Bahrain and the Arab Spring

A Bahraini activist speaks about Bahrain's rebellion and what the future holds.

The small island nation of Bahrain sits in the Persian Gulf, between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. When the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings toppled US-backed dictators last year, all of the region’s dictatorships trembled, including that in Bahrain. The winds of change inspired Bahrain’s downtrodden, and the country’s monarchy barely managed to maintain its grip on power. Ahmed Mohammed, a Bahraini activist visiting the United States, spoke with Zach Zill about Bahrain’s rebellion and what the future holds.

CAN YOU talk about how the movement in Bahrain unfolded last February? What brought out thousands of people to Pearl Square? What were the people calling for in the protests?

THE PROTESTS had originally aimed to make the government fulfill the promises of the king. These promises were made in a referendum the king put to the people in 2001. The referendum offered us a bargain: to turn Bahrain into a kingdom and the emir into a king. In return, the dreaded state of emergency law would be ended, and a parliament with full legislative powers would be instated. He basically offered what the opposition had been demanding throughout the uprising in the 1990s. The referendum was widely welcomed and approved. 

The king reneged on his promise. On February 14, 2002, the king announced a new constitution in which he concentrated power in his own hands. The constitution did give us a parliament, but it also thoroughly rigged the system. The parliament, contrary to the promises in the referendum, has virtually no legislative powers. I call the king’s existing power a triple veto system. In order to get to parliament, one has to go through gerrymandered constituencies, which dilute opposition votes. So that’s one veto: a guaranteed progovernment majority in parliament.

Those who do beat the odds and make it to parliament (the opposition often occupies seventeen to eighteen seats in parliament) find themselves in the unfortunate position of having to collaborate with pro-government MPs to pass bills. Say a miracle happens and such collaboration successfully passes an opposition-sponsored bill. They pass it to the upper chamber of parliament—which is appointed entirely by the king. So that’s another veto. 

Let’s say another miracle happens that day and the upper chamber decides to turn against their employer. They decide okay, you know what, this makes sense, screw the king, we’re going pass this—here, the king has the authority to directly veto the bill.

In response to this setup, the opposition parties boycotted the first parliamentary election in 2000. By 2006, they realized, okay, the government is not budging; they are ignoring the boycott. So they decided to run for elections. This caused a split in the opposition. It gave rise to the rejectionist camp, which recognized that political participation in such a thoroughly rigged system cannot possibly work in bringing about the desired changes. 

As the years went by, the regime plotted to permanently disempower the opposition and ensure the regime’s power in the long term. This effort materialized in various forms. One way was political naturalization. A former confidant of the royal family leaked documents proving a government plan to naturalize large numbers of poor Sunni Arabs from Syria, Yemen, Jordan, and elsewhere. [Seventy percent of Bahrainis are Shia—ed.]. The regime employs a mercenary police force and a mercenary army that’s almost entirely non-Bahraini and are invited for the sole purpose of occupying these positions. So the plan was basically to create a permanently loyal quasi-mercenary constituency. That way, the regime also gets to expand its secret police, police force, and the army, in preparation for future challenges.

The effects of political naturalization are profound. First, they exacerbate the already-high level of unemployment in Bahrain. According to the Economist, unemployment in Bahrain’s villages (which are small towns but are referred to as villages) was as high as 50 percent. Second, political naturalization increases the sense of xenophobia among Bahrainis, which is convenient for a regime that’s eager to divide and conquer. Third, the sudden increase in population meant higher demand for homes—which were already becoming out of reach for the working class. Worst of all, this policy revealed the regime’s deep-seated distrust of its own people. 

It appears that the royal family’s hatched long-term plans to disempower the opposition and secure its power permanently, all the while keeping the opposition weak and divided. It all fell apart as their conspiracies began to leak to the public, just as WikiLeaks did with US embassy cables. Probably the most scandalous leak of all is a document that reveals a transaction between a businessman and the king’s uncle, the prime minister. The latter, who is the world’s longest-serving prime minister and is a universally hated figure in Bahrain, bought a state-of-the-art financial development project called the Bahrain Financial Harbor for one dinar. That’s $2.65 for skyscrapers in the capital’s busiest district.

