The Middle East Channel

Battling over the legacy of Bahrain’s Pearl Roundabout

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.