Disappearing Dissent: How Bahrain Buried Its Revolution

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Black smoke billows from burning tents in Pearl Square in Bahraini capital Manama on March 16, 2011. (Photo Joseph Eid / AFP / Getty Images)

Every dictator worth his epaulets knows that the best way to nip a revolution in the bud is to have his opponents “disappear.” No body to mourn, no martyrs raised, and of course the ever-useful plausible deniability. But in Bahrain, with its tightly packed population of 230,000 citizens more than 1,200,000 living on a small sandy archipelago in the Persian Gulf, it is difficult to bury the bodies. People notice. So what’s an authoritarian government to do when the people rise up and protest the regime? Bury the evidence and pretend it never happened.

Pearl Roundabout was the locus of Bahrain’s anti-government protests last spring, the Bahraini answer to Egypt’s Tahrir Square. The roundabout, located at the intersection of several major roads leading to the capital’s major business centers, was crowned by a soaring white monument constructed in 1982 on the occasion of the third Gulf Cooperation Council Summit, which was held in Manama that year. The six convex arches, one for each of the council member nations, were topped by a giant pearl, symbol of the region’s maritime heritage. Before oil transformed the coast from sand spit to skyscrapers, the gulf was best known for its pearling industry.

But soon after the protests started on Feb. 14, the monument took on a new symbolism—defiance against a regime that had repeatedly failed to deliver on a decade old promises of reform and political freedoms. As in Tahrir, protestors set up a camp around the monument, and used the hexagonal fountain at its base as a stage for rallies. In the early hours of Feb. 17, security forces broke up the camp with a combination of rubber bullets, tear gas and live ammunition. Six people died and the Bahraini revolution was born. What started as a unified protest soon devolved into a ugly sectarian split; Bahrain’s Sunni minority rallied in support of the Sunni royal family, and Shias, who make up an estimated 70% of the population, lobbied for rights they said they had long been denied. Protestors started calling their movement the Lulu Revolution after the Arabic word for pearl.

A month later the government ordered the monument pulled down. Officials declared on state TV that it had been “violated” and “desecrated” by the protestors, and needed to be “cleansed.” But by then the symbolism had already taken on a life of its own. Nothing remains of the monument now, just a barren patch of land encircled by not one, but two, layers of fencing and guarded by armed soldiers. Nevertheless the nation remains divided. You are either “pro-roundabout,” meaning you want reform. Or “anti-roundabout,” meaning you prefer the status quo.

Even your choice of coffee is a declaration of allegiance: The Costa Coffee franchise, which is owned by an apolitical Shia businessman, is considered “pro-roundabout.” Starbucks’ franchise in Bahrain, owned by a presumably bemused Kuwaiti, is anti. Jassim Hussein Ali, a well-known member of the Shia opposition Wefaq party and, until the party resigned in protest last spring, a member of Parliament, was recently approached at his neighborhood Starbucks and told that he might be more comfortable at a Costa. “The guy made it sound like a joke, but the kind of joke that wasn’t really a joke,” he told me over coffee a few weeks later. We met, of course, at Costa.

Efforts to bury the revolution haven’t stopped with the destruction of monuments. The half-dinar, Bahrain’s highest value coin ($1.5), features the monument. It has completely disappeared from circulation. So quickly and so quietly that no one knew to retain any as mementos. “They were just gone one day,” says Fatima Haji. “It’s revenge. They [the government] want nothing that is a reminder of our protest.”

Haji is one of the several dozen doctors currently undergoing trial for charges of anti-government activity. During the protests doctors and nurses at Salmaniya Medical Complex, the country’s only public hospital, tended to wounded demonstrators. Salmaniya too became a symbol of protest. Mourning families lamented their dead and wounded there, and many of the medical personnel—when they weren’t tending the injured—protested what they said was excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrators.

