Known as the “Forgotten Uprising”, the largely peaceful pro-democracy protests erupted across the tiny island Kingdom of Bahrain ten years ago, only to be faced with a brutal crackdown by the police and finally be suppressed weeks later by the military intervention of neighbouring Saudi Arabia. In its wake, the crackdown left 122 Bahrainis dead and thousands arrested. Twenty-six remain on death row. There are virtually no opposition parties, as they were dissolved by the Bahraini authorities.
What: The Bahraini Uprising of 2011
When: 14 February 2011
Inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt as part of the so-called Arab Spring which swept across the region a decade ago, several Bahraini citizens held a solidarity rally outside the Egyptian embassy in Manama on 4 February 2011. This triggered the historic events that were to come.
Spurred on by this small act of defiance, Bahraini youth from the country’s predominantly Shia population mobilised others on social media to take to the streets in a “Day of Rage” in several Shia villages near the capital. The anti-government protests were against the long-held grievances of systemic discrimination, corruption and injustice by the ruling Sunni Al-Khalifa family, which had been in power since the 18th century following treaties with the British. The clan originated in what is now the Saudi region of Najd.
The first protest was, symbolically, held on the 10th anniversary of the National Action Charter (NAC), a referendum intended to usher in political reform and the rule of law leading to the amendment of the constitution. The reforms themselves were spurred on by similar popular unrest throughout the 1990s. “The ruling Al-Khalifa family resorted to torture, forced exile, arbitrary detention, and secret security court trials to contain the unrest,” said Human Rights Watch following the drafting of the NAC.
Despite King Hamad Bin Isa’s incentive to offer 1,000 dinars ($2,650) to each Bahraini family, some 6,000 demonstrators took part in the Day of Rage. They were met by security forces firing rubber-coated bullets and tear gas. Ali Abdulhadi Mushaima, 21, was killed and several others were injured in renewed unrest during his funeral procession the next day, leading to another protestor being shot dead, 31-year-old Fadhel Ali Matrook.
It was after this incident that thousands of protestors converged at Pearl Roundabout in Manama, which became the symbolic focal point of the movement, as Cairo’s Tahrir Square had been in Egypt, with a tent city and makeshift facilities springing up. However, on 17 February, the authorities carried out a pre-dawn raid to clear the encampment, killing four protestors and injuring over 200 in the process; that became known as “Bloody Thursday”.
Undeterred, the numbers of the protestors swelled over the next few days, peaking at one point to around 200,000 people, the biggest demonstration in Bahrain’s history. Around 1 in 3 of the population demanded reforms, and calls were made for the then Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa Bin Salman to step down, due to his role in overseeing the government’s brutal response. Some protestors also called for the overthrow of King Hamad. Eventually, a brief dialogue between Crown Prince Salman Bin Hamad and the leading opposition party, Al-Wefaq, broke down as protestors refused to enter formal talks unless a new constitution was proposed.
By mid-March, Saudi Arabia grew increasingly concerned about the Al-Khalifas’ grip on the country and feared a revolution leading to a theocracy modelled on arch-rival Iran. The Saudi authorities had perceived threats closer to home in the oil-rich Eastern Province, which is home to the kingdom’s significant Shia minority, in particular Qatif and Al-Hasa which were historically part of a kingdom called Greater Bahrain.
As leading members of the Peninsula Shield Force, Riyadh deployed 1,000 National Guard troops alongside 500 UAE military police to support the Bahrain Defence Force. Approximately 2,500 members of the Pakistani armed forces were also brought in to crush the pro-democracy movement and any form of dissent. This included the detention of doctors and lawyers who were working in their respective professions during the protests. Days after the violent dispersal of the protestors from Pearl Roundabout, the heart of the movement was promptly bulldozed by the government, putting a formal end to the month-long political unrest and democratic aspirations of the Bahraini people.
What happened next?
Compared with other protest movements in the region, the reaction from world leaders was more restrained and less condemnatory. The then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed his “deepest concern” over the government’s response while the US, which had been outspoken about supporting democracy in Libya and Syria chose not to back the protestors and instead called for restraint. The US Navy’s Fifth Fleet was based in Bahrain at the time.
Bahrain and its allies blamed Iran for the civil unrest. Tehran denied the accusations, despite having offered low-level support via “Hezbollah Al-Hejaz” during the 1990s civil disobedience and despite its historic claims of sovereignty over Bahrain.
Since 2011, Bahrain has dissolved the main Shia opposition parties, including Al-Wefaq, whose spiritual head, Grand Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim, lives in exile in Iran, as well as the more moderate and secular Waad group. This decision was criticised by Amnesty International as the “latest manifestation of how the authorities have been resorting to all means, including the judiciary, to crush any form of dissent in their country.”
Amnesty’s latest report ahead of the milestone anniversary described a situation in Bahrain where injustice and repression have intensified against human rights activists, clerics and civil society.
“Since 2011, the only structural changes Bahrain has seen have been for the worse, as opposition parties have been outlawed, the only independent news outlet has been shut down, and new laws have further closed the space for political participation,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa. “The protest leaders of 2011 continue to languish in grim prison conditions, and human rights including the right to freedom of expression are routinely trampled on. The Bahraini state has crushed the hopes and expectations raised by the mass protests of 10 years ago, reacting with a brutal crackdown over the subsequent decade that has been facilitated by the shameful silence of Bahrain’s Western allies, especially the UK and the US.”
In its World Report 2021, Human Rights Watch highlighted the lack of improvements in Bahrain in the years since the uprisings. Death sentences have been upheld after unfair trials marred by allegations of torture.
A statement was also issued earlier this week by the February 14 Youth Coalition which called for unity in bringing about “fundamental changes” in the country’s political system and reiterated that it will never accept the legitimacy of the Al-Khalifa ruling family. In spite of the failed Bahraini Uprising and the complicit refusal by the world’s most ardent supporters of democracy to support it, the movement has not been entirely defeated, nor have the hopes of the Bahraini people ended. Police are reported to be out in force as the tenth anniversary approaches, though, so it is unlikely that there will be a repeat of the 2011 uprising any time soon.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.