February 14th not only marks the most commercialized holiday of romance around the globe but also the least covered and strategically suppressed struggle for justice in Bahrain. Four years since Bahraini citizens have rightfully demanded reform and equality, the unrest on the small island in the Gulf continues.
A series of citizen-led uprisings all over the Middle East and Africa against dictatorships that ruled over them with little impunity and regard for justice became dubbed as the “Arab Spring” in early 2011. Bahrain was no different and saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets to collectively demand equal rights, a constitutional monarchy, and government reform. In a majority Shia land ruled by a Sunni monarchy, Sunni and Shia citizens jointly called for reform of governmental policy and equal treatment to all its citizens. Nationwide peaceful demonstrations were met with initial resistance from the government and soon after, violent suppression and legal indictments. From initial protests in February 2011 to the end of 2014, there have been 166 reported deaths and over 8,800 arbitrary arrests of demonstrators, minors, and medical personnel assisting injured protesters.
The Pearl roundabout was an iconic monument in Bahrain that became a rallying point for protesters, but the structure that once symbolized hope was demolished in an attempt to crush the resistance. The world heard little of the tragedies at Pearl roundabout, and the Bahraini monarchy ensured media, both domestic and foreign, did not show support to the demonstrators. The U.S. State Department noted in their 2013 Bahrain Human Rights Report between January and October 2011, there were 62 reports of journalists being harassed, arrested or attacked due to their coverage of the uprising. In August 2011, Qatar-based Al-Jazeera created a documentary, “Shouting in the Dark” to mark the events unfolding in their neighboring island country. Adequately titled, many of the individuals interviewed in the documentary repeated the same sentiment: they were rising against oppression, and there was no one to answer their call for help.
Backed by foreign nations, including the United States, Bahrain successfully has been able to suppress any and all uprisings in their nation of 1.3 million. However the government’s suppression has not silenced their resistance, and the protests have courageously continued in the face of teargas and rubber bullets. Bahrainis are renewing demands for reform and peace and most recently, calling for the release of Sheikh Ali Salman, Secretary General of the country’s main opposition group, al-Wefaq. According to the group, the demands center on the release of political prisoners, a peaceful democratic transfer of power, and for a larger citizen voice in the government.
Uprisings in Bahrain fell in the timeline of Arab Spring, yet unlike its counterparts in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia that saw support from the American public and at times, even military intervention, the citizens of Bahrain were not extended the same luxury. Instead, the Bahraini monarchy only received inconsequential statements of condemnation from the U.S. State Department and to date, no serious action has been taken. The hypocrisy of convenient Western foreign intervention is all too familiar. The U.S. remains on good terms with Bahrain having recently increased the Navy 5th Fleet presence by a $580 million base expansion, cultivating their foreign interests even after revelations of prisoner torture, sexual assault, and unjust imprisonments of minors and adults alike. Yet, the U.S. and British government insist “boots on the ground” intervention in Iraq and Syria, trying to solve the conflict it helped support and fund initially.
While Bahraini citizens continue to “shout in the dark”, there is hope. Colin Cavell, a former lecturer at the University of Bahrain, said the UN’s concerns regarding the recent arrest of Sheikh Ali Salman (among many others, like Abdulhadi Al Khawaja and Nabeel Rajab) for speaking out against the government will prompt Western countries to question their unilateral support for the Bahraini monarchy, putting them in a tough spot. Though the UN statements and Human Rights reports do not result in direct consequences for the monarchy, they give a platform to individuals and governments around the world to project the opposition’s demands for equality and justice. As world citizens and consumers of mass media, it is the responsibility of all conscious-minded individuals to apply pressure to the Bahraini regime. With renewed calls for a massive three day strike and protest from all opposition parties in Bahrain, only time will tell if this anniversary will be a day for change or another day of oppression.
Co-authored by Reihaneh Hajibeigi and Aseel Machi