Bahrain at the Crossroads

Cortni Kerr Mar 15, 2011

Editor’s Note: As The Indypendent went to press, 1,000 troops from Saudi Arabia entered Bahrain at the request of the Bahraini king. Opposition forces that had engaged in two months of large, peaceful demonstrations termed the armed intervention a “declaration of war.” While the imminent threat is of violence against unarmed protesters, an even greater danger is a regionalization of the conflict, particularly as the Saudis look to repress Shi‘i demonstrating for greater freedoms and economic equality.  By Cortni Kerr and Toby Jones  Before Saudian troops entered Bahrain on March 14, an uncertain calm had settled over the small island kingdom of Bahrain. The wave of peaceful pro-democracy protests Feb. 14-17 culminated in bloodshed, including the brutal murder of seven activists by the armed forces. On orders from above, the army withdrew from the roundabout on the outskirts of the capital of Manama where the protests have been centered, and since shortly after the seven deaths it has observed calls for restraint. For weeks, thousands of jubilant protesters have reoccupied the roundabout, the now infamous Pearl Circle, and have renamed it Martyrs’ Circle in commemoration of the dead. 

‘EVEN THE WEATHER IS A LIE:’ Pro-democracy activists rally against Bahrain state television in early March. They accuse the network of broadcasting blatant falsehoods and stoking sectarian tensions. PHOTO: Al Jazeera English The mood in the circle has ranged from buoyant, even carnivalesque to dead serious. The thousands of encamped demonstrators are demanding fundamental changes to the kingdom’s autocratic political order.

The crown prince, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, has issued a bland call for healing and national dialogue. The country’s formal opposition may be tempted by the prospect of realizing some of its long-established demands for reform. But the wounds from the direct assault at dawn on Feb. 17 are deep. Several prominent banners in Martyrs’ Circle display the pledge, “No dialogue with those who killed us in cold blood.” Chants echo: “We will sit here until the fall of the regime!” The fault lines that have long divided rulers and subjects in Bahrain have widened due to the carnage.

Well-organized pro-democracy marches and rallies have taken place in Manama at government institutions and at the financial harbor, a symbol of both Bahrain’s recent economic prosperity and government corruption. Meanwhile, on Feb. 21 and March 2 the regime summoned tens of thousands of supporters in Manama (state television wildly claimed 300,000 in a country where the native-born population is just under 1 million). The royal family chose a large Sunni mosque, al-Fatih, as the rally site. The Al Khalifa, themselves Sunni, have a history of playing sectarian politics to divide and rule the population, which is majority Shi‘i. The pro-democracy protesters, for their part, have maintained from the start that their cause is national, appealing explicitly to cross-communal solidarity.

The killing is done for now, but the cold peace between the regime and the dissidents appears set to heat up with foreign troops occupying key positions in Manama. Bahrain’s revolution is not over, and its outcome is far from decided.


Given the military intervention, the royal family seems unlikely to enact substantive political reform. Previously, on Feb. 20, the crown prince acknowledged the “clear messages from the Bahraini people … about the need for reforms.” Most Bahrainis greeted his vague words with cynicism as they recalled the false promises from before.

In 2000 and 2001 then-Emir Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah (he has since declared himself king) promised sweeping liberal reforms that would transform Bahrain from an absolute monarchy into a constitutional one. Instead, Hamad and his cronies set up a sham bicameral parliament, decreed a constitution that consolidated power in the hands of the elites and institutionalized discrimination against the Shi‘i. The king appoints a consultative council that can block legislation passed by the elected lower house. Electoral districts are gerrymandered to minimize Shi‘i representation.

Popular hostility to the political status quo has simmered ever since. Although the Shi‘i have suffered the most from the regime’s intransigence, frustrations cut across religious lines. For 10 years, an organized opposition consisting of a handful of formal political societies (actual parties are illegal) has struggled to pressure the regime to correct its course. The two most prominent societies, the Shi‘i Islamist grouping al-Wifaq and the left-leaning, non-sectarian Wa‘ad, led the charge, boycotting the 2002 elections and generally refusing to give the system a stamp of legitimacy. But in 2006 the opposition ended its boycott, ran for parliament and vowed to change the system from within. They agitated for structural changes, but their incorporation into the system rendered them wholly ineffective.

The opposition decision to end the boycott split its social and political base. Alternative centers of dissent emerged, notably the Haqq Movement for Liberty and Democracy. Led by charismatic figures like Hasan Mushayma‘, ‘Isa al-Jawdar and ‘Abd al-Jalil Singace, Haqq rejected elections, called for increased grassroots organizing, including civil disobedience, and reached out to Western governments. Haqq’s bold program attracted supporters from al-Wifaq and Wa‘ad, and it eventually boasted a significant following in both the Shi‘i and Sunni communities. Equally important were efforts by a network of young, energetic and devoted human rights activists to draw attention to Shi‘i grievances in particular. At the heart of this network was the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, headed by ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja and Nabeel Rajab.

