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

“My husband was working to advance this country through medicine and science,” she said. “Our worry now is that a society this divided will be difficult to put back together again. And people like us who didn’t care about politics before will have no choice but to get involved. Either that or we’ll just have to leave.”
A few days later, my BlackBerry starting buzzing with instant-message alerts. (BlackBerry Messaging was the only way most Bahrainis would communicate, as authorities monitored phones, e-mail, and Facebook.) News had broken that Marzooq and four more of the few remaining opposition leaders had been detained. The men were held for five hours, accused of spreading lies and hatred, then released. An activist I met ventured an explanation: “The government wanted to make it very clear: ‘We can come after you any time.’”

In early June, the king called an end to the official state of emergency that had been in place across Bahrain since March. But that did little to change the mood on the streets. Armored personnel carriers still manned entrances to the Pearl Roundabout, which had been renamed al Farooq Square, after a caliph revered by Sunnis. Riot police were out in force. There were rumors about big protests, but none materialized. Instead, small flash mobs would emerge in Shiite towns, shout slogans, shoot video, then disappear. Links to these videos would later appear on Facebook and Twitter—guerrilla assaults in an asymmetrical propaganda war.

Around that time I got word that authorities had released the body of a sixty-five-year-old man. Activists said he’d been badly beaten and detained back in March, when the crackdown first began. Since then he’d been held in a place called Ward 63, on an upper floor of the state-run hospital that housed injured protesters, where witnesses said security forces beat patients at night. Families weren’t allowed to visit. Authorities said the old man had died of heart failure.

The sister of an activist dressed me in a head scarf and a large Shiite-style abaya. I headed to the meeting house in Jidhafs, the neighborhood where I had first met Sayed, where funeral prayers were under way. The dead man’s brother said authorities had called him that morning. Feel free to have a funeral, they told him. But no protests, and no chanting against the regime. “What can we do?” the brother said to me, with a shrug and what might’ve been a grin. “We can’t control the people.”

Men hoisted the coffin onto their shoulders and carried it through the narrow streets of Jidhafs. The crowd grew with each block. Watching the procession, it was easy to understand how the uprising had happened. All you had to do was open your door, walk outside, and join all the other people who’d opened their doors and walked outside.

Women stood back and watched, some crying, most pulling their head scarves to conceal their faces. The marching men sang a traditional Shiite song of reverence for the prophet’s cousin, Ali, and his family. The parade of thousands reached the cemetery, a dusty beige field surrounded by low walls.

There, I ran into an Al Wefaq leader and former member of parliament. When the body emerged, ready for burial, the mourners knelt for a final prayer, then broke into shouts of “Down with Al Khalifa! Down with Hamad!” The Al Wefaq member politely excused himself. “I have to leave now,” he said. “I think you understand.”

At the old man’s grave, men beat their chests and wailed in traditional Shiite fashion. Then a man in a baseball cap pulled down low to cover his eyes approached me. “Are you a Western journalist?” he said. I nodded.

“The Obama administration should be ashamed of itself for allowing this to happen,” he said. He said his construction business was in shambles. Then he said something about time he’d spent in Europe. I asked what kind of work he did there. Among other things, he said he’d run a restaurant.

I nearly jumped when I realized it was Sayed—after all this time looking for him, he had found me. Sayed motioned to Jaafar, who was standing nearby, and I began peppering the brothers with questions. Sayed told me he’d sent the kids back to Copenhagen. “But if we try to leave from the airport, it’s very dangerous,” he said. Other activists had been detained trying to leave. “You see I am covering myself,” Sayed said, pointing to his cap. “We expect ‘them’ to visit us anytime.”

He said he and Jaafar were planning to leave anyway. “I think I can do more good for my country by going back to where I was before—by organizing from outside.” Unlike those in Al Wefaq, he said he and his hardline Shiite friends would refuse to participate in any government-run dialogue until all political prisoners were released.

Sayed and Jaafar invited me for lunch, but I was leaving Bahrain in a few hours. Just then I heard shouting and realized that hundreds of men were sprinting out of the cemetery’s parking lot. I took Sayed’s phone number, grimaced in apology, and ran after the younger men. The protest had begun.

We were back on the narrow, winding streets of Jidhafs. Protesters dragged Dumpsters, pylons, and cement bricks into the streets to use as roadblocks. The anti-regime chants grew louder, angrier. Police trucks screeched into the area. A few boys threw stones at the riot police. Sound grenades echoed through the alleys. Flip phones caught it all on video.

Then came the call for sundown prayer. The protesters stopped, quickly replaced the Dumpsters, and pretended to mingle with Indian shopkeepers who’d emerged into the streets with worried looks. The protesters bought Pepsis, put phones to their ears. “It’s over,” one murmured to another. It was as if nothing had happened.

Months later, in a move seen by many as a way to show the world that the country was penitent and ready to turn the page on the era of protest, Bahrain’s King Hamad commissioned a panel of international jurists to investigate what had happened during the crackdown. The release of the panel’s findings in November was, in many ways, a truly remarkable event: at a ceremony at one of the king’s palaces, the head of the commission, an Egyptian-born law professor and leading war crimes expert, sat in front of an Arab monarch and uttered words like rape and torture. The commission concluded that the government’s use of excessive force and torture was systematic during the crackdown—and that Iran was not behind the uprising, as Bahrain and its Saudi allies had repeatedly asserted.

Journalists were welcomed to Bahrain as they hadn’t been for nearly a year. Officials were made available for interviews; a discount hotel rate was offered. Yet on the same morning that the report’s findings were to be released, people in a poor Shiite village called Aali sent messages saying a protester had been killed when riot police rammed his car into a wall.

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.