Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Disappearing Dissent: How Bahrain Buried Its Revolution

Every dictator worth his epaulets knows that the best way to nip a revolution in the bud is to have his opponents “disappear.” No body to mourn, no martyrs raised, and of course the ever-useful plausible deniability. But in Bahrain, with its tightly packed population of 230,000 citizens living on a small sandy archipelago in the Persian Gulf, it is difficult to bury the bodies. People notice. So what's an authoritarian government to do when the people rise up and protest the regime? Bury the evidence and pretend it never happened.

Pearl Roundabout was the locus of Bahrain's anti-government protests last spring, the Bahraini answer to Egypt's Tahrir Square. The roundabout, located at the intersection of several major roads leading to the capital's major business centers, was crowned by a soaring white monument constructed in 1982 on the occasion of the third Gulf Cooperation Council Summit, which was held in Manama that year. The six convex arches, one for each of the council member nations, were topped by a giant pearl, symbol of the region's maritime heritage. Before oil transformed the coast from sand spit to skyscrapers, the gulf was best known for its pearling industry.

But soon after the protests started on Feb. 14, the monument took on a new symbolism—defiance against a regime that had repeatedly failed to deliver on a decade old promises of reform and political freedoms. As in Tahrir, protestors set up a camp around the monument, and used the hexagonal fountain at its base as a stage for rallies. In the early hours of Feb. 17, security forces broke up the camp with a combination of rubber bullets, tear gas and live ammunition. Six people died and the Bahraini revolution was born. What started as a unified protest soon devolved into a ugly sectarian split; Bahrain's Sunni minority rallied in support of the Sunni royal family, and Shias, who make up an estimated 70% of the population, lobbied for rights they said they had long been denied. Protestors started calling their movement the Lulu Revolution after the Arabic word for pearl.

A month later the government ordered the monument pulled down. Officials declared on state TV that it had been “violated” and “desecrated” by the protestors, and needed to be “cleansed.” But by then the symbolism had already taken on a life of its own. Nothing remains of the monument now, just a barren patch of land encircled by not one, but two, layers of fencing and guarded by armed soldiers. Nevertheless the nation remains divided. You are either “pro-roundabout,” meaning you want reform. Or “anti-roundabout,” meaning you prefer the status quo.

Even your choice of coffee is a declaration of allegiance: The Costa Coffee franchise, which is owned by an apolitical Shia businessman, is considered “pro-roundabout.” Starbucks' franchise in Bahrain, owned by a presumably bemused Kuwaiti, is anti. Jassim Hussein Ali, a well-known member of the Shia opposition Wefaq party and, until the party resigned in protest last spring, a member of Parliament, was recently approached at his neighborhood Starbucks and told that he might be more comfortable at a Costa. “The guy made it sound like a joke, but the kind of joke that wasn't really a joke,” he told me over coffee a few weeks later. We met, of course, at Costa.

Efforts to bury the revolution haven't stopped with the destruction of monuments. The half-dinar, Bahrain's highest value coin ($1.5), features the monument. It has completely disappeared from circulation. So quickly and so quietly that no one knew to retain any as mementos. “They were just gone one day,” says Fatima Haji. “It's revenge. They [the government] want nothing that is a reminder of our protest.”

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