Haqq and the human rights activists assumed a more defiant stance against the regime than the established opposition. In 2005, the organizations began to mount peaceful street demonstrations demanding the redress of grievances such as poor housing, underemployment and credible reports of torture in the kingdom’s jails.

The new opposition leaders also began publicly criticizing the Al Khalifa. They paid a heavy price: arrests, imprisonment and torture. And opposition protests were met with brutality. From 2005 to 2010, security forces routinely attacked demonstrators with tear gas and rubber bullets. To preempt refusal of orders by the police, the regime stepped up its practice of recruiting foreigners as officers, including non-Bahraini Arabs and Pakistanis. Not coincidentally, the opposition says, the recruits tended to be Sunni. A cycle of state violence and opposition recrimination was firmly entrenched by 2010.

The state’s vicious treatment of the younger activist generation garnered them considerable credibility with the population. Where al-Wifaq and Wa‘ad pliantly sought influence in the corrupt halls of power, Haqq and the human rights groups were resilient in their insubordination. It became increasingly clear that the country’s political future would be decided in the streets.


While neither Haqq nor the Bahrain Center for Human Rights is entirely responsible for drumming up the massive demonstrations, many of their grassroots activists were directly involved in the Feb. 14 “day of rage” that kicked off the series of protests, through both social media like Twitter and Facebook and on-the-ground planning.

Feb. 14, 2011, was the 10th anniversary of the National Action Charter, which contained King Hamad’s original blueprint for reform. Ahead of the protest, Hamad announced an unheard-of payment of 1,000 Bahraini dinars, approximately $2,650, for every family. The handout, however, did not placate protest organizers.  Prior to Feb. 14, these young men and women had laid out their demands on various social media platforms. They called for constitutional reform, as well as freedom. They demanded genuinely free and fair elections, a consultative council representative of the citizens, the release of political prisoners and an end to corruption, torture and “political naturalization,” referring to the practice of granting foreign police recruits citizenship. As one writer summed up the program, “We do not want to overthrow the regime, as many imagine, and we do not want to gain control of the government. We do not want chairs and seats here or there. We want to be a people living with dignity and rights.”

BAHRAIN KING: Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. PHOTO: Julian Carroll/WikipediaPOINT OF NO RETURN

Tens of thousands of Bahrainis attended the Feb. 14 demonstrations in Manama and villages across the country. In most places, the police attempted to halt the proceedings with force, but the participants refused to disperse, initiating a violent game of cat and mouse. Police blocked access to potential assembly points, and where demonstrators still managed to gather, riot police stood at the ready with guns, batons and tear gas. Feb. 14 marked the first fatal mistake of the regime: the death of one demonstrator.

The following morning, security forces attacked the peaceful funeral procession, unloading a barrage of gunfire and tear gas upon the mourners, leading to the death of a second demonstrator. The king took the dramatic step of apologizing for his police, promising a swift internal investigation. Few Bahrainis were convinced.

The two deaths transformed loosely coordinated protests into a more centralized and powerful movement. By late afternoon, thousands of Bahrainis were pouring into Pearl Circle voicing their demands for reform and justice. Some had marched nearly two miles from their villages to the roundabout, risking harassment by the police. Despite the duress of the preceding day, a sense of joy and empowerment permeated the circle – a feeling that something had been won that could not be taken away.

At sunset on Feb. 15 the crowd registered several thousand, swelling as the evening progressed. There was no clear leadership, and al-Wifaq and Wa‘ad cadre scrambled to fill the void, but they knew it was not their movement. Nonetheless, one message rang clear: nonviolence. Speakers condemned police brutality and urged their audience not to follow suit.

The next day, Feb. 16, even more protesters returned to the circle with what they thought was a green light from the government. Many participants erected tents, intending to spend the night. A half-mile away, however, hundreds of riot troops sat waiting undetected.

In the early morning of Feb. 17, witnesses report, the police moved in, backed up by the army. Descending upon the encampment from all sides, they fired into tents with shotguns loaded with birdshot. Many demonstrators had been asleep. Four demonstrators were killed and many more were wounded. The armed forces fired upon demonstrators trying to reach the roundabout again on Feb. 18, resulting in the seventh death of the uprising.


Thousands gathered earlier that day in the village of Sitra for the funerals of three killed in the attack. Whatever legitimacy the royal family had among demonstrators had largely dissipated. The regime discredited itself further by claiming that police had “exhausted all channels” of peaceable persuasion with the snoozing protesters before drawing the shotguns. The atmosphere in Sitra was a fusion of sorrow and subdued rage.

Mourners stuck to their original petitions for justice and freedom through the transformation of the political system, as well as the refutation of regime sectarianism: “No Shi‘i, no Sunnis, only Bahrainis.” Yet angrier slogans also resounded. “Try the Al Khalifa as criminals,” some shouted. Zaynab, a schoolteacher from Sitra, expressed the new mood bluntly: “Today is for civilization and no longer for kings.”

The Feb. 17 massacre, videotaped and broadcast worldwide, may have been the point of no return for the Al Khalifa. The king hastened to anoint the crown prince, who has a reputation in the West as a reformer, as the convener of national dialogue and negotiations. On Feb. 19 pro-democracy supporters reclaimed Pearl Circle and quickly reestablished their destroyed camp.


In the tense quiet that followed, the ruling family energized its own social base. Many Bahrainis benefit from the status quo because they work for state institutions or belong to favored merchant families. Others simply prefer the devil they know. As in Egypt before the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, many feel that the unruly Pearl Circle demonstrators have succeeded mainly in disrupting normal life. This sentiment is tinged with class prejudice, but also with sectarianism; many government backers allege that the Shi‘i majority’s complaints are unsubstantiated. State TV has amplified these claims, leading pro-democracy activists to regard government media as a tool to incite sectarian tension. Following the Feb. 17 attack on Pearl Circle, the official network reported the discovery of a weapons cache there. Pro-democracy demonstrators adamantly denied the story. The state media claim was never validated.

The forces in the middle are the established opposition groups, al-Wifaq and Wa‘ad. Initially reluctant to support the demonstrations, al-Wifaq and Wa‘ad joined forces with protesters in the wake of the regime’s violence. But since the crown prince’s call for dialogue, they have declined to echo calls for the fall of the regime. Instead, they are hoping to obtain concessions from the royal family, while leaving the Al Khalifa in place. As a Wifaq MP, Mattar Mattar, told the press, “The opposition parties are discussing their set of demands, while the protesters on the streets have their own issues.” Will those in the circle who are chanting “Down, down, Al Khalifa!” accept anything less when the opposition societies sit down at the bargaining table? It is an open question to Bahrainis themselves.


No two revolutions are identical. While the Bahraini king may have been scared into making concessions by events in Tunisia and Egypt, the same chain of events cannot be assumed.

Most significant, the Al Khalifa’s allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council have thrown down the gauntlet by sending military forces into Bahrain. They are trying to prevent the king and his progeny from meeting the same fate as Egypt’s Mubaraks. Apart from the deep aversion Gulf monarchies have to participatory politics, the Saudis have a special interest in suppressing Shi‘i dissent. The oil-rich province of al-Hasa in Eastern Saudi Arabia is home to a large Shi‘i minority that harbors grievances similar to those of their Bahraini co-religionists. Then there is the United States, whose Fifth Fleet is strategically anchored in Bahrain, along with other military assets. The Fifth Fleet prowls the Persian Gulf, location of two thirds of the world’s proven oil reserves, to ensure that the precious liquid flows to global consumers. U.S. diplomats have accordingly been inclined to overlook the escalating roughness of the Al Khalifa’s response to dissent over the last five years.

“I am impressed by the commitment that the government has to the democratic path that Bahrain is walking on,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Manama on Dec. 3, 2010. As that path now appears to be lit from Pearl Circle rather than the palace, the Obama administration is trapped in its own rhetoric. It is urging the Al Khalifa to pursue “meaningful reform” and rebuking the regime for its violence, but stopping well short of the condemnatory language it employed to denounce similar repression in nearby Iran.

With each wave of violence that has swept Bahrain since February, the demands of the pro-democracy demonstrators have grown louder, more insistent and more radical. King Hamad has responded with apparent concessions, issuing a royal apology for the first two fatalities, pledging a renewed push for reform, firing four Cabinet ministers and, on Feb. 22, ordering the release of several political prisoners, including 23 Shi‘i activists who were on trial for sedition. The freeing of these men had been a key plank of the new opposition’s platform for some time.

One of the accused, Hasan Mushayma‘ of Haqq, was being tried in absentia. He returned to Bahrain following a royal pardon. Mushayma‘ could mediate between the hard-line crowds and the less confrontational established opposition, but on March 7 he announced the formation of the Coalition for a Republic, which calls for the complete removal of the regime. It consists of Haqq and two other opposition groups, Waaf‘a and Bahrain Freedom Movement.

While protesters remain unyielding in their demands for an entirely new political order, the entry of foreign military forces in Bahrain poses a dangerous new challenge for them and the region as a whole.

Cortni Kerr is a teacher living in Bahrain. Toby Jones is assistant professor of Middle East history at Rutgers University and an editor at the Middle East Report. This is an updated version of an article originally published on

Who’s Who in Bahrain

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa was an emir be­fore making Bahrain a kingdom in 2002.

Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa
is the heir apparent and eldest son of King Hamad.

Al-Wifaq, a Shi‘i Islamist grouping, is one of the two significant opposition political societies.

Wa‘ad is a left-leaning, non-sectarian political so­ciety that is part of the establishment opposition.

The Haqq Movement for Liberty and Democracy
is led by charismatic figures like Hasan Mush­ayma‘, who recently returned from exile. Haqq distinguishes itself from the establishment oppo­sition by rejecting elections and engaging in street protests.

The Bahrain Center for Human Rights is at the center of a movement to draw attention to Shi‘i grievances around political and economic dis­crimination.

The Coalition for a Republic is a new political formation that is calling for the complete down­fall of the regime.

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