How the United States looked the other way while Bahrain crushed the Arab Spring’s most ill-fated uprising.
For many countries in the Middle East, the Arab Spring has proved to be a long and inconclusive season. Popular insurrections in Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and even Libya have yielded deeply ambiguous results. But there is one uprising whose outcome is fairly definitive at this point: Bahrain’s. After massive protests shook the tiny Gulf state last February and March, Bahraini authorities swept in with the backing of foreign troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, clearing the streets of demonstrators and imposing martial law. Since then, government forces have engaged in a long and ruthless crackdown, effectively burying hopes of real reform. If any Arab Spring revolt can be pronounced a failure thus far, this is it.
Not coincidentally, Bahrain’s ill-fated uprising stands out in another way, too. The United States, which took a forceful stance on other Arab revolts, remained relatively passive in the face of the kingdom’s unrest and crackdown. To many who are familiar with the region, this came as no surprise: of all the Arab states that saw revolts last year, Bahrain is arguably the most closely tied to American strategic interests. The country hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, a key watchdog in some of the world’s busiest oil-shipping lanes, waters that also border Iran. In the past five years, the U.S. has sent close to $100 million in military aide to Bahrain—a hefty amount for such a small country—much of it earmarked for “stabilization operations” that include training and equipping police and paramilitary forces. And Bahrain’s leadership is intimately linked to that of Saudi Arabia, America’s greatest ally in the region.
Since beginning its crackdown, Bahrain’s leadership has been assiduous about molding perceptions of the uprising, retaining major public relations firms like Washington, D.C.’s Qorvis and London’s Bell Pottinger to help shape the narrative that reaches those in the West. On social-media sites like Twitter, pro-government voices have run steady interference, bordering on harassment, in debates about the kingdom. They have tried to sow doubt about the revolt’s status as a grassroots democratic movement, casting it instead as an Iranian-led coup attempt and a grave threat to the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Perhaps the biggest mark of this campaign’s success is that coverage of the crackdown, on the whole, has been slight. By and large, Bahrain has faded into the background of the Arab Spring.
What this silence conceals is the story of what really happened in the Gulf kingdom last year, and the full story of America’s halfhearted attempts to intervene, which ultimately went nowhere. What it also obscures is that last year’s events may mark an ominous turning point in the tiny country’s history. Bahrain’s uprising grew out of a long-running conflict between the country’s Sunni ruling class and its marginalized Shiite majority. But its aftermath has taken on the dimensions of something darker still—a vastly asymmetrical battle that, in the words of Marina Ottaway, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has assumed the “ugly overtones of ethnic cleansing and collective punishment.”
When I first traveled to Bahrain in 2009—some two years before the Arab Spring—it was to report on demonstrations that were, even then, riling the Gulf state. Shiite protesters were burning piles of tires nearly every night, demanding better jobs, better housing, better education, and the release of political prisoners.
I was living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, at the time, five hours from Bahrain by car. The last hour of the drive runs along a low causeway that crosses a shimmering blue finger of the Persian Gulf. On the island itself, Bahrain’s capital, Manama, cuts a sleek silhouette much like that of Doha or Abu Dhabi or the other Gulf capitals: skyscrapers, malls, SUVs.
My destination, however, was a run-down Shiite neighborhood in the capital called Jidhafs. In contrast to the hyper-modern parts of town, it had narrow, winding streets, neat white shop houses, and big old trees set in orderly courtyards, relics from the days when Bahrain was a British protectorate. A prominent Shiite writer in Saudi Arabia had arranged for me to meet two brothers named Sayed and Jaafar, underground Shiite activists who for decades had agitated against Bahrain’s government and had only recently returned to the country from exile. I was surprised to find two pudgy, affable men with salt-and-pepper hair and wide smiles. They immediately sat me down to an elaborate lunch of rice, roasted meat, crisp greens, and deep-fried cauliflower. While in exile, they’d run a restaurant.
The brothers were baharna—descendants of Arab tribes who have inhabited the islands of Bahrain and the eastern part of Saudi Arabia since what they call “the beginning,” when the prophet Mohammad’s emissaries came to convert them to Islam in the seventh century. The converts were partisans—in Arabic, shiat—of Ali, the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. In English, we call them Shiites.
At the end of the eighteenth century, a Sunni tribe called the Al Khalifa conquered the Bahraini islands. The baharna Shiites, who worked as pearl divers, fishermen, and date farmers, were relegated to peasant status. In 1820, to make matters worse for the baharna, the Al Khalifa signed a treaty with Britain—then the dominant military force in the Gulf—establishing the tribe as the rulers of Bahrain.
