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