eighteen of the forty seats; Marzooq had occupied one of them. From then on, the aim of Al Wefaq, one of the more moderate opposition groups, was to use the uprising as an opening to move Bahrain toward becoming an Arab-style constitutional monarchy, like the ones in Jordan and Morocco.
As the demonstrations, sit-ins, and angry speeches at the Pearl Roundabout progressed in late February, Al Wefaq demanded that authorities investigate the seven protester deaths, release political prisoners, and end anti-Shiite rhetoric in the state-run media. Perhaps their most controversial demand was for the resignation of Bahrain’s wealthy, entrenched prime minister, who took power in 1971, making him the longest-serving nonelected ruler in the world.
To the falcons in the Al Khalifa, publicly calling for the prime minister’s ouster while the masses rallied in the streets was tantamount to a coup attempt. Still, an informal dialogue between opposition groups and Crown Prince Salman, the pigeon, commenced behind the scenes. “We personally met with the crown prince four times,” Marzooq told me. “We believed that this would lead to something.”
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