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Bahrainis protest for democracy, February-March 2011
Inspired by the protests in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011, Bahrainis rose up against the monarchy in February and March of 2011. Initiated by activists and propelled by the “February 14th Revolution in Bahrain” Facebook group, the protests had clear goals: disband the Bahraini National Assembly, abrogate the current constitution, and form a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution. They demanded the new constitution stipulate that an elected parliament hold legislative authority and that an elected Prime Minister exercise executive authority. Under their demands, Bahrain would become a constitutional monarchy ruled by the Al Khalifa family, but the constitution would bar members of the royal family from holding top positions in the three branches of government.
On 14 February 2011, over 6,000 Shiite Bahrainis began to march towards Pearl Square, a national monument in Manama, Bahrain’s capital. Though the march was peaceful, police shot and killed a demonstrator, Ali Abdulhadi Almeshaima, who doctors pronounced dead at 8:20 PM at the Salmaniya Medical Complex (SMC) in Manama. The next morning (15 February), over one thousand protesters gathered at the SMC to receive Almeshaima’s body for his funeral procession, which ended at a local cemetery. During the procession, however, the police killed another protester, Fadel Salman Ali Salman Matrouk, whose death was confirmed at 9:30 AM. By the end of the day, several thousand protesters occupied Pearl Square, where they installed a projector and screen as well as tents for the night. The activists reached out via text message to inspire others to join them. By midnight on 16 February, an estimated 12,000 protesters occupied Pearl Square.
That same night, the demonstrators decided to sleep in the square. However, at 3:00 AM, security forces launched an attack to clear the demonstrators from the square. Carried out by 1,000 officers with sound bombs, sticks, shields, shotguns, and tear gas launchers, the attack killed three sleeping demonstrators and injured hundreds more. Police also shot and killed another protester an hour later. The attack angered Sunnis and Shias alike—Al-Wifaq, Wa’ad, Islamic Action Society, National Democratic Assemblage, Nationalist Democratic Society, al-Ikha National Society, and al-Menbar Progressive Democratic Society denounced the massacre at Pearl Square. In addition, the Bahrain Teacher’s Society called for a nationwide strike on 20 February.
After losing Pearl Square, protesters gathered at the SMC, attracting the attention of the media. Al Jazeera English aired the appeal of Dr. Ghassan Dhaif, who called on “everybody in the world, European Union, United States…all the Arab countries…please do come here to help us.” He described the protesters as “innocent,” and the violent assault as unbelievable. The violent repression notwithstanding, many demonstrators marched back in an attempt to reoccupy Pearl Square, though they found it under the control of heavily-armed security forces. On their way back to the square, young activists removed their shirts to show that they were unarmed. They also recorded and broadcasted confrontations between the nonviolent demonstrators and the riot police using their mobile phones.
The international community strongly condemned the night attack. On 18 February, U.S. President Barack Obama called the King of Bahrain and urged him to stop the violence against the demonstrators. A White House statement also urged the Government of Bahrain (GoB) to respect and uphold the universal rights of its citizens and implement meaningful reform. Additionally, moderate Sunnis, including the Crown Prince of Bahrain, denounced the violence and underlined the necessity of a resolution. Also on 18 February, the Crown Prince addressed the nation on television, expressing his condolences to all Bahrainis and his desire for calm. At the same time, the King granted the Crown Prince the power to negotiate with the protesters. Al-Wifaq responded by requiring the removal of security forces from Pearl Square before negotiations could begin.
On 19 February, the GoB security forces left Pearl Square. Shouting “salmiya,” which means peaceful in Arabic, activists reoccupied Pearl Square and turned it into an encampment, installing tents, portable toilets, and satellite dishes. Organizers also distributed food, water, tea, and other amenities, and demonstrators held seminars, debates, and recited political poetry. Then, on 20 February, approximately 80 percent of Bahrain’s workforce, including teachers and lawyers, went on strike in support of the protest movement. They called for reform, rejected sectarianism, and some called for the end of the al-Khalifa dynasty. The strike and protest had a significant negative effect on Bahrain’s economy, and caused the flight of foreign investment from the country.
Meanwhile, support for the campaign grew. A joint statement issued on 19 February by Al-Wifaq, Wa’ad, the Islamic Action Society, the National Democratic Society, the al-Ikha National Society, and the al-Menbar Progressive Democratic Society reaffirmed all of those groups’ support for the movement, demanded the end of sectarian hatred in the state media and that the Bahraini government implement positive measures to validate the national dialogue and release all political prisoners.
On 22 February, the campaign reached its climax with the “Martyrs March,” which honored the protesters killed by the security forces. Over 150,000 men, women, and children participated in the nonviolent protest. The protesters chanted slogans, including “the people demand the removal of the regime.” However, the precise political aims of the movement remained unclear, and activists inadvertently inflamed sectarian tensions prompting the state media to vilify the activists and them foreign infiltrators.
Following this action, the nonviolent nature of the campaign soon began to deteriorate. On 11 March, protesters marched to the al-Riffa district of Manama, where the King’s palace and the residences of senior Sunni government officials were located. Over 3,000 demonstrators participated. When the police could not persuade the protesters to turn back, they used force to push them back. Behind the police stood over 3,000 Sunni residents of al-Riffa, who aided the police in violently pushing back the demonstrators. This was not the only time that pro-regime civilians joined security forces and attacked protesters. On 13 March, several hundred pro-regime Sunnis attacked Shiite students at the University of Bahrain with knives and clubs while security forces stood by, watching. Shiite demonstrators at Pearl Square rushed to Bahrain University to support the students.
The Bahraini government was not alone in its endeavor to crush the February 14 Movement, however—its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council supported it. On 14 March, Saudi Arabia sent 1,000 soldiers to Bahrain to help the government. Over the following days, the GoB began to implement an operation to end the campaign and remove the activists from the streets of Manama. On 15 March, the king disseminated a decree imposing a State of National Safety throughout the country, banning any public demonstration and imposing martial law, under which no gatherings were permitted. The next day, 16 March, the government launched the operation that would expel the activists from Pearl Square. The government police forces violently took control of the square using tear gas, sound bombs, and water cannons, and they cleared the SMC armed with sticks, shields, handguns, and assault rifles. They also prevented injured demonstrators from receiving treatment and forced the wounded to turn to mosques or clinics for medical attention. One protester, however, killed two police officers with an SUV on the square. Nonetheless, the government achieved its goal of ending the protests. It arrested at least 1,000 activists, including many of the movement leaders, and, on 18 March, demolished Pearl Square in order to erase any symbol of the movement and symbolically seal its victory.