Bahrain’s Crisis Escalates
Fourteen months ago, Ali was one of Bahrain’s young, educated up-and-comers. The twenty-seven-year-old, with matted black hair and eyes that look too big for his skinny frame, worked as a chemist at the state oil company. Fluent in English and tech-savvy, he was happily married and his wife was pregnant. He was starting a promising life.
Just one year later, Ali had become an unemployed ex-detainee in hiding. These days, he’s part of a very different generation marking Bahrain’s future: young men and women who can’t forget what they have witnessed since Arab Spring-inspired protests broke out in this small island nation in February 2011. “That boy—he was in jail with me,” Ali said, pointing to a peer across the room of one of the country’s opposition groups on a hazy Friday evening in April. “That one—his brother was killed.”
On February 14, 2011, thousands of demonstrators inspired by the revolutions sweeping the region, many of them from the country’s Shia majority, gathered in Bahrain’s Pearl Roundabout to ask for reforms from the country’s ruling Sunni monarchy. For the first few weeks, real change seemed possible. In the Pearl Roundabout, a field-leveling culture of democratic expression took hold. Ali was part of it, helping organize a discussion where anyone who wanted to could speak his mind.
Then there was a security crackdown. And unlike in Tunisia or Egypt or even Libya, no one—not the army, not outside powers, not local militias—fought back. Ali was detained for two months for participating in pro-democracy protests. He was sacked from his position at work, along with more than a thousand others, for his political views. Ali has since been reinstated, but his coworkers asked him not to come back to work; he collects his salary from home. He has continued protesting and has been injured in clashes with police, first when a tear-gas canister hit him straight-on, then when the police chased him and beat his legs so that, next time, he wouldn’t be able to run away. Twice, security forces raided his home looking for his older brother.
It’s not just Ali’s life that has changed. Since the protests began, Bahrain’s uprising has dramatically reorganized. What began as a euphoric movement for freedom is today a grinding cross-societal conflict that has taken some six dozen lives, sent hundreds more to prison, and left entire communities traumatized. These days, many of the Shia youth like Ali feel they have little left to lose.