As all this became public knowledge, and as it became increasingly clear that the regime had no intentions of reforming the rigged political system, a lot of anger and resentment began building up. People within both wings of the opposition had been warning that this situation is not tenable and it would explode at some point. The government had been aggravating it with even more repression in the lead-up to February 14 [the beginning of the mass movement against the government in Bahrain—ed.].

The departure of Tunisia’s Ben Ali in January set Bahraini activists’ imagination on fire. A Facebook group was set up to mark the tenth anniversary of the hated constitution as Bahrain’s day of rage. There was about a monthlong gap between Ben Ali’s departure and February 14. What happened in between was even more exciting . . . 

EGYPT.

YES, EGYPT. Mubarak fell just days before February 14. The Bahraini regime was in a panic. In a matter of hours after Mubarak’s departure, Bahrain national television (BTV) announced that the government would give a thousand dinars to every household. That’s $ 2,650. Of course, the stated reason for this sudden act of generosity was the upcoming tenth anniversary celebrations of the “reform era.” 

IN THE United States, in the media at least, you often hear about how “cosmopolitan” the Bahraini ruling family is, and how it’s this model of reform compared to the other Gulf monarchies. 

IT’S COMPLETELY unfounded. This is among the world’s most reactionary regimes. Where, other than the Persian Gulf, do absolute monarchies exist in the twenty-first century? The royal family runs the country as a private firm. The majority of the ministries are headed by royal family members. This portrayal is not just ridiculous. It’s also offensive to people who are suffering under their rule. 

The US government rarely misses a chance to shower praise upon this royal family, too. Just a few months before the uprising of February 14, Hillary Clinton visited Bahrain. She told journalists in a press conference that she was impressed with Bahrain’s progress. When pressed to specify on which fronts she sees progress happening, she replied, “on all fronts.”

WAS THE movement in Pearl Square calling specifically for the end of the monarchy? Were there economic components to what the movement was saying?

NOT IN the beginning. The protesters were calling for a constitutional monarchy, which is what the constitution claims Bahrain is, anyway. This entailed giving the parliament full legislative powers, ending the gerrymandered constituency system, and most importantly, an elected prime minister. As I’ve pointed out earlier, he is universally hated in Bahrain and is known for his corruption and ruthlessness. Moreover, he’s been in power for forty years; since the country’s independence from Britain.

SO THEY were calling for . . .

HIS REMOVAL. 

HIS REMOVAL, and real elections?

YES, WHICH the government will not allow. These demands are not very radical, though they would severely curtail the royal family’s political power. The royal family, as I’ve explained earlier, has been plotting to do away with the opposition as a political force altogether for years. Moreover, these are a reactionary bunch. They were not about to voluntarily relinquish their power.

So, the peaceful protests were met with brutal repression, especially on February 17. By then, the protesters had successfully made their way to the Pearl Roundabout and had already camped there for two nights. I was there the night they attacked, but fortunately, I left just a few hours before the surprise attack. A friend of mine wanted to spend the night there but decided against it in the last minute. He might have lost his life if he did. After attacking [protesters at] the roundabout, the government sent the army to stop people from returning there. When some protesters attempted to return the next day, they were sprayed with live ammunition. 

Against all odds and after all that brutality, people still managed to reoccupy the roundabout. By then, the change in slogans was clear. The discourse of the rejectionist camp has clearly prevailed. Dispatching the army to mow down peaceful protesters was the last straw for many people. The rejectionists have been vindicated. This regime is beyond reform.

AND WAS there also an economic component to it?

YES, BUT you can’t see it in the slogans. Economic factors certainly underlie many grievances. 

For example, the rising price of housing, as I mentioned earlier. This was in large part a result of the royal family’s sweeping land-grab schemes. While they were doing this, Bahrain was also opening its markets to foreign capital through a free trade agreement with the United States. The land-grabbing schemes caused scarcity in commercially available land, and the liberalization of the economy increased demand for whatever is left. The effect of this is predictable: land and property values exploded.

