The uprising in Bahrain started on 14 February 2011. Planned and organized by a group of Bahraini youth, it was inspired in part by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt—the beginnings of the Arab Spring. The activists—who camped in the iconic Pearl Roundabout in Manama, the capital of Bahrain—first called for political reform and equality for Bahrain’s majority Shia population.
Some protesters called for the downfall of the Sunni royal family, the Al Khalifas, who have ruled Bahrain since the 1700s. Others called for the removal of Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who was appointed prime minister by his brother, the former emir, in 1971. Many also wanted the kingdom to be turned into a constitutional monarchy. On 17 February 2011, a number of protesters died and thousands were injured in clashes with security forces. The protesters included doctors and bloggers, some of whom had been identified as targets on social networking sites and government television.
Most of the protesters were Shia Muslims, who make up roughly 60 percent of the population in Bahrain. The royal family are Sunni. Long-term discrimination against Shias for political appointments, employment, and housing sparked much of the Shia outrage.
The government’s response to the protests included both appeasement and force.
They invited troops from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) into Bahrain and declared martial law and a 3-month state of emergency, and the crackdown against protesters began.
Hasan Mushaima, general secretary of the opposition Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy, made a TV appearance on the Iranian satellite television station Al Alam in London. Later, he told a Lebanese newspaper that Iran would support the Bahraini opposition if Saudi Arabia supported the Al Khalifa regime. This aroused the Al Khalifa’s concerns and suspicions.
The United States has strongly criticized Bahraini authorities’ violent response to the protesters. However, the U.S. did not back regime change in Bahrain as they did in Egypt and Tunisia.
Bahrain has been politically close to the U.S. for about 20 years. Not only has Bahrain allowed the U.S. military to set up air and naval bases in its territory, but it also stood aside while American military operations took place in both Iraq and Afghanistan. At present, the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based there.
In 2013, thousands of anti-government protesters blocked an access road to the F1 Grand Prix in Bahrain. Activists requested that organizers cancel the race due to Bahrain’s poor history of human rights. This race was first held in Bahrain in 2004 and was cancelled in 2011 after the forced clearance of Pearl Roundabout. That traumatic event saw more than 50 people die, hundreds get arrested and thousands lose their jobs. For the government, the F1 is a symbol of Bahrain’s return to normalcy after the bloody, Saudi-backed crackdown. It put massive security plans in place before the race, and pro-government parliamentarians were required to prevent disruptions.
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights was shut down by the government in 2004 and now operates from outside the country. Since that time, the center has requested that authorities in Bahrain not use force against peaceful protesters. They have also asked to be assured of their basic rights, including freedom of assembly and freedom of opinion, such as the free use of social networking sites.
There were 25 prominent human rights activists arrested in August 2012. They all said they had been tortured to into signing false confessions, which they have now repudiated. One of them—Abduljalil al-Singace, professor of engineering at the University of Bahrain and human rights director for the Haq Movement—has become partially deaf as a result of his injuries.
The human rights situation in Bahrain remains largely unchanged despite pressure from the international community. In May of this year, Nabeel Rajab, founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, disappeared from his jail cell after telling relatives he had witnessed children being tortured. A few weeks later, six Bahrainis were sentenced to one year in prison for tweets that insulted the king.
– An Jiang