While Shiite Muslims make up 70 percent of the population of Bahrain, the country is governed by a Sunni monarchy, the Al-Khalifa dynasty. The Shiite population has long felt discriminated against, especially in terms of access to employment, housing and social services. These demands are the basis for the revolt in the country.
Many videos showing security forces brutalising Shiite protesters have been shared on social media over the past five and a half years. There have even been cases of security forces torturing and shooting activists point-blank.
The latest video shows security forces hitting a man while they arrest him. A woman tries to stop the arrest and is tear-gassed in the face.
When the uprising first took off in 2011, many different people participated in the protests. Sunnis, Shiites, men and women all took to the streets to demand political reform and better living conditions. But as time went on, the Bahraini regime managed to divide the population, explains Marc Valeri, an associate professor in political science at Exeter University, UK, who specialises in the Middle East.
The monarchy spread a lot of propaganda accusing Iran of instigating this revolution with the goal of overturning the Sunni regime. As these rumours of Iranian involvement spread, more and more Sunnis distanced themselves from the movement.
In reality, Iran plays no role in the situation in Bahrain. Technically, it is impossible for Iran to arm the protesters or to send military experts to Bahrain as the Bahraini government suggested because Bahrain is set up like a fortress. Saudi-led forces of the Gulf Cooperation Council have been stationed in Bahrain since the protests first took off in March 2011. Moreover, the capital, Manama, is the home port of the Fifth Fleet of the American navy, which is responsible for the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and parts of the Indian Ocean [Editor’s note: The US maintains a presence of 1,500 American soldiers in Bahrain.]
"I was imprisoned twice and my wife was threatened”
Yousif Almuhafdah is a member of the Bahrani Centre for Human Rights. He now lives in Germany.
The first time that I was in prison was in early 2012. I was arrested while filming a person who had been injured during a protest. I was accused of participating in an unauthorised protest and I was imprisoned for three weeks. While I was in jail, I gathered testimonies from the other prisoners, especially those who had been tortured. When I got out, I held a press conference to condemn these brutal practices.
I was arrested for a second time in 2013 and I was kept in solitary confinement for 40 days.
In 2014, I was fired from the bank where I worked because of my activism. My wife, who worked as a teacher, also received threats. That was the final straw. I decided to leave the country with my family.
Today, in 2016, the situation has gotten worse. Human rights activists who are still in Bahrain will no longer risk speaking to the media, even anonymously. They always tell journalists to speak with activists living outside of Bahrain.
The largest proportion of political prisoners in the world
As the months went by, the Bahraini government went about methodically silencing voices of opposition and discontent. Today, there are practically no opposition figures still free. Professor Valeri says that the regime really started to crack down in earnest after the legislative elections in 2014.
Up until 2012, world powers like the United States and the United Kingdom were pressuring Bahraini authorities to reform. But after 2012, the US and the UK were under the impression that the Arab Spring movement in Bahrain was over [Editor’s note: The Arab Spring movements that took place in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya had all managed to unseat their dictators by this point] and that all that was left of the struggle were small skirmishes going on in some of the villages. The diplomatic tone changed and these governments started saying that Bahrain would undergo reforms but that it would be a slow process.
Then, in 2014, the US and the UK started pressuring the opposition al-Wefaq party, the main Shiite group in the country, to participate in the legislative elections. Al-Wefaq was trapped. If the group participated in the vote, it would cut off its electoral base, which wanted more radical reforms. However, if it refused to participate, then then it would be accused of standing in the way of reconciliation. It ended up choosing the second option. The Bahraini government took it as a go-ahead to carry out a widespread crackdown on the legal opposition.
Up until 2014, for example, Bahraini authorities didn’t criticise Shiite leaders. But last June, the authorities stripped Sheikh Issa Ahmed Qassim of his nationality. This was a huge blow: Qassim is the highest Shiite dignity in Bahrain and the spiritual leader of the al-Wefaq. The al-Wefaq party dissolved in the chaos following this attack on their leader.
The president of the al-Wefaq movement, Ali Salman, has been rotting in prison since December 2015. Today, according to Freedom House [Editor’s Note: an American organisation that studies democracy in the world], there are currently 4,000 people imprisoned in Bahrain on political charges. Because there are only around 700,000 people living in Bahrain, that means that it might have the largest percentage of political prisoners, compared to population, in the world.
Another reason that the Bahraini government can carry out this kind of repression is because of the unfailing support of its regime by Saudi Arabia.
The government in Riyadh doesn’t want a constitutional monarchy set up in a neighbouring country. That would be a threat for its own survival. By deploying its troops to Bahrain in 2011, Saudi Arabia wanted to nip the idea in the bud, before it spread across the Bahraini population and into other Gulf countries.
Bahrain is also economically dependent on Saudi Arabia because the only oil field currently in operation in Bahrain is being extracted by Saudi company Aramco.
In five years, the monarchy in Bahrain managed to quell the uprising started in 2011, one step at a time. Now the opposition has been reduced to nearly nothing.
Yet Professor Valeri says there is at least a little hope left for opponents in the kingdom.
The only bit of optimism about what transpired in 2011 is that thousands of young Bahrainis got the first taste of freedom that they had had in their lives. It only lasted a few precious months, but now an entire generation is aware of political activism and can aspire to democracy.