Clashes between demonstrators and security forces have again broken out in Bahrain on the day martial law was lifted by a ruling monarchy battling to restore its image.
Today’s demonstrations were quickly scattered by the same means used to douse protests earlier in the year. Security forces moved into Shia neighbourhoods where people had taken to the streets and dispersed them with tear gas and bird shot. Human rights activists said those wounded were too scared to go to hospital and instead treated their injuries at home.
The kingdom had cast today as a watershed after 11 weeks of heavy crackdowns on Shia demonstrators that had drawn condemnation from the US and Europe.
King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa this week made a fresh bid for a national dialogue aimed at bringing the Sunni establishment and the Shia majority population together. However, rights groups say 21 opposition activists arrested under emergency laws remain detained. Numerous Shiite mosques have been destroyed during security sweeps and four people have died while in custody. The violence claimed at least 24 lives, including four security officers.
At issue throughout the 11-week crisis has been the insistence of Shiite demonstrators, who account for roughly 70% of Bahrain’s population, that they are disenfranchised by a regime that is deeply suspicious of their loyalties.
Security forces in the capital, Manama, have accused neighbouring Iran of attempting to export its Shia Islamic revolution through proxies in Bahrain who took to the streets under a pro-democracy banner. The protesters had also campaigned to end decades of discrimination that has seen them banned from most key government positions.
Their demonstrations at first tapped into the anti-government feeling that swept the region after the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. However, demands for reform soon became clouded by ancient Persian-Shia and Arab-Sunni rivalries and the government’s insistence that calls for reform were an Iranian plot.
“The regime played the sectarian card very early,” said one western observer. “And they created a monster that they couldn’t control.”
Dozens of doctors and nurses were arrested during the security crackdown ordered in mid-March after a failed attempt by Bahrain’s crown prince to broker discussions with the main opposition group, al-Wafaq.
The fate of many of them remains unknown. The government accused medical staff of using one of Manama’s main hospitals, the SMC medical centre, of using the site for political activities and blockaded the hospital with the help of Saudi forces and troops from the gulf states, who had been invited into Bahrain to help quell the dissent.
Fewer activists than before are now willing to talk about the stalled protest movement. There are reportedly fewer checkpoints in Manama or security sweeps through Shia neighbourhoods. However, those who would speak to the Guardian today said they feared continued repression if they stayed involved as activists. The roundabout that was used as a focal point for demonstrations was demolished in March and turned into a crossroads. It was renamed the Farouq junction in reference to an Islamic leader reviled by many Shias.
Bahrain’s rulers are anxious to win back the Formula One grand prix, which was scheduled for March but postponed indefinitely. They also want to restore the kingdom’s reputation as an investment and tourism hub.