The Middle East Channel

Battling over the legacy of Bahrain's Pearl Roundabout

On February 14, the uprising in Bahrain will be one year old. The results are depressing. The government's brutal crackdown persists and protesters continue their efforts to return to the intersection that was colloquially known as Lulu or the Pearl Roundabout.

The regime has tried everything to destroy the memory of "Lulu" not shying away from physically destroying the Pearl monument. The regime dislikes the mere term "Pearl Roundabout" and insists on the use of its official name "Gulf Cooperation Council Roundabout." Future PhD students will write about the relationship between power, memory, and physical violence in the Bahraini uprising, and it will become clear that by tearing down that monument the regime destroyed much of its legitimacy, and in fact strengthened the memory of the place for the majority of Bahrainis. As one youth activist put it, "the soul of freedom is coming from there and that is why we are going back on 14th of February." The regime and its Western allies seem determined to prevent that and a violent response from the security forces is expected if the protesters try to march back to Lulu.

Incidentally, I had been one of the only Westerners to witness the events on the first days in the Pearl Roundabout. I was standing on the Pearl Roundabout on February 16, 2011 after a group of young protesters stormed it and set up a tent city modeled on Cairo's Tahrir Square. The atmosphere was incredible, Bahraini opposition parties were there as were families, food stalls, makeshift medical centers, mobile phone charging stations and a podium for speakers. The protesters demanded democracy, the release of political prisoners, and an end to corruption. Here we were, in the heart of the Gulf, with all its strategic and economic interests, on an island between Saudi Arabia and Iran with a large U.S. military base, and thousands felt the wind of change. Then it occurred to me how close we were to the Eastern Province and what this meant for Saudi Arabia. Decision makers in Riyadh thought the same, and they as well as other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries sent troops to Bahrain on March 14, 2011, effectively underwriting the final crackdown on the protest movement in the days that followed.

I stayed on the Pearl Roundabout until after midnight, talking to people, listening to speeches, and eating free rice with shrimp from the waters around Bahrain. A few hours later, in the wee hours of February 17, the security forces attacked the protesters, killing several and injuring dozens, and razed the tent city to the ground, burning what was left behind. The Gulf Spring was over before it really started, as the Gulf monarchies had proven that they would shoot their own citizens if they were too vocal in demanding reform.

Much has happened since that horrible day, but the basic tenets of the conflict have remained the same. There was a brief interval of hope, when a deal between the crown prince and some opposition parties headed by the Shiite bloc al-Wifaq seemed possible. But that fell through and since then both repression and protests have continued. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry has described authoritatively what happened since, and its recommendations as well as wide-reaching democratic reforms need to be implemented.

One major conclusion from last year, which the regime should have learned but still refuses to take seriously is that repression does not work in Bahrain. Over the past year, security forces have engaged in excessive use of violence and systematic torture, according to the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. As long as the regime sees violence, repression, and cosmetic changes as the answers to its problems, it will continue to face persistent popular mobilization -- and potentially much worse.  

After a year of failed political initiatives, persistent mobilization, and unending repression, all sides of the conflict seem entrenched and stuck in their current pathes. The youth groups and the illegal opposition continue to demand the fall of the regime and urge their supporters to go back to the Pearl Roundabout, even if that will result in a bloodbath. But the reality is that they will be unable to bring down the regime. They would be better served by working with the legal opposition groups in order to gain major concessions from the royal family. In October 2011, the legal opposition groups restated in the Manama Document that they are willing to engage in meaningful negotiations with the government, but that they refuse to participate in shallow National Dialogues. Their challenge will be to try to prevent the youth protesters from escalating their demonstrations, as well as to bring them into a future negotiated settlement.

In addition, the protest movement, which includes many Shiites, must do more to build bridges with the Sunnis, many who have rallied around groups like the National Unity Gathering and the al-Fatih Youth Union. But these overwhelmingly Sunni groups are more anti-Shiite than ever and pressure the government not to give in to the demands of an opposition they consider Shiite at its core. This ever-more entrenched sectarianism at the popular level has changed the dynamic of popular mobilization and will make any genuine reconciliation more difficult. No matter how unfair the protesters consider these allegations of sectarianism, they must respond more effectively to the charges if they hope to succeed.

There is also a question as to who exactly is calling the shots within the royal family. The usual narrative points to the division between doves and hawks, arguing that the moderate wing in the royal family needs support from the West in order to succeed. But the so-called moderates and liberals have not generally played their assigned role in the last year across the region. At worst they can be just legitimizing tools for a dictatorial regime that make more comfortable interlocutors for Western diplomats. What is more, decisions about Bahrain's political future are made these days in Riyadh rather than in Manama, a fact that has to be taken into account in the opposition's calculations and which sets a clear glass ceiling to the achievable demands. The opposition -- and the West -- needs to be aware of the limits of the ability or the desire of the so-called regime moderates to deliver on any deal.

The uprising in Bahrain and its crackdown will go down in history as the point when the West finally failed to live up to its commitment to democracy and lost the Arab Spring. One could even argue that the U.S. alliance with Bahrain could be compared to Russia's alliance with Syria. Both global powers have major naval bases in the respective countries that they do not want to relocate and fear to lose in case of a regime change. Of course the Syrian regime's response has been more vicious and deadly than in Bahrain, but Bahrain's tiny population means that the death toll per capita is one of the highest in the Arab uprisings. The West would indeed be well advised to live up to its ideals of democracy, citizenship, and human rights and develop a consistent response to the demands of people in the Middle East, rather than again becoming entangled in the old game of short-term alliances and geopolitics. The hopes that this could happen, however, were crushed in the crackdown on the Pearl Roundabout almost a year ago. It will not be easy to rekindle them.

Toby Matthiesen is a research fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Cambridge.

John Moore/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

New Arab League proposal calls for peacekeeping mission in Syria

A man fixes electricity wiring outside an appartment building in the neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on February 13, 2012, following fierce clashes between Lebanese Sunni Muslims hostile to Syria's regime and Alawites who support it (DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images).

New Arab League proposal calls for peacekeeping mission in Syria

The Arab League officially ended its monitoring mission in Syria and on Sunday requested that the U.N. Security Council design a joint U.N. peacekeeping mission. The Arab League agreed to the proposal in an emergency meeting in Cairo, which also called for the end to all diplomatic relations with the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and increased economic sanctions. While the proposal fell short of recognizing the Syrian National Council, it called for opening "communication channels with the Syrian opposition and providing all forms of political and material support to it. Russia, after having vetoed a recent U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria, said it will consider the Arab League proposal, though Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said there must be a negotiated ceasefire before it will agree to a peacekeeping force. He maintained that "we need wide inter-Syrian dialogue and cooperation to find a solution or decisions which will meet the interest of all Syrians and which will rule out interference from outside." The Syrian regime immediately rejected the proposal, refusing foreign intervention. Meanwhile, the government assault on Homs has continued for the 10th day over the course of which human rights groups have reported that more than 500 people have died.

Headlines  

  • An Israeli diplomat was injured by a car bomb in New Delhi as Israelis were also threatened in Georgia and Amsterdam a day after the fourth anniversary of the assassination of a Hezbollah leader.
  • Turkish jets bombed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) targets in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Meanwhile, police raided Kurdish Communities Union headquarters throughout Turkey.
  • A preliminary report by the Egyptian parliament of an inquiry into the 74 deaths that came out of football riots at Port Said stadium found both fans and negligent security at fault.
  • Bahraini youth activists and security forces clashed prior to the one-year anniversary of Bahrain's uprising.
  • Iraq's government decided it will not allow Exxon Mobil to participate in the fourth oil and gas bidding round due to a contract the company signed with the semi-autonomous Kurdish region.
  • The Histadrut Labor Federation ended its general strike in Israel that began Wednesday after reaching a deal with the Israeli Finance Ministry improving conditions for nonunionized contract workers.

Arguments & Analysis

'Syria: yes to intervention, but de-escalate the broader conflict' (Mary Kaldor, Open Democracy)

"The events in Syria take place at the intersection of two contravening dynamics.  On the one hand, the Arab Spring is sweeping away decades-old authoritarian regimes and threatening to upend the geopolitical status quo far beyond the region. It is creating unfamiliar and uncomfortable uncertainties from Moscow to Washington and from Bejing to Tel Aviv. On the other hand, the escalating confrontation with Iran over its quest to acquire nuclear weapons appears to be a classic case of old geopolitics." 

'Blame, responsibility, and how we talk about Syria' (Jillian C. York, The Atlantic)

"But on the question of intervention itself, I am less forthright. With Libya, I kept my mouth firmly shut, choosing to support Libyans in their opposition to madman Qaddafi but stopping short of supporting intervention. With Syria, with loved ones in Damascus, Aleppo, and Swaida, it's much more difficult to remain ambivalent. I know that there are less-than-honest actors involved, and I know that intervention could make things worse.  I also know that whether the widely publicized number of 5,000 or a more modest one of 3,000 or so deaths is accurate, even one death at the hands of a government is too many. Which is only to say that I don't know what to think. I ask my Syrian friends regularly, and find that most are reluctant in their conclusions, whatever they may be." 

'Friends disappear as vengeance still stalks across Libya' (Mustafa Fetouri, The National)

"On at least three occasions, the interim government has called on militias to leave the city with no result. Tripoli's airport is under the control of Zintan militia, which staged a show last October when Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the chairman of the National Transitional Council, cut the inaugural ribbon symbolising the airport's "new opening". The militia is still in control. The western-backed NTC and its interim government have failed to work on the long-pledged national reconciliation conference, which could begin to deal with the failings of the judiciary. In a tribal society such as Libya, there will be no justice without national reconciliation and any trials taking place now will always be questioned."

--Tom Kutsch & Mary Casey