When Bahrain gained independence in 1971, the British departed, handing control of their military base to the U.S. Navy. The Al Khalifa moved to consolidate power further. The clan came to permeate every level of government and business, while the baharna were kept from positions of influence or authority. Shiites of Sayed and Jaafar’s father’s generation petitioned the Al Khalifa for better representation. The Al Khalifa responded by importing Sunnis from countries like Pakistan, Yemen, Jordan, and Syria, as a way to engineer the country’s demography. These unskilled immigrants were given jobs as policemen and soldiers and granted full citizenship.
Sayed was soft-spoken and polite during lunch, constantly offering me seconds and thirds as his granddaughter ran around the table, giggling. After the meal, though, he dismissed the kids and began to raise his voice. He described how badly Shiites were being treated by the Al Khalifa. “If they have a problem with their own people, they should solve this problem—not bring other people to replace us,” he said. “Why bring the worst people from these countries? Why not bring the best, the most educated, to help develop Bahrain?”
We were drinking tea and eating fatiteh, a sweet paste of dates and sesame seeds indigenous to Bahrain and the predominantly Shiite regions of eastern Saudi Arabia. “We are the original people of Bahrain,” Sayed continued. “They should not treat us like minorities, like foreigners. What the regime doesn’t understand is that we simply want to be treated like equals. Be good to us, and we will be better than you.”
In Sayed’s lifetime, tensions between the baharna and the Al Khalifa escalated. After the 1979 Shiite-led Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Shiites of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia also rose up. Bahraini authorities uncovered plans by an Iranian-backed group to overthrow the government. Thousands of Bahrainis were jailed. Sayed and Jaafar fled the country.
They sought political asylum in Denmark and settled in Copenhagen, where they opened the restaurant, and later an Internet cafe, to pay the bills. Like other Bahraini exiles in cities like London and Damascus, they helped found a Western-style human rights organization to document the privations endured by Shiite political prisoners in Bahraini jails: torn-out fingernails, sleep deprivation, dog attacks, severe beatings.
In the 1990s, as the U.S. naval presence in Bahrain expanded in support of the first Gulf War, Bahrain’s underclass rose up again. This time it was a full-blown intifada that saw regular clashes between protesters and security forces—and more detentions. The ruling family branded exiles like Sayed and Jaafar as terrorists, agents of “external forces trying to bring down the regime.” The implication was that Iran was sponsoring another coup attempt, a claim for which no evidence was ever produced.
Then, in 1999, the ruler of Bahrain died. His Western-educated son, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, took over the day-to-day workings of the country and quickly started talking about reform. He granted amnesty for hundreds of political prisoners, allowed the exiles to return, and announced plans to transition Bahrain toward a real constitutional monarchy. As the story goes, when Hamad first visited the Shiite village of Sitra, situated in one of the most neglected corners of Bahrain, the multitudes were so elated that they hoisted his car in the air and carried him through the streets. A staggering 90 percent of the country’s voting-age population later ratified Hamad’s vision for reform, called the National Action Charter. The plan called for parliamentary elections; subsequent reform allowed for the formation of “political societies”—one step short of political parties. Sayed and Jaafar and scores of other Shiite exiles made their way back home.
“Denmark is Denmark—a high standard of living—but we came back to our country, because this is our land,” Sayed told me. “Everybody had big hope.”
But those hopes were systematically dashed over the next decade. First it became clear that Bahrain’s new parliament would in fact include only one elected house, and the other would be appointed. Then the voting districts were drawn in favor of Sunnis. At the same time, economic inequities were rising. When the island boomed in the mid-2000s—its banking district flush with offshore cash from oil-rich neighbors and its importance as a United States ally continuing to grow—Shiites remained unemployed and disenfranchised. And when the shock waves of the global economic crisis reached Bahrain, the government cut food and fuel subsidies.
By the time I arrived, in April 2009, jails were again filling up with political activists who criticized the Al Khalifa for abandoning reform. Sayed and Jaafar spoke in code when they talked on the phone. “If they spent 20 percent of what they are spending on public security and military on the people, things will be much better,” Sayed said. “If somebody has a house, has good work, believes his government is representing him, of course he won’t do anything bad.” As it was, however, the pressure and frustration inside Bahrain’s Shiite enclaves was building, just waiting to blow up.
