Bahrain: Revolution and Opposition

The Arab Spring that spread across the Middle East in 2011 also made its way to the Gulf island nation of Bahrain. The protests began at the Pearl Roundabout on February 14th of that same year (Dickinson, 2012, p39). It was largely led by the Shia community, which constituted the majority of Bahrain’s population (Dickson, 2012, p39). The Shia community has had a long history of protest against the Bahrain government, starting in the early half of the 20th century (Ulrichsen, 2012, p28). While Bahrain technically has a prime minister and parliament, the king has the absolute right to pick and choose who he sees fit (Mitchell, 2012, p33). A few years before the Arab Spring, the king ruling Bahrain at the time of the protests, King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, had given “political reform” for his country but little was actually done (Ulrichsen, 2012, p28). There were accusations of corruption, government suppression of dissent, the emergence of more draconian forms of punishment for those considered enemies of the state (Ulrichsen, 2012, p28).  The monarchy also did not allow the Shia population to be hired as police officers or military men, using foreigners instead (Mitchell, 2012, p33). Frustrated by being continuously marginalized by the Sunni al-Khalifa kings, the protesters demanded a series of democratic reforms (Dickson, 2012, p39, p41). Protesters wanted a parliament that was representative rather than symbolic and for the constitution to be rewritten (Dickson, 2012, p41). Protestors also wanted the promise of job security as the job market for citizens, especially for young people had shrunk (Ulrichsen, 2012, p28).

The protesters had used online social media to communicate and plan their protests (Dickson, 2012, p41). They were organized and knew how to mobilize themselves (Dickson, 2012, p41). However, despite their best efforts, government forces had killed six protesters and in March of that year, thirty more protesters died after the Saudi Arabian military forces were invited into the country to break up the protest (Dickson, 2012, p41). Both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia were allies under the Gulf Cooperation Council, which acted as safeguard against oppositional forces and during 2012, troops that were affiliated with the council remained in Bahrain (Mitchell, 2012, p32-33). Saudi Arabia’s support of Bahrain was due to their own fears of a Shia led protest in their own country and that Shias in Bahrain could shift the power balance to favor Iran (Dickson, 2012, p46-47). The U.S. government also supported the decision made by Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and had supported the monarchy, although it had called for more a democratic process on dealing with the protests (Faramarzi, 2011, p41-42). The American support for the Bahrain government was due U.S. opposition to Iran and its strategic placement for the U.S. Navy (Hasan, 2012, p35). Protesters numbering in the hundreds faced imprisonment, police raids, job loss, and torture if caught participating (Dickson, 2012, p40-41). As a result of the protests, “More than 4,400 people have been dismissed from their jobs” and “over 40 mosques and religious sites deemed to have links to pro-democracy activists were destroyed” (Zunes, 2013, p149). The government of Bahrain had blamed Iran for instigating the protests but in fact, Iran had little to do with the protests and Shias in Bahrain were not connected to Iran despite their common faith (Nuruzzaman, 2013, p369-370).

Despite the Bahrain government efforts to bulldoze the site of the protests, protesters continued to meet at the Pearl Roundabout (Dickson, 2012, p42). Protests continued to persist in 2012 and twenty more protesters died that year from bullets and tear gas from police brutality (Dickson, 2012, p42). Protestors began using more violent forms of protests such as throwing objects and using weapons such as bombs (Dickson, 2012, p48). Hospitals, nurses, and doctors were considered part of the government opposition because they had helped injured protestors and as a result, a great deal of medical professionals were imprisoned (Tetreault, 2011, p632). The protests had the effect of segregating the Sunni and Shia community as well as adding tension between them (Dickson, 2012, p43). The Sunni community as a result of their feelings of fear and uncertainty, had launched counter-protests against the Shia-backed protests (Dickson, 2012, p43). Due to the Shia protests however, the Sunni community had also requested for similar demands from the government, in a movement called the “Sunni Awakening” (Dickson, 2012, p44). The government of Bahrain had discussed compromising with Shia protesters, but much of the Sunni community was opposed to the idea and therefore the government used them as an excuse to not meet the Shia protesters’ demands (Dickson, 2012, p44).

In spite of the government promises, very little progress had been made to meet the demands of the Shia community, leaving them with very little political clout (Mitchell, 2012, p35). The government had tried to fix the damage it had caused by promising to limit torture and to build new housing, but it had done nothing to fix the grievances of the Shia community (Ulrichsen, 2012, p31). Because of the government’s lack of response and little political progress, there has been a move by activists to shift to more extreme tactics (Ulrichsen, 2012, p30). Some have even demanded a democratic government rather a monarchy (Zunes, 2013, p150).  The initial protest movement that began in 2011 has since fractured into other movements such as the “February 14” group that has gained popularity with young protestors (Ulrichsen, 2012, p31).

Bibliography and Further Reading:



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