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As cries for revolution fade, Bahrainis wonder what went wrong

The demonstrations demanding democracy began with great promise, but they fizzled amid harsh crackdowns, leaving increased tension between Sunnis and Shiites.

April 15, 2011|By Neela Banerjee, Los Angeles Times
  • A woman weeps during the funeral of Ali Isa Saqer, 31, in the village of Sehla, on the outskirts of the Bahraini capital, Manama. Saqer was one of three detainees who died in police custody in the last week. Officials said Saqer died after "creating chaos at the detention center," opposition activists allege he was tortured.
A woman weeps during the funeral of Ali Isa Saqer, 31, in the village of Sehla,… (Hasan Jamali, Associated…)

Reporting from Manama, Bahrain — When thousands of protesters spilled into Bahrain's streets in February, Dr. Mohammed Al-Muharraqi, a self-professed pessimist, thought his country might change for the better.

Though most of the demonstrators gathering in the capital's Pearl Square roundabout were Shiite Muslims and he is a Sunni Muslim, Muharraqi was excited to hear them voice hopes he'd long shared.

"When it started, we found it really, really cool," Muharraqi said. "They wanted a more equal distribution of wealth, less unemployment, more parliamentary power. If those were the things the protests were about, then we felt, 'Go, roundabout!'"

For an exhilarating moment, the protests united many Bahrainis.

One of them was a young Shiite professional who had been apolitical all his life, and who was inspired to become an opposition blogger. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said he became convinced that the protest movement's peaceful tactics could bring change to Bahrain's monarchy.

Another was Kefaya Almubarak, a social worker and mother of three, who saw a future with better jobs and pay.

Now, their hopes have been dashed. The fate of authoritarian regimes in Libya and Yemen is still unclear, but in Bahrain, a key U.S. ally, the state has won, and life is worse for most people than it was before the heady early days in Pearl Square.

The uprising deepened the divide between the majority Shiites and minority Sunnis in this Persian Gulf island-state.

Many Sunnis, aligned with the government, welcome what they say is the restoration of law and order. Shiites inhabit an entirely different reality: a police state where checkpoints limit movement, the wounded avoid hospitals for fear of arrest and people simply disappear, with the unlucky ones turning up at the morgue.

Only a clear sense of loss — loss of loved ones, of economic security, of easy coexistence — seems to unite Bahrainis today.

"Before, we were talking about change," the opposition blogger said. "But now, we just want the bleeding to stop."

At the end of a long day, Muharraqi needed a smoke at his favorite outdoor hookah cafe. His credentials at the island's main military hospital allowed him to get through the checkpoints that spring up after curfew so he could enjoy a night out. As he sipped juice and puffed on the hookah, he described his early excitement about the uprising, and his eventual disillusionment.

After 20 years in Britain, Muharraqi said, he had returned to Bahrain hoping for a quiet life practicing plastic surgery and administering Botox shots.

When the protests began Feb. 14, people asked for better economic opportunities, a constitutional monarchy and an end to discrimination against Shiites. Three days later, just before dawn, government forces with guns and tear gas raided Pearl Square, killing at least seven people.

Soon afterward, Bahrain's more radical parties, which seek an end to the monarchy, began setting the agenda for the opposition.

Sunni sympathy for the protest movement began to evaporate when some demonstrators last month tried to enter the Sunni area of Riffa to protest at the royal family's residences. Sunnis were further alienated, Muharraqi said, when protesters barricaded the financial district, disrupting the economy.

"I felt the movement had grown horns and fangs and claws," Muharraqi said. "I felt stuck in the middle. I didn't want a change in government; it hadn't done anything to me."

His anger intensified after a wounded man was brought into the emergency room at the military hospital. A YouTube video shows the man being run over twice by an SUV and then kicked and beaten with sticks. But the blurry video is subject to divergent interpretations.

According to the government, the victim was a policeman and his assailants were protesters. According to the opposition, the man was a civilian and the attackers state security agents. The man died of his injuries.

To Muharraqi the killing indicates where the uprising would have led had the regime not clamped down.

"I was on his resuscitation team. We worked on him for 33 minutes. Every bone in his body was shattered," said Muharraqi, who insists that the patient was a policeman. "Tell me, how is this a peaceful movement?"

Muharraqi, like many Sunnis, backs the official line: Those said to be missing are just in hiding, and the state has shown great restraint in the use of force. But the fissures between Shiites and Sunnis haunt him.

"Schools, hospitals, universities, everything was mixed," he said. "With these events, we've been divided so far. I don't know how we'll heal. I'm one of hundreds who hates what's happening now, and it terrifies us, what will happen next."

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