Also, economic factors break down according to sectarian affiliation. I can tell you for sure that the people who protested were predominately Shia. And the Shia are systematically discriminated against, especially in the military and the police. If you don’t have a college degree, or if you don’t even have a high school degree, if you’re a Sunni, you can just go find a job in the military or the police, like [in] any other country around the world. Shias can’t do that. That’s just one factor among many, but the level of unemployment in the Shia villages is proportionately much higher than in their Sunni counterparts. And so I think that’s definitely a part of the drive for protests and why people are angry.

But the demands of the protests were primarily political. I think this is probably due to the fact that the opposition groups have been framing the issues this way. Ultimately, I think the political demands are a means to solve the economic ones. But one shouldn’t overlook the theme of dignity, which pervades all the Arab uprisings. This is an interesting development. People are demanding to be recognized. We are constantly treated as if we’re guests in our own country.

For example, the University of Bahrain, which is Bahrain’s largest state-run university, and which expelled professors and students after the crackdown, forced its students to sign a piece of paper pledging never to get involved in politics again. Then it goes on to say something like “I acknowledge that the state pays more that 90 percent of the total cost of my education.” In other words, I recognize that the state has been so kind and generous to me by subsidizing education, I therefore promise not to be ungrateful. To paraphrase Ibrahim Sharif of the National Democratic Action Society, Al Khalifa is a tribe that still treats us as spoils of war with which they can do whatever they please. This is a reference to the fact that the royal family had invaded Bahrain a few centuries ago.

CAN YOU say something about how you personally got involved and what it was like to be in Pearl Square?

I DON’T have a personal history of protests. But two factors made me want to be involved. First is the sudden realization that change is actually possible; that we can make our own history. The Tunisians and the Egyptians did it. Why can’t we? Secondly, the police’s brutal response to the small and sporadic protests on February 14 made me feel compelled to get involved. On the first day, they brutally suppressed the protests. They killed a person. They shot him in the back as he was trying to run away and they killed him. The next morning, they held a funeral and they attacked that funeral as well and killed another person. By then, I thought, okay, that’s it, I can’t stay at home. I can’t live with myself staying at home.

The next day, I called a friend of mine and asked him whether he’d come along. That was when I found out that there was a kind of a collective click among myself and my friends, most of whom come from similar backgrounds—no history of protest, et cetera. I called him and I said, “Look, we have to do something.” And he said, “I agree, now what?” He said, “Why don’t you come to my place and we’ll see what happens?”

So, we went to his place, and more and more people started showing up because people were contacting one another—all of them equally determined, excited, and confused. “What do we do? We have to do something.” We didn’t even know where to go. I was contacting a couple of friends, some of whom are activists. I asked them, “Where do we go?” You know, we were completely clueless. And someone told us, Come to the Pearl Roundabout. To my knowledge, not a single protest was ever held there, ever. Why there? Okay, let’s see, let’s just go there.

We drove there and we parked the car in a mall and we walked. I was just nervously looking for any signs of police around us—there weren’t any. There were just a couple of hundred protesters at the roundabout at the time. We had no idea what was going to happen. I mean, we could be slaughtered at any minute, for all we knew. Then, I learned that Ebrahim Sharif, the head of Bahrain’s largest secular opposition group (the predecessor of which was a revolutionary Marxist group; in its present form, it’s a sort of a coalition of liberals, Marxists, Nasserists, and others). So I asked him: “Do you think they’re they going to attack us? Where are the police?” He told me he didn’t think the regime really wanted to commit a massacre before the cameras of the international media. On the night of February 17, however, the government proved that it had no qualms about murdering people just to move us from the roundabout.  

AND IT got bigger after they attacked? More people started coming?

EVEN BEFORE they attacked it got bigger. As time passed, people felt safe about coming and even began bringing their children. It was an irresponsible thing to do, but it became pretty common. Nobody really has any exact figures, but I can tell you that there were thousands of people at the time. I left about three hours before they attacked, so I don’t know how many people spent the night there. We left and then they attacked.

When the roundabout was recaptured, people just started trickling in slowly. The really dedicated activists are the ones who made it there first. Slowly, the numbers increased to unprecedented levels. At their peak, the numbers were reported to be a few hundred thousand. Proportionally speaking, this is almost certainly the largest protest among all Arab countries. It’s a country of less than a million people, after all. 

