As cries for revolution fade, Bahrainis wonder what went wrong
When thousands of protesters spilled into Bahrain’s streets in February, Dr. Mohammed Al-Muharraqi, a self-professed pessimist, thought his country might change for the better.
Though most of the demonstrators gathering in the capital’s Pearl Square roundabout were Shiite Muslims and he is a Sunni Muslim, Muharraqi was excited to hear them voice hopes he’d long shared.
“When it started, we found it really, really cool,” Muharraqi said. “They wanted a more equal distribution of wealth, less unemployment, more parliamentary power. If those were the things the protests were about, then we felt, ‘Go, roundabout!’”
For an exhilarating moment, the protests united many Bahrainis.
One of them was a young Shiite professional who had been apolitical all his life, and who was inspired to become an opposition blogger. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said he became convinced that the protest movement’s peaceful tactics could bring change to Bahrain’s monarchy.
Another was Kefaya Almubarak, a social worker and mother of three, who saw a future with better jobs and pay.
Now, their hopes have been dashed. The fate of authoritarian regimes in Libya and Yemen is still unclear, but in Bahrain, a key U.S. ally, the state has won, and life is worse for most people than it was before the heady early days in Pearl Square.
The uprising deepened the divide between the majority Shiites and minority Sunnis in this Persian Gulf island-state.
Many Sunnis, aligned with the government, welcome what they say is the restoration of law and order. Shiites inhabit an entirely different reality: a police state where checkpoints limit movement, the wounded avoid hospitals for fear of arrest and people simply disappear, with the unlucky ones turning up at the morgue.
Only a clear sense of loss — loss of loved ones, of economic security, of easy coexistence — seems to unite Bahrainis today.
“Before, we were talking about change,” the opposition blogger said. “But now, we just want the bleeding to stop.”
At the end of a long day, Muharraqi needed a smoke at his favorite outdoor hookah cafe. His credentials at the island’s main military hospital allowed him to get through the checkpoints that spring up after curfew so he could enjoy a night out. As he sipped juice and puffed on the hookah, he described his early excitement about the uprising, and his eventual disillusionment.
After 20 years in Britain, Muharraqi said, he had returned to Bahrain hoping for a quiet life practicing plastic surgery and administering Botox shots.
When the protests began Feb. 14, people asked for better economic opportunities, a constitutional monarchy and an end to discrimination against Shiites. Three days later, just before dawn, government forces with guns and tear gas raided Pearl Square, killing at least seven people.
Soon afterward, Bahrain’s more radical parties, which seek an end to the monarchy, began setting the agenda for the opposition.
Sunni sympathy for the protest movement began to evaporate when some demonstrators last month tried to enter the Sunni area of Riffa to protest at the royal family’s residences. Sunnis were further alienated, Muharraqi said, when protesters barricaded the financial district, disrupting the economy.
“I felt the movement had grown horns and fangs and claws,” Muharraqi said. “I felt stuck in the middle. I didn’t want a change in government; it hadn’t done anything to me.”
His anger intensified after a wounded man was brought into the emergency room at the military hospital. A YouTube video shows the man being run over twice by an SUV and then kicked and beaten with sticks. But the blurry video is subject to divergent interpretations.
According to the government, the victim was a policeman and his assailants were protesters. According to the opposition, the man was a civilian and the attackers state security agents. The man died of his injuries.
To Muharraqi the killing indicates where the uprising would have led had the regime not clamped down.
“I was on his resuscitation team. We worked on him for 33 minutes. Every bone in his body was shattered,” said Muharraqi, who insists that the patient was a policeman. “Tell me, how is this a peaceful movement?”
Muharraqi, like many Sunnis, backs the official line: Those said to be missing are just in hiding, and the state has shown great restraint in the use of force. But the fissures between Shiites and Sunnis haunt him.
“Schools, hospitals, universities, everything was mixed,” he said. “With these events, we’ve been divided so far. I don’t know how we’ll heal. I’m one of hundreds who hates what’s happening now, and it terrifies us, what will happen next.”
Desert-colored Humvees and armored vehicles dot the roads leading into the village of boxy two-story houses where the Shiite professional-turned-blogger lives. Every few days, troops surge into the Shiite villages on Bahrain’s western side to quash demonstrations with tear gas, rubber bullets and buckshot.
The blogger was never one to hit the streets, and even at Pearl Square, he avoided confrontation. He no longer goes to work (he asked that his occupation not be revealed) for fear of being arrested at a checkpoint.
One recent morning, his wife and a relative went to visit someone at the hospital and encountered a checkpoint on their way back. By the wife’s account, soldiers in ski masks put a gun in her face and slapped the relative, telling him, “So, you think you have a voice now?”
The movement risked a government crackdown when protesters called for ousting the monarchy and establishing a republic, the blogger said.
“The demands became very, very, very high,” he said, sitting on a cushion on the floor of his family’s tidy living room. A small red-and-white Bahraini flag lay draped over a pillow. “They were unrealistic for me.”
Bahrain was never going to be Egypt, the blogger and other moderates said. Its opposition was split over the monarchy, and its population was divided along sectarian lines. Moreover, the Bahraini army, a mercenary force made up mostly of foreigners, had no loyalty to the people.
Some Bahrainis fear that the crackdown could radicalize young people. The blogger said he thought protesters would remain peaceful. However, he said, “things could turn out dangerously in two ways: People could go to violence now. Or they would go quiet but then they would pass on their sense of revenge to their kids.”
He spends his time blogging, poking holes in the rosy news reports from pro-government media and trying to keep up the spirits of people in the opposition.
“Most of my friends are depressed,” he said. “Every day, someone is killed. Someone is kidnapped. They say, ‘We are lonely. Nobody supports us.’”
Almubarak and her husband, Abdul-Rasoul Hujairi, never went to a protest. They were busy with their three children and their jobs, she as a social worker at a private high school, he as a low-level hospital employee.
On the night of March 19, Hujairi went out on an errand and didn’t come home.
The next day, Almubarak was urgently summoned to her in-laws’ house. Her heart raced during the drive over, and she walked in to find everyone crying.
“Don’t tell me he’s been killed,” she told them. “I know he might be hurt or injured, but he’s coming back.”
Hujairi’s body had been found miles from their home in Boori. His wounds indicated that he had been beaten and run over by a car, Human Rights Watch said.
A few days after the funeral, Almubarak sat in a meeting hall in Boori with women friends and family, all covered in abayas, quietly welcoming well-wishers. Under slowly turning ceiling fans, children played and teenagers texted.
The opposition labeled Hujairi a martyr. Almubarak does not know why her husband was killed. She said she wasn’t interested in finding out who is responsible. “God will take care of that,” she said, fiddling with a box of tissues.
“I’m not saying he was killed for being Shia, but the situation now is unsafe for all of us, Shia and Sunni,” she said.
“I heard that some Sunnis cried when they heard of his death. Seeing people uniting makes me feel that he is a martyr for the country because his death meant something.”
Almubarak talked about how her husband had never hurt anyone. How she didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. How her older daughter had kissed his forehead at the morgue.
Her 3-year-old son, Ali, toddled over to ask her to open a bag of snacks. She said that at bedtime every night, he asks for his father.
“When he is grown, I want him to live in a safe country,” she said as he sat on the carpet and played.
“I don’t think this situation can continue. There has to be a solution. The future has to be better than the status quo.”
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