Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly

Bahrain's Arrested Revolution

Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly

Bahrain's Arrested Revolution

Article excerpt


This article provides an overview and analysis of the 2011 pro-democracy struggle in Bahrain, focusing in particular on the role of strategic nonviolent action and the foreign policy of the United States. It argues that Bahrain's progressive and pluralistic tradition would have made the possibilities of a democratic transition more promising than in many Arab states, but the ruthlessness and uncompromising posture of the government, combined with Saudi-led intervention and a refusal by the United States to support democratic forces, led to the movement's suppression. The article also challenges exaggerated accounts of the sectarian dimension of the conflict and faults the United States for its ongoing support for the Bahraini regime as a major contributor to the failure of the pro-democracy struggle.

Keywords: nonviolent action, pro-democracy movements, repression, US policy, Arab Spring, arms

Of the popular pro-democracy civil insurrections which swept the Middle East in 20 1 1 , none were as large - relative to the size of the country - as the one which took place in the island kingdom of Bahrain. And, while scattered resistance continues, none were so forcibly and thoroughly suppressed.

The crackdown against the overwhelmingly nonviolent pro-democracy struggle launched in mid-February was brutal. Over 40 people have been killed by security forces and pro-government mobs and more than 1,600 have been arrested. As the government's own Bassouini Commission acknowledged, many detainees have been tortured and there have been several deaths of those in custody. Those targeted by security forces were not just the pro-democracy protesters themselves, but journalists who covered the demonstrations and medical personnel who treated victims, including Dr. Ahmed Jamal, president of the Bahrain Medical Society. In October, a military court sentenced 20 doctors and nurses to up to 15 years in jail for assisting the wounded.

More than 4,400 people have been dismissed from their jobs for supporting the pro-democracy movement and over 40 mosques and religious sites deemed to have links to pro-democracy activists were destroyed. Human Rights Watch reports that "Leading political opposition figures, human rights defenders, and civil society activists have been sentenced to unduly long prison terms, in some cases for life, solely for their role in organizing the large street protests; their trial record does not link them in any way to acts of violence or any other recognizable criminal offense."'

One of the tragedies of the ongoing struggle in Bahrain is that with one of the more liberal monarchies in the region and a largely moderate and middle class opposition, compromise should have been possible. The largely nonviolent protests by pro-democracy activists in the neighboring emirate of Kuwait in 2006, known as the "Orange Revolution," and a series of subsequent protests have led to a series of major reforms in that sheikdom. By contrast, events in Bahrain have led to moderates within both the regime and in the opposition being sidelined by hard-liners, making compromise more difficult. Failure of the democratic movement could be a bad precedent for democratic movements and could increase sectarian divisions elsewhere in the region.

Hard-liners within the government were strengthened by pressure from the Saudi regime to crack down. The Saudis fear that a successful Shia-led pro-democracy struggle in Bahrain might not only encourage pro-democracy elements in their kingdom, but might encourage the restive and oppressed Shia minority in Saudi Arabia - which is concentrated in the oil-rich northeastern part of the country - to rebel as well. Ironically, both King Hamad and particularly his son, the crown prince, are generally thought to be in the moderate camp. However, the king's influential uncle, Prime Minister Khalifa ibn Salman Al Khalifa - who has been in power far longer than the king - appears to have won out in his uncompromising position toward the opposition. …

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