Egypt today is grappling with military rule after the fall of Mubarak, and so is Bahrain. Inspired by the Egyptian revolution, Bahrainis took to the streets on 14 February 2011 to call for democratic political reforms. One month after the pro-democracy protests began, Bahrainis faced a brutal military crackdown, when Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) troops entered the country to quell the Bahraini uprising. Basically, Saudi Arabia did to Bahrain what it couldn’t do to Egypt: intervene directly to save a long-standing ally. One year after the uprising, Bahraini activists on the ground are calling for greater solidarity from their Egyptian counterparts in the battle against military brutality.
On the revolution’s anniversary last month, Bahraini activists called for an end to the presence of GCC troops who were deployed on the island to protect the ruling family. No other country in the Arab world has explicitly invited foreign troops on its land to help suppress its own people, in what has been dubbed “the invitation to occupy” Bahrain. Furthermore, the royal family and its loyalists are now pushing for a confederation with Saudi Arabia so that the hegemonic neighbor can completely subsume Bahrain under its control. The Bahraini regime’s self-preservation tactics would rather the country become a Saudi “province” then undergo serious reform.
Three days after the GCC troops entered Bahrain, the symbolic Pearl monument was destroyed and this important roundabout very near to the financial district continues to be closed off. We had to watch in shock as this national landmark was demolished, simply because protesters had camped there for a few weeks. This event in itself physically exhibits the conflict between the citizens who revolted for their rights and an authoritarian mind-set that could not even tolerate the visual symbol of protest. I wrote an article for The Guardian on the anniversary explaining how the rift between the state and its people has dramatically widened following the destruction of the Pearl monument. In other words, I argue that “by destroying the focal point of resistance, the regime entrenched the Pearl monument in the collective consciousness.” After destroying the Pearl monument, however, the regime continued its crackdown on the revolutionaries.
Over the past year, as cameras turned away, the Bahraini regime carried out some of the worst atrocities in its history. Much like the brutal killing of Khaled Saeed under police torture, an incident that ignited the fury in the Egyptian street leading up to the 25 January revolution, systematic torture in Bahrain has become common place. Many protesters are beaten, jailed, tortured and continue to die in police custody. Two activists, Yousif Almuwali and Muntathar Fakhar, have died in custody this past January alone. Similar to Egyptian state security fabricating Khaled Saeed’s forensic examination report to make the claim that he had died because he swallowed a packet of marijuana, the Bahraini Ministry of Interior claims that those who were tortured to death in custody died of “sickle-cell anemia,” when they were actually healthy prior to their arrests.
Despite the similarities between the state security’s crackdown on protesters in Bahrain and other Arab uprisings, the former is often overlooked. The reason lies in how Arab media, specifically Gulf-owned satellite channels, have justified this crackdown on activists by inaccurately portraying the Bahraini uprising as an Iran-backed Shia insurrection against Sunni rulers. This is, of course, a misrepresentation of the whole story, since the uprising initially called for reforming the system of governance through establishing a constitutional monarchy. It was only after security forces killed and maimed people on the streets that the protesters’ demands naturally rose, as they did everywhere else, to eventually call for the downfall of the regime. But, of course, the foreign conspiracy card, manifested in the claim pertaining to Iran’s tampering in Bahrain’s domestic affairs, has been conveniently used by the regime to delegitimize the uprising. Arab tyrants, Mubarak among them, were quick to resort to this foreign threat propaganda in order to sustain their authoritarian rule.
We, Egyptians and Bahrainis, have both learned that authoritarian rulers will go to no end to stay in power, even if this means igniting anarchy and sectarian discord. Egyptians should be well aware by now that whether it is through bombing churches or igniting football fanaticism, the idea is simple: play on people’s prejudices to turn them against each other and to distract them from the revolution. The Bahraini regime insists on framing the Bahraini uprising in sectarian terms in order to fuel divisions between Sunnis and Shias both inside the kingdom, and also outside by turning Sunnis in the Arab world against the legitimate struggle of the Bahraini protesters.
Of course, the role of state-controlled media was instrumental in broadcasting the regimes’ lies, but what has been distressing in the case of Bahrain is the shameful role played by Qatari-based Al Jazeera Arabic in ignoring the Bahraini uprising.
Egyptians are not to be blamed for not knowing what has been going in Bahrain; Al Jazeera Arabic, which broadcasted other Arab revolutions live, creating widespread sympathy with the revolts (whether in Egypt, Libya or Syria), chose to turn away from the Bahraini uprising. The reason is simple — for the Qatari-owned news channel, Bahrain brought the revolution too close to home.
As Arab activists with a common goal, we realize that we have a long road of struggle and transition ahead of us. A revolution is a process and needs to be kept alive through many victories in smaller battles before we win the war against tyranny, one that will always be on-going. As Arabs, we are diverse in our histories, dialects, religion and sects, but are united in the desire to break away from authoritarian rule — at least this is what the Arab Spring has taught us. As more countries, from Morocco to Oman, join the fray, we need to build greater solidarity between the revolutionary youth activists of the Arab world.
Finally, if Manama were to send a message to Cairo, it would be not to look away from Bahrain’s revolution, even as you grapple with your own difficult fight against military rule.
Ala'a Shehabi is a British-born Bahraini lecturer, activist and writer. She has a PhD in economics from Imperial College London, and is a former policy analyst at Rand Europe. She moved to Bahrain in 2009 from exile in London. Her husband, Ghazi Farhan, was a political prisoner for 9 months following the Bahraini uprising, and was tortured in custody. Consequently, Shehabi co-founded an NGO for the rehabilitation of torture victims. You can follow her on @alaashehabi