The Aborted Revolution: The Demise of Bahrain's Democracy Movement

By Mitchell, Michael | Harvard International Review, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

The Aborted Revolution: The Demise of Bahrain's Democracy Movement


Mitchell, Michael, Harvard International Review


When US Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Manama on March 12th, 2011, Pearl Roundabout was teeming with protestors. The Roundabout--an open area defined by the towering Pearl Monument, which honored Bahrain's history as an independent pearling centerhad become the Tahrir Square of the Bahraini Arab Spring, and traffic in the surrounding streets was slowed by the massive demonstrations. The Round about, originally a symbol of the common history shared by the people of Bahrain, had become the heart of the nation's grassroots democracy movement. The ruling house of Bahrain, the al-Khalifa family, was growing weary-of the protests.

Gates had travelled to the capital of the Kingdom of Bahrain on a complex diplomatic mission. Thousands of pro-democracy protestors had been occupying the Round-about for weeks, and although security forces had initially violently assaulted them, they had since withdrawn and ceded the Roundabout to the demonstrators. As the civilian whose direct responsibility for US military and security-policy was second only to that of the President, (rates had to reassure King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa that his government stood with the Bahraini monarchy. Bahrain was, after all, a close US security partner in the Middle East. On the other hand, as the highest-ranking US official to visit Bahrain since the beginning of its iteration of the Arab Spring, Gates had to represent US principles and push King Hamad toward a resolution of his nation's domestic turmoil that acknowledged the grievances of the protestors. Over two hours of meetings with King Hamad, Secretary Gates reportedly conveyed this dual message.

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The next day, Saudi Arabia contacted the United States to explain that, at the request of the Bahraini monarchy, it would be sending several thousand troops over the causeway connecting it with Bahrain in order to quell the protests. King Hamad declared martial law. Shortly thereafter, a joint Saudi-Emirati force of two thousand soldiers, operating under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), entered Bahrain. The protestors immediate decried the move as an occupation aimed at repressing their movement. Iran echoed their condemnation. US Senator John Kerry, in contrast, cautioned that the Saudi-led force was "not looking for violence in the streets." "They would like to encourage the king and others to engage in reforms and a dialogue," Kerry said. Emphasizing that its troop commitment was open-ended, a Saudi official assured reporters that "Bahrain wall get whatever assistance it needs."

Over the next several days, the protestors at Pearl Roundabout were violently scattered with a full array of military equipment: tear gas, beatings, live ammunition, tanks, and helicopters. The Bahraini police and military descended upon the protestors while the GCC forces handled their other security duties. Many demonstrators were killed, and dozens more were injured or arrested. In order to prevent the area from again becoming the seat of anti-governmental protests, the monarchy destroyed the Pearl Monument. Within a week of Secretary Gates1 visit, the peaceful protests at the heart of Bahrain's democracy movement had been shattered.

Nearly one year later, four thousand GCC troops occupy Bahrain. A ''National Dialogue" decreed by the King has made little progress. Opposition figures remain in prison, civiliai3 deaths mount, and reports of torture and abuse continue. Widespread protests have not returned. Amidst the steady progress in Tunisia, the ongoing struggles in Egypt, and the military drama of Libya, Bahrain's protest movements seems less like the Arab Spring and more like a specter of the Green Movement, which roiled Iran in 2009 but withered under immense pressure from the government and a lack of global support. How did the al-Khalifa monarchy avoid being overthrown? Why did the United States acquiesce to, if not outright support, the joint efforts of the monarchy and the GCC to suppress the protests? …

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