x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Bahrain remains a combustible mix of anger and resentment

A solemn act of defiance earlier this month was a pointed reminder that seven months after Bahrain ended mass demonstrations, dissatisfaction still flickers.

Pro-reform activists gather in the village of Hajer north of Manama on Saturday. The solemn act of defiance was a pointed reminder that seven months after Bahrain ended mass demonstrations, dissatisfaction still flickers.
Pro-reform activists gather in the village of Hajer north of Manama on Saturday. The solemn act of defiance was a pointed reminder that seven months after Bahrain ended mass demonstrations, dissatisfaction still flickers.

MANAMA // Their chins held high and eyes straight ahead, the group of young abaya-clad Bahraini women, some with the nation's flag draped across their shoulders, stood hand-in-hand along the highway, calm and resolute despite police jeeps encircling them.

As traffic ground to a crawl and drivers and passengers gaped from passing cars, police jeeps swarmed around the group of some 10 women as policemen on foot armed with tear-gas guns paced across the road.

For several minutes, the women stood in silence, holding their ground. Then just as quietly, they walked away.

It was a tiny, brief rally. Nothing compared to the "Arab Spring" demonstrations of February and March that saw tens of thousands of mostly Shiite Bahrainis converge in central Manama to demand more participation in government and an end to what they say is discrimination against the Shiite majority.

Still, the solemn act of defiance earlier this month was a pointed reminder that seven months after Bahraini forces - later assisted by those from Saudi Arabia and the UAE - ended the mass demonstrations that they say were inspired and aided by Iran, the ferment still flickers.

Although relatively calm, Bahrain remains a combustible mix of anger, fear and resentment.

More than 35 people have been killed since February, mostly protesters, but also some policemen and Asian expatriates. Ahmed Jaber, 16, recently died after he was hit by metal birdshot pellets fired by police. Also, an estimated 3,000 mostly Shiite Bahrainis have been dismissed from their jobs for allegedly participating in the protests.

Opposition supporters appear ever more determined to resist the government's attempts to quash their movement. Increasingly organised groups of loyalists refuse to remain silent. A smaller group occupies a middle ground, urging both sides to back down.

Meanwhile, supporters of the spring protests refuse to stay invisible. After demonstrators took to their cars and gridlocked Manama's streets this month, mostly young men associated with opposition groups tried to force a complete shutdown of the capital two weeks ago.

A video on YouTube detailed how and where to erect roadblocks. Participants were urged to cause "no direct harm to road users" and to "avoid conflict with the mercenaries". A final message flashes on the screen: "Peace, but no surrender."

While some of the mainly Shiite anti-government protesters continue to try to take their demonstrations to downtown Manama, authorities are determined to keep them bottled up in their villages.

Almost nightly, the atmosphere in many of the areas turns tense as young men erect roadblocks using whatever they can find - timber, rubbish bins, bricks - to keep police out before demonstrations start.

Villagers say the security forces often respond with tear-gas and stun grenades, detentions, arrests and beatings.

In Sanabis - a stronghold of anti-government sentiment - a man who declined to be named held up a half-dozen teargas pellets he said were fired through his windows one night earlier this month.

As noxious smoke filled his narrow two-storey home, where about 70 protesters had been chased by police, his main concern was his children's safety. Eventually reaching the top floor, he passed his young sons to neighbours on an adjacent rooftop as police continued to fire.

"They come at any time, there is no safety in this country," he said.

But Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, an Information Affairs Authority official, denied that villages were under siege. "When a youth leaves his house with a Molotov cocktail, a sack of stones or any other instrument to go about rioting and vandalising … that jeopardises the security of the rest of the people who live here," he said.

"Are they allowed to go out into public areas and riot and cause disruption to the law-abiding citizens of Bahrain? No, I don't think they have that right."

The government's efforts to avoid a repeat of earlier protests and sow seeds of reconciliation have not been limited to stopping demonstrations spilling into downtown Manama.

Authorities have released many of the hundreds of people detained since the crackdown began in March, although activists believe about 200 remain in jail.

Bahrain's attorney-general also ordered that 20 medics be retried in civilian courts after a special military court sentenced them to lengthy jail terms on charges including inciting hatred against the government and encouraging illegal protests.

The government is pinning many of its hopes for progress on an investigation into the protests by an independent commission established by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. The release of the panel's report, initially scheduled for yesterday, has been delayed until November 23.

Still, the divide between the government and the opposition remains wide.

In a televised address on the reopening of parliament just days after a by-election last month, King Hamad urged lawmakers to "deepen the culture of dialogue and democracy". Nevertheless, the leading opposition bloc, the mainly Shiite Al Wefaq, boycotted that balloting, claiming that the government had ignored the grievances that sparked the protests in February, when the group's 18 lawmakers all quit parliament.

For an opposition still demanding basic political and institutional reform, the centrepiece of the government's political strategy - the independent commission's report - may not prove enough relief, either.

"Even if the report says people in Bahrain were tortured, and all the people arrested have to be released and others returned to their jobs, and all these good things … this is not a real solution," said Ali Salman, the general secretary of Al Wefaq.

"People in this area are the same as any people in the world - they need to feel that they have a chance to elect their government."

What worries many Shiites and Sunnis such as Jumana Zakariya is that the intensity of the protests and the ferocity of the crackdown has split the two communities. "We need to meet together to know what is the problem between us," said the 21-year-old teacher from the mainly Sunni Hamad Town. "We want to be close like we were."

Yet for some Bahrainis, that yearning represents a portrait of a now impossible harmony, if it ever existed. "We were the quiet ones. Now we will have no mercy on them if they cross the line," said 48-year-old Hamad Al Rumaithi, a Sunni from Muharraq Island who firmly believes the protests are part of an Iranian-backed plot. "We are all boiling."

Against this simmering resentment, Abdulla Al Derazi, secretary-general of the Bahrain Human Rights Society, worries what will happen if the police continue their aggressive tactics and the government fails to put forth what he terms more genuine efforts at reconciliation.

"The security fist hasn't stopped protests for greater democracy," he said. "What happened is the fear barrier is gone. How are you going to deal with the youth if they are willing to die?"

"Nobody wants Bahrain to become a battleground."