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

But hardline elements in both the royal family and the protest movement were working at cross-purposes with the moderates at the negotiating table. On March 8, 2011, TV cameras recorded a hardline Shiite opposition leader standing in the Pearl Roundabout and calling for a republic—a term the Al Khalifa and their Sunni supporters equate with “Islamic republic,” which, for them, hearkens back to the Iranian-backed coup attempt decades before. On March 11, protesters marched on palaces where the Al Khalifa live and work. And on March 13, they erected barricades blocking the road to Bahrain’s banking district.

These moves reportedly outraged the falcons. King Hamad called officials in Saudi Arabia and asked for troops to help restore order. The Saudis, long suspicious of their own restive Shiite population—and of any potential meddling by Iran—were happy to oblige.

Still, that same day, Salman announced he was ready to talk about a list of reforms, including bolstering the power of parliament and taking a hard look at gerrymandering, corruption, and the program to import men from Sunni countries and give them jobs as police and soldiers. Privately, he even said he would be willing to discuss the prime minister’s transition from power.

At this point, the U.S. made a last-ditch effort to intervene and broker a compromise. On March 14—the same day that saw some 1,500 Saudi troops roll ominously into Bahrain in the early-morning hours—Jeffrey Feltman, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s point man on the Middle East, arrived in Manama. Feltman shuttled between the crown prince and the opposition groups, hoping to convince the opposition to accept the prince’s list of reform topics. The opposition—wary of broken promises in the past and pressured by young radicals in the street—also demanded a new constitution, to be drafted by a popularly elected assembly.

Sources in Bahrain told me Feltman helped the two sides reach a breakthrough compromise, a copy of which I later obtained. The agreement said that protesters would remove their barricades from streets and roads while the opposition entered a “genuine and credible” dialogue with the government. And the regime agreed to curb the activity of pro-government vigilantes, temporarily shutter state TV, release all political prisoners, and form a new government within two months. But then suddenly—at the most critical moment in the negotiations—the crown prince stopped taking Feltman’s calls. So did the king.

It’s now clear that the falcons and the pigeons were pursuing two completely different solutions to the crisis. The pigeons, led by the crown prince, were pressing for reform, while the falcons, led by the prime minister and his allies in Saudi Arabia, were readying for a crackdown. The falcons plainly won out. On March 16, in a melee that left three protesters and three policemen dead, Bahraini security forces dismantled protesters’ makeshift camps and scattered the demonstrators with both rubber bullets and live ammunition, effectively ending the uprising and beginning the government’s strike back.

This attempt to keep the Al Khalifa in power while pushing for modest reform was the only hand the U.S. had to play, and it was a weak one. “The American objective was to maintain the status quo and to find a way to pick a series of winners that could keep the country more or less in the same place that it’s been,” says Toby Jones, a professor of Middle East history at Rutgers University and a close observer of Bahrain. “The problem is, the U.S. picked two losers. The crown prince had no power in the royal family to steward any moderate compromise.” And by the same token, Al Wefaq didn’t really have control of the street. “We can fantasize about those positions being the right ones,” Jones said. “But that doesn’t square up with the political reality.”

If the uprising had not started out as a regional, Shiite-led, Iranian-backed one (the Bahraini government has yet to provide any evidence of such a plot), it became one as political openings on the island began to close. Iranian clerics told their Shiite brethren to “resist against the enemy until you die or win.” In Iraq, the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr organized protests, and rumors flew that he was preparing to send Shiite fighters to Bahrain.

One night in early May, two Al Wefaq members—both of whom had been elected to parliament in 2006 but resigned during the uprising—were kidnapped, at gunpoint, by masked men. Witnesses said they suffered daily beatings in jail. They later were charged with crimes against the state. At that point, Marzooq said, any hope for reform seemed lost.

After I left Marzooq’s office that day in May, I took a drive around the main island. I wanted to understand just how far the falcons had taken the crackdown. I had figured that at some point the Al Khalifa would let up, as they had done after other moments of unrest over the past three decades. Any good tribal leader knows that once you humiliate a few key enemies, you reconcile with those who remain. But it wasn’t looking good.

I saw shards of rebar poking out of the sand where 100-year-old houses of Shiite worship once stood. I visited the grave of a protester whose head had been partially blown off. I met a woman who still limped from the beating she’d received in detention. I heard about another woman who’d been forced to bray like a donkey and drink urine. I met with a human rights activist who recorded stories of those who had been abused. I asked him if he knew anything about Sayed and Jaafar, but their names did not appear on any detention list.

I also visited the home of a prominent surgeon who’d been called in for questioning weeks before and hadn’t been seen or heard from since. The missing doctor’s massive, Miami-style villa, covered in jasmine and bougainvillea, was situated in one of Bahrain’s toniest neighborhoods. He was one of the leading figures in his field. But during the uprising the surgeon had operated on a young protester who’d been shot by security forces. After being held incommunicado for more than two months, the doctor was eventually charged, in a military court, with “spreading false news” that “harms public interest.” At trial, his head was shaved and he’d lost more than forty pounds. His wife also was brought in for questioning but was later released.

“As they interrogated me,” the wife told me, “they said, ‘You have to choose. You’re either with this government or you are against it.’ I said, ‘What if I’m neither?’ They said, ‘You have to choose.’ And that, to me, was the scariest part. It told me that the ruling family really is trying to divide its people as a way to stay in power.

“Before, this kind of thing happened every ten to fifteen years in Bahrain. But it usually started with the lower-class people, the religious people, the people who felt like they should have more. This time they targeted everybody, all the way up, even those of us who helped the government.” The wife’s shoes, I noticed, were Fendi.

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.