One day in early February of last year, Sayed was sitting at his home computer, reading an online forum. A debate was brewing over whether Bahrain was ready for its own “day of rage.” Weeks earlier, Tunisia’s dictator had fled to Saudi Arabia. Hosni Mubarak had just abdicated power to the military in Egypt. Tens of thousands of protesters had taken to the streets in Yemen. Users on the forum Sayed was reading—all of them anonymous—said the time had come for Bahrainis to gather in great numbers and call for sweeping reforms. The place to do it, some said, was the Pearl Roundabout, a traffic circle centered around a monument that looked like elongated fingers stretching a white sphere to the sky. And the time to do it was February 14, 2011—ten years to the day after Bahrain had ratified King Hamad’s National Action Charter.
Sayed honestly didn’t think any kind of mass protest would materialize. He expected a few people to protest here and there, but certainly nothing like what happened in Egypt.
When February 14th came, the first protest erupted during the early-morning hours in a small, poor, Shiite village about an hour’s drive south of Manama. Other villages followed. Sayed went from one protest to the next, shooting video and warning people about the movements of the riot police. That night a young man was killed in a poor Shiite district of the capital after riot police shot him in the back with birdshot at close range. Masses turned out for his funeral the next day. Then they thronged the Pearl Roundabout.
Sayed hovered at the perimeter, his skepticism giving way to amazement as he watched the circle fill with people. (Beyond these few details, Sayed is cagey about his part in the uprising; if he played some instrumental role in the protests, he says he is not able to tell me.)
In just a few weeks the protests grew to the hundreds of thousands—nearly a quarter of Bahrain’s population. In the beginning, protesters’ demands were fairly straightforward: better representation in parliament; better access to jobs, housing, and education; more checks and balances on the ruling monarchy. As in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, a sprawling tent city emerged at the Pearl Roundabout. Most of the demonstrators were Shiites, but Sunnis were among them too. One observer described the scene as a county fair: “Everyone—everyone—was out in the square. Old women, babies, grandpas. Even if they didn’t have a specific grievance, there was just this sense that someone might finally be listening to what they had to say.”
In those first weeks, the U.S. government joined the calls for reform. Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, made several trips to Bahrain, meeting with members of the opposition and the royal family and encouraging all sides to reach a compromise. Later, Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited to meet with the king, assuring him of U.S. support but saying that “baby steps” toward reform would not be enough. President Obama himself called King Hamad.
Within a month, though, the euphoria and the moment of possibility were gone. In mid-March, tanks from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates rolled in, and the Pearl Roundabout was violently “cleansed.” Bahrain’s king declared a state of emergency that allowed authorities to take “all necessary measures to protect the safety of the country and its citizens.” Traffic on the main roads of the capital was forbidden from four p.m. to four a.m. All public gatherings were banned. Anyone who’d dared to protest became subject to investigation and reprisal. On March 18, in broad daylight and in front of TV cameras, the 300-foot monument at the now-desolate Pearl Roundabout was demolished, killing a foreign worker as it crumbled to the ground. One official referred to the demolition as a way to erase a “bad memory.”
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.”
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.
“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.
I made my way to the village and caught the now familiar sight of protesters gathered in a small group, shouting slogans against Bahrain’s royal family. Within minutes riot police descended, and I fled with the demonstrators into the home of the victim’s relatives. We stayed there, trapped, for hours as the police fired tear gas at such close range that it ripped holes into the walls. The following day, the pattern repeated itself. The man’s funeral turned into a flash protest; the riot police responded violently; the whole thing was caught on video.
Since then the government has vowed to implement the investigating commission’s recommendations, like reinstating sacked workers and rebuilding some Shiite mosques. But to this day, not a single official has been held accountable for the violence during the crackdown—or for the violence that continues today. The chief of Bahrain’s national security council, also a member of the royal family, was replaced. But he was offered a new position, as special adviser to the king.
For its part, the U.S. Congress has put on hold a $53 million package of arms sales to Bahrain, insisting that its rulers implement real reforms. That arms package includes Humvees and antitank missiles. But another previously authorized arms package—which U.S. officials say will only maintain Bahrain’s current defense systems and will not be used against protesters—will proceed. As tensions between the U.S. and Iran heat up over that country’s nuclear program and threats to close a waterway that controls the Persian Gulf, U.S. officials say Bahrain is a good friend in a tough neighborhood—a friend the U.S. simply can not afford to lose.
“If there is a place globally where there is not just distance but a huge gap between American interests and American values, it’s in the Persian Gulf. And its epicenter is in Bahrain,” says Toby Jones of Rutgers University. By deciding it wants to see the Bahraini regime survive and endure, Jones says, “the United States has chosen sides.”
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.