Bahrain: The Revolution That Wasn't Bahrain put down an uprising and said it would introduce changes. But so far, little has changed in a country where Shiite Muslims make up most of the population but have very little power.
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Bahrain: The Revolution That Wasn't

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Bahrain: The Revolution That Wasn't

Bahrain: The Revolution That Wasn't

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Of all the Arab uprisings in the past year, three have overthrown governments. Two more have thrown nations into turmoil. Only one of the major uprisings has definitely failed. And that's where we'll go next, as we follow up on what's known as the Arab Spring.


When demonstrations erupted in Bahrain, troops from neighboring Saudi Arabia rolled into the country. The Bahraini regime imposed martial law; a brutal government crackdown followed; and the United States did not intervene. NPR's Kelly McEvers made several trips to Bahrain in this past year.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: If you think back to when the Arab uprisings began, Bahrain really wasn't on the radar. First, Tunisia dominated the news, then Egypt. Each uprising had its start date, that became a search term on Twitter. Bahrain's was February 14th. This man - who's been in and out of jail since then, and could only talk to me while hunkered down in his car - was there.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I remember the 14 February night. I cannot forget this night. Really, I cannot forget. And even my wife, she was telling me; You will be crazy. At the end, you will get crazy. There's nothing good, happen. A few people will protest, and they will crush them, and that's all.

MCEVERS: No, he told his wife. This time, it's different.

Bahrainis had protested before, mainly about the fact that the country's majority Shiites remain poor and disenfranchised by the Sunni monarchy. But they'd never protested like this.


MCEVERS: At first, they asked for things like an elected Parliament, a new constitution.


MCEVERS: But then when protesters started getting killed, tens of thousands of Bahrainis converged on a place called the Pearl Roundabout, to call for the fall of the ruling family.


MCEVERS: Bahrain state TV called protesters traitors, and agents of Iran. Pro-government thugs attacked protesters. Protesters fought back. Just one month into the uprising, Bahrain's ruling family authorized some 1,500 troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to enter the country.


MCEVERS: Apache helicopters circled overhead as authorities cleared the Pearl Roundabout of all protesters. They never made it back.


MCEVERS: And so Bahrain became the one Arab country whose uprising was definitively put down. One reason, argues Toby Jones - a professor of Middle East history at Rutgers University - is the United States, and its allies, wanted it that way. For all America's talk during the so-called Arab Spring, about supporting those who seek freedom, Jones says Bahrain was different.

TOBY JONES: If there is a place globally where there is not just distance, but a huge gap between American interests and American values, it's in the Persian Gulf. And its epicenter is in Bahrain. Bahrain is ground zero for the Arab Spring, in the Persian Gulf. And the United States has chosen sides. It has decided that it wants to see the Bahraini regime survive and endure. And that's important not only for the American relationship with Bahrain, but for Saudi Arabia.

MCEVERS: Saudi Arabia didn't want protests in its own backyard, Jones says. And it didn't want a Shiite-led uprising to encourage its archrival, Shiite-dominated Iran. Whatever the reasons, the end of Bahrain's uprising meant the beginning of a brutal crackdown. Thousands of people were rounded up, detained, and sometimes tortured. Two of these were elected members of Parliament. Others were doctors who treated protesters, journalists who wrote about them, and lawyers who defended them. Several people died while in custody.

It was as if the government of Bahrain hoped it could silence its people, and pretend the uprising had never happened. But that didn't work. So after months of condemnation from human rights groups, the king of Bahrain commissioned a group of international jurists to investigate. The commission recently issued its findings, at one of the king's palaces.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Nigel Rodley is a human rights lawyer who served on the commission. He says the group didn't have enough time to discover who ordered the crackdown. But it was clear the army, police and intelligence services were all using the same sinister tactics.

NIGEL RODLEY: They were all using the same methods of apprehension, detention, ill treatment and so on; which suggested a policy across different branches of government.

MCEVERS: For a moment, activists in Bahrain thought these findings might help revive their revolution. But while committees, and commissions, have been formed to implement some of the report's recommendations, no single high-ranking official has been held accountable for the deaths and the torture. Back during the protests, Dr. Sadiq Abdullah was interviewed by Al-Jazeera about protesters who'd been shot by security forces. He eventually was called in for questioning by the intelligence service. His wife waited in the parking lot. He didn't come back. Three months later, and 40 pounds lighter, Sadiq was released but still faces charges. He and his wife, Nidhal, recently took me to their private clinic, in a building that houses a dozen or so other clinics.

NIDHAL ABDULLAH: Almost everyone in this building, actually, was in jail.

MCEVERS: Uh-huh. Everyone in this building, at one point, was in jail.

Sadiq used to be the only doctor in Bahrain who could do kidney transplants. Now, he's been fired from his position at the government hospital. One of his students does the transplants.

DR. SADIQ ABDULLAH: They've done two cases in the last eight months.

MCEVERS: And there are 98 people on the waiting list. Sadiq is furious at a government that would deprive its people of such care. Still, he has a lot to lose here in Bahrain. At the clinic, he can earn in one day what he made in a month at the government hospital. In fact, Sadiq and Nidhal are thinking about expanding.

ABDULLAH: We have to think of other options.

MCEVERS: Like doing private kidney transplants.


MCEVERS: This is another way Bahrain differs from all the other Arab uprisings. In Bahrain, the wall of fear hasn't been broken. People realize they have a lot to lose. Now, the only form of public gathering that's allowed in Bahrain, is a funeral - like this recent procession for a man witnesses say was killed when riot police smashed into his car. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Funerals are not the only public gatherings permitted in Bahrain. Some demonstrations have been allowed in recent months, but applications for such gatherings are often denied.]

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: As the man is buried, people start chanting slogans against the regime. The riot police approach. A few young protesters throw rocks, and the police responded with rubber bullets, sound grenades and tear gas.

Oh, there goes another one, right there!


MCEVERS: This is all that's left of Bahrain's revolution.


MCEVERS: The monument at the Pearl Roundabout has been demolished. All roads to it are blocked by armored vehicles. Protests are stopped before they make it out of the villages. This is happening in villages all across Bahrain, but each one is sort of contained and individual. There's no large movement, like you saw back in February and March. And from what a lot of people say, there's not going to be one anytime soon.

The riot police eventually fall back. Protesters go back into their houses, and the village starts to put itself back together.

So yeah, now it's over, right? The sun's going down. It's evening prayer. There's garbage on the streets. Somebody will come and clean it up, and then life will get back to normal. Just like nothing ever happened.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

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