BAHRAIN IS the home of the Fifth Fleet of the US Navy. Do you want to say something about the role that the US government and the Saudi government played in crushing the movement? And maybe describe the Saudi invasion and how they targeted specific groups, including the medical staff, the doctors, who were treating injured protestors.

I’M GLAD you brought that up. Bahrain is a US client-state, so the role of the US government is very important. The US government pretended not to know that the Saudis were about to invade. After the fact, the United States feigned surprise. We already know that Robert Gates was in the country just a few days before the invasion. [Assistant Secretary of State] Jeffrey Feltman was in the country while the Saudis were invading. [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Mike Mullen was in Saudi Arabia. There’s no doubt that they were aware of every development and every government plan.

I think the bottom line is that there was no way the United States was going to let a democratic transition happen in Bahrain. Such a development would quickly spread to Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, which is just a couple of miles away. More than geographical proximity, the people of the Eastern Province share a degree of sectarian and cultural affinity with Bahrain. The population there is Shia, and they are also systematically discriminated against, even more so than Bahrainis are. They also have more grievances and more history of protest, and a better civil society structure there. Unlike the rest of Saudi Arabia, people in the Eastern Province have a history of labor activism, which mostly is owed to the early development of the oil industry there. Most importantly, the Eastern Province is the world’s richest region in oil. If you have instability on top of America’s oil, that’s not good.

I think the regional implications of what would have happened in Bahrain are far more profound than the domestic ones—as important as those are. Although I wasn’t very optimistic, I didn’t expect the campaign of retribution that the regime has unleashed on the people since the crackdown in mid-March. As you pointed out, they went after the medical staff for treating protesters. The Ministry of Health ordered the medical staff not to treat the protesters, which led the minister of health to resign. Ambulances were attacked by the police, too.

THEY ALSO sent troops into the hospital, is that right?

YES, THE military occupied the hospital. There are rumors—I don’t know if they have been substantiated—but there are rumors that the army turned two wards on the sixth floor of the hospital into torture chambers. What we do know for sure is that they tortured the medical staff. We have testimonies from several doctors, for one thing. You have to realize that these are professionals. They’re economically privileged and don’t really have a history of protest. They most certainly do not share the same grievances as the people in the roundabout—at least not in the same degree.

By specifically going after Shia doctors and nurses, as well as desecrating and destroying over thirty Shia mosques, the government has effectively cemented sectarian affinities and antagonism. The royal family portrayed themselves as the protectors of the Sunni community from the Shias to the international press. In the words of Bahrain’s foreign minister, Bahrain was “at the brink of a sectarian abyss.” It’s a very cynical position, considering the concerted effort the regime made to sectarianize the uprising.

BEFORE YOU get too far down the road of the reprisals that have happened since March, do you want to say anything more about the Obama administration’s response, because Obama himself was forced to come out and make statements about this, right?

OBAMA MADE a few comments about Bahrain—a couple of months too late. Besides, what he did say was basically standard diplomatic statements—vacuous statements such as “we call on all parties to restrain themselves,” and, “we urge the government to reform.” The toughest statement he made was a reference to peaceful protesters being imprisoned. But nothing came of any of that.

We’re asked to appreciate Obama’s statements because he acknowledged the fact that there’s an uprising in Bahrain. We’re also supposed to view the United States as a potential mediator, when the United States itself is party to the ongoing campaign of repression. They’re on the record condoning the Saudi invasion, for instance. When Clinton was asked whether her administration considers it as an invasion, she said no, because the Bahraini government invited them. At the US government’s convenience, a vassal state like Bahrain becomes a sovereign nation.

On the other hand, once it was publicized that the Bahraini army opened fire on peaceful protesters, the British and French governments, for PR purposes, no doubt, announced that they would stop shipping tear gas and weapons to Bahrain. The US government did not even consider making such a move. 

CAN YOU give us a brief rundown of what the organized opposition looks like in Bahrain? Who are the various parties or groups and how do sectarian politics play into that? Is there an organized left, a secular left, in Bahrain?

