With the one-year anniversary of its 14 February uprising approaching, Bahrain looks like a nation divided between an unstoppable force and an immovable object.
On 18 January, in the narrow streets of the capital’s Old City, Bahraini police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protestors who had again defied government bans to march. The next day, at an international airshow the regime hoped would advertise Bahrain’s stability, American aircraft were forced to fly through thick black smoke rising from tyres set alight by yet more protestors. And there’s no sign of the cycle of protest and repression abating.
One Bahraini increasingly alarmed by this stalemate is the much-awarded writer and activist, Lamees Dhaif. "I ask myself, how long can people control themselves," she tells New Matilda. "I’m always writing, ‘don’t lose your temper, because they are waiting for us to get violent so they can repress us even more, to kill without account.’"
Dhaif first earned the regime’s ire in 2009 when she wrote about corruption in Bahrain’s judiciary. But her vociferous criticisms of the regime’s response to the 2011 uprisings drew smears on her reputation and threats against her life. Exile offered the safest way to continue her activism.
"I left not for me, but for my father," she says. "He’s very old, and after someone threw a Molotov cocktail through his window, my mother no longer sleeps. I would never forgive myself if something happened to them, so here I am."
New Matilda spoke with Dhaif at Yahoo’s ‘Change Your World’ conference in Cairo last week, where she was on a panel discussing activism, social media and women’s rights. She delivered an impassioned plea for international support for those suffering in Bahrain.
"I come from a country where a mother burned herself alive. People talked about [Mohamed] Bouazizi [the street vendor who set himself on fire in Tunisia], but nobody tells this story."
Bahraini demonstrators are raging at the government’s failure to respond to an independent report investigating the stunningly violent response to peaceful protests in 2011. As last week showed, the security forces continue to apply the same heavy-handed tactics.
Last November, the King surprised many by supporting the establishment of the Bahraini Independent Commission Inquiry (BICI) and appointing a foreigner to lead it, Egyptian-American professor Cherif Bassiouni. More surprising, the report came down hard on the regime, blaming its forces for deaths and injuries and for abusing the justice system.
Demonstrators paused for breath in BICI’s wake. The King promised to implement its key recommendations — to review all cases tried in military courts and investigate deaths and mistreatment of protestors by security forces.
But Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2012, released last Sunday, concurred with the protestors who have been pouring into Bahrain’s streets in recent weeks: no member of those forces has been charged, let alone convicted, and civilian re-trials have not eventuated.
"Really, we have seen nothing but talk," says Dhaif.
Nor is there any sign of the structural changes originally demanded by the mostly Shia protestors who took to the streets last February and who make up 60-70 per cent of the population of this Sunni-led country.
Then there’s Ebrahim Sharif, leader of the secular Wa’ad party, still imprisoned for taking part in the demonstrations, and calling for a constitutional monarchy. Amnesty International says there is evidence he has been tortured in detention.
Also keeping Dhaif’s mother awake at night is her sister, Nada Dhaif. Charged with aiding the revolutionaries — which means following her Hippocratic oath and treating their injuries — Nada was sentenced to 15 years in jail by a military court. She now awaits her appeal to be heard in a civilian court but continues to speak out against the charges.
Meanwhile, the United States announced this week it was moving its embassy staff to safer parts of the capital, citing "violent demonstrations" near their current residences. But not a public word of condemnation for the King.
It is this international silence, Dhaif says, which is adding to the sense of isolation inside Bahrain. "NATO supported Libyan rebels, world leaders like Obama told Mubarak to resign, and all the nations are against [Syria’s] Bashar al-Assad, but no major countries say anything to our King."
Dhaif is well aware of the role Bahrain plays in global affairs. The tiny island lies between the region’s two heavyweights, Iran to the north and east and Saudi Arabia to the west. No surprise then that its people are known for their accommodating approach to international relations.
Hosting the US Fifth Fleet, Bahrain has long been a popular posting for navy personnel. In its tolerant and liberal social scene, Americans have mingled easily with international visitors. Many are Saudis who have dashed across the causeway spanning the two nations to enjoy activities not permitted at home.
Dhaif says that one of the most painful discoveries of the past year has been finding that this generous attitude does not entitle them to any support in their time of need. "The Americans recognise that for 40 years they have been here without a single problem from our people who have supported them, and now they repay us by supporting the regime as it arrests and tortures us when we ask for democracy."
And there’s no prize for guessing the stance of the Sunni Kingdom of Saudi Arabia towards its island neighbour. Just 115 kilometres across the water, the Saudi’s Shia province of Qatif has become a centre of intensifying protests against their Sunni rulers in Riyadh. The first protests in Qatif occurred last March after those of their fellow Shia in Bahrain. All protest is illegal in Saudi, and its security forces fired live rounds and used batons to subdue them.
Such close ties between the two regimes are part of the realpolitik that tempers Dhaif’s expectations.
"We can still live with the King, if he can stop what is happening and work to change Bahrain. It’s not too late to take the right action, but very soon it will reach the point where not even the opposition will be able to control the anger on the street. And then I’m very afraid for what will happen.
"We have a saying in Arabic, ‘alayya wa aala a’aadaey’: Whatever happens to me will happen to my enemy."
The regime doesn’t appear ready to review its tactics. As recently as last Saturday an online statement from the Ministry of Interior said that any accusations of violence by the security forces are "false information, and as such are criminal offences under the law".
But nor do the protestors show signs of backing down. "Our policy now is very clear: we will go out on the streets no matter what happens to us," says Dhaif, who tries to make the most of being in exile.
"From inside you can’t see past your own pain, so I try to keep them focused on the goal, the changes we want. Though I am constantly threatened, I’m telling the regime, that this is a war, an emotional war. It’s become something I can never stop fighting."
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