2011's Arab Spring Protests in Bahrain: A Story of Good (Mater Mater) v. Bad (King Al-Khalifa)


This year's protests in Bahrain were reminiscent of a good vs. evil movie. A Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter-type saga, except in reverse.

In Bahrain, the good guys came out strong and yet, you just knew that the bad guys would win. This isn't to say all protesters are righteous (far from it) or that the King of Bahrain is Voldemort, but considering the widespread state-directed use of torture against unharmed protesters and the thousands of unlawful detentions, King Al-Khalifa doesn't exactly come across looking like a saint. 

In covering all of the different revolutions throughout the region, Bahrain was perhaps the most complex and most perplexing.

When the revolution began and the protesters overtook the Pearl Roundabout, many in the U.S. were very anxious. As a strategic regional ally that harbors the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, the possibility of the King's being overthrown and the tight U.S.-Bahraini relationship being negatively impacted seemed very real.

After all, Bahrain has a long oppressed two-thirds majority Shi'a population and proportionally has the highest poverty rate in the Gulf. Not surprisingly, the Shi'a are the ones that suffer most. Given such an incendiary combination and the mercurial history of Shi'a animosity against the Sunni ruling family, nerves in Washington were running high.

The initial numbers of the protests overwhelmed the security services (so much so that they had to call in the Saudi military). Ultimately, however, with the support of the GCC, the Kingdom has to this point survived. In large part because of their miniscule size.

Ask I quickly came to find out, the government was using a vast network of high-tech cameras to photograph and scan everyone's picture at hundreds of checkpoints around the capital. Photos of protesters are cross-referenced and opposition leaders and activists are hunted down one-by-one. Only a week after I interviewed Matar Matar, Bahrain's leading member of the Al Welfaq Party, and accepted his ride back to the hotel, he was pulled from his car in broad daylight, jailed, and tortured.

Yet after 10 months and what appeared to be a finished script to Bahrain's protests, the movement appears to still have life. Maybe the ending hasn't been written after all. Perhaps the good guys have one last heroic stand, because tension, turmoil, and a deep-seated sectarian anger still simmer.

What was so mystifying traveling in Bahrain was how willing everyone was to voice their displeasure. Of course, my partner and I traveled as "unsuspecting tourists," which certainly dissuaded any suspicions that we were journalists. But for a people that were so aggressively watched and eavesdropped upon, their haste in voicing their indignation was surprising. 

Of course, it was expected that the Shi'a activists would speak out, yet they were not alone. From foreign laborers who were dismayed at the loss of tourism, to Sunni taxi drivers who were unhappy about Saudi checkpoints, to Sunni Bahraini businessmen who were fearful of the economic losses caused by the unrest, everyone was angry and eager to vent.

For the Bahrain Royal family, such displeasure is deeply troubling because the exact same problems that existed in February remain today. The Shi'a are still politically oppressed, Sunnis hold all the wealth, and Bahrain is uncharacteristically poor for a Gulf country. To add to the country's woes, Bahrain's government was embarrassed internationally for their excessive use of force against civilians and the economy contracted by 1.4% in the first quarter and has barely stabilized since. Most significantly, the King refuses to incorporate the Shi'a majority into high-ranking positions leaving room for continued unrest.

Until the King is serious about putting sectarian divisions aside, the protests will continue, Bahrain's international image will suffer even more, and the bitterness and general discord among the people will harden. 

The villain will win and in doing so, destroy the Gulf's one-time most progressive society in the process.

Photo Credit: malyousif