Bahrain continued its brutal crackdown on Friday. In downtrodden and dusty villages located on the outskirts of Manama, crowds of protesters mobilized in spite of martial law and the heavy presence of security. Shouting anti-regime slogans and repeating the calls for change that have marked the last month of opposition politics, the ranks of demonstrators remain defiant. For its part, the ruling regime has exhibited a steady willingness to use any means necessary to smash its critics, from sweeping arrests to murder. On Friday, security forces fired indiscriminately at those assembled, killing at least one person, an elderly man named Isa Muhammad who lived in the village of Ma`meer. He died an excruciatingly terrible death, suffocating on tear gas.
The regime’s brutality has become a constant since the latest crackdown began almost two weeks ago. With help from Saudi Arabia, which sent a military contingent into Manama on 14 March, the Bahraini regime has imposed martial law, justifying its heightened security posture as necessary in order to restore law and order. The behavior of its police and military belie this claim, however.
Instead, it has become increasingly clear that rather than security, the regime is pursuing a vendetta, is resorting to criminality, and is seeking to establish a form sectarian apartheid on the ground. Clearly frustrated by the challenge to their power, the ruling al-Khalifa family is taking measures to punish the tens of thousands of its citizens who dared to demand better governance and better lives.
While the death toll from ongoing clashes is rising disturbingly, equally troubling are the everyday acts of violence being carried out by police and regime supporters. Security forces and sympathizers of the regime have taken to roaming through the streets of predominantly Shiite villages, where most of the protesters come from, and smashing property and vehicles. In addition to breaking bodies, the regime has ordered its hired thugs to break everything else as well. The wave of destruction is not random. It is systematic. Video and photographs show them acting like criminal gangs, casually and callously breaking car windows. There is no clear security impetus for a government to send its forces out to wantonly demolish the property of its citizens. But there is a clear message. While the government speaks of law and order, the reality is that it is seething with anger and eager to mete out retribution for the last month’s assault on its privilege.
It is also grasping to reclaim control over the nation’s symbols by destroying some of them, including the Pearl Roundabout, which the government bulldozed last week. Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmad al-Khalifa remarked that the decision was intended to remove “a bad memory.” It was a pathetic act, one that underscored the fragility of the regime’s confidence and its pettiness.
The regime has also been sinister and more deadly calculating. In addition to using live ammunition on protesters, the government has also ordered its armed forces to seize the country’s most important medical centers and deny treatment to those suspected of being sympathetic to the opposition. At least one infant died last week as a result of being denied entry to the Salmaniyya medical complex.
The government’s strategy seems to be to permanently drive the mostly Shiite protesters, who make up around 60 percent of the island’s indigenous population, out of the capital city and back to their villages. That mission has been accomplished. With the demonstrators driven home, the government now seeks to keep them there. The military has been mobilized to prevent access along the main roads to Manama. Martial law has been imposed not so much to ensure national security but to establish a defensive perimeter around the city. With the army controlling the country’s roadways, police and other security forces have taken to terrorizing the village’s interiors.
The regime’s iron fist approach to dealing with the pro-democracy movement has taken its toll on the opposition. In addition to ongoing violence, authorities have arrested some of the country’s most outspoken dissidents. The resort to brutal tactics has split the opposition, with the largest Shiite political party al-Wefaq calling for a negotiated solution to the stalemate and refusing to support Friday’s protests. Still, thousands of Bahrainis took to the streets, suggesting that while the government has convinced many that the price of dissent is too high, its craven resort to cruelty has convinced many others to dig in deeper.
Aside from score-settling, it is unclear what Bahrain’s rulers hope to accomplish. Aside from punishment, there is little logic to their madness and if anything is clear so far, it is that the violent provocations seem to be ensuring only one thing – that the violence will continue.
Toby C. Jones is assistant professor of Middle East history at Rutgers University. He is author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia and is an editor at Middle East Report.