The violence that marked Bahrain’s response to the Arab Spring has gone relatively unnoticed by the rest of the world. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, compared with the chaos and violence that followed the Arab Spring in Syria, Libya, and Egypt, what happened in Bahrain can seem like relatively small potatoes. For another thing, where Syria and Libya are or were governed by regimes that are generally unfriendly with the United States, and there were questions about the US-Egypt relationship after the Sisi coup in 2013, Bahrain has been a close US ally all along. It’s the Fifth Fleet’s operating base, for example. Consequently, Washington tries not to talk about Bahrain’s human rights abuses too much. Apart from the rare diplomatic dust-up, we’re happy to look the other way when our allies do the same stuff we condemn our enemies for doing.
Today marks the anniversary of Bloody Thursday, one of the largest of the several crackdowns carried out by the Bahraini government against opposition protesters over the past several years. It should be noted that Bahrain’s Arab Spring protests started out, on February 14, as a call for democratic reform and improved treatment for the country’s Shiʿa majority at the hands of the minority Sunni Khalifa dynasty. There was no widespread call for the monarchy to be overthrown. But King Hamad b. Isa Al Khalifa responded to the protests as though they were a direct threat to his reign. On February 17, before dawn, he sent 1000 police into Manama’s Pearl Roundabout to clear it of encamped protesters using, among other things, tear gas, clubs, and live ammunition. Four people were killed and 300 injured.
The uprising, or, more to the point, the response to the uprising, continues to the present day. Protests occasionally flare up, members of the opposition are routinely jailed and tortured, and King Hamad continues his policy of importing Sunnis from Syria, Pakistan, and elsewhere and giving them Bahraini passports in an effort to a) fill his security forces and b) change the religious demographics of the country. Even American journalists can’t escape Hamad’s crackdown on press freedoms, let alone Bahraini journalists, and even the detention of four American citizens couldn’t draw more than a milquetoast “oh my, we’d like to see you do better than this” reaction from Washington. The Bahrainis are aided in this effort by the Saudis, who are so terrified at the idea that Bahrain’s Shiʿa majority might actually gain some semblance of political power that they’ve supplied troops to participate in some of Hamad’s more violent outbursts. We can’t have majority Shiʿa countries being run by Shiʿites, after all, because of scary reasons. Iran! Shiʿa crescent! Bogeymen everywhere you look!
As with the rest of the Arab Spring, there’s little to say about these events from a historical perspective yet, and there may never be. But I think it’s safe to say that no Arab ruler has more thoroughly suppressed his country’s Arab Spring protests than King Hamad. The same movement that toppled Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, that killed Muammar Gaddafi, and that left Bashar al-Assad in a fight for his life has done comparatively little to weaken the Khalifa family’s hold on power in Bahrain, thanks in part to Saudi material support and American indifference.
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