During Middle East Voices’ ongoing coverage of the 2011 uprisings in Bahrain, we have heard time and time again from impassioned Bahraini nationals on Twitter, Facebook and e-mail about the “true” motivations of the country’s protesters and about our reporting on events.
Some have praised our coverage of what is now well-documented human rights abuses, detentions and the deaths of peaceful protesters at the hands of Bahraini security forces. Others have criticized our reporting, insisting that many protesters were intent on violent upheaval and overthrowing the government from the beginning. They suggested that any attempt to depict these people as individuals seeking legitimate political rights is flawed, sometimes using charged language like “Shi’a terrorists.” As journalists, we strive to present both sides.
So, whose version of this “Pearl Revolution” is more accurate? Are these protesters marginalized Shi’a citizens who seek to end the Khalifa monarchy by any means necessary and create a system that ensures Shi’a dominance? Or are these protesters largely peaceful mobilizers of different backgrounds who seek guaranteed rights, constitutional reforms, an end to corruption and limits on the king’s power?
Our AT ISSUE format on Middle East Voices is designed to offer two perspectives of a contentious issue and ask our community to vote on which viewpoint they agree with most and then continue the debate in our comment stream below.
So here’s our Bahrain poll:
Note: You may have trouble seeing this poll on iPads or iPhones.
Now, before you vote, here is some basic background to bring you up to date. Early calls for the protests were scheduled for February 14, 2011, and orchestrated by Bahrain’s pro-democracy youth, who took their cues from the successful youth uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt just weeks earlier, which removed longtime rulers Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, respectively.
Early on, the Al Wefaq National Islamic Society, which had gained a plurality of seats in parliamentary elections, decided to join these protests. Al Wefaq’s religious affiliation is Shi’a Islam, the official state religion in Iran. Shi’a are also more populous in Bahrain than Sunni Muslims, the religious affiliation of the ruling monarchy led by King Hamad Bin Isa al Khalifa.
Another prominent organization involved was the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, led then by activists Abdulhadi Alkhawaja and Nabeel Rajab. Rajab made the case to the king to dissolve the security apparatus to avoid any clashes with protesters so as to preempt showdowns similar to those that happened in Tunisia and Egypt.
A sullied Pearl
On February 14, 2011, the protests began, coalescing around the Pearl Roundabout in a largely peaceful fashion.
Hours into the protests, Bahraini security forces were deployed to Pearl Roundabout and other Bahrain suburbs. Security forces used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds, resulting in the death of Ali Abdulhadi Mushaima and the injury of 14 others. In the subsequent funeral of Mushaima, security forces targeted mourners, bringing about another death and more injuries. By February 17, five people had died and 231 were injured as the Pearl Roundabout was cleared by security.
By February 19, the protesters were back, and tensions escalated until March 18. Pro-Khalifa demonstrators joined the fray, and anti-Khalifa protesters began getting more vocal and, in some cases, violent. On March 14, the Gulf Cooperation Council agreed to deploy 1,500 troops to Bahrain from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. On March 15, King Hamad declared a state of emergency and by March 18 the Pearl Roundabout was violently cleared and its monuments destroyed.
Video footage from February 14 to March 18 indicates that demonstrators were fired upon by security forces without provocation AND shows that some demonstrators turned violent, also without apparent provocation. The context in which amateur videos were shot is elusive. It is especially difficult to interpret these without knowing the events or circumstances that preceded the actions depicted. Here are just a few samples – judge for yourselves:
After the deployment of the GCC’s Peninsula Shield, large-scale protests largely ended. Notable events since that time include assertions by Physicians for Human Rights that soldiers forced medical personnel in Salmaniya Hospital in Manama to stop treatment of protesters, many of them Shi’a, in the days following the violence. (VOA’s Cecily Hilleary reported on these events from the government’s point of view here; they said protesters, not soldiers, caused the mayhem in the hospital.) Many medical professionals were subsequently put on trial and convicted in a special security court.
Bahrain Centre for Human Rights co-founder Abdulhadi Alkhawaja was arrested in his home on April 9 and convicted on “terrorism” charges by a military court. He was reportedly tortured in jail and has since been sentenced to life imprisonment. (VOA has interviewed Alkhawaja’s daughter, Maryam, several times. She currently heads the foreign office for BCHR.)
The Bahrain Independent printed an article asserting that Abdulhadi Alkhawaja had a history of involvement with Shi’a-backed terrorism groups and suggested that BCHR has received funding from Iran. (A reprint can be found here.)
Back to the present
As things stand now, Al Wefaq boycotted parliament in solidarity with protesters; their seats were filled in legislative by-elections in September, which effectively removed them from the political process. In the meantime, the government states that it still seeks dialogue with the opposition and that it pursues a reform process, while still conducting its own investigation of the events of February and March. A special security court convicted 20 medics who helped treat protesters during the initial violence; they are now being retried in a civilian court after an international outcry.
By many accounts, more than 30 people have died since the protests began. Demonstrators, largely Shi’a, still attempt to march throughout Bahrain’s neighborhoods, as they did on June 1, demanding an end to the state of emergency imposed after the initial violence (the state of emergency has since been lifted). In their latest attempt, hundreds of protesters marching toward Pearl Roundabout were rebuffed in their attempt by security forces. Some observers say that large-scale protests could return at any time and that security forces seem poised to thwart them.
So again, we pose the question – what is motivating these largely Shi’a protesters who, even though mobilizing in smaller numbers these days, nonetheless seem undeterred? Please vote in our poll and add your opinion, clarifications in the comment stream below.
IMPORTANT UPDATE: For our next installment of our Middle East Voices podcast, we would like two Bahraini national guests to join our anchors – one Bahraini in support of protesters and democratic change and one in support of the current political structure and the monarchy. We would like a spirited, respectful debate. If you would like to volunteer yourself or nominate someone else for this Bahrain segment, please e-mail us at email@example.com
Davin Hutchins is Consulting Editor of Middle East Voices. Hutchins brings 17 years of journalism experience to VOA after working with media organizations such as CNN, Tech TV, Huffington Post and PBS. He specializes in news, documentaries and new media with an emphasis on international social issues, media training and online delivery platforms. Hutchins lived five years in the Middle East and covers the dynamic changes that have been triggered by the Arab Spring.