BAHRAIN FOLLOWS the same pattern as the rest of the Arab Spring in that established and officially recognized opposition groups have been led by youth groups on the streets. It’s more or less leaderless and decentralized; though this is not to say that there aren’t influential and revered figures whose statements carry weight among the youth. The most notable of these youth groups is the February 14th Youth Coalition. One can tell by their name that they were inspired by Egypt’s January 25th Youth Coalition. These are the people who really spearheaded the protests.

As far as the established ones are concerned, the largest opposition group is the Shia Islamist Al Wefaq. Before resigning in protest, they held eighteen out of forty seats in the lower chamber of parliament and were the only opposition group with parliamentary representation. The largest secular group is the National Democratic Action Society. Although it’s a coalition of liberals, communists, Nasserists, and others, they remain small in their overall size. One study estimates that 10 to 15 percent of Bahrainis prefer it over all others. But they enjoy sympathy and varying levels of support, especially among Al Wefaq’s audience. 

Note that I’m talking about “political societies” here, not parties. Political parties as such are officially banned in Bahrain. The implication of having parties is that power can be contested and taken through popular elections, which is unacceptable in a dictatorship like Bahrain. Then there’s Haq. This is the group that opposed participating in the rigged political system. 

ARE THERE more radical Shia parties or organizations?

I’D SAY Haq is the radical one. Its audience is almost entirely Shia. Based on their online forums and Facebook group pages, I can see that some of their audience harbors sympathy if not outright support for Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. So the revolutionary element within the Shia Islamist movement in Bahrain is not entirely a positive one. We need a strong, assertive secular alternative. But with Saudi Arabia and Iran crowding the political and ideological scene, it’s difficult for that to take place at the present time, unfortunately. 

WHAT’S HAPPENED since last March? How has the situation developed? I understand there’s been both repression and reprisals against the people who were involved, but also, the government has tried to make overtures or “admit some mistakes.” Can you talk more about that?

ACCORDING TO the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, more than a thousand people were arrested. I don’t know what the figure is by now. Thankfully, I wasn’t arrested, or anyone else that I know personally. A larger number of people—thousands—got fired from their jobs. The official reason for this is because they went on strike. It’s actually legal to go on strike, but they used this as a justification to punish workers anyway. Even then, not everyone who got laid off participated in the strikes. The government and various other parties (including employers) simply looked for evidence of any antigovernment activity on Facebook and Twitter. That’s how a friend of mine got fired, for instance. She was interrogated at work and asked whether she was involved in the protests. A few days later, she got a phone call from her manager asking her not to come to the office again. It seems that whether one gets arrested or not is largely a matter of luck, especially if you belong to the wrong sect. They made it a point to demonstrate that they will not spare anyone. They arrested and tortured various professionals, doctors, professors, sportsmen . . .

TWO SOCCER players?

TWO SOCCER players, yes. A talk show on national television phoned them and humiliated them before the whole country. The next day, they got picked up. 

AND THERE have been high-profile trials of medical staff.

YES, THEY were put on military trials.

HASN'T THERE been an investigation—a sort of independent investigation that’s overturned the verdict, at least for now?

WHAT HAPPENED was that while the repression was going on the government announced a dialogue. The dialogue was really a monologue. The government chose people at its own discretion and claimed that they represent “civil society.” The opposition had about 10 percent representation. The opposition groups came under fire for participating, because it was widely recognized that this so-called dialogue is meaningless. The opposition figures who took part later withdrew, in an attempt to have it both ways. Participating appeased the government. They withdrew toward the end of the dialogue to appease to their audience, who were becoming radicalized by the day.

In the summer, the king surprised everyone by announcing that he will appoint an independent committee to investigate what happened since February 14. There was the usual skepticism, but the high-profile names in the committee took people by surprise.I didn’t know who Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni was at the time. When I looked him up, I found that he was called “the father of international law.” Probably an exaggeration, but I got the impression that he’s widely respected. Amnesty International was impressed with his appointment, too. The opposition welcomed it as well, so I didn’t know what to make of it. I had to reconsider all my preconceived notions of what was happening. Was the king trying to sideline the so-called hardline faction of the royal family? Nobody knew. 

