Christian Caryl

The Strange Revolution in Bahrain, One Year On

The revolt in little Bahrain is easy to ignore. But it’s actually part of a big global story.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

In my career as a journalist I’ve interviewed lots of people who have been persecuted for political reasons. Usually they’re eager to tell you about the causes for which they’ve suffered.

I’ve never met another one quite like Ghazi Farhan. Not that long ago he was just another wealthy businessman, part-owner of several posh restaurants and cafes in the wealthy Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain.

But that was before the Arab Spring arrived. On April 12 last year, Farhan had just parked his car in a garage when he was waylaid by a group of men. Knocked to the ground by a flurry of punches and kicks, he was handcuffed, blindfolded, and pushed into a car. 10 hours later, when the blindfold was finally removed, he realized that he was in a police station.

It was a bewildering experience. When the uprising began one year ago, many Bahrainis gravitated to the mushrooming demonstrations against the ruling Al Khalifa monarchy. But not Farhan. "Politics is not my fight," he says. "I just want to have a happy life." If anything, he was pro-government.

He told his interrogators as much. He admitted that he had occasionally come along to watch the demonstrators converging on the famed Pearl Roundabout, the traffic circle that served as the lodestar of the marches. He didn’t participate. But he also told his interrogators that he’d tell them that he had if it would help. Whatever they wanted to hear, anything, as long as it would stop the torture. But they didn’t stop.

They beat him with lengths of rubber hose. They deprived him of sleep and forced him to stand long hours in stress positions. They threatened him with rape. They threatened to rape his wife or his mother. At times, still blindfolded, he was tortured in the company of other prisoners. Listening to them scream and cry, he says, was just about the worst.

Several other themes figured prominently in his interrogation sessions. One was religion. Farhan, like the majority of Bahrain’s 600,000 citizens, belongs to the Shia branch of Islam. The Bahraini royal family, which has ruled this tiny country since the late 18th century, is Sunni.

You aren’t a real Muslim, his interrogators told him. You’re a traitor; you’re a friend of Iran. The allegation confounded him. "What do I have to do with Iran?" he says. "We have nothing in common with them. We are a liberal country. You want to pray, you pray. You want to party, you party."

Money was another big issue for his tormentors. Farhan was proud of his business success. Gucci is one of his favorite brands, and the car he drove was a Cadillac. He worked hard to get where he was. In Bahrain, he explains, Shiites are largely excluded from government jobs, so they have to study well and work hard to earn a good living in the private sector. He thought that he had made it.

One of the first questions his attackers asked him, that day in the car park, was about his salary. The low-level police thugs handling his case earned a pittance by comparison, and they hated him for it.

Many of them were Yemenis, Syrians, even Pakistanis — but all were Sunnis, recruited by the royal family from the poorest parts of the Muslim world to beef up Bahrain’s repressive apparatus. In return, some even receive the bounty of citizenship — a reward that most expatriates can get only after living in the kingdom for a minimum of 15 years. If anything can be said to worsen the country’s sectarian divides, surely this has to be one of them.

No one knows the precise number of people employed by the kingdom’s security forces. By some estimates the ratio could be as high as one security operative to every eight citizens.

The real reason for Farhan’s arrest soon became apparent: It was his marriage. His wife, Ala’a Shehabi, a British-trained PhD in economics, is the daughter of one of the founders of the Wefaq Party, Bahrain’s leading opposition group. She, too, had spent most of her life outside of politics, studying in the United Kingdom. Two years ago she returned to Bahrain, hoping to contribute at least a bit to the betterment of her country.

But she soon ran head-on into the reality of disenfranchisement. Even though Bahrain’s standard of living was high, the experience of being patronized by the all-powerful state soon rankled. "At the end of the day you have no avenue for expression," she says. "People here are highly educated, but you have to force the government to acknowledge you and to recognize your existence. I need to have control over my destiny." She joined the protests, but her husband remained aloof. She smiles sadly. "I’m the activist, not him."

Attacking her directly, however, would have posed a tricky political challenge for the government. Shehabi, a dual passport holder, is British as well as Bahraini. So they went after her husband instead.

At least she had the resources to mount an effective campaign for his freedom. After nine and a half months Farhan was finally released. He had missed a lot of time with his son Nasser, born in August 2010. His business partners, pressured by the government, bought him out. So now he has to start over. But the nightmares won’t stop.

The government has vowed to prevent things like this from happening again. An independent investigation into last year’s turmoil documented 35 deaths in the crackdown on the demonstrators.

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has said that he’ll reform the political system to give people more of a voice. So far not much has happened. In an interview published a few days ago, King Hamad denied the existence of political prisoners and suggested that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad should follow the advice of "the Syrian people" — remarks, according to one journalist I spoke with in the Bahraini capital of Manama, that merely served to enflame the populace.

On February 13, Bahrainis took to the streets again. The Pearl Roundabout has been dismantled, but the demonstrators have tried to find new rallying points. The police rained down tear gas canisters on an estimated 10,000 protestors. An overwhelming security clampdown around the kingdom seems to have largely deterred additional demonstrations on the day of the one-year anniversary.

Bahrain hasn’t solved any of its problems. With time, the opposition — some of whom have moved from calling for constitutional monarchy to throwing Molotov cocktails at the police — will grow radicalized. Iran has little to gain from getting directly involved, but then it doesn’t really have to. The deepening global schism between Sunni and Shia can only be exacerbated by the images from Manama. (Right now, little noticed in the outside world, restive Shiites in the nearby Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia are battling the police once again.)

Like her husband, Ala’a never really thought of herself primarily as a Shiite before. But now she has no choice: "We’re worthless. We’re treated like second-class citizens." Now the authorities put photos of individual protestors on TV and the internet, urging people to inform on each other. The government, says Farhan, "is promoting the gap between Shia and Sunni."

Bahrain is small, and that makes it easy to ignore. But no one should make the mistake of thinking that that makes it unimportant.

 Twitter: @ccaryl
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