A scathing report  by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) documenting  the systematic detention, abuse and torture of Salmaniya’s doctors in the wake of the uprising came out in June. “Our conclusion was that these doctors had become evidence themselves of the regime’s tactics,” says Deputy Director Richard Sollom. “They had the first hand knowledge of how those wounds were inflicted, they saw the gunshot wounds to the face, so they were targeted and disappeared.” Hundreds of medical personnel were detained – some taken in the middle of surgery—and three-dozen were tried in military courts with trumped up evidence, hearsay and suspect witnesses. Their sentences ranged from five to 15 years. The PHR report caused uproar in Congress, which subsequently held up a long planned package of arms sales and training programs worth $53 million to the Bahraini military. The doctors were released, pending a new trial (interestingly, when the government describes the new trials in English, they use the term re-trial. In Arabic, the term is “appeal.”) Salmaniya has become synonymous with an ugly government crackdown that the regime has so far been unable to shake. “If Bahrain had another hospital, I’m pretty sure that the government would have torn down Salmaniya as well,” muses Haji.

Of course, there are other ways to bury a revolution, and it starts with hiring a good PR and lobbying firm. In August the government of Bahrain upped its contract with with Qorvis Communications to help polish its tarnished reputation, on a $40,000 a month retainer, plus expenses. In addition to mainstream clients such as Amazon.com, Qorvis has a branch dedicated to rehabilitating the reputation of unsavory governments, a niche practice that has seen great demand in the wake of the Arab spring. Though not without repercussions – a third of the partners couldn’t stomach the client list and jumped ship. “I just have trouble working with despotic dictators killing their own people,” a former Qorvis insider told The Huffington Post.

News of the Qorvis retainer sparked outrage among Bahrain’s protestors. It engendered a bit of black humor as well – one activist told me that had he known the price of the contract he would have gladly underbid Qorvis. “Forty thousand a month? I would have said nice things for $30,000, and we could have helped Bahrain’s economy get back on its feet,” he quipped. Given sensitivities on both sides, however, he begged that I not use his name lest it get him in trouble with the movement, or thrown in jail.

But Qorvis’ high price may be well worth the expense for a government, and a country, reeling from bad press. In March the International Circuit Formula One race pulled out of Bahrain, and new foreign investment has crawled to a standstill. More and more companies have opted to base their Gulf operations in Dubai over Bahrain, despite the former’s higher cost for doing business. And Bahrain, already one of the poorest of the Gulf nations, can least afford to lose that business.

In June, the King commissioned an independent inquiry into the crackdown, hoping to anchor the events firmly in the past and move on. Journalists, who had been largely banned from the country since the uprising, were suddenly invited back in for the report’s unveiling. (Nicholas Kristof, who was lambasted by the government for his coverage in February, tweeted, “Hell froze over. A month of Sundays hit the calendar. I’ve been offered a visa to #Bahrain.”)

The whole event was redolent of professional spin. The report’s findings, originally scheduled to be released in October, came out on November 23, the eve of Thanksgiving in the US and the start of a long holiday weekend in the Arab world. Though the report confirmed devastating accusations of widespread torture, illegal detentions and excessive use of force, it was effectively buried. The reaction of government officials has not been one of remorse and soul searching. On the contrary they praise the King for his bravery, and tell me they hope that the country can move on now that this particularly ugly chapter has been closed. Bahrain’s king has promised to enact reforms, but few of the opposition have faith that it will bring any real change.

Some found hope at a legally-permitted rally sponsored by the opposition Wefaq party the following day. An estimated 50,000 demonstrators took to a main thoroughfare and once again called for the end of the regime. Their march culminated at a small grassy roundabout where someone had erected a Styrofoam model of the Pearl Monument topped by a plastic soccer ball. As the crowd trickled away, I watched six police jeeps roar up to the intersection. Twelve men in full riot gear stormed the empty mound and wrestled the meter-high monument to the ground. The ball rolled into the road. The men hustled the Styrofoam arches into one of the waiting vehicles and roared off. All that was left of the symbol of the revolution was a child’s toy, battered by oncoming traffic.

Aryn Baker is TIME’s Middle East Bureau Chief, based in Beirut. Find her on Twitter at @arynebaker. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEWorld.