MANAMA, Bahrain — Since the Arab Spring uprising began in 2011, the Shia Muslim majority in Bahrain has engaged in numerous pro-democratic demonstrations and protests in an ongoing fight to have its voice heard in the Sunni-controlled authoritarian regime.
But the Bahraini government has not been listening.
Instead, they have consistently responded with force. The history of the democratic movement in Bahrain has been one of repression and violence.
The Shiite represent the overwhelming majority of Bahrain’s population—making up about 70 percent of the citizenry—but the Sunni have a monopoly on political and military power in the country.
Quickly after the uprising began, King Hamad al-Khalifa ordered martial law and cracked down on the protesters. The Bahraini police—who are comprised mostly of Sunni Muslims—moved in on the protesters in Manama to quell the peaceful demonstrations with rubber bullets and tear gas.
As if that wasn’t enough, King al-Khalifa turned to Saudi Arabia for their assistance in controlling the protests. 2,000 foreign troops rolled into Bahrain to reinforce the local military. It marked the first time that the Gulf Cooperation Council—a coalition of six allied Sunni rulers—used military force to actively suppress a revolt.
Bolstered by neighboring military powers, the Bahraini police engaged the protesters—who had been encamped in the Pearl Roundabout for weeks—and forced them to flee. The Pearl Roundabout, which had been a locus for the movement, was destroyed outright.
Seven people were killed and thousands were injured in the fighting.
To date, 122 Bahrainis have been killed and 1,300 have been arrested for their involvement in the protests.
Once arrested, the protesters are often tortured and denied critical medical care in prison. Even hospitals are not off-limits, as hospital workers are harassed by the local military for attempting to treat wounds incurred during the protests.
Besides facing the collective force of several militias, democracy in Bahrain has faced a number of other unique challenges.
Unlike the popular revolts in Libya and Syria, the movement has little hope of winning the support of the local police force. So long as Bahraini police and military are predominantly Sunni, the movement will face a daunting uphill battle.
Whereas the militaries in Libya and Syria were eventually won over by the push for democracy, the military in Bahrain will likely remain loyal to the Sunni-controlled government. That’s because the conflict in Bahrain is fundamentally more religious than political. While the movement is undeniably democratic in nature, the revolt is almost perfectly split across religious lines.
Going forward, the movement has to search for alternate tactics such as boycotts and strikes in order to put economic pressure on the regime. Protests and demonstrations are proving ineffective, especially since the Bahraini government has shown it is perfectly willing to crack down on the movement with lethal force.
Another unique challenge that Bahrain is dealing with is the lack of international support. Other nations involved in the Arab Spring were widely covered by international news sources, and the international community was quick to back those movements, even if it meant using military force like in Libya.
The opposite holds true in Bahrain, where the only international involvement has been to help the monarchy stay in power.
For the U.S. at least, Bahrain holds strategic significance that makes intervention—or even support for the movement—highly unlikely. Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. The loose military alliance with the current regime has made it difficult for the U.S. to support the uprising.
Similarly, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are both major suppliers of oil for the U.S. If America were to take a stance on the popular revolt in Bahrain, it would jeopardize the flow of oil from the region.
So for the most part, the U.S. has watched from the sidelines as the democratic movement in Bahrain continues without international assistance.
But the movement has soldiered on, unfazed by these temporary obstacles.
On August 8, the Bahraini democratic opposition parties united for a mass demonstration. Their message was simple: freedom for the imprisoned protesters and the creation of a government that actually responds to the will of the people.
– Sam Hillestad