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