Away From Egypt, Bahrain’s Own Arab Spring Uprising Heats Up Again

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Ahmed Al-Fardan / NurPhoto / Corbis

Protesters run from the toxic gas shot by riot police in Bahrain on Aug. 5, 2013

Correction appended: Aug. 25, 2013, 7:27 p.m. E.T.

While violence rages in Cairo, the dysfunctional center of the Arab Spring, another unresolved conflict from that season of unrest in the region is flaring. Amid increasing tension and violence in the tiny Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, pro-democracy protesters planned to mass in nationwide demonstrations on Wednesday that marked the two-and-a-half-year anniversary of the nation’s own frustrated Arab Spring moment. Reuters reported at least one small demonstration. The U.S. has temporarily closed its embassy in the capital, Manama.

Bahrain’s 2011 uprising was largely suppressed by government forces after a three-month state of emergency. Aug. 14 also happens to be Bahrain’s independence day. The opposition — which is now calling itself the Bahraini Tamarod, or “rebel,” after the Egyptian movement that helped topple the government of President Mohamed Morsi — hoped the protests would reignite one of the Arab Spring’s less successful uprisings.

In the past six months, Bahrain’s authorities have rounded up over 1,200 people including protesters, social-media activists and ordinary citizens suspected of dissident activities, says Said Boumedouha, Amnesty International’s researcher for the Middle East. Some have been arrested or charged and tortured for confessions, according to Boumedouha. The crackdown has come with “unprecedented abuses such as targeting women and youngsters,” says Abdulnabi Alekry, president of the Bahrain Transparency Society, an independent chapter of Transparency International, a nongovernmental organization that monitors political governance.

An official at the embassy of Bahrain in London says the government has a “zero tolerance policy for torture” and investigates all allegations of torture. “In the particular area of security sector reform, there has been a complete overhaul in terms of police procedures, tactics and training to ensure that maximum restraint is maintained,” the official says. “Proportionality and necessity are the guiding principles – and should any individual police officers act counter to these guidelines, they are promptly investigated and punished.”

The confrontation in Bahrain is made fraught by sectarian divisions; a Sunni royal family governs over a majority Shi‘ite population, who complain of discriminatory treatment at the hands of the government. Pro-democracy activists say their opposition to the monarchy has nothing to do with religious affiliation, but the tensions in Bahrain nevertheless reflect the regional rivalry between the Sunni monarchy of Saudi Arabia, which supports the Bahrain government, and Shi‘ite-dominated Iran, which has voiced support for the opposition. A force from the Saudi military entered Bahrain in March 2011 to bolster the government security forces as they brought an end to the antigovernment demonstrations. Bahrain’s fate is keenly watched by the U.S.; the Fifth Fleet of the U.S. Navy is based there. Though the smallest of the six Gulf Arab states, with a population of only 1.25 million, Bahrain is of immense geopolitical significance. It sits on the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20% of the world’s petroleum passes.

In recent months, the standoff between the opposition and the government has turned violent. On July 17, an explosives-laden car detonated outside a Sunni mosque in an area of the compound of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa’s in Bahrain’s second largest city, al-Riffa. Human Rights Watch says the Riffa bombing took place three days after the announcement of the Tamarod protests and since then, the government has been increasing its antiterrorism rhetoric to justify repressive tactics. “The regime has been on a crackdown campaign since then, and we have seen hundreds of arrests and hundreds of house raids during this period,” says Maryam al-Khawaja of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization which was banned in 2004, although it remains active underground in promoting democracy and human rights in the country. It remains unclear who is responsible for the bombings and other attacks.

The state has appointed an ombudsman for the Ministry of Interior and a special investigations unit at the office of the Attorney General to ensure Bahrain police comply with professional standards of policing and that allegations of mistreatment are investigated. On July 28, the Bahrain parliament passed measures that include revoking the citizenship of anyone “recognized as guilty of committing or inciting an act of terrorism” and imposing a ban on gatherings in Manama.

In his blog, Informed Comment, Juan Cole, a professor of modern Middle East history at the University of Michigan, describes the regime’s response to the planned protest as “draconian.” Al-Wefaq’s website decried the regime’s new measures as an add-on to ongoing lawlessness that would lead the country to a “chaotic future.” Through the Bahrain Mirror, a local newspaper, opposition parties described the parliamentary session’s language as a “declaration of war on the people.” In contrast, progovernment newspapers justified the measures, following the “upsurge of violence and terrorism,” shown by the Riffa blast.

The violence in Egypt will likely overshadow any further protests in Bahrain. But the tension in the tiny Gulf country — and the potential for further violence there — remains.

An earlier version of this story did not include a response from the government of Bahrain; a response has now been included. A claim that the government initially blamed an opposition group for a bombing has been removed. The current version also makes mention of a new special investigations unit at the office of the Attorney General.