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Bahrain’s protest movement fades beneath government suppression

Bahrain has turned into a fearful abode of sectarian division, fueled by a Sunni-led government.

Bahrain protests sunni shiite 2011 3 29Enlarge
Bahraini Shiite women cry during a funeral for protester killed by government security forces in central Manama on March 22, 2011. (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

MANAMA, Bahrain — It was late Friday afternoon. The deserted roads of this capital city were blanketed with soldiers, faces masked, seated atop armored personnel carriers. Checkpoints secured access roads to outlying Shiite villages, where squads of police were out in force to foil any protest that might erupt.

My taxi driver stopped at one checkpoint. Three riot policemen in blue uniforms bent down to look in the car.

“Where are you going?” one asked.

“I’m bringing her back to her hotel,” my driver said.

The next question — “Where are you coming from?” — carried this tagline: “Shit on you and your face.”

The driver kept his cool, replying: “Before you say that, you should look at my identity card — by the way, I’m Sunni.”

Taken aback, the policeman abjectly apologized.

“I’m sorry,” he said, embarrassed by his mistake in assuming my driver was Shiite just because we were in a Shiite area.

The incident underscores the deep trauma afflicting this Gulf kingdom, whose citizens say they once reveled in the comforting intimacy that infuses life on a tiny island.

No more. Bahrain today is a fearful abode of sectarian division, fueled largely by the Sunni-led government’s violent suppression of a once euphoric protest movement, and a campaign of Shiite intimidation that is both pitiless and petty.

“People feel they are under collective punishment,” said Sayed Hadi Al Mosawi, a senior official of the moderate Shiite political party, Al Wefaq. “The situation is very, very bad.”

The “situation” has included nighttime arrests of political opposition leaders, protest movement activists, human rights monitors, and even artists who supported the reformist movement. Shiites stopped at checkpoints, sometimes run by masked men in civilian clothes, are often insulted, and then robbed of their money and mobile phones, Al Mosawi said.

The home of opposition figure Munira Fakhro was firebombed twice; the offices of her party, al Wa’ad, were burned down, and the presses of the opposition Al Wasat newspaper were vandalized. Scores of people are missing, according to Al Wefaq, the political party.

A journalist, who asked not to be named because he feared retaliation, noted that official statements used the word “cleansing” to describe the security forces’ routing on March 16 of the protesters camped in Pearl Roundabout, a traffic rotary that served as the movement’s main staging ground.

“It’s right to add ‘ethnic,’” the journalist added, saying that he believed the aim of the two-week-old campaign “is to instill fear and horror in the Shiite community and make everyone succumb to the authorities.”

Human Rights Watch reported Tuesday that 11 people have been killed since the crackdown began, most of them “by security forces using excessive force, namely crowd-control equipment at extremely close range and live gunfire.” Four members of the government security forces were also killed. Prior to the crackdown, seven protesters had been killed.

Inspired by protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrainis launched their own on Feb. 14, and it swelled beyond expectations. The demands were political reform, with most calling for a constitutional monarchy and an end to corruption. Protesters were mostly Shiite — 60 percent of the island’s population is Shiite — and they were demanding a fairer distribution of jobs as well as an end to their political marginalization.

The government of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, now dominated by a hardline faction within the royal family, declared “a state of National Safety,” or emergency law, on March 15 and raided Pearl Roundabout the next day.

Violent clashes followed over several days as security forces also took over Salmaniya Hospital, whose parking lot had become another base for protesters, and sought to subdue Shiite villages where residents had erected checkpoints to keep police out.

The government said it was acting to restore stability and security and indeed, some actions by protesters appeared to be deliberately provocative. For instance, on March 13, a few hundred youths, working at dawn’s light, set up barricades to block the main highway into Manama’s financial district. According to another Bahraini journalist, this move was organized by hardline opposition figures that had called for the abdication of the royal family — a minority but vocal faction in the protest movement.

The leader of Al Wefaq, the largest Shiite political party, called for outside mediators to break the tension-filled impasse between the Sunni government and the Shiite population, which is not only ripping apart Bahrain but inciting sectarian sentiments around the Middle East as Sunnis and Shiites elsewhere watch events here.

“There is very deep distrust between the government and the people and we prefer that some third parties come to help for this dialogue,” Sheikh Ali Salman said in an interview Saturday at his party’s headquarters.