From the outset, Bassiouni was very blunt about what he was going to do. Upon his arrival, he was asked whether he would investigate the violence the protesters had purportedly committed. He said, “Our job is to investigate what the government did, not the people.” So that was pretty impressive, as far as I was concerned.

Later on, however, he started making statements like, “There hasn’t been a policy of systematic torture.” This was months before the report was due to come out. How can he state his conclusions up front like that? I mean, he’s not even done investigating yet. Secondly, this claim contradicts reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and a host of other respected human rights organizations. Amnesty International sent Arabic-speaking doctors to Bahrain to investigate whether there has been torture, and they clearly said there has been. So what was expected of Bassiouni was to confirm Amnesty’s findings, not contradict them. That was when people began losing hope in the BICI investigation. 

The report was due to come out on October 30 or 31. The chronology of these events is very, very interesting because it really highlights the role of the United States here. The US government wants to sell fifty-three million dollars’ worth of arms to Bahrain. International human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, protested this arms deal. Amnesty, in fact, put out a report outlining all the arms that were sold to all these repressive Arab regimes, including Bahrain. The very next day the US government announced that this arms deal will be tied to the findings of the BICI report. Whether there’s a connection between the two, I don’t know. The United States is concerned about its image in the Arab world. There’s no way to tell, it’s just speculation. 

But the US government’s decision to tie the arms deal to the report raises a few questions. First of all, if the United States really wanted to know what happened, it doesn’t have to wait for the findings to come out. It can always refer to the reports of Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International. The State Department itself puts out a human rights report every year, so it already has a good idea of what’s happening on the ground. The United States is not clueless about what’s happening in Bahrain.

Once we have this established, another question arises: what is the purpose of tying the arms deal to the report’s findings? It’s partly a PR stunt, I’m sure. But it also seems to suggest that the US government recognizes that the independent commission of inquiry is not so independent. Tying its findings to the arms deal is another way of saying You’d better come up with something that is at least half decent, which will calm people down, reestablish credibility, reestablish some sort of stability, so that people will stop protesting where our oil lies.

In any case, within twenty-four hours or so of the US government’s announcement tying the arms deal to the BICI report, BICI announced that it would delay its report for over twenty days.

AND THIS is just a coincidence.

IT’S ALMOST certainly not a mere coincidence. Another significant indication of US pressure was Bassiouni’s statements. After postponing the report’s release date, he came out and said that there was, in fact, a policy of systematic torture. Remember, this is the same man who, a few months ago, told the press the exact opposite.

WHEN THE report came out, it said there was widespread torture, but it didn’t reach—it wasn’t directed from the upper levels of the government?

YES. THEY just said it should be investigated. They didn’t indict the people at the top—certainly not the king. I mean, the king is the commander in chief. The army cannot open fire without his orders. Some people question whether he really does have control over the army. The king is a kind of weak figure, so this may very well have been true. Again, this is pure speculation, since there’s no transparency in this country. But since the king is technically the person who has the authority to give these orders, he should be at least investigated. When he appoints the investigation committee himself, this implies that he wasn’t party to the conflict. Bassiouni himself never misses a chance to praise the king’s “wisdom.” It’s difficult to take the whole thing very seriously, but I was looking forward to what was going to happen after the issuing of the report.

THE REPORT also absolved the Saudi military of any wrongdoing.

YES, THAT’s true. They said that the Saudi troops did not get involved in the repression. At the same time, it also absolves Iran, which was quite surprising. After Bassiouni discredited himself by giving contradictory statements and publicly praising the king, people didn’t expect much. So the report did put out things that were above many people’s expectations, by admitting that Iran has nothing to do with this.

WHICH THE royal family was saying—this is a protest movement directed by Iran.

JUST AFTER the king announced martial law in mid-March, he told the local press that the regime had just foiled a thirty-year-long conspiracy from Iran. This is a reference to the Iranian Revolution. So, basically, since the 1979 revolution, they’ve been plotting against Bahrain. The BICI report contradicted that.

WHAT ARE the prospects now, in the wake of this report and what’s happened since February, for renewed mass struggle against the government? Are people looking to Egypt for a lead, to what’s happening in Egypt now? How strong is the sense within Bahrain that this is part of a region-wide movement for democracy, for economic justice?

I THINK it’s clear that the government is not serious at all about wanting to resolve this conflict. They seem to be able and willing to live with a less stable environment and a prolonged campaign of repression. 

Yet, in the face of all the brutality they’ve been facing, the people continue to protest. It’s inspiring. As I said earlier, I’m not optimistic. Saudi Arabia wouldn’t allow anything significant to happen in Bahrain. Neither would Qatar, which controls the Arab world’s most watched news channel, Al Jazeera. They didn’t report the Bahraini uprising at all.

And this leads me to your second question: Do Bahrainis see their uprising as part of the Arab Spring? The answer is both yes and no. I mean, it certainly began that way, but now there’s a feeling of disappointment and loneliness. The Bahraini uprising has been largely ignored by other Arab activists. The media played a pivotal role in this. After all, Saudi and Qatari capital control the vast majority of Arab media outlets.

SO THERE’S a blackout.

THERE’S A blackout. When some Arab friends of mine watched the Al Jazeera English documentary Shouting in the Dark they were quite surprised. It was news to them that an uprising took place in Bahrain. 

By the way, you have to note that Al Jazeera English is different from the Arabic one. The former sometimes reports on what happens in Bahrain. When the latter does, which is quite rare, its sympathy for the Bahraini government is clear. It also frames the uprising in very sectarian terms. 

This lack of widespread Arab solidarity with what’s happening in Bahrain is dangerous because it reinforces sectarianism in the region. On the one hand, other Arabs don’t seem to care (when, in fact, they’re hardly even aware of the uprising). Certainly the Arab media doesn’t care. On the other, Iran has been exploiting this uprising to score political points and win the Bahraini Shias’ loyalty. Arabic-language Iranian TV stations have been reporting on Bahrain nonstop. They’ve also been framing the uprising in sectarian terms. To Bahraini Shias, who are left “shouting in the dark,” as Al Jazeera’s documentary puts it, Iran seems to be their only friend. This has been reinforcing the sectarian consciousness and sectarianizing the movement. Whether the people’s demands will one day become sectarian, which has so far never been the case, remains to be seen.

DO PEOPLE in Bahrain still follow what’s happening in Egypt?

YES, THEY do. Egypt is widely perceived as the most important country in the Arab world. The Egyptian revolution was the single most exciting political development of my lifetime. I was never optimistic about Bahrain, despite having participated in the uprising myself. There are so many structural barriers. Saudi Arabia, the United  States, Qatar, I mean, we’re such a small country. Only a region-wide movement can take this momentum further and bring the Arab world more independence from the US government. 

I remember talking to my friends, who decided, screw it, we’re going to try to reoccupy the roundabout after the first and second rounds of repression. I told them, look, let’s say you manage to overthrow the monarchy. Whatever you do can be overturned within twenty-four hours. There’s a causeway that connects us to Saudi Arabia. If they’re going to block that—there’s just no way. The United States has a fleet here. There’s no way they’re going to allow any of that to happen—not a constitutional monarchy, not a republic, none of that. 

On the other hand, Egypt certainly has the most potential as well as the capacity to play the role of vanguard of the Arab revolutions. If Egyptians manage to change their government, it’s more difficult for the United States to overturn it, or Saudi Arabia, or Qatar, except for economic aid. They can’t invade Egypt—that would be very difficult and probably impossible for them. There are historical precedents that come to mind. Of course, I don’t idealize Nasser, but he is probably the only legitimate Arab leader as far as popular legitimacy is concerned. People like to think that that possibly could happen again. And, I have to admit that I have—I guiltily admit this—but I have a small hope that might happen. They may throw out the peace treaty with Israel, which has humiliated the Egyptians and the Arabs since signing. So, yeah, Egypt is the only way forward, I think—the only hope. But if the US government, with the help of its Saudi and Qatari clients, manages to succeed in hijacking the Egyptian revolution, change in the Arab world will be painfully incremental, at best. Or it may not come at all for another generation.