Pearl is no sequel to Tahrir

Eight months after their rebellion, Bahrain’s Shi’ite population faces a bleak future.

Bahrain protests Pearl Square_311 reuters (photo credit: Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters)
Bahrain protests Pearl Square_311 reuters
(photo credit: Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters)
“It’s tough to round up guys to protest,” Muhammad al-Jishi, a 23-year-old activist from the Shi’ite slum in Sitra Island in Bahrain wrote in a Facebook message. “A lot of people are scared to burn tires and throw rocks. The security services have really clamped down on our activities and we mostly sit around drinking coffee and asking where it all went wrong.”
When popular demonstrations broke out across the Arab world in February demanding the end to dictatorships and monarchies, many Bahrainis saw their chance to demand the freedoms their rulers denied them. But nine months later, their hopes have been crushed as the monarchy has tightened its grip on power and squashed all forms of dissent.
Like many Shi’ites his age, 24-year-old Jaafar Buhaymi doesn’t have a steady job.
He lives with his parents and makes a few hundred dollars a month working at odd jobs such as delivering documents and answering phones in his uncle’s insurance office in Juffair near the capital, Manama.
He blames the Sunni monarchy that rules the small kingdom for his dire plight.
“They don’t give the Shi’ites enough jobs,” he complains to The Report in a phone call.
“They discriminate against us and instead bring in Indians to work because they know they won’t complain.”
After the Egyptian revolution captivated the world for three weeks in February, Buhaymi joined tens of thousands of others in trying to repeat the feat in Bahrain.
Like the protesters in Cairo, who occupied the central traffic artery of Tahrir Square, the demonstrators in Manama took over Pearl Roundabout. They pitched tents, painted slogans on large canvases and held daily rallies. They welcomed foreign journalists by setting up a media center.
Sandwiches and bottled water were brought in at punctual intervals.
But Bahrain proved not to be a sequel to the Egyptian revolution. The monarchy refused to buckle and its powerful allies buttressed its decision to quash the protesters. Its chief benefactor, the United States, could not risk the collapse of a vital ally. The American Fifth Fleet calls Bahrain home and the monarchy has been a vocal supporter of Washington’s efforts to contain a menacing Iran just across the Persian Gulf.
However, it was neighboring Saudi Arabia that put an end to the demonstrations. In March, Saudi Arabia rolled tanks and armored personnel carriers, along with over 1,000 soldiers, across the causeway linking the two nations. The staunch protector of Sunni Islam could not tolerate the thought of its tiny ally becoming a democracy where the majority would govern.
Though Bahrain is ruled by a Sunni monarchy, Sunnis represent only 35 percent of the population. The other 65 percent are Shi’ite, just like their religious brethren in Iran. Saudi Arabia is virulently anti- Shi’ite and has clashed with the mullahs in Tehran ever since a revolution brought them to power in Iran in 1979.
Moreover, Bahrain has been a solid Saudi ally in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) which brings together the small oil emirates of the Persian Gulf. Bahrain always votes the Saudi line in the GCC and has supported its larger neighbor’s policies of containing wayward members such as Qatar.
The Saudi tanks not only squashed the protests, but crushed the demonstrators’ will as well. Dozens of young Shi’ites died and hundreds of others were rounded up.
Hard-line politicians calling for the fall of the monarchy were arrested. Twenty medical professionals were sentenced to terms ranging from five to 15 years on charges of subverting the state for treating injured protesters. In a symbolic gesture, the government demolished a monument at Pearl Roundabout around which the protesters had camped.
“We thought the monarchy would at least negotiate with us,” grumbles 24-year-old Ali Radawi in a phone call with The Report.“We never thought they would move so swiftly to end the protests. They sent us so many conflicting signals that they would contemplate some reforms.”
But others note that the monarchy was backed into a corner and had few choices.
“The Saudis were really pressuring the government to end the protests,” explains a prominent Bahraini journalist, who requested that his name not be mentioned, in a phone call. “The Saudis feared protests would spill over into its own Shi’ite areas.
And all the Arab governments were scared after [Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak resigned. No one knew who would succumb next to the Arab Spring and the GCC did not want to lose one of its own.”
One group that did lose was the main Shi’ite opposition party, Al Wefaq. The party’s 18 seats constituted the largest bloc in the 40-member parliament. But after the government sent in its security forces to clear out Pearl Roundabout in February, Al Wefaq representatives resigned from parliament in protest against the government violence directed at demonstrators.
In September, elections were held to replace them. Because Shi’ites boycotted the vote, pro-regime candidates carried all the districts.
Today few in Bahrain think the situation will revert to the pre-protest situation any time soon. Though the monarchy has expressed its desire to negotiate, Al Wefaq has lost most of its street credibility. Its members are lying low, waiting for the anger in the street to dissipate.
“There is little Al Wefaq could do,” explains a local political science professor in a phone call. “After the Saudis came in, people were angry and didn’t want any negotiations. Al Wefaq has always taken a conciliatory approach to the monarchy. But with so many dead and arrested, talks were seen as useless.”
Al Wefaq members, however, are confident the party will regain its footing.
“There have always been challenges and difficulties with the monarchy,” an Al Wefaq representative tells The Report, also in a telephone call. “But we were able to find common goals and make it to the negotiating table. This time will be no different. It just might take longer.”
Such optimism, however, angers the youths who led the street protests.
“The monarchy trampled us and now wants to negotiate?” writes 28-year-old Mansur Jardo, who inhaled tear gas fired at protesters by security forces near Pearl Roundabout, in an e-mail to The Report. “If we lost everything, we still have our dignity.”
Others hope cooler heads will prevail and that Sunnis and Shi’ites can find a common ground.
“Relations between us have never been excellent,” admits a member of a Sunni political organization to The Report. “But we have always found a way to coexist. It is true that the Pearl protests were excessive and the monarchy’s response uncharacteristic.
But at the end of the day we all live on this island.
The Shi’ites need to understand this and work within the framework of dialogue the monarchy creates.”
But coexistence is the least of Buhaymi’s concerns as he excuses himself to deliver an insurance form. “It’s too soon to think about trying to find our way back to the pre-Pearl days. We lost too many brothers.”