The Middle East Channel

Bahrain’s revolutionaries

Bahrain’s revolutionaries

Bahrain’s February 14th movement has become a symbol of resistance and fortitude…and the most powerful political force in Bahrain today. This confederation of loosely organized networks, named after the date of the beginning of Bahrain’s revolution, is faceless, secretive, and anonymous. Its tens of thousands of supporters have abandoned the failed leadership of the country’s better established, but listless, political opposition. They have suffered the most and have weathered the worst that the regime has so far meted out.

Most outside observers, particularly policymakers hopeful that a political resolution is still possible, have mistakenly ignored the February 14th movement or deemed it irrelevant. The Bahraini government is not interested in reform or reconciliation. It has ignored calls for an end to its assault on pro-democracy forces, and in the last few weeks has actually intensified its crackdown. Security forces have once again laid siege to the country’s many poor villages, home to most of its Shiite majority as well as the country’s pro-democracy movement. Several people have been killed in the last month by police. Thick and choking tear gas has become a fixture across the island. This recent turn for the worse comes just over four weeks after the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), headed by the respected M. Cherif Bassiouni, released its report charging the government and security forces with using excessive force in its handling of street protests in the spring. Many had hoped that the report would signal a new opportunity for Bahrain’s competing political forces to come together and forge a way through the country’s impasse. Sadly, neither the government nor the mainstream opposition has risen to the occasion. The country’s political crisis is worsening as a result, and the prospects of reform fading from view.

This crisis was avoidable. Earlier this year, most supporters of February 14th called for political reform and for changes that would have, for the most part, kept the country’s power structure in place. This is no longer the case. Partly because of the government’s self-destructive political instincts and its poor handling of the country’s affairs, calls for the fall of the ruling al-Khalifa family have hardened, garnered greater support, and gained legitimacy. As February 14th moves in this more revolutionary direction, it will most likely pull the rest of the opposition along. Bahrain’s future will be determined by a test of wills between a government unwilling to accommodate change and an increasingly politicized youth movement unwilling to surrender.

The Bahraini regime has proven consistently unable to understand and combat the February 14th movement. The impulse behind Bahrain’s revolution and the foundation for today’s decentralized, but highly disciplined and organized, February 14th movement first took shape on the website bahrainonline.org. Launched in 1998, this forum receives over 100,000 visits a day and has long been a source of political activism. Last winter, a loose affiliation of anti-government cyber activists took to its pages, as well as Facebook and Twitter, and collectively organized a social protest movement.

It was this movement that inspired tens of thousands of people to converge on the Pearl Roundabout, in the capital of Manama, in February and March. Demonstrators were violently expelled several times, first on February 17 and then again in mid-March, when Saudi Arabian and Emirati military forces arrived in support of the Bahrain regime. Energized by the massive street support in February and March, the activists took to more traditional forms of grassroots organizing and forged an umbrella network known as the "Coalition of February 14 Youth."  The Coalition operates more as a collective than a traditional organization. It relies on a broad base of supporters who first generate ideas for dissent or particular kinds of activism in various digital forums. Once they achieve consensus, members turn to grassroots campaigning. In almost every protest today, banners bearing revolutionary slogans are also adorned with the small logo of the "Coalition." Its inclusion is not just a symbol of affiliation, but it is also a signal of the power of decentralization and community, and is representative of the new kind of mass politics that has swept the region more generally.

Since the spring, the sophistication, reach, and influence of the movement have expanded. Indeed, the February 14th youth are not only focused on sustaining the protest movement, but they are also increasingly escalating it. While the Pearl Roundabout, which served as a central gathering point for protesters, has been destroyed, the protest movement lives on. Bahrain’s revolutionaries have been neither quelled nor crushed. Rather, they have become dispersed. While they have been unable to congregate in mass, their power to mobilize nationally remains strong. The movement has successfully organized weekly protests by coordinating efforts across Bahrain’s many small villages. It has also remained defiantly committed to non-violent protest. This is particularly remarkable, since the government has devoted considerable effort and resources to violently repressing the villages, isolating them, and imposing a rigid security cordon that limits mobility and people’s ability to organize more broadly.

February 14th has demonstrated its power to mobilize time and again. In late September it inspired activists who tried to breakout from the security cordon to re-converge on the Pearl Roundabout. Demonstrators were pushed back by heavy security, but they made clear their determination to continue to test the government’s resolve. The February 14th youth maintain a weekly protest schedule (under the theme of "self-determination") and have also taken up other kinds of civil disobedience. In September activists launched a campaign known as "dignity belt" that disrupted car traffic across the country. The campaign was repeated several times in the fall. In October thousands of activists participated in a symbolic act of dissent in which they successfully evaded security forces and passed over 15 "torches of freedom" from one embattled village to another. Villagers have also taken to burning tires, turning the country’s sky black when all else has proven impossible. Mostly recently, the organization called for what turned into the most widespread day of protests in months. Deemed the "Decisive Movement," what started off as a coordinated day of family picnics outside their front doors, escalated to a call for everyone to take to the main road.

Activists have also recently been successful at chipping away at the security forces’ efforts to contain them in villages. Video from a protest that took place this fall at the Centre City shopping mall, one of the country’s main retail outlets located close to the Ritz Carlton Hotel, was distributed widely. In December the movement organized an effort to occupy one of the country’s main thoroughfares, the Budaiya Highway, an effort that was partly inspired by the international Occupy movement. The protest, which might have otherwise gone unnoticed outside Bahrain, gained international attention because security forces were videotaped arresting, and treating harshly, the prominent youth activist Zainab al-Khawaja, whose father, the human rights activist Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja, was sentenced to life in prison earlier this year.

February 14th’s anonymity has proven to be a political necessity. In February and March the country’s political powerbrokers, both from within the regime and the traditional opposition such as al-Wefaq, called for leaders of the February 14th movement to identify themselves and air their demands. Skeptical, the movement’s dispersed leadership refused, fearful that a formal declaration would result in their imprisonment. Their reticence proved wise. Since March over 40 people have been killed, up to 3,000 arrested, and thousands more fired from their jobs. Considering that the revolutionary movement has gained in strength and is flourishing in spite of the crackdown, many Bahrainis take delight in the belief that that the government has failed to arrest the right people. Security forces have detained notable activists, but have failed completely to understand the nature of the movement and its capacity to regenerate.

The revolutionaries’ resilience has also come at a cost. Because the regime has been unable to control the protest movement, let alone to identify a leadership, they have taken to viewing everyone as a threat. The result has been the assumption of collective guilt and the imposition of collective punishment. The regime and its supporters view all villagers as potential traitors, part of the logic that has fueled its vindictiveness. And while the February 14th movement has steadfastly prioritized non-violent resistance, the regime has made no such promise. Security forces continue to use a variety of means, including the heavy use of tear-gas to break up protests, and to punish entire communities.

February 14th has also challenged the power of the traditional political opposition, most notably al-Wefaq, the country’s largest Shiite political society. Al-Wefaq has continued to call for political reform as the answer to the political crisis. But it has failed to convince the government to make serious concessions and it has failed to convince supporters of February 14th that reform is still possible. While al-Wefaq would prefer a negotiated resolution, its leaders understand that any attempt to work with the government alone would result in marginalization from the youth and undermine its authority. As a result, al-Wefaq has been forced to follow. As violence escalates, it will eventually be put in a position where it will have to reevaluate whether it will remain pro-reform or whether it too will become a revolutionary force.

Because the February 14th movement is clearly committed to sweeping political change, the network is more closely aligned with opposition figures who are currently in prison, including Hassan Mushaima’, Abd al-Jalil Singace, and Ebrahim Sharif, than they are to al-Wefaq. Many Bahrainis believe that only those in prison wield influence over the February 14th youth. Therefore, any deal that excludes them or is struck by al-Wefaq through dialogue with the government alone would be disregarded by the youth. And protests would continue.

There are risks for the government and its supporters in continuing to ignore the substance of the February 14th movement’s demands. Although they have remained mostly committed to non-violence, the youth are radicalizing and increasingly seeking to provoke confrontations with security forces. But, a violent turn is not inevitable. Whatever choices February 14th makes about tactics, considering their growing power, the legacy of their efforts will be with Bahrain for a generation. Finding a political resolution that will appease them and end the protests will prove difficult unless the core issues that mobilize them are addressed. Since repression has failed, Bahrain’s revolution lives on.

Toby C. Jones teaches Middle East history at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. He is the author of "Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia" (Harvard, 2010). Follow him on twitter @tobycraigjones. Dr. Ala’a Shehabi is a British-born Bahraini and an economics lecturer in Bahrain. She has a PhD from Imperial College London and previously worked as a policy analyst for RAND Europe, part of the RAND Corporation. Follow here on twitter @alaashehabi.