Bahrain is bracing for a series of protests likely to be the most significant in over a year. Inspired by the Tamarod Movement, which helped bring down the Morsi government in Egypt, Bahriani activists will take to the streets on August 14, a date that marks the country’s independence from Britain.
On Friday, prominent Bahraini human rights defender Maryam Al Khawaja, Acting President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was refused permission to board a British Airways flight from Copenhagen to Bahrain, apparently on the request of the Bahrain regime. She was allowed into the country earlier this year, and this denial is another indication of the government's tension as the 14th approaches.
“Everyone’s talking about the date, waiting for it,” said Said Yousif al Muhafda of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. “I’m expecting large protests throughout the country —not just in the villages but in the capital Manama too.”
The government is responding to the prospect of widespread dissent with a predictable reach for the Repression Button. A few days ago, King Al-Khalifa issued decrees banning peaceful protests and allowing for the prosecution of parents of children under 16 who take part in demonstrations. The King also welcomed 22 recommendations from its parliament on codifying its crackdown, including measures to ban sit-in protests in the capital and to strip the citizenship of those found guilty of “committing or inciting an act of terrorism.”
Protests in Bahrain have become increasingly violent over the last year, fueling concerns among its allies. Bahrain hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, and last month U.S. Senator Robert Casey asked the U.S. Defense Department if there is a contingency plan for relocating the fleet should instability make staying in Bahrain untenable. “I fully support efforts to address Bahrain’s political unrest before the situation degrades further. However, I am concerned that we apparently have not developed plans for an alternative contingency facility in this strategically critical and dynamic region,” Senator Casey wrote to Defense Secretary Hagel.
The image of a country gripped by widespread demonstrations and rioting is obviously one the Bahrain government wants to avoid projecting to the world, but its repeated response to those peacefully calling for reform is to jail them. In recent weeks, prominent blogger Mohammad Hassan Sayef was taken into custody, and key human rights figures including Nabeel Rajab, President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, and Zainab Al Khawaja, remain in prison. The UN has criticized the regime’s recent repressive measures, and there are fears that a government overreaction is likely.
Despite — or because of — consistent efforts by the government to silence dissent, protests have carried on since February 2011, when large-scale demonstrations in Manama triggered a violent response from government forces backed by Saudi troops. Now Bahrain’s Tamarod organizers are planning widespread civil disobedience, including a general strike. “We’re expecting violence from the police,” said Said Yousif. “Peaceful protestors calling for their legitimate rights are being called terrorists by the government.”
Anticipation of the 14th is reinvigorating many dissidents in the country. Protests are expected to start on Saturday and last for several days. Staff at the country’s main hospital, the Salmaniya Medical Complex, told Human Rights First that all leave has been cancelled from August 12-14.
Next week promises to be a huge test: for the ability of protesters to produce impressive numbers, for the willingness of the government to respond in accordance with international law, and for the commitment of Bahrain’s allies to push for reform. Foreign government response to repression in Bahrain has been patchy and generally weak, but in September, the United Nations Human Rights Council meets and the country’s issue is likely to figure prominently. Police violence against peaceful protestors next week could have almost immediate and significant consequences for Bahrain, and the U.N. meeting could not come at a worse time for it.
International pressure hasn’t made much of an impact on Bahrain’s human rights crisis yet, but this week could change that. “We’re still looking for help from the U.S. and the U.K. to support our demands for democracy, just as they support those calling for democracy in Egypt,